Dogs you wouldn’t want to meet in a dark alley or on a lonesome moor
By Kim Campbell Thornton
Andrews McMeel Syndication
The Wild Hunt. Gabriel hounds. Black Shuck. The Baskerville Hound. Fluffy.
Any devoted Harry Potter fan knows Fluffy, the fearsome three-headed dog who guarded the philosopher’s stone in the first volume of the Potter saga. Fluffy, purchased by Rubeus Hagrid from “a Greek chappie,” is a not-so-subtle reference to Cerberus, the canine guardian of the gate to Hades, the Greek underworld. Cerberus was also said to have been the companion of the Greek goddess Hecate, who ruled the night, the moon, magic and witchcraft.
Spectral or supernatural dogs have been featured in mythology for millennia. In Egyptian lore, the dog-headed god, Anubis, weighed the hearts of the dead to determine their fate in the underworld. He was thought to protect graves and cemeteries and, later, to escort the dead from life to afterlife.
The connection of dogs to death and the afterlife isn’t limited to Egypt and Greece. A host of ghost dog tales arose in medieval northern Europe. Stories of spectral canines are found from Scandinavia to Germany to France, but especially throughout Great Britain.
The hounds of the unearthly Wild Hunt may be the best known of these ghostly dogs. Known in Wales as the Cwn Annwn, the white hounds with red ears — a coloration that symbolizes their otherworldly nature and their association with death — run wrongdoers to earth as well as escort souls to the next world. Legend has it that they run only on certain nights throughout the year, including All Saints’ Day on November 1, Christmas and New Year’s Day.
The vision of a phantom black dog foretells death in many parts of Great Britain. One such nocturnal canine apparition is the Barghest, a black dog with red eyes who haunts lonely byways, preying on unfortunates who come his way, and foretelling death by lying across the threshold of the doomed person’s home.
Another ghastly dog who haunts the British countryside is Black Shuck. The shaggy black dog with saucer-size flaming eyes roams East Anglia. Legend has it that seeing him is a precursor of bad luck or death by the end of the year.
Some black dogs have a more benevolent reputation. The Gurt, or Great, Dog of Somerset is a benign canine whose role is to protect children. And Jo Ashbeth Coffey of Devon, England, recalls the time she was living in Berkshire and saw a large black dog on a bend in the road as she was riding home on her motorbike.
“The next day I slowed down right at that corner remembering it, and just as well. As I came around the corner there was a black horse in the middle of the road. At normal speed, it could have killed us both,” she says.
The spirit dogs of folklore have leaped into pop culture. One of the earliest, of course, is the hound of the Baskervilles, made famous in the eponymous Sherlock Holmes story. Holmes creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle may have been inspired by a sinister West Country phantom known as a yeth hound.
More recently, a Scottish deerhound (dyed black) played Padfoot in the movie “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.” Potter author J.K. Rowling may have adapted the notion of Padfoot from the legend of a black dog in the West Yorkshire area known as Padfoot, who was benevolent if offered kindness. In “Prisoner of Azkaban,” Padfoot is the canine form of shape-shifter Sirius Black.
While black dogs have a fearsome reputation in myths and legends, those of us who live with them know the real truth that’s out there: They are our sweet and soulful companions both in life and in memory.