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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The Ghosts of History

History is full of ghosts, but ghosts do not seem full of history. It’s a shame; one would think them to be good witnesses. But they do not speak to use in any useful fashion – or if they have, no one has proved it.

Straight up: most cultures have some sort of ghost tradition, and there is no scientific evidence for any of it.

Why would we believe in something we can’t prove? Well, some of it has to do with the fact that any serious scientist who hunts ghosts runs the real risk of lo longer being considered a serious scientist. But most of it has to do with how unreliable our senses are under duress in dark, noisy places. Scientists have studied that fairly extensively.

LiveScience has a good summary of this sort of research..

http://www.livescience.com/26697-are-ghosts-real.html

And Listverse, of course, has a List:

http://listverse.com/2013/09/30/10-scientific-explanations-for-ghostly-phenomena/

If you skipped the second link, go back and scroll down to #1:

Or we’ll just quote the list (written by Nolan Moore) at length here:

No idea where ListServe got this.

Quantum mechanics is the study of the smallest types of matter, and it has led to some pretty awesome inventions. However, it can get pretty weird when physicists start talking about souls and ghosts. Take, for example, Dr. Stuart Hameroff and his physicist friend Roger Penrose. Hameroff and Penrose theorize that human consciousness comes from microtubules inside our brain cells, and these tubules are responsible for quantum processing (our souls basically). Hameroff and Penrose believe when people have a near-death experience, all that quantum information leaves the brain, yet continues to exist, which is why some people report out-of-body experiences and lights at the end of tunnels.

As you might expect, a lot of scientists have problems with Hameroff and Penrose’s theory. But Dr. Henry Stapp isn’t one of them. As a respected quantum physicist who worked with the famous Heisenberg, Stapp believes that a person’s personality might be able to survive death and exist as a “mental entity.” Stapp theorizes if these entities could return to the physical world, then concepts like possession and channeling could really be possible. Are men like Stapp, Hameroff, and Penrose just wishful thinkers? Or are they modern day Galileos?

Now here we have some basis to start making some stuff up. Let’s stipulate, for the sake of coherent fiction, that there’s something to that, and this is how ghosts work.

I’ve already done this. This is what I wrote for my time-travel role-playing game

Ghosts are incorporeal undead who retain some of their wits and memories of their time among the living.

Ghosts are the souls of the living who did not wish to, or could not depart this dimension as they died. Many are evil, and fear punishment in the afterlife. Many are simply so determined to finish their life’s work that they refused to go. Some remain because their deaths were so horrific that they could not accept the finality of it. And many are stuck for reasons beyond their control.

Battlefields are notorious for ghosts, not because of the nature of battle so much, but because the sheer number of deaths guarantees a certain amount of ghosts.

Ghosts are bound to a particular space (most often) or particular time. They cannot move freely beyond these limits. A ghost stuck in a place will be present in that place forever-after (unless some action is taken to counter this), but can move about in time as if it were no more than a long corridor. A ghost stuck in time can appear multiple places at the same instant, but never beyond that instant. To this ghost, the world seems frozen still as he just wanders endlessly about it. This weirdness is rarely evident to the living.

Because ghosts have no set physical form, they have no real stats, but they do have a core competence that depends upon their power level. Power level is determined by the strength of the character at death, and by the trauma of the death and/or burial. Horrific, unjust deaths tend to increase the power of the ghost.

Ghosts are divided loosely among five levels:

  • Haunt: (2 dice) generally do no more than make strange sounds, move small objects here and there, and bewilder the living. Haunts retain the least of their memories, and are often puzzled as to their condition. Haunts are rarely directly detected by the living, and the Haunts themselves rarely possess the means to directly reveal themselves. If they do appear, it is often little more than a floating orb of light. Sadly, this is by far the most common sort of ghost.
  • Phantom: (3 dice) are aware of their state, and can interface with the material world to a greater extent. They can move small objects on purpose, or appear visually (as they were at death), though not corporeally. Also known as Poltergeists when they move things or Apparitions when they appear. Most phantoms can do one or the other, but not both at the same time.
  • Ghost: (4 dice) are able to appear in any form they choose, and interact to a limited extent with the physical world, as separate tasks. Most ghost stories involve this level. This is the highest level an extra can achieve.
  • Shades: (5 dice) have some connection to negative energy and  are able to do emotional damage by touch, and cold damage by touch. Most of these are evil – the neutral tend to stop at Ghost.  Also known as shades or shadows.
  • Wraiths: (6 dice or more) all of the above plus one or more of the additional powers: possession (of a weaker personality); animation (or a recently deceased); corporeal form (where they will appear to be alive save for temperature). Almost all Wraiths are evil, and connected to negative energy.