Not Always A Man’s Best Friend: Terrifying Black Dogs of British Legends
Primarily associated with British legends, stories about black dogs, ghost dogs, or hellhounds are present in almost every region of the world. Perhaps the first things to come to your mind when thinking of eerie ghost dogs are evil images, death omens, or even the two-headed dog Cerberus from Greek mythology. That makes sense, as most of the time these shadowy creatures are depicted as malevolent beings, but did you know that sometimes they are seen as great protectors too?
The immense popularity of dog legends is not a surprise, since dogs were humanity’s first domesticated animals - the man-dog partnership has been traced back to the Paleolithic era and lasted for thousands of years. To narrow down black dog legends, this article will focus on some of the alarming British versions.
A friendlier depiction of ‘black shuck.’ (ed_needs_a_bicycle/ CC BY NC SA 2.0 )
Black Dogs in the United Kingdom
No other place in the world holds more legends, or sightings, of legendary black dogs than the United Kingdom. Each region might even have its own version of the tale, with different names given to the black dogs too, such as: Black Shuck, the Gurt dog, Padfoot, Barguest, the Harry Hound, the Yeth hound, and the Grim.
Like most legends, the origin of this one is hard to establish. Mark Norman, who has been researching the legend of black dogs in England for many years, has traced the earliest accounts in English literature dating back to 1127. According to Norman’s studies, black dogs can take different forms, but a few common traits are present in all descriptions: they are very large creatures, with shaggy coats, and big glowing eyes (usually red in color).
Different details make the dogs unique, such as having a chain around their necks, been headless, or even having human faces. Some legends describe the ghost dogs as huge, even as big as a house; others say they walk on their hind legs . The dark beasts are notorious for disappearing into a mist and leaving no trace of their eerie visits.
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Drawing of the Black Dog of Newgate, from the book ‘The Discovery of a London Monster Called the Black Dog of Newgate,’ published in 1638. ( Public Domain )
Although these supernatural animals are most often depicted as malevolent creatures bringing bad luck, black dogs have also had benevolent connotations - as protective spirits attached to a family or a location, such as roads.
One of the most popular British ghost dog legends is said to have taken place in Bungay Market in Suffolk. It begins with a violent storm breaking out on the morning of 1577, while the parishioners of a church were commemorating a Sunday service. Lit by flashes of fire, a black dog appeared in the church, running around and causing a great deal of panic among the people. The ghost dog allegedly claimed the life of two men, who were kneeling at prayer, and caused severe burns on another one.
Title page of the account of Rev. Abraham Fleming's account of the appearance of the ghostly black dog "Black Shuck" at the church of Bungay, Suffolk in 1577: "A straunge, and terrible wunder wrought very late in the parish church of Bongay: a town of no great distance from the citie of Norwich, namely the fourth of this August, in ye yeere of our Lord 1577." ( Public Domain )
Although that dog portended death and destruction, there are a few benevolent legends involving a black dog, such as the one told by Johnnie Greenwood from Swancliffe. The man described being followed by a black dog while walking at night in the woods. The creature remained by his side until he emerged out from the trees. Years later, two prisoners confessed that they wanted to rob and murder Johnnie during that night in the woods, but they decided otherwise after noticing the presence of the big black dog accompanying him.
James Barnes relates another very popular black dog story from Dartmoor:
“On Dartmoor, the notorious squire Cabell was said to have been a huntsman who sold his soul to the Devil. When he died in 1677, black hounds are said to have appeared around his burial chamber. The ghostly huntsman is said to ride with black dogs; this tale inspired Arthur Conan Doyle to write his well-known story The Hound of the Baskervilles”.
Illustration from ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles.’ ( Public Domain )
What Can You Do in the Presence of a Ghost Dog?
Let’s just say that it is better to never have an encounter with a ghost dog because, most often, there is nothing you can do to stop the creature if it is out to do you harm. There are ways to ward off the malevolent beings, but these tend to be vague. In regions dominated by the Christian faith, it is said that simply wearing a cross or having a picture of a saint would be enough to keep the black dog away.
Other superstitions involve carrying a coffin nail, sprinkling fresh water on the ground behind you as you walk, or keeping a pair of iron scissors with you. In addition, it is said that you should avoid crossroads, moving bodies of water such as rivers and streams, woods, or long stretches of field. Those restrictions would have made travel near impossible in the past!
An evil black dog in the woods. ( John Knifton )
Black Dogs Across the World
There are so many black dog legends that you could easily indulge for years in the richness of these tales. For those who are interested in knowing more about other legends involving ghost dogs, these are some more regions to look into: guardian hounds in shamanic lore, Celtic legends, Welsh legends, Finnish mythology, Northern European myths, North American legends, Asian legends, Greek myths, stories in almost every region of the United Kingdom, myths involving the constellation Canis and the star Sirius, and lastly, the legendary creature’s presence in pop-culture - such as the Harry Potter character ‘Sirius Black’.
Many scholars have attempted to explain the reasons behind black dog legends and their popularity across the globe. Their interpretations range from lessons in folkloric tales to unknown phenomena described by our distant ancestors. No one can provide one answer encompassing all the legends perfectly.
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From the beginning of our history, humans have been endangered by wolves, which were much larger than their domesticated cousins in most locations around the world. This could explain the malevolent nature of some ghost dog tales and their reputation as hellhounds. Other reasons might be associated with stories told to children in order to prevent them from wondering into dangerous places. Another explanation is related to the hidden dangers of smuggling routes.
All or none of these could explain the local black dog legend closest to you. Whether they bring good or evil tidings, black dog stories are still present and thriving all over the world.
Painting of black shuck. ( Cambridge Ghost Tours )
Top Image: A menacing black dog with red, glowing eyes. Source: Sarah Holmlund /Adobe Stock
By Marina Sohma
Updated on December 30, 2020.
Barnes, James B., ‘5 Terrifying Stories And Lore About The Legendary “Black Dogs” To Haunt Your Walks Home’ (2014) http://thoughtcatalog.com/james-b-barnes/2014/10/5-terrifying-stories-and-lore-about-the-legendary-black-dogs-to-haunt-your-walks-home/
Wright, Andy, ‘Devil Dogs: The Mysterious Black Dogs of England’ (1994) http://modernfarmer.com/2014/06/black-shuck/
Trubshaw, Bob, ‘Black Dogs Guardian of the Corpse Ways’, http://www.indigogroup.co.uk/edge/bdogs.htm
Parkinson, Daniel, ‘Phantom Black Dogs” http://www.mysteriousbritain.co.uk/folklore/phantom-black-dogs.html