This appeared in the North Clare Local last month…
Next time you take a look at Spot, curled up in his basket in the kitchen, maybe even chasing after sticks in his dreams, just think how strange it is that dog became man’s best friend. Somehow, long, long ago, a wolf became tame and ventured into a human home. Imagine the bravery of that first person and the curiosity of that wolf cub. It’s no wonder dogs come with a wealth of folklore attached.
Dogs are generally trusting, placid creatures who seem to assume that their master knows best, sometimes to their own detriment. However, as anyone who has seen the snarling fangs of an angry or scared dog will attest, they are animals of tremendous power and strength. Even a little dog can give a nasty bite, and as for a big dog, they can kill. This side of canine nature has given rise to legions of stories about ghostly guardians of the underworld. The most famous of these is probably Cerberus, the three-headed dog who served the Greek god of death, Hades. Cerberus had three heads, meaning triple the fangs and aggression. He guarded the gates of hell and sometimes brought souls to the underworld.
These hellhounds, to give them their proper title, are almost always black. They smell of brimstone. Their eyes glow a fiery red. They often accompanied the wild hunt in European folklore, the spectral riders in the sky off on their eternal chase of quarry.
While dogs are our loyal companions and friends, in European and other traditions, they were strongly associated with death. This is probably due to their scavenging nature. Indeed, Anubis, the jackal-headed god who presided over the underworld of Ancient Egypt, was always depicted as black, the colour of rot and decay. Anubis presided over the weighing of the human heart against an ostrich feather, the ultimate test of the sins of a soul.
England has a long, proud tradition of devilish black dogs, which were immortalised in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles and JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series. The belief in black dogs, also known as Shuck, Gytrash, Padfoot, and other such wonderful names, are most prevalent in eastern counties of England, such as Yorkshire, Essex, East Anglia and Norfolk. It has been suggested that this is because these are the parts where Germanic and Scandinavian influence was greatest. The church grim, or Kyrkogrim, is a Norse tradition involving a pure black dog being buried alive in a churchyard to guard over the souls within. This evolved into tales of the spirits of these dogs haunted graveyards, crossroads, execution places or any other transitional areas.
Mostly these dogs are sinister omens of death. If you see one it is a sure sign you will be dead by the end of the year. However, not all English black dogs were unlucky. In Somerset, however, the Gurt dog watched over the children who played on the Quantock Hills and made sure no harm came to them. There was also a black dog who accompanied an Essex midwife on her travels and made sure she got home safely in the dead of the night. A friend once told me of a black dog who was said to haunt a spot where a woman had been raped and murdered years before. This dog greeted women who were walking alone at night and made sure they passed the spot in one piece. I can’t seem to find anything online about this, but perhaps North Clare Local subscribers in the UK may have heard of it?
The most famous black dog story took place in Suffolk in 1577. An account survives which describes a black Shuck bursting into churches as Bungay and Blythburgh on the same day. At Blythburgh, he killed a man and a boy and caused the church tower to collapse. There were casualties at Bungay too. The Reverend Abraham Fleming described how the dog “passed between two persons, as they were kneeling uppon their knees, and occupied in prayer as it seemed, wrung the necks of them both at one instant clene backward, in so much that even at a moment where they knelled, they strangely died”.
The dog, or the Devil as many believed him to be, left scorch marks on the church door.
In Irish tradition, canines are much less sinister. The Irish cú, or hound, was a fearsome guard dog. Many of us remember the story of Cú Chulainn who slayed the murderous hound of an Ulster blacksmith with a lovely bit of hurling. Cú Chulainn offered to step in as guard dog, earning his nickname (Hound of Chulainn).
And of course, Fionn McCumhaill also went everywhere with his loyal Bran, whose name is still highly popular for Irish mutts. More about pooches next month.