Black Dogs

By Leanne Dempsey - AGHS

An Encounter

A storm is building. Fierce gusts of wind rip across the marshes, and the occasional roll of thunder sounds in the distance.

This is not a good night to be out walking, but Jack has lingered in the pub a little too long and has to get home to the farmhouse. Out of a superstitious whim, he decides to stick with the ancient footpaths instead of crossing the fields as usual.

A particularly vicious gust of wind nearly knocks him over. High above the wind, there is a dull drumming and many high-pitched voices yammering. Geese, Jack thinks to himself, on their migratory flight, trying to get above the storm. But he has heard the geese countless times. They don’t really sound like that.

As Jack turns into a particularly lonely laneway, he nearly bumps into a massive dog, which is standing directly in the center of the path. He freezes, heart pounding.

There are no dogs like this in the region, Jack should know because he has lived here all his life. The thing is enormous! Where can it have come from? The hedges on either side of the lane are too thick for such a large animal to squeeze through, and too high to jump. Ahead there are only farms, families that Jack knows well. It must be lost, perhaps jumped from the back of a tourist’s car and wandering.

You’d think a dog would be frightened of the storm. Jack knows that frightened dogs can be dangerous, so he stands very still and covertly inspects the animal. It doesn’t look scared. It is as big as a calf. Pitch black all over, with long shaggy fur. The beast's eyes reflect the faint moonlight like any dog – but disturbingly, in this animal’s head they flash a deep, hectic red.

Jack says nervously "Good boy then, out of my way." The dog makes absolutely no response.

The animal’s sides are not moving. It has no smell. Some instinct tells Jack that this is not a normal dog. The creature is sitting like a stone, eyes fixed on Jack.

To get around the dog, Jack has to get perilously close to it. He inches forward until he could almost touch it, but somehow he knows that would be a very bad thing to do. By pressing painfully into the brambles and nettles of the hedge, he somehow gets around the animal.

When he gets back onto the road, Jack continues to walk towards home. For some reason he doesn’t turn around to look at the dog again. After a few steps, he hears the sound he has been dreading.

Pad… pad… pad… pad…

The dog is following him.

Although he can’t remember how he knows, Jack is aware of the rules that apply when one is being followed on a dark, lonely lane by a mysterious dog with no smell.

Don’t turn around.
Don’t slow down.
And whatever you do, don’t run.

Jack starts to think of all the stories he has heard, of people crossing the marshes late at night, who never arrive at their destination. Are never found again.

The footbridge that crosses the stream is coming up. Jack instinctively knows that when he crosses the water, he will be safe. His heart pounds. He winces with the effort of not running.

When Jack is only a few metres from the bridge, the storm breaks. For a moment the whole lane is illuminated by lighting , and immediately there is a massive clap of thunder. At the same time, the yelping sound passes overhead – it sounds very, very close. Jack loses his nerve and bolts for the bridge.

The second his feet touch the planks he feels like an idiot. Running away like a child, all because of a storm! He risks a look behind him. No dog.

Of course: any dog would take fright and run away from that thunder. The fact that he can’t see the dog at all, and the hedges are still far too high for jumping, doesn’t mean much. It was, after all, a very black dog and this is a dark night. Probably some poor lost pet, wandering all alone.

Jack makes a mental note to ask around the village if anybody has lost a dog like that recently. Somehow, he doesn’t think so. He makes his way home, getting soaked on the way. A real black dog night.

The Contradictory Canine

Humans and dogs have an ancient relationship. Since prehistoric times, both species have lived together and hunted together. Dogs were one of the first species to be domesticated by humans: although the term "domestication" doesn’t seem significant enough to encompass the immense bonds that have formed between dogs and humans for many thousands of years.

Somehow, in spite of our species’ great love of dogs – or perhaps because of it – the sight of an angry or aggressive dog raises a primeval fear. Being confronted by an aggressive dog or even a large, unfamiliar dog, is very frightening. The guardian has become the enemy, the protector has become the aggressor.

Given this breadth of emotion surrounding dogs, it is hardly surprising that the folkloric world is full of stories dedicated to dogs and our relationships with them. One of the most widespread and enduring examples is the folklore of the Black Dog, the phantom dog or the Hell Hound.

pawsThe Black Dog

In various guises, this creature lurks in graveyards, roads, and moors throughout Britain and Europe. Images of the Black Dog abound in folklore and popular literature. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle borrowed it in 1902 for Sherlock Holmes’ adventure with the Hound of the Baskervilles. Mississippi blues artist Robert Johnson, who was rumored to have obtained his musical talent from the devil, sang about it in the 1930s.

The black dog bears similarities to legends of werewolves and appears in different forms in fairy tales, such as Hans Christian Anderson’s 'The Tinderbox'. Winston Churchill used to refer to his chronic depression as 'the black dog on my shoulder', and anybody who suffers from the same malady would surely appreciate the sense of darkness and heavy melancholy that such an image invokes.

The core of all of these stories, legends and snatches of folklore is the image of a huge black canine of supernatural origin, which appears and disappears mysteriously bringing fear, chaos and sometimes death. In many variantions of the legends, the hound is a phantom or ghost. In others it is a fairy creature or an elemental force.

Black dogs have many names. Barghest, Galleytrot, Hell Hound, Padfoot, Shuck, Snarleyow, Striker, Trash, Wish or Whist Hound, Yell or Yelp Hound – to name a few. They have many aims: prophecy, revenge, bloodlust, the hunt or merely a warning; but they are always dark and dangerous, and always to be taken very seriously.

The Wild Hunt

Throughout Britain and Europe a wild, primeval force runs riot in the skies. On stormy nights, when most people stay firmly indoors, the Hunt is known to ride. Leading the chase through the clouds comes the pack: the Hell Hounds. These dogs are either pitch black with burning red eyes or ghostly white with red ears. Their baying can be heard for miles. And close on the heels of the pack, illuminated by lightning, comes the Hunter himself. Mounted on a huge horse, the Hunter is crowned with antlers or curving horns. The Hunt is an unstoppable force, the harsh power of nature in a terrifying form.

paws The legend of the Hunt is one of the most widespread in Europe. In Britain, the Hunter is usually called Herne, named after the antlered ghost that haunts Windsor Forest. He is also called Gabriel or Dewer, the Devil, and elsewhere he is confused with a phantom of Sir Francis Drake. In Wales he is Arawn, chief of the Underworld. In Europe, the Hunter is the Norse father of gods, Odin himself, or le Chasseur maudit, or Grünhut (Green Hat) in which form he takes on a likeness to the strange vegetative Green Man that can be found carved on pillars in many a rural church. Sometimes the Hunter is again mistaken for a historical figure: for example in a few areas he is called Charlemagne.

Historical figure or vengeful ancient god, the Hunter with his pack of yelping hounds is a terrifying thing to encounter on a dark night. Sometimes the pack is set on a magnificent stag (usually supernatural in origin), but more often the Hunt is after more common prey: any human unwary enough to be out alone on a stormy night. In one rather nasty version of the legend, the Hunt is chasing the souls of the recently-deceased unbaptised, with the intention of retrieving them for Hell.

When faced with the prospect of encountering the Hunt on a dark night, a traveler has a number of options for escape. At times, it is enough protection to keep an iron horseshoe close to hand. The horseshoe is made of iron, a metal that traditionally repels fairy creatures and evil spirits – and furthermore, the shape of the horseshoe links it with the crescent moon, invoking a powerful feminine protective magic: very different from the rampant, masculine nature of the Hunt.

If a horseshoe is not to hand, sometimes a pocketful of iron filings or salt flung into the path of the Hunt will distract it from its course. Lacking any of these, the traveler’s best bet is to hotfoot it to the nearest smithy (a place infused heavily with the power of iron), or to the church. In some legends, the Hunt is foiled when its prey crosses running water.

In many parts of Britain and Europe, the Hunt’s hounds can occasionally be found wandering by themselves, or in small packs. (It seems that when the Hunt is not running, the hounds, get time off for recreation!) Many of the areas known to be favoured by the Hunt are also notorious for sightings of the traditional Black Dog of the roads. Some of the time these creatures mysteriously appear and disappear. But at other times, they seem to have their very own, dark agenda.

The Barghest

In the gloomy snickleways of York – tiny narrow alleyways between the ancient buildings – prowls the huge, black barghest. York is unusual in being one of the very few urban environments that sport a black dog phantom, but the barghest also roams the hills and moors of Yorkshire. It is searching for human prey: to encounter one in the dark alleyways of the city is certain death. Even to see a barghest from a distance is a portent of doom or evil luck. To some unfortunate families the barghest seems to have a particular fondness, showing itself every time a member of that family is about to die.

The Suffolk/Essex Shuck and Lancaster Striker seem to be variants on this theme. Their duty as harbingers of doom might indicate a fairy background. There are many stories of fairy or elemental creatures that attach themselves to families or individuals to warn of impending death or disaster.

Dogs are not the only supernatural animals that fulfill this function. The Oxenham family of Devon were famously haunted by a white bird whose appearance foretold the imminent death of a family member. Even in Australia, there is a tale from Sutton in New South Wales, of a phantom black horse that appeared three times to one family, each time apparently warning of a family death.

One wonders if these supernatural creatures are somehow related to the legend of the barghest. However, the Oxenham bird and Sutton black horse were essentially benevolent in nature, foretelling rather than causing tragedy. The terrifying barghest takes on a menacing character of its own – especially to anybody who has wandered the haunted medieval streets of York at night.


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