Black Dogs

'A Blasphemer turn'd into a black Dog', taken from Wonderful Prodigies of Judgement and Mercy by Robert Burton, 1685.
'A Blasphemer turn'd into a black Dog',
taken from Wonderful Prodigies of Judgement and Mercy
by Robert Burton, 1685.

A black dog is the name given to a spectral being found primarily in the folklores of the British Isles. The black dog is essentially a nocturnal spectre, often said to be associated with the Devil, and its appearance was regarded as a portent of death. It is generally supposed to be larger than a physical dog, and often has large, glowing eyes.1 As stated by Richard Jefferies: "The black dog has perhaps more vitality, and survives in more locations than all the apparitions that in the olden times were sworn to by persons of the highest veracity."2

It is often associated with electrical storms (such as Black Shuck's appearance at Bungay, Suffolk)3, McEwan even compares some black dog sightings to instances of ball lightning.4 They are also often associated with crossroads, churches, places of execution and ancient pathways.567

The origins of the black dog are difficult to discern. It is impossible to ascertain whether the phantom originated in the Celtic or Germanic elements in British culture. Throughout European mythology, dogs have been associated with death. Examples of this are the Cŵn Annwn8, Garmr9 and Cerberus10, all of whom were in some way guardians of the underworld. This association seems to be due to the scavenging habits of dogs.11 It is possible that the black dog is a survival of these beliefs.

Black dogs are almost universally regarded as malevolent, and a few (such as the Barghest) are said to be directly harmful. Some, however, like the Gurt Dog in Somerset and the Black Dog of the Hanging Hills, are said to behave benevolently.

Black Dogs in History

The earliest known reference to black dogs is from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and dates from the year 1127.

Think no man unworthily that we say not the truth; for it was fully known over all the land: that, as soon as he [Abbot Henry of Poitou] came thither [to the Abbey at Peterborough], which was on the Sunday when men sing "Exurge quare o D— etc." immediately after, several persons saw and heard many huntsmen hunting. The hunters were swarthy, and huge, and ugly; and their hounds were all swarthy, and broad-eyed, and ugly. And they rode on swarthy horses, and swarthy bucks. This was seen in the very deer-fold in the town of Peterborough, and in all the woods from that same town to Stamford. And the monks heard the horn blow that they blew in the night. Credible men, who watched them in the night, said that they thought there might well be about twenty or thirty horn-blowers. This was seen and heard from the time that he [The Abbot Henry of Angeli] came thither, all the Lent-tide onward to Easter. This was his entry; of his exit we can as yet say nought. God provide.12

The next reference of note is from 1577 and relates to the sightings of Black Shuck at Bungay and Blythburgh churches.

Black Dogs in Fiction

  • One of the most famous black dogs in fiction is the Hound of the Baskervilles from the book of the same name by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. In the book, the villain uses the long-standing legend of a ghostly dog that haunts the Baskerville family in his plan to murder them.
  • In Russell Hoban's novel Riddley Walker (1980), Riddley's post-apocalyptic quest is initiated by a dog sacrifice and a folktale, "Why the Dog Won't Show its Eyes." Death dogs are important in the "Eusa" story that guides Riddley's quest, as is a companion black dog later in the quest.
  • In Welcome To The Jungle The First Dresden Files graphic novel, a Black Dog in summoned to hunt down and kill Harry.
  • In Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J K Rowling, Harry comes across what he believes is a Grim. He is told that it is a powerful omen of death. Actually it is his god-father, Sirius Black, whose nickname is "Padfoot", and whose Animagus form is the huge black dog seen by Harry.
  • In the Patrick Swayze trucker movie Black Dog, the legend is updated for the motorized 20th century as a beast that is seen "when you've been on the road too long and pushing too hard. When you get greedy, it comes to take everything away from you."
  • In Goethe's Faust, the Devil Mephistopheles first appears to Faust in the form of a black poodle which follows him home through a field.
  • In Supernatural episode 2: "Wendigo", they mention the possibility of a black dog being the creature that is killing campers. The two later encounter hellhounds which appear as black dogs to those they hunt, but remain invisible to all others.
  • The Moddey Dhoo is one of the many psychopomp "guides" to appear in the webcomic Gunnerkrigg Court.
  • In Black Dogs by novelist Ian McEwan, a character encounters two black dogs that she believes to be evil incarnate.
  • Dracula transforms into a black dog to leap from from the boat to land when he arrives in Whitby.
  • In the movie No Country for Old Men the main character, Llewelyn Moss, comes across a stray black dog immediately before running into a botched heroin deal.
  • In the book Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson one of the pirates is called Black Dog. He is the first to threaten and harass Billy Bones. As soon as the unwelcome visitor is gone, Bones suffers a stroke. Also Jim Hawkins' father dies shortly after Black Dog's visit.
  • In the movie The Omen, the Antichrist is guarded and protected by black dogs.
  • The video game Devil May Cry has an enemy similar to black dogs, they are called Shadows.
  • In Susan Krinard's 'Lady Olivia Dowling' mystery series one of the main protagonists is a 'were'-Black Dog (Kit/Old Schuck).
  • In Eva Ibbotson's 1975 children's book The Great Ghost Rescue the main character, Humphrey the Horrible, rescues a neglected, stray Black Shuck.
  • In Alan Moore's 1996 novel Voice of the Fire, characters throughout Northhampton, England's history encounter black dogs (in one case, identified as a "shagfoal").

Black Dogs by Locale


Further Reading

  • Barber, Sally and Barber, Chips (1988, 1990). Dark and Dastardly Dartmoor, Obelisk Publications. ISBN 0-946651-26-4.
  • Bord, Colin and Bord, Janet (1980) Alien Animals, Elek.
  • Burchell, Simon (2007). Phantom Black Dogs in Latin America, Heart of Albion Press. ISBN 978-1-905646-01-2.
  • Clark, James (2007). Haunted London, Tempus Publishing. ISBN 978-0-7524-4459-8.
  • Crosby, Alan (2000). The Lancashire Dictionary of Dialect, Tradition and Folklore, Smith Settle/ ISBN 1-85825-122-2.
  • Crossley-Holland, Kevin (1980). The Norse Myths, Andre Deutsch. ISBN 0-233-97271-4.
  • de Garis, Marie (1986). Folklore of Guernsey, The Guernsey Press. ASIN B0000EE6P8.
  • Deane, Tony and Shaw, Tony (2003). Folklore of Cornwall, Tempus Publishing. ISBN 0-7524-2929-9.
  • Evans-Wentz (1966, 1990). The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries, Citadel Press. ISBN 0-8065-1160-5.
  • Feldwick, Matthew (2006, 2007). Haunted Winchester, Tempus Publishing. ISBN 978-0-7524-3846-7.
  • Fields, Kenneth (1998). Lancashire Magic & Mystery, Sigma Leisure. ISBN 1-85058-606-3.
  • Gantz, Jeffrey (trans) (1976). Mabinogion, Penguin Classics. ISBN 0-14-044322-3.
  • Janaway, John (2005). Haunted Places of Surrey, Countryside Books. ISBN 1-85306-932-9.
  • Matthews, Rupert (2004). Haunted Places of Bedfordshire & Buckinghamshire, Countryside Books. ISBN 1-85306-886-1.
  • McEwan, Graham J (1986). Mystery Animals of Britain and Ireland, Robert Hale, pp119-149. ISBN 0-7090-2801-6.
  • Michell, John F and Rickard, Robert J M (1977). Phenomena: A Book of Wonders, Thames & Hudson Ltd. ISBN 0-500-01182-6 (hardback), ISBN 0-500-27094-5 (paperback).
  • Paynter, William H. & Semmens, Jason (2008). The Cornish Witch-finder: William Henry Paynter and the Witchery, Ghosts, Charms and Folklore of Cornwall, Federation of Old Cornwall Societies. ISBN 978-0902660397
  • Pugh, Jane (1990). Welsh Ghostly Encounters, Gwasg Carreg Gwalch. ISBN 0-86381-152-3.
  • Readers Digest (1977). Folklore, Myths and Legends of Britain, Readers Digest Association, p45.
  • Simpson, Jacqueline and Roud, Steve (2000, 2003). Oxford Dictionary of English Folklore, Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-860766-0.
  • Stewart, Frances D (1990). Surrey Ghosts Old and New, AMCD. ISBN 0-9515066-8-4.
  • Trubshaw, Robert Nigel (ed) (2005). Explore Phantom Black Dogs, Heart of Albion Press. ISBN 1-872883-78-8.
  • Westwood, Jennifer and Simpson, Jacqueline (2005). The Lore of the Land: A Guide to England's Legends, from Spring-heeled Jack to the Witches of Warboys, Penguin. ISBN 0-14-100711-7.

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