Black Dog mythology

Welcome to the third post in a brief series exploring the supernatural/mythological themes that have helped to inspire my work-in-progress novel, BLACK DOG.

Black Dog sightings are one of the oldest and most widely reported spectral phenomena in the world. In the UK sightings have been reported in every county of England (with the bare exceptions of Middlesex and Rutland) and have been recorded as far back in history that they pre-date even the Viking invasions. As research by Dr Simon Sherwood of Northampton University has uncovered, a written account of a black dog sighting was inscribed in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle of 1127. The (translated) Chronicle says:

” Let no-one be surprised at the truth of what we are about to relate, for it was common knowledge throughout the whole country that immediately after his arrival [Abbot Henry of Poitou at Abbey of Peterborough] – it was the Sunday when they sing Exurge Quare – 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 horrible. This was seen in the very deer park of the town of Peterborough and in all the woods that stretch from that same town to Stamford, and in the night the monks heard them sounding their horns. Reliable witnesses who kept watch in the night declared that there might well have been as many as twenty or thirty of them sounding their horns. This was seen and heard from the time of his arrival all through Lent and right up to Easter.”

Not only does the UK hold the record for being one of the oldest locations for black dog sightings but it also has some of the highest number of incidences on record. Across England there are regional variations in the legends told about the ‘black dogs’. In some cases the dogs are utterly malevolent – even deadly. In others the dogs are benign – protectors and helpers. However, some common denominators cross almost all boundaries – the dogs are nearly always significantly out-sized (frequently described as the size of a calf or small horse) and have large, saucer-like glowing eyes (nearly always red – very occasionally yellow and sometimes a single Cyclops-like red eye). The dogs’ coats are always black – sometimes shaggy.

Sightings have also been reported throughout Scotland and Wales. In Europe, Oude Rode Ogen (‘Old Red Eyes’ or ‘The Beast of Flanders’) was a ghostly dog reported in Belgium in the 18th century whilst in medieval Germany it was widely believed the devil would sometimes appear in the shape of a large black dog. Black dogs with fiery eyes are also regularly reported throughout Latin America – especially in Argentina, Mexico and Paraguay.

Great Danes are the breed most often chosen to portray The Hound Of The Baskervilles in the cinema

Black dog sightings are often associated with electrical storms (such as Black Shuck’s appearance in 1577) or with crossroads, places of execution, ancient pathways, ley lines and graveyards. Many such places were associated with local superstitions. The phenomenon has been quite extensively investigated over a long period by a succession of assorted folklorists, paranormal investigators, psychologists and actual scientists. These investigations (based on the cataloguing and examination of numerous sightings from around the world) have resulted in the identification of three different types of paranormal ‘black dog’:

1. Shape-shifting ‘demon dogs’

2. Ghosts of humans appearing in the form of a dog

3. Ghosts of actual dogs

The Darkness' first album - featuring the song Black Shuck (good track!)

Mythical black dogs have featured prominently in popular culture – Led Zeppelin wrote a song called Black Dog and The Darkness wrote Black Shuck in direct tribute to the Hell Hound of East Anglia. In the film world, Hell Hounds are usually portrayed by Great Danes or Mastiffs. Certainly these breeds are often featured as The Hound Of The Baskervilles. The fact that films of The Baskervilles’ story have been made and remade ever since 1914 – i.e. almost since movies began – demonstrates the extent of the long-held and powerful grip that black dog mythology exerts on the popular psyche.

The steps in Whitby ascended by Count Dracula in the form of a black dog

Hell Hounds have also featured in classic literature – as mentioned, Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes adventure ‘Hound Of The Baskervilles’ was directly inspired by black dog mythology. Similarly, Bram Stoker’s Dracula sees the Count transform into a giant black dog when the wreck of The Demeter docks at Whitby. Dracula, in the shape of a black dog, then ascends the steps to Whitby Abbey to seek refuge in an unhallowed grave in the graveyard. It can be no coincidence that Stoker, the Master of Gothic Horror, chose to employ this transformation on the part of the Count. (Vampire folklore also contains the belief that vampires can transform themselves into Hell Hounds as well as bats).

‘Black Dog’ is also a well-known metaphor for depression – a metaphor invented by the English writer Samuel Johnson in the1780s and subsequently popularised by none other than Sir Winston Churchill. I now plan to add to the canon of mythical black dog-related literature in my own forthcoming novel – cunningly titled….er….BLACK DOG! Better get writing, I guess!

woof woof!

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18 Responses to Black Dog mythology

  1. Paula Weidemann says:

    When my sister went to live in a small village in Bolivia for 5 years, she went to another small village up on the high mountain nearby that bred a dog with a recessive gene, that was the only place she saw it she said, and they were black dogs with red eyes. She said they looked really freaky. And that the people where very possessive of the dogs not wanting to let any of them be sold etc.

    • Simon says:

      hi paula. tx for posting this. i have heard about this phenomenon before (when researching ‘black dog’). interestingly, after britain (which has the most spectral black dog sightings of anywhere in the world) it is latin america that has the next most numerous ghostly black dog sightings! methinks perhaps the dogs your sister saw may account for several of these! atb simon 🙂

  2. Nicole and Brogan says:

    Hello Simon, myself and my sister-in-law came across your blogs whilst researching the myth of ‘Black Shuck’. While on holiday in Hunstanton (11th Feb 2012) we took a walk along the seafront next to Searles holiday park. It was around 5:30pm and there was nobody else in sight. Standing and talking at the top of the boat ramp I noticed a black silhouette running across the water and thought I was seeing things. After pointing it out to my sister-in-law who initially could not see anything, we realised it was the shape of an animal, the size of a donkey but the shape of a dog. We watched it until it was completely out of sight. What puzzled us was that it was gliding along the water, basically running on top of it and it was quite far out too, not close enough to be paddling. We didn’t think anymore of it and joked about seeing a ghost dog. It wasn’t until my husband was reading a story to my nephew from a book he won at Searles clubhouse. In this book it told of a story about a Ghost Dog and that’s when we had realised what we had seen days before. We are 100% sure of what we saw and it would be great if you could enlighten us more about when this story first started being told and if there are any similar sightings to ours. Where can we find more information about this? Looking forward to hearing from you. Sincerely, Nicole and Brogan.

    • Simon says:

      Hi Nicole and Brogan. Sorry not to have replied sooner but I have only had very intermittent internet access lately. Thank you for posting on my blog. 🙂 Your account is fascinating – and very possibly the most recent Black Shuck sighting to date!! BTW I shall certainly be using your sighting in my novel, BLACK DOG!! It is brilliantly atmospheric! I know Sunny Hunny well – and I know exactly where you mean! Re the question about the other sightings and when the Shuck story was first told: did you perhaps also read my other blogs (immediately preceding the one you posted on)? They are called “Black Shuck – the legend” and “Black Dog / Black Shuck”. These posts both contain all the answers to your questions – and provide an account of my own sighting of Shuck (a sighting that inspired me to write the novel). In brief, however: Black Shuck is said to be one of the oldest phantoms of Great Britain and there are legends of Black Shuck roaming the countryside of East Anglia even before the Vikings! Shuck’s most famous appearance was in 1577 and numerous sightings have been reported between 1890 and the present day. Two books provide more detail: Paranormal Suffolk by Christopher Reeve and the Ghost Hunters Book by John Harries (from the 1960s). Wikipedia also has quite an informative entry. Also, King’s Lynn has a very helpful Tourist Office that can point you in the direction of local historians if you are ever up that way (…or you could even email them). ATB Simon. 🙂

  3. Steven says:

    Old red eyes… I never looked it up or never heart of it. (I am from belgium and I live near mechelen) when I was very young around the age of three, I remembered seeing a black dog with red eyes in my room looking at me and walking around. I was so scared, that i pulled a blanket over me and eventually falled asleep. Later when I became older I thaught it was just a bad dream. But then years later when i was around 8 or 9 years old, my dad always asked me to get him an apple from the fridge. We had a door with glass and you could see the hall with the stairs to my room. When I came at that door I always looked true it because I never felt confy in that hall. Then I saw a black dog running down stairs from my room, looked at me while he was running to the front door and he was gone. Never saw it again. until my nephew who lived a few houses further said that one night a tall black guy with big red eyes was standing in the front of his door to his room… still get the chills on my spine when I think about it. Do you maybe know where I can get some more info about this “legend”?

    • Simon says:

      Hi Steven. Thank you for posting on my blog. That is indeed a scary tale! The details are remarkably consistent with the legend of Oude Rode Ogen (Old Red Eyes) – a legend I encountered in passing while researching my novel Black Dog. The best starting point for researching the legend you decribe would be to look at the wikipedia entry for Oude Rode Ogen. Thereafter I can suggest contacting Dr Simon Sherwood of the CSAPP Dept at Northampton University (UK). As mentioned in my blog, Dr Sherwoord is, from an academic viewpoint, the leading authority on black dog sightings worldwide and he takes the issue very seriously. He is open to being contacted via email (as stated on his profile) and I am sure he can provide much more detail regarding Oude Rode Ogen than I can (as my book/research primarily focused on Black Shuck of East Anglia, England). ATB Simon

  4. Michelle says:

    Hi Simon. I came across your website while doing my own research on Black dogs and “Demon dogs”. While researching the breed history of my Rottweiler puppy, I discovered they are descended from large black dogs that accompanied the Romans on their invasion of Europe. You will find dog breeds with similar appearance all along the path that they took, culminating in Britain and a rare dog breed in Wales called Celtic Mastiff (Gafaelgi). They’re big- about the size of a calf, black or dark brindle, and tenacious enough to herd cattle. My theory is that the black dog legends may originally have stemmed from the Roman dogs. They would have run free in the countryside, and would have been a fearsome beast to encounter. There is a good chance that these dogs either escaped and bred, or were abandoned when the Romans left. Whether the demon dogs are the spirits of the roman dogs or opportunistic demons taking the form of what the villagers already fear is open to speculation. Michelle

    • Simon says:

      Hi Michelle. Thank you for posting – much appreciated. Fascinating stuff – your imported Roman hounds theory is highly plausible (certainly as a probable starting point for something that later grew into an entire mythology). Very interesting re the Celtic Mastiffs (not a breed I had previously encountered – and I did think I pretty much knew ’em all!) BTW Hope your own pup is in fine fettle – I like Rotties! ATB Simon 🙂

  5. Brogan Bromley says:

    Hi Simon, Brogan & Nicole here.
    Wondering if you had finished your novel ‘Black Dog’?
    Would be really interesting to read.
    Also letting you know we are still alive and Black Shuck hasn’t killed us yet!

    • Simon says:

      Hi Brogan and Nicole. Good to hear from you again – and very glad you remain safe from Shuck!! 🙂 It’s actually a real coincidence you have posted again on my blog just now as – literally just two weeks ago – I typed up the chapter in which I have used your own sighting of Shuck running across the water (as I promised I would) as part of my novel. You have also inspired me re my next blog post (hopefully to go up online today or tomorrow) updating people on the progress of my novel, BLACK DOG. The day jobs (a mix of teaching and copywriting) have interfered a bit…but I definitely aim to have the novel completed by spring next year. Watch this space! Thank you again for your contribution – it has made a great chapter 🙂 (BTW There are other existing accounts of Shuck – or similar – not only running across the water but actually emerging from the sea. I’ll try to find time to do a blog post on that subject too…in your honour!) Cheers Simon 🙂

  6. Brogan says:

    Email me when you do!
    Brogan 🙂

  7. Eritia says:

    Hi Simon !

    I am looking for the book Beast of Flanders by Vincent Menten, I’ve looked in royal archives et cetera, but no result.
    Do you have any idea where to find it or do you have a copy of the book?

    • Simon says:

      hi eritia. thank you for posting. my best advice would be for you to contact dr simon sherwood of northampton university (CSAPP dept) in the UK. (his email/contact details are online). he is the UK’s leading authority on black dog sightings/mythology – so if anyone can help you find the book, i suspect he can. i only briefly came across ‘oude rode ogen’ in passing (as my book is only about the UK’s black shuck) so i am not much help in that regard, i’m afraid. i did look around the internet for you but without any luck. do try dr sherwood – and do please let me know how you get on 🙂 atb simon

      • Theo says:

        My father owned a rare bookstore for many years in Antwerp and I asked him about this book called Beast of Flanders and if he knows of it. He told me that people had come in on occasion asking if he had it or where to get a copy. His understanding is that the book was never published. That the original manuscript is said to be hidden in the cathedral in Mechelen. It is said to have been again handwritten by a nun in the1800’s and that it was this copy that was used as punishment for bad school children. The children were to hand write it in its entirety. He does not take much belief in the legend of Oude Rode Ogen saying it was a boogeyman created to make children behave. But also said he knows many people do still keep a candle lit in the window on certain nights to ward off the beast.

        • Simon says:

          hi theo. many tx for posting 🙂 this sounds a fascinating tale. in fact, it is perfect as the basis for a short story methinks! may well use it as inspiration for a future (gothic horror) short story, if that’s ok? cheers simon 🙂

  8. Dust says:

    Hello Simon! Just thought I’d share my own experience with strange ‘Black Dogs’. Bout 8-9 years ago in Cambridge, I was walking home from town in the early evening cutting through a short cut thru a Close which had a T-junction at the other end. Turning right towards the back streets and home, I took a passing glance across the road to my left and there was this black furred animal with glowing eyes, I couldn’t believe what I had seen as a feeling of dread and horror overwhelmed me followed by a ‘flight’ response. I started to run 10-20 yards but when I glanced back again to see if if it were following me it had vanished. I hurried back home pretty promptly after that and I’ve never seen anything like it since, not sure to be honest that I would want to see it again neither! Frightened the life out of me!

    • Simon says:

      hi dust. very many tx for sharing this – and apologies for my delayed reply. a spooky experience indeed – and, as with some other encounters reported on my blog, I am going to co-opt your experience as a scene within my novel BLACK DOG! 🙂 hope you like it when it eventually appears (still writing over the summer!) cheers simon 🙂

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