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A menacing, shaggy black dog with red, glowing eyes

Not Always A Man’s Best Friend: Terrifying Black Dogs of British Legends

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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.’

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.

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.

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.

Legendary Creatures

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."

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.’

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!

A black dog in the woods.

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.

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.

References:

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

Comments

Marina:

Great article! I posted at Alicia McDermott’s site recently: ‘Share Your Favorite Ghost Story,’ an occurrence which transpired within my own family in Kentucky in July of 1903. In Chapter IV of my book: ‘To Shoot, Burn & Hang: Folk History From a Kentucky Mountain Family & Community,’ (Knoxville: Univ. of Tennessee Press., 1992), I relate an account regarding the murder & lynching of William Thacker in Kentucky and the ‘beast’ with ‘red-eyes & shaggy hair’ seen by my great-grandfather that bright moonlit night, which “walked on its hind legs” and sat down underneath a tree, near a fence.

I also include within the chapter, data concerning accounts of a similar creature, seen in other parts of the Appalachian South in America, where it is described as a “huge dog,” with “great red eyes,” referred to as a ‘Wog’ in Georgia, whereas in June of 1785, in the area of Granville & Halifax Counties, Virginia, a Rev. WIlliam Glendinning of Brunswick County, recorded in his autobiography, an account of “Lucifer,” or “Satan,” described as being “black as any coal; only his mouth and eyes as red as blood.” Also observed as having “balls of fire...flaming out of his eyes...LARGE AS A CALF A YEAR OLD...” (which my great-grandfather remarked his ‘token of evil’ resembled as well). Haitian folklore of the West Indies also speaks of the ‘congo jerouge’ or ‘ogoun jerouge,’ or as ‘Ogoun Red Eyes,’ a male spirit with “red eyes.’ U.S. Southern African-American lore also has tales of a spirit which inhabits the bodies of dogs, “generally BIG DOGS {big as a calf},with “big RED EYES glowing like chunks of fire,” while in the Afro-Antilles a monster was said to haunt the islands “in the FORM OF A CALF WITH FIREY RED EYES,” which would “hunt the roads at night.”

I also refer to ‘Old Shuck’ or ‘Old Skryker ‘ of English tradition, a spectral hound “large as a young calf” with eyes “like dim decaying firecoals.” My ancestors who settled Appalachia, brought with them as ‘cultural baggage,’ much of the ghost-lore they knew within the British Isles. The ‘ghostly black dogs’ are generally seen “in lonely rural situations...usually haunts a certain stretch of road...boundaries, fields, hedges..green lanes, crossroads...Trees are often chosen spots” as well, as witnessed by my great-grandfather,  John ‘Elzy’ Rolph’s account.

‘Black Dog Revenants’ are usually taken as being ‘omens or tokens of death’ while in the ‘West Country region’ in Britain, one “black dog with a ball of fire in its mouth,” is connected with a tale of Sir William de Tracy, “a murderer of St. Thomas Becket in 1170.”

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous ‘Sherlock Holmes’ tale, ‘Hound of the Baskervilles,’ is another example of the ‘ghost hound’ tradition as well.

Thanks again for writing about a mysterious subject, which exists throughout the English-speaking world and elsewhere.

Dr. Dan

 

Hi All,

Wow all I ever heard of regarding Canines; were that of werewolves or Wolf-Men.

Next lovable pooch I read about were the written stories of ancient Greece the three headed dog Cerberus you know two year's ago some insane man had an extinct Mesopotamian Dog Cloned.

After, I saw for myself how big the dog grew I thought to myself that's where the origins of Cerberus came from to begin with. The dog was enormous and it was still a puppy.

Since Mesopotamian dogs existed long ago then why not these mysterious Hell-Hound Black dogs England's swore to for centuries.

So in this case I'll ask this one weird question; could those black dog's, possibly be Black Dire Wolves, that somehow survived the Ice Age of the Mammoth and The Mastadons?

Although, the description about these Shaggy furred Black Dogs with Red Eyes (quite descriptive), considered to be some sort of Hell-Hounds it is how big a few got that led me to think they might be Wolves but, if not the dire wolves then a whole New Species.

Okay, maybe not New; since people testified for centuries to these Canines existence just a Wolf Species whose DNA has yet to documented. Of course it could still be a dog like that Mesopotamian Dog breed I discussed.

One were to re-examine the other descriptive narrative regarding Shaggy Black Dog Hell-Hounds with Red Eyes that they got occasionally as big like that of house. So my first examination would be how big were the houses in England?

Could it be possible in the Arena of Legendary Stories; that are known as Myth's, former pet dogs of A Race of Giant's, who Once Upon a Time lived in England also known as
Anglo-Saxons?

I'm not about to dismiss the possibility of these Black Dogs thought to be Hell-Hounds existence since I didn't grow up in England in the centuries when people discussed that they lived I can't say in absolutes they're Mythical.

Have a Happy New Year Everybody and so until next time looking forward to the next round of discussion Everyone, Goodbye!

Troy Books (http://www.troybooks.co.uk) has an excellent book on this subject, "Black Dog Folklore " by Mark Norman for further study.

That would be very interesting to research and connect. Ghost animals are fascinating as cultural elements! I'm curious about this cat. Thank you for sharing it.

Cousin_Jack's picture

Theres still the beast of Bodmin Moor, other sightings over the years too around the countryside. Its not a dog though, its a cat, but I wonder if the two might be connected.

In Anglia et Cornubia.

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