Big, Black, (Dead) Scary Dogs

 

August 4, 1577, in the midst of a raging thunderstorm, the Holy Trinity Church in Blythburgh, England received a visit by a huge black dog with fiery eyes and claws. [1]According to Reverend Abraham Fleming’s account in his book, A Straunge and Terrible Wunder:

This black dog, or the devil in such a likeness (God he knoweth all who worketh all) running all along down the body of the church with great swiftness, and incredible haste, among the people, in a visible form and shape, passed between two persons, as they were kneeling upon their knees, and occupied in prayer as it seemed, wrung the necks of them both at one instant clean backward, in so much that even at a moment where they kneeled, they strangely died.”

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Artwork presumably by Rev Fleming as well. From Wikicommons.

[The actual book is part of Google Books – which paradoxically defies easy linking.)

Huge, black ghostly dogs have been reported in Britain since antiquity. The one cited above is called the “Black Shuck” by the East Anglian locals. In northern England they use the term Barghest (with several different spellings). There are many other regional variants, but if you say “Hell Hound”, everyone knows what you’re talking about.

Most of them will think you’re talking about one of countless ghost stories floating about in British folklore. But in May of 2014, archaeologists from DigVentures, excavating Leiston Abbey in Suffolk , literally just up the road from Blythburg,  uncovered the bones of a dog estimated to be seven feet long and weighing 200 pounds in life. Prelimary carbon dating put this creature within margin of error of the date of the attack on the church.

The Daily Express (a local paper) reported that  project director  Brendon Wilkins  said: “Most of these legends about dogs may have some roots in reality.”

Let’s see if we can chase this big, black dog down.

Britain, like the rest of Europe, was habitat for giant wolves, and even a large species of hyena well into the Pleistocene. There is evidence that Neanderthals and the “cave Hyenas” competed for prey, and even caves. But by the time the ice melted, the woods of  Britain were home only to smaller wolves and foxes. If a band of Cave Hyenas somehow survived into historical times, someone would have shot one, and mounted its head on a wall somewhere.

While wild canines are not plausible, the Isles have been known to breed and domesticate huge hounds for centuries.  A modern Irish wolfhound can grow pretty close to the size of the abby’s hell hound, and they might have come bigger. Domesticated hounds for hunting and defense are present deep into Irish folklore, and there are reliable Roman accounts of Gauls importing war dogs from the Briton or Ireland.

{My excellent source for this here: http://www.historyireland.com/uncategorized/war-dogs-among-the-early-irish-2/]

So, applying Occam’s razor, they dug up someone’s pet.

If a huge, black, feral hunting dog were running amok in the countryside, it’s not hard to conceive how that could inspire some tall tales. And when it eludes men who are otherwise boastful of their hunting prowess – then it must have supernatural powers.

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I am a creature of nightmares….

Those powers vary wildly by the teller. Not even the glowing eyes can be relied upon; in some versions they dog has no head at all. Like just about every other phantom in British folklore, they are bound somehow to the water, and their appearance can foretell certain doom.

Plus, a dog bigger than you are is inherently scary.

hellhound
That’s more like it… Art by Rashi. Chandra

Since that conclusion is actually kinda dull, let me make one up:

Long ago, a Celtic Noble took his loyal dogs off to war. Ass they faced the enemy, though, the noble lost his nerve and abandoned his dogs, who were later captured, tortured and burned to death, because these were terrible human beings. The angry ghosts odf these dogs forever prowl the deep woods and dark places, seeking out terrible human beings – or perhaps just random human beings, to claim their revenge with fang and fire.

War dogs may have some limited tactical value against tribal war-bands, but they were little more than a nuisance to organized armies such as the Roman legions, and were no longer seen in battle as active combatants by the mid first millennium.

Or – or – they stopped using them because they realized they were creating more hell hounds with every battle.

Maybe both.

Relevant links:

Cave Hyenas: http://www.prehistoric-wildlife.com/species/c/crocuta-crocuta-spelaea-cave-hyena.html

Black Shuck info at Shuckland: http://www.hiddenea.com/shuckland/introduction.htm

A recent find in East Anglia : http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2629353/Is-skeleton-legendary-devil-dog-Black-Shuck-terrorised-16th-century-East-Anglia.html

Related : http://www.ancient-code.com/7-foot-tall-hellhound-skeleton-unearthed-near-ancient-monastery-in-uk/

Atlas Obscura (always good content) on the same incident: http://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/archaeology-folklore-and-the-skeletal-remains-of-a-hellhound

Hell Hounds: http://www.mythicalcreaturesguide.com/page/Hell+Hound

Celtic hound – good overview: http://www.historyireland.com/uncategorized/war-dogs-among-the-early-irish-2/

http://www.britannica.com/art/Barghest

Rashi draws big, scary anime dogs:  http://rashichandra.blogspot.com/2011/02/h-for-hellhound.html

 

[1] That same night the steeple collapsed, most likely from a lightning strike.

 

 

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