Through mist covered graveyards and shadowy backroads of the British Isles, in the darkest nights it stalks. With blood red eyes and a dark shaggy coat, it prowls, an omen of death to all that see it. This large spirit has haunted the Isles for centuries, sometimes a protector, sometimes an agent of violent death. The dark hound of England, the dreaded Black Dog.
Black Dog is the catch-all term used to describe the subject of folktales throughout the United Kingdom. Tales of an abnormally large black dog that roams the streets, forests, and churches of the British Isles. In truth the tale varies depending on region, changing both description and it’s powers, so much that while it’s many names always use the definite article, it’s possible that there are in fact multiple Black Dog spirits roaming the Isles.
Dogs in mythology and folklore are very common, serving as guardians or guides. Cerberus, the monstrous guard dog of the Greek Underworld, is possibly the most well known due to the widespread popularity of Greco-Roman mythology, but also common are Hellhounds*, demonic canines that serve to police the damned and the soon to be damned. In most myths, dogs are protectors of other spirits, be it the Fae and their Cu Sith, or Norse war dogs following their masters into Valhalla. In others they serve as guides through treacherous paths, such as the Japanese Okuri Inu, or the Black Dog of Swalcliffe.
*Hellhound has also been used as a catch all term for all spirit dogs, but I find this term too constrictive, and automatically marks all such hounds as evil minions. Also, these dogs are found across a wide array of cultures and religions, and shouldn’t be limited by Judeo-Christian view points.
The Black Dog is Largely found in small English villages, the kind where everyone knows each other and can vouch for their sanity. The largest number of reports come from England, but cases of Red Eyed Black Dogs can also be found in Scotland, Ireland, Belgium and France.
Dog symbolism is extremely prevalent throughout the history of the UK. Due to constant invasion of the isles from Romans, Vikings, various Germanic tribes, and the later Christian overhaul of the local culture, reliable sources on the actual beliefs and symbolism of the various tribes is non-existent, so scholars are left patching together what scraps of continuity they can.
One of those remaining consistencies is the dog. While we can’t necessarily give it the same connotation it has in modern folklore, it was nevertheless clearly important enough to survive the impact of multiple other cultures. Ancient burial mounds, cities, and religious sites bear some association with The Dog, iron age Welsh and Briton often had names relating to dogs, hounds, or wolves, and some old tribal forts bear names relating them to dogs or wolves. Some tribes also associated themselves with dogs, and some researchers have noted a parallel between where these tribes were shunned and where the more violent Black Dog incidents have occured.
Again, no accurate assumptions can be made regarding the abundance of canine iconography in the region. It could be something as simple as “Man and his best Friend” taken to near ritual levels, or it could be that the Black Dog is a modern remnant of some chthonic dog god from ancient Irish Legend, now boiled down to a cryptid on par with Mothman and the Jersey Devil.
The earliest known report of a spirit matching the description of the Black Dog comes as early as 856 C.E., when a black dog materialized in a church in France, padded around for a while as if looking for someone, then vanished. It eventually appeared in England around the 1570’s, when the Black Shuck first materialized in two churches almost simultaneously, slew five worshippers between the two, and vanished, leaving scratch and burn marks that remain to this day. The majority of tales crop up in the 1800s before petering down to cryptid mythology, though the concept of the Black Dog is still widely believed to this day.
The tale of the Black Dog, if not the creature itself, can be seen as a very large game of Telephone. If one considers the Black Dog case that occurred in France to be the first story, the following occurrences that spawned off can be seen as retellings of retellings, bastardizations of bastardizations, and so on. A true example of the magic of oral storytelling.
As each story passes on, the details change to make him more fearsome or savage, because sensationalism sells. Rather than just a shadowy furball that mysteriously appeared in a church one time, now it’s a giant one-eyed hellhound wrapped in chains whose very presence can kill you. Naturally the latter story has survived longer and spread more, because let’s be honest, a hellish death omen is a lot more impactful than a random ghost dog. But remnants of the original can be seen in the stories that tone down the nightmare factor and try to paint the dog as a guardian or guide rather than a bloodthirsty beast.
Due to the aforementioned mutation of the story as it traveled, each region more or less has its own black dog. However, there are similar enough stories that we can attempt to sort the appearances into three types. The first we will call the Barghest, for that is the common name for the Dog’s more monstrous occurrences. Also known as Black Shuck, this is the demon dog that haunts churches and back roads, the red-eyed shapeshifter the size of a cow that is nearly always malevolent
The second type we will call the Ghost Dog, as that best matches it’s behaviour. It typically only shows up in a very particular building or stretch of road, and beyond being of abnormal size, does not exhibit any behaviour that would be out of the ordinary for your run of the mill spirit. They may sometimes be seen accompanying the spirit of their former master, or serve as some sort of minor omen.
The third type we will call the Guardian. This refers to those stories in which the Black Dog serves as a guide through a dangerous stretch of wood, or stands guard over a river crossing or parish boundary, or can be found protecting a temple or treasure. These cases are less openly hostile than their Barghest variants, but should still be treated as you would any guard dog the size of a bear.
The Black Dog can be found mentioned in several pop culture works. The most universally recognized might be from the Harry Potter series, where J.K. Rowling makes reference to both the Grim, as a fortune telling omen, and Padfoot, as a large shaggy black dog. It also appears in the Sherlock Holmes story ‘Hound of the Baskervilles’, in which Holmes is tasked to discern the truth of the myth himself. The Barghest spirit is the only representation of the Black Dog to have a stat block in D&D fifth edition.
Cause of Death: This aspect is possibly the most well known, as it is this type of story that gave the myth so much traction. The Black Dog is credited with maulings, supernatural destruction of property, instantly wringing someone’s neck, and even killing someone with a look.
Death Omen: This association, while not as popular, is seen in more cases. Seeing or hearing the Black Dog foretells the death of the witness, usually within the week. The Dog has also been known to appear in places just before a major disaster, such as a storm or a massive amount of deaths. It is also known to haunt graveyards and places where violent death has occurred in the past.
Church/Graveyard Guardian: This is unique to the Black Dogs known as Church Grims. They guard churches and graveyards against thieves, witches, and even the devil. This variation of the Black Dog spirit is closer to an actual ghost, as it is typically created by using a dog as a foundation sacrifice during construction, either so the structure will remain secure, or to protect it against supernatural forces. This folklore may have been brought over during the Norse invasion, as there is a similar creature in Scandinavia known as the Kyrkgrim.
Travel/Boundary Guardian: If you hear of a Black Dog that isn’t openly malevolent, then it is likely guarding something instead of hunting humans. A stretch of road, a property boundary, a well, a bridge over running water, sometimes even individual people. These Black Dogs manifest to protect something, and may attack any trespasser that does not heed their warning. It should be noted that many of these protectors can be chalked up to normal ghost dogs making the same rounds they did in life.
Divining the true nature of the Black Dog is difficult. Due to the sheer volume of variations as well as the name itself being an umbrella term for any spectral hound, it’s difficult to pick and choose which stories represent the dog better than the rest. One’s first instinct, as it was my own, would be to eliminate those stories where the dog displays no other supernatural phenomena beyond being a ghost dog. However this would also mean discrediting the earliest account we have, where the dog appeared in a French church and strutted around for a bit before vanishing. This story displays standard ghost behaviour, yet is undoubtedly the basis for the later tales of Black Shuck.
Due to this nature, and the credibility of oral storytelling, what follows from here is a speculative attempt to discern the truth from a small packet of dubious facts.
The Dog is a historical feature of the Isles. It is important enough to have iconography across multiple tribes and nations, but was unlikely ever worshipped in any capacity. There are no known dog gods, and the act of taking dog-related titles suggests a desire to take the powers and associations of a dog, suggesting a form of respect rather than reverence, nor can such an act be directly attached to our particular Black Dog. So as disappointed as I am to say, I can remove “remnant of an ancient canine death god” from the list of possibilities.
It would be reasonable to consider that there are a number of Black Dogs running around the isles, each fulfilling their own duties. Sure, Shuck gave Old Joe a lethal heart attack while he was out for a walk, but Patches made sure Skipper O’Flannigan didn’t get on the boat doomed to sink in a storm. Each town having its own resident Death Hound is a bit of a stretch I’m sure, neither animals nor supernatural entities are particularly good at following man-made borders only visible on a map, but dividing territory by natural markers such as rivers or hills has precedent.
I feel reasonably safe calling the Black Dog an extension of Death. Not a god or other divinity itself, but perhaps performing duties in service of one, preventing, or delivering death as the fates decree. This would cover both it’s aspects as a violent murder machine and an omen/reminder of death, as well as it’s association with river crossings and crossroads, both frequently associated with the idea of crossing into another world. It would also go a long way to explaining how this spirit can manifest on hallowed ground. It ruins the point of consecration if a ghost can just shrug it off and slaughter half your congregation.
Regardless of its nature, the procedure for interaction remains dubious, and depends on its own intentions with you. If it wants you dead, you won’t know until you see it, and then it’s too late. Should you see one standing in one place snarling at you, it’s likely protecting something, and your best course of action is to retreat in the least threatening manner possible. If it chooses to pad along with you through a notoriously dangerous stretch of woods, don’t try to look directly at it, and maybe leave it an offering as thanks. No known methods of defeating the Spirit exist, and attacking the Black Dog directly is unlikely to end well for you.
For further reading, I recommend reading both Theo Brown’s and Ethel Rudkin’s works on the Black Dog. They both do a fantastic job breaking down the Black Dog stories, and served as the main sources for this article. Both works are short and easy to understand, so they’ll make for an interesting read on a lazy afternoon.