Mythological Throwback Thursday: Bad Dogs of the British Isles
Hello! Are you a dog person? We used to be, until we found out about all the terrifying mutts stalking the British Isles. We’re expecting Alex’s family back in Staffordshire to be devoured by supernatural hounds any day now. Arm yourself with the knowledge to protect your loved ones this Mythological Throwback Thursday!
One of the most notorious is Black Shuck, a ghostly black dog that stalks the wilds of East Anglia. It’s thought its name derives from the Saxon word for demon, ‘scucca’. Others believe it to be a version of the Viking Shukir, the war-dog of Thor and Odin. Black Shuck is a large hound, variously described as the size of a calf or even a horse. It has baleful red eyes (or just one large one in the centre of its head, in some tellings) and can coalesce out of mist on dark nights, to frighten lone travellers. Those who see Black Shuck usually live long enough to tell the tale, but many believed that those who see it are marked for death, and will pass away within the year.
Similar is the tale of the Barghest, a spectral beast that haunted the north of England, and was particularly infamous in Yorkshire. Described to principally take the form of a black dog with fiery eyes, it was said to be able to become invisible, to shapeshift (favouring the form of a headless person) and to have dominion over other dogs. Upon the death of any notable person in the community the Barghest would form the head of a funeral procession of sorts, followed by all the other dogs of the community, leading them in howling and baying. If you were fleeing the Barghest it was considered wise to cross a stream or river, since the superstition was that it was unable to.
On the Isle of Man, a ghost called Moddey Dhoo, which literally means ‘black dog’, haunted Peel Castle. Though it seemed relatively benign, wandering through the hallways of the castle, invariably settling by the fireplace of the guard chamber, it was frightening to those unused to its spooky demeanour. It would never appear during the day, returning always to a passageway that led to the guard captain’s chamber and disappearing. One night a drunken guard defied Moddey Dhoo. On entering the haunted passageway, dreadful sounds were heard. The guard, scared witless, returned to his comrades aghast and died within three days.
The Welsh passed down the tale of the Cŵn Annwn. Not ghosts but denizens of the supernatural realm of Annwn, these hounds were hunting dogs for the king of the realm, Arawn. Unlike the other examples, these dogs were pure white with red ears. During the Wild Hunt, the Cŵn Annwn would run down wrongdoers for their crimes. It is speculated that they accompanied King Arthur’s cousin Culwhch to Arthur’s court.
Of course, the good people of the UK and Ireland could not help but include their hellhound-riddled folklore in their literature. Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre includes an encounter which the titular heroine initially mistakes for a Gytrash, a being similar to a Barghest. J.K Rowling includes the legend of the Grim in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, with characteristics identical to those of Black Shuck. And of course we couldn’t go without mentioning the infamous Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle.
Why dogs? Possibly we humans share an inherent, instinctual aversion to wolves, and when like in the British Isles wolves become extinct through our actions, we create our own. Monsters from the id! Or maybe it’s because we’re just really into dogs, and there’s nothing so terrible as being betrayed by something you love. Join us for another Mythological Throwback Thursday next week!