England and most of Europe were once covered in a lush green forest. The people that have inhabited the island at various times in history have always had a strong affinity with nature and so the fables and tales that echoed through the ages usually bore warnings and advice on how to survive and thrive in the wild brush, thickets, marshes and woods.
There is one such supernatural beast that roams these wild places usually under the cover of darkness and is known on every point of the compass. Throughout European history, dogs have been associated with death, such as the Welsh Cŵn Annwn, the Norse Garmr and Greek Cerberus. The Black Dog is no exception and is believed to be seen as a premonition of death, if while out for a stroll you should see or hear the Black Dog, assume your days are numbered. The earliest recorded reference comes from an Anglo-Saxon Chronicle in Peterborough Abbey around 1127:
Let no-one be surprised at the truth of what we are about to relate...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 the 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 and winding their horns.
In 1901, W.A. Dutt in his book Highways and Byways of East Anglia had this description and advice to share with those unfortunate enough to encounter the beast:
...although his howling makes the hearer's blood run cold, his footfalls make no sound. You may know him at once, should you see him, by his fiery eye; he has but one, and that, like the Cyclops', is in the middle of his head. But such an encounter might bring you the worst of luck: it is even said that to meet him is to be warned that your death will occur before the end of the year. So you will do well to shut your eyes if you hear him howling; shut them even if you are uncertain whether it is the dog fiend or the voice of the wind you hear.
A shapeshifter and often associated with the Devil by way of a hellhound, the Black Dog has menaced rural areas, lonesome paths and connecting roads, hills and the coast for centuries. One of its most common incarnations is that of Black Shuck who is native to the region of East Anglia, Shuck from the Old English ‘Scucca’ meaning ‘devil’ or ‘fiend’ is derived from the root word ‘skuh’ meaning to terrify or in modern terms ‘scare.’
The most chilling report of Black Shuck comes from Bungay and Blyhtburg in Suffolk, August 4th, 1577. The Parishioners were at prayer when Black Shuck burst through the doors of the Holy Trinity Church accompanied by a boom of thunder, mauled a man and boy to death then exited as the Church steeple collapsed leaving black scorch marks on the church floor that are there to this day.The incident was recorded in ‘A straunge and terrible wunder’ by Abraham Fleming, 1577:
This black dog, or the divel...running all along down the body of the church with great swiftnesse, and incredible haste, among the people, in a visible fourm and shape, passed between two persons, as they were kneeling uppon their knees, and occupied in prayer as it seemed, wrung the necks of them bothe at one instant clene backward, in somuch that even at a mome[n]t where they kneeled, they stra[n]gely dyed.
The Black Dog goes by many names Hairy Jack, Striker, Padfoot, Shug Monkey, Galleytrot, Capelthwaite, Gytrash and Oude Rode Ogen to name but a few. Despite its many incarnations, the Black Dog symbolises a similar supernatural warning throughout the British Isles and beyond and has entered popular culture to this day. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskerville’s is thought to have been inspired by tales of the Black Dog and later the 1981 horror film ´An American Werewolf in London´ which includes the infamous line ¨stick to the path...beware the moon¨ an ominous warning that perhaps cuts to the core of the Black Dog legend, don´t go venturing around the wild places at night. England, like much of Europe, was populated with wolves, boars, bears and other beasts that would be grateful of a lonesome traveler to snack on.
The origins of the Black Dog are hard to pin down, with versions appearing throughout Europe, Latin America and Islam. In Britain, it is a supernatural entity that has entered the folklore canon, with many a story exchanged in the local pub, around a campfire, or as the light fades on the homeward stretch of a walk across the moors. One thing is for certain if you encounter the Black Dog, offering the sandwich in your backpack won´t cut it, close your eyes and cover your ears to keep death from your door.