The following article has been contributed to TCF by Folklorist Mark Norman, who has the largest archive in the United Kingdom of Black Dog sightings.
The appearance of ghostly Black Dogs is a well-known one in tradition and folklore, yet for many people their knowledge of the subject may extend no further than the creature described in The Hound of the Baskervilles which, although based on the legends of the animals, bears little resemblance to actual Black Dogs in any of their forms.
The phenomena of the Black Dog ghost is not a British one, or indeed attached to any particular country, religion or any other social group. It is however in the United Kingdom that the widest diversity of the types of Black Dog ghost can be found and, therefore, they provide the broadest possible set of case studies which can hope to inform anyone experiencing them or with an interest, wherever in the world they may come across the motif. For here we can find Black Dogs that may be good, evil or portentous, attached to a road, a house or a family, protective, mythological, normal looking or really rather strange.
The dog is unique in folklore terms. All domesticated animals functioned as an extension of man and many still do to a lesser extent. In ancient times they supplied hides for warmth or protection, they gave food for strength and to prolong life. Bones were used as weapons or tools and horns provided a more varied voice before the natural one was developed. In later developments, cats killed the vermin which evaded human capture and horses lent speed and strength for journeys, or in times of war. But the dog is somewhat different.
Dog ghosts appear to have been seen all over the world. The interpretation of them, of course, depends on the religious views of each community. Certain races, such as the Jewish, Arab and the Protestant movement in Europe, hold the dog to be unclean. Others – the Celtic, the Roman and the Africans – regard ghostly dogs as part of the family. Phantom dogs are common in Europe and hence wherever there are European settlers in other continents. The West African slaves took their ghostly dogs to America and, in Texas, at least, these dogs are never black but usually appear white, or sometimes yellow.
In Protestant Germany and Scandinavia the ghost dog is nearly always diabolic; in the former case, for example, the devil is said to appear in the form of a black dog. In Britain, there are two types of creature: Firstly, there is the Black Dog, which is usually just like any ordinary large dog to look at; and secondly, there is the Barguest type. The Barguest appears in various shapes, but generally that of a dog. It is dangerous and ominous to meet it, especially head on. Sometimes it lacks a head; sometimes it has only one eye in the middle of its forehead. The Barguest occurs in wide areas of East Anglia and in the North of England, from Cumberland down to the Yorkshire Dales – as far south as the Peak District.
There are some overlaps between the traits of these two types of ghostly dog, but for the most part, we can consider them as separate genera (to borrow a scientific term from their living counterparts).
The ordinary looking Black Dog occurs sporadically all over Britain, and we can be thankful that a small number of folklorists from the early and mid parts of the twentieth century collected a wealth of reports. Theo Brown attempted a distribution map as part of her seminal article on the subject for the journal Folklore in 1958, but this is of limited use. The map showed thicker concentrations where researchers had collected sightings: Mrs. E.H. Rudkin in Lincolnshire; Miss Ruth L. Tongue for West Somerset and herself in Devon. The Rev. W.P. Witcutt collected many accounts for Staffordshire and Warwickshire where the dog is often called the ‘Padfoot’. As there are pockets of Gaelic elements in this area he surmised that the word might derive from badda fuath, the Gaelic for ‘fairy dog’, but it is more likely an onomatopoeic word to describe its character in the same way as the Lancashire ‘Trash’ or ‘Gytrash’ is believed to be adopted from the curious sound made by the hound’s footfall.
In more recent times collections of sightings and analysis have been undertaken by another small group of researchers in the main, notably Janet Bord, Ivan Bunn, Michael Burgess (who manages the excellent Shuckland website for East Anglian examples), Bob Trubshaw (who compiled the useful collection of articles comprising the book Explore Phantom Black Dogs), Dr Simon Sherwood and myself. There are, of course, others who have written on the subject but time does not permit name-checking them all. Suffice to say their work is easy to track down and extremely valuable.
The breed of dog sighted varies from vast Newfoundlands to quite small terriers or spaniels, but they are usually reminiscent of retrievers or mastiffs. In these cases, they are commonly described as larger than any normal dog. “As big as a calf” or “as big as a donkey” are typical similes. Just a few are not seen but heard, felt or smelt.
Although it is usually alone when it is sighted, there are several reports of ghost dogs accompanying their deceased masters. Whereas the Barguest type of dog (or Shuck as it is called in East Anglia) is invariably horrific in some way, the Black Dog is either neutral or friendly and protective. This is the case, for example, in Lincolnshire which seems strange when it adjoins the East Anglian Shuck area.
It is important to bear in mind these differences in character to fully understand the subject, particularly given the propensity for less knowledgeable writers to always use the Barguest type of animal when referring to the tradition. Journalists, in particular, will always tend to move to the “hound of hell” description if they need to reference Black Dog legends – it is far more exciting than a friendly animal.
The popular superstitious conception of the Black Dog is that it is an omen of death, but collating the reports and traditions actually, shows that at least half the dogs are harmless. They are frequently protectors of lonely women and timid men walking along sinister roads (or in older reports when passing footpads and robbers). There are two distinct areas that these protective dogs seem to favour – the North part of Lincolnshire and Tyneside – although this is not to say that people experiencing a meeting with a Black Dog in other areas do not report these traits and there are examples from this area.
There are six main categories that are frequently reported upon in sightings and stories of ghost dogs, which were originally highlighted by the folklorist Theo Brown. Some of these refer to the Black Dog, some to the Barguest and some apply to both types of the apparition.
1. Size: There is often something unusual about the size of the animal. As previously mentioned it is often uncommonly large.
2. Colour: The usual tone is black, although there are some variations in reports where dogs have been white, yellow and in one case red. It may seem a misnomer to be discussing apparitions of Black Dogs and yet to include these other reports. It would be more accurate to use the term ‘ghost dogs’ for the field of study as these other cases are included because there is no real difference in details apart from the colour of the coat. Virtually all dog apparition reports are black and so over the hundreds of years that the phenomena has been observed, the term Black Dog has naturally been adopted.
3. Physical details: The coat observed on the apparition may be gleamingly smooth or it may be remarkably rough and shaggy. When it is felt only and not seen the hair may feel bristly – more like a pig’s than a hound’s. The tail is usually long and thin. The eyes, if they appear to be abnormal, are huge. A recurring key phrase in many reports from the early and mid parts of the twentieth century describes them as “like tea-saucers” or “as big as dinner plates” shining brilliantly, or glowing red. It is of significant interest that these phrases come up again and again, both in traditional reports and in eyewitness accounts as it shows how the symbolism travels and passes from person to person, without anyone realizing that it is happening.
In point of fact, we find the expression in what is probably the earliest recording of a sighting in Britain. This comes from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the earliest known history of England written in the native tongue. The document was probably first compiled for King Alfred before being sent to monasteries across Britain for copying around 892AD. Its first version spanned the period from the birth of Christ to Alfred’s reign and comprised an official history of the country, but the individual copies were then kept updated in each location and began to take on more independent histories. Most versions end around the Norman Conquest of 1066 but one continues until 1154 and it is in this version that we find the mention of the Dog. Many writers quote a common translation of this passage, which reads that
“many men both saw and heard a great number of huntsmen hunting. The
huntsmen were black, huge and hideous, and rode on black horses and on
black he-goats and their hounds were jet black with eyes like saucers and
Even in this very early mention, we find the mention of the size of the eyes. We also, however, must note an interesting etymological problem here, as the word saucer derives from the 14th century and hence cannot be a direct translation from the original document. The correct translation, in fact, reads that the hounds were “black and big-eyed and loathsome”. The meaning carries, though, with the later recurring description having been juxtaposed onto the original translation, highlighting again its significance. Unfortunately, most writers still tend to quote the mistranslated version.
We find the size of the eyes also being commented on in other places, such as the children’s tale The Magic Tinderbox. Even now, in a number of more recent reports from the early part of the twenty-first century the size of the eyes is still commented on, but often a yellow hue is described.
4. Head: If the ghost is not realistic then there may be something odd about the head. In one case at least, at Kildonan in Scotland, a treasure hidden in a pool is said to be guarded by a dog with two heads.
5. Oddities: Some ghost dogs appear to have a chain attached to their collars, although the other end never seems to be secured. One or two are reported as standing or walking on their hind legs and some speaking dogs are known.
6. Function: This may amount to almost anything, from standing still to accompanying a pedestrian or pacing a vehicle along a road. It may arrive suddenly from nowhere, it may leap over a wall, you may meet it, be overtaken from behind by it, or it may just cross in front of you. When it leaves it may vanish or sink slowly into the ground, generally by some landmark such as a tree, gap in the hedge or into a solid object.
Although these six aspects are often mentioned, as we have just noted with the descriptions of the eyes they have tended to vary over time. It is interesting to note that in the reports gathered by the folklorists of the twentieth century, the language used is very accepting of the phenomena witnessed or felt. The witnesses seem generally quite informed about the nature, legend or folklore of the Black Dog and in their correspondence, they tend to start quite matter-of-factly: “I saw the Black Dog a few weeks ago. I was out riding on my horse…” On the other hand, more recent reports often start with the witness stating that they had got in touch because they had been searching the internet for information on ghostly dogs, or that they were unaware that other people had seen them.
This seems to suggest that the Black Dog is no longer so well known as it was as a folkloric image. Bearing in mind the fact that the language of symbolism has been lost in these modern times, is there still a folk memory surviving in the collective consciousness, or is something else at work?
Methods of comparison are important when we look at these shifting descriptions. Size has already been discussed as an attribute worthy of investigation and by this, we mean that the Black Dog often appears to be larger than a domestic animal. In accounts from eyewitnesses in the early to mid part of the twentieth century, for example, people often used phrases such as “as big as a calf” or “as big as a Newfoundland” when describing the size of the dog. The recurring descriptions are essentially embedded in the commonplace of the time. Many more people lived on and worked the land and so the calf as a comparator is quite natural.
Many of the more recent reports are tending to use a different comparator and have phrases such as “big as a wolf” or that the dog resembles a wolf in some way. Historically, aside from the saucer-ness, the eyes are often described as glowing or fiery and where they are abnormal they are red. More recent accounts have jet black and yellow eyes added to these descriptions and many describe them as having evil intent.
Another interesting change goes along with these more modern reports. There are descriptions of growling, snarling and scratching claws. These auditory phenomena are of great interest as it is very rare in all of the collected historical accounts for sound to accompany Black Dog sightings. In the odd occasions where it does, it is usually the padding of the feet that is described. There is only the very sporadic bark or growl.
What might be happening here? We can perhaps argue that modern entertainment is playing a part. Historically, television and film dealt with tamer subjects and from the penny dreadfuls through to the mid part of the twentieth-century horror stories in literature tended to deal with different themes to the modern day. Horror films and books have become much more prevalent and much less ‘tame’ and themes such as lycanthropy, demonism and the like are not only dealt with more often but are far more blatant. In his book, Tracing the Chupacabra, Benjamin Radford suggests that reports are much influenced by modern movies and the same may be true here. Modern consumers of entertainment have much more of a stomach for horror themes and may draw on these entertainments more in the decoding of the symbolism surrounding Black Dog folklore.
STAY TUNED FOR PART 2 NEXT WEEK
Along with a small team of colleagues, Mark also produces audio books on both esoteric and non-esoteric subjects, which can be found at www.circleofspears.com/store