- Origin: United Kingdom
- Role: Harbinger
What is the Black Dog?
It is late at night, on the dark moors of Scotland. An old man is walking, the lapels of his jacket pulled closely to his neck. He hears a distant howl, and pulls the coat tighter. Then he hears it again, closer, almost on his neck. Too late for the protection of the jacket he turns and sees glaring red eyes in the fog. Frozen in place, he watches as a huge dog steps out. It stares at him for a moment with its blazing coals, then releases a blood-curdling howl. The man grits his eyes shut, then ventures a peek. The beast is gone. Breathing a sigh of relief, he rushes home, not wanting to face whatever else might step from the shadows. Tearing off his jacket, he rushes to tell his wife of the encounter he now only half believes he had. He finds her by the fire, staring, blank, dead eyes looking at nothing ever again. One more howl peals from outside, an acknowledgement, a lament, and a moan all wrapped into one mournful sound.
The most common Black Dog histories originate in the British Isles, and are associated with impending death or disaster. In addition to the British Isles, it has been seen in mainland Europe, the United States, and Latin America. Most of these appearances probably have their roots in colonization and expansion, as descendants from the Isles moved to new locations, much like the stories of the banshee, originally the Bean Sidhe in Ireland.
The Black Dog appears as a spectral animal, usually with a coat so purely black that it casts no sheen in moonlight. While this is the most commonly reported appearance, some versions are white, others are brown or yellow, and still others are spotted. They all have the characteristics of fiercely glowing eyes, sharp claws, and long teeth; an overall frightening countenance. They are larger than any dog, often the size of a calf or even a horse.
It is sometimes said to be a guardian rather than a harbinger of doom, often lording over a secret treasure. In this capacity it will generally leave people alone, as long as they in turn leave it alone and make no attempt to retrieve what the Black Dog is guarding.
In even more rare instances, it is said to be benevolent, helping people rather than attacking them or bearing warning of death or danger.
Unlike many creatures from myth and legend, clearly the Black Dog is not just one single entity, but instead more of a species. As such, different versions have sprung up in many different locations.
The instances of the Black Dog being benevolent are few, but he is said to be a personal guardian at time. In Somerset, England, he is said to watch over untended children, prompting parents to be more apt to allow their children to play unguarded.
Also in England, in Leeds, a Black Dog known as Padfoot has been known to be helpful to those who are kind to it.
In the United States, in the Hanging Hills of Connecticut, there is a Black Dog that is a good omen… if you only see him once. A successive encounter will bring sorrow, and then death on a third meeting.
There are a few cases where the Black Dog is seen as a guardian of ancient treasures, sites or lore. The most common instances of this type of Black Dog are in Scotland.
More commonly they are known as guardians of the dead, protecting them from being disturbed by the living that might seek to rob the graves. These legends originate throughout the United Kingdom, and extend into the United States, probably by way of colonization.
Death, Both Warned and Given
As mentioned, the most common form of Black Dog is the harbinger of death. There are so many instances, stretching from the United Kingdom, into Europe, and on into the United States. There are even a few such legends outside these areas, in locations that would seemingly have no connection to the original ones in the United Kingdom.
In some of the legends they foretell of the impending death of a loved one, like the Bean Sidhe. But the Black Dog can be a harbinger of death for the person who witnesses it as well. One would think his very appearance of being capable to cause someone to die of fright!
In some of the more insidious legends, the Black Dog is not a harbinger of death, but the deliverer. In 1577, a Black Dog appeared during a raging storm in Suffolk. He ran into a church, causing fear and panic. Upon passing between two parishioners who were kneeling on the floor and praying, they died immediately. Nearby, in the same storm, the Black Dog appeared in Blythburgh. This appearance resulted in the death of three people.
To this day the Black Dog haunts locations that have superstition or legend surrounding them. So whether this seeming species is a phantom, a demon, or a very real animal, his danger is ever-present in locations that are remote, steeped in superstition, or associated with death.