In British mythology the dog is seen to be faithful, loyal seen to serve it’s master well. ‘Cabal’ was King Arthur’s trusty companion and symbolises how the animal has continued to be considered through to modern times whilst there are also many references to ‘Black Dogs’.
Perhaps the most powerful universal belief associated with dogs is that they possess the ability of second sight. It is said that a dog can see apparitions and sense if death is imminent. This may be because we now know that the dog can sense chemical changes in the air, and it is known that the human body undergoes such changes close to death. Evidence abounds that supports this with dogs howling when the owner is ill. It is understandable then that to hear a dog howling has long been considered to be a death omen, and the same is said to be true if the dog howls by an open door. Just before the moment Abraham Lincoln was assassinated his dog is said to have howled and run about the White House. The explorer, Lord Carnarvon, discovered Tutankhamen’s tomb; he died in Cairo and his faithful dog is said to have died within a few hours.
Should the dog howl when a baby is born, the child will have an unhappy life (although some believe that this signifies that the child will be susceptible to the influence of darker forces). Some believed though that the only reason why a dog had the ability of second sight was that in fact the dog had been possessed by a witch which had taken canine form to perform a deed, and that the dog would howl at night whenever a witch was nearby and attempting to transform into canine form.
Further examples of how howling indicates death to be present are numerous and many are universal. If one howls outside a property at night misfortune or even death was believed to be present. Even if the animal is driven away it is probable that it will return. The actual moment of death was thought to be marked by the dog howling three times and then ceasing. A barking dog too was usually a sign of misfortune if heard first thing in the morning, and in Ireland a rural belief in a strange dog digging up the garden was an omen of illness or death. In parts of America the sight of a dog sleeping with it’s tail laid out straight and paws upturned indicated that some bad news might be coming (the direction in which the tail pointed indicating from which direction the news would come).
On a positive note though there are many omens which are indicators of good fortune, health and even of weather change. In England it was believed that to have a strange dog follow you was a sure sign of good luck. Should a dog of any breed which is black and white cross your path on the way to a meeting it was strongly believed that this indicated a successful outcome. Avoid the couple that tries to run in-between the two if they have recently married as this will indicate many rows. An older belief tells that if a dog runs between a woman’s legs, then the husband might have cause to doubt the fidelity of the relationship. This may mean emotionally or in another aspect.
Be prepared for a heavy thunderstorm if a dog runs to hide under a table. Dogs that eat grass indicate a change in the weather, whilst a dog that scratches for a lengthy amount of time indicate that rain is on the way. Some believe that a dog rolling on the ground also was a sure sign of a need to reach for an umbrella.
The expression ‘Man’s best friend’ though has perhaps developed as a result of the belief that a dog is supposed to be able to distinguish between friend or foe. Evidence of this can be seen in the dog’s behaviour; if the tail wags there is no threat, and obviously growling or backing away from a person indicates some form of disturbance or malice.
One famous cure for a hangover named the ‘Hair of the Dog That Bit You’, has gained notoriety as a somewhat questionable medicinal cure today. The essence of the cure is to relieve the thumping awful headache and pain by drinking another tipple of the same type of alcohol if you have woken-up suffering after a rather indulgent drinking spree the night before. The origin of the expression stems from a belief that the most effective way to cure a bite from a mad dog was by binding the wound but not with a form of liniment. The idea centred on two main routes; one could either take hairs from the dog and eat them with a slice of bread and some rosemary (the dog having been killed for it’s actions), or bind them together with herbs in a dressing and lay this on the wound. By using the very thing that caused the pain it was thought that this would heal the wound in much the same way as today’s actions. Frying the hair with rosemary and placing this on the wound was another version.
Traditionally in Germany a black poodle was the symbol used on gravestones for people of the clergy who had in some way found the religious codes of practice too difficult to maintain. Why the breaking of vows was marked with this specific symbolism, of the poodle, is unknown and merely a point of supposition, but the canine associations are mixed. Perhaps it was believed that the possibility of firm belief was denied to them during life and therefore the opportunity for second sight, an ability thought to be associated with dogs was given only after death. The poodle has been associated with the French Court of the eighteenth-century where it is clear that dressing to impress was order of the day. The superficiality of this style of dress was further developed in the grooming of the dogs kept as pets within the courts, the poodle being one of the most popular. The shallowness associated with the style could be seen to be connected with the lack of faith for the same reasons, all show but no depth. This image is still the point of much discussion.
Dogs, being able to sense death close-by were also believed to be able to see earthbound spirits and ghosts, and this can be sensed when a dog snarls. Visions of dogs have also been seen and are indeed famous the world over commonly known as ‘spectral black dogs’. These dogs normally have flaming red eyes and are known as servants of the Devil. What seems to be common to all the sightings is that the person being hunted initially seems unaware of their presence until they actually meet.
Horror stories indicate that the victim is often aware of them much sooner. They were thought to be most common in country lanes and in areas of wilderness in the eighteenth and nineteenth century. Reports alleged that the hounds appeared to be restricted within an area as if bound by invisible walls, hedges, or roads. Perhaps one of the most famous is the ‘Hound of the Baskervilles’ by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The headless ‘Yell Hounds’ are alleged to have influenced his writing, said to appear only during twilight hours. These hounds were thought to be hunting either a person or a spirit, some believe it was the Devil. Yet some believe the quick moving hounds it is the Devil himself who is controlling the hounds, in some cases the huntsman. The idea of the hounds being out on a hunt is often an occasion associated with ‘black dogs’ also known as ‘fairy dogs’ (also known to lead people to safety on occasion). Contemporary conjecture indicates that such sightings or hauntings of black dogs accompany a ‘wild hunt’ which can be seen at key times of the year and some believe only on ley lines. The majority of apparitions have been reported in Cornwall (UK) and Devon (UK) but alleged sightings have been forthcoming across the British Isles. ‘Dando and his Dogs’ were believed to roam Cornwall and appear only on a Sunday. Dando was a priest fond of the excesses of life including alcohol and hunting. It is said that when he was once out on a hunt he shouted ‘go to hell for a draft’ when he couldn’t find sufficient drink to satisfy his binge. Suddenly a figure, thought to be the Devil, appeared and offered him a drink. Having accepted it Dando was said to have burst into flame and disappeared. ‘Gabriel’s Hounds’ in northern Britain are rarely seen but their howling has been reported on several occasions. Most of the hounds move silently and are unapproachable, perhaps because they instil fear into the observer so distance is crucial. Meanwhile in Norfolk, east England (UK) Graham Grant was said to have been shocked to see a large spectral dog in the early 1970’s. Before disappearing the dog was said to be behaving as though it was driven with an obsession as if searching for something on the coastline. Some believe that this is the same dog that was seen in 1938 by Ernest Whitehead.
The origin of folklore of the hunt may stem from ancient Greece when the Goddess Diana was associated with spectral hounds hunting for lost souls. Diana was believed to ride upon the back of a hound as she flew across the moonlit sky. According to ancient Welsh tradition ‘Cwn Annwn’ was a hunt believed to be an omen of death or severed disaster. The howling of the hounds was said to decrease as it approached and ultimately settled near a place or person having reduced in volume to more than the sound of a single dog panting beside a person. Once the hound had signalled the death of someone it would swiftly move away. As it did so the sound would begin to increase until the horrific howls were terrifying, eventually moving out of earshot.
A ‘full pack of huntsman’ were reported to be seen near Stamford, England (UK) with ‘many black hounds with hideous staring eyes’ in 1127 (February 4). In a collection called ‘Lost Gods of England’ by Brian Branston the hunt and hounds were reported to have woken the whole community with the ‘winding and sounding of their horns...the hunt kept up its wild tantivy’ until sunrise.
‘Boy’ was the name given to a dog once owned by Prince Rupert (1619 - 82), an animal that many believed was possessed by a ‘familiar spirit’, better known to most as a witch. The witch was thought to have ensured that Prince Rupert many successes in battles, and that the witch travelled in the form of a dog never apart from the Prince’s side (even in battle). Rupert was a cavalry commander to King Charles 1 and oversaw many of the battles in the Civil War. His first major defeat though happened on 1 June 1644 at Marston Moor...when the dog Boy was killed. It was believed that this defeat signalled that the dog was as they had suspected. Prince Rupert was not gifted with superior skills in battle but that he had a protector, a familiar, a witch to help him.
‘The Story of the Daisy Dog’
The events surrounding a Pekinese dog have provided the foundation for this story which took place in the sixteenth-century.
Only the Imperial Family of ancient China were permitted to own such a dog. To honour Queen Elizabeth 1 of England the Emperor sent a dog and bitch to England accompanied by a royal princess. It was seen to be a great gift but unfortunately they never reached their destination successfully. The dog was allowed to run free aboard the ship but the bitch was kept for safety in a beautiful intricately carved ivory box. Five puppies were born on the crossing which stopped first at France to transfer to a new vessel that would complete the last stage of the voyage. The crew believed the princess was a demon in disguise, and rather than a dog, they believed the box contained treasure and riches. As a storm blew the crew began to say that the princess has summoned up the turbulent seas and became determined to find out the truth. They entered her cabin and attempted to take the ivory box but one of the sailors was bitten. Shocked, the crew took revenge by casting the princess over the side of the ship and it was said that the storm began to subside as they approached the Cornish coastline.
After the storm the body of the dead princess was found together with the box by a local man at Land’s End. Amazingly the bitch was still alive but it was close to death. It watched as the man dug a grave and buried the princess, puppies and box together, laying daisies in the shape of a cross. He then placed the tiny dieing animal on top of the daisies, and there it passed away.
The ship made land and news of the supposed treasure spread fast. Many set out to look for it but a rumour began to spread. The man who had been bitten suddenly died and people, having found the grave of the princess, avoided going near for fear of the same fate.
The site of the grave, according to folklore, has been said to be haunted by the spirit of the dead dog. It is said to protect the grave and that to go near would result in a person being bitten and dieing as a result. A young boy was alleged to have been beach combing in the mid eighteenth century and stumbled upon a small piece of the ivory box. As he held it in his hands the boy is said to have received a bite, and later died. The bite was said to have been that of the ‘Daisy Dog’ forever sworn to protect the royal princess, the bitch and the puppies, meant only for the imperial Family and the Queen of England, Elizabeth I.
Mystery surrounds the unpopular Jan Tregeagle who was believed by the Cornish (UK) to have sold his soul to the Devil and as a result would have to suffer everlasting torment for his mortal sins relating to a range of crimes. He is documented to have lived during the early seventeenth century and earned his living as a magistrate. During his time in this work Tregeagle was said to have used his power to grow rich. Rumours spread about how he would take the land and money due to orphans, and that he had also murdered his wife and child. He was said to have given money to the local church not as an act of faith but to ensure a safe burial in the grounds of St Breock’s church. His spirit though was believed to wander the area despite all his efforts to buy a place in heaven. Stories abound of his appearance in the form of a spirit at court trials disputing ownership of land. One of his tasks beyond the grave was believed to be overseen by demonic hounds, known as the ‘hounds from Hell’ who served his master. The headless hounds stayed at his side during every moment. They were said to watch over him as he attempted to empty ‘Dozmary Pool’ on Bodmin Moor, reputed by the locals to have been bottomless. All he could use was a limpet shell that had a hole in it. Doomed to eternal struggle the hounds sat by. A storm blew so strongly one night that Tregeagle is said to have been terrified and in his fright took off across Bodmin Moor. The hounds chased him growling after their prey. He reached Roche Rock where there was a chapel. Hoping to gain sanctuary he ran towards it and smashed his head through the east window. Alas the hounds caught him and wrought their Hellish revenge.
‘Black Shuck’ was the name given to a dog believed to be a hound from Hell. Different versions of the hound’s appearance were reported. Said by many to have had a single eye in the middle of his forehead, the hound was seen roaming the mud-flats of East Anglia. Some said that the hound was headless, and some that rather than blood eyes Black Shuck had flaming yellow eyes which protruded from the skull. Both glowed intensely after dark terrifying anyone who saw it. The word ‘Shuck’ is believed to have originated from the ancient Saxon language which translates as the word used to name the ‘Devil’.
A rather sad and true story, set in Caernarvonshire, surrounds ‘Gelert’ who was a much beloved dog owned by the Welsh ‘Prince Llywelyn the Great’ in the thirteenth century. The hound always accompanied him on hunting trips, and oversaw the pack but one day he did not appear when the Prince blew the hunting horn to signal the hounds to gather. Gelert did not appear but on return from the hunt he appeared with blood dripping from his jaws. The Prince was alarmed and he immediately thought of his one year old son believing that the hound that he had trusted for so many years may have turned upon his only son. The cradle was covered with blood and the child was no-where to be found. Thinking that Gelert had savaged the child he felt betrayed and killed him by thrusting a sword through the dog’s heart. A child’s cry was heard and the Prince turned to find the child lying beside the carcass of a huge wolf. The Prince realising his fatal mistake buried the dog himself in front of the castle for all to see and raised a stone cairn to mark the spot. This public demonstration of his grief did not lessen his grief but the castle was renamed ‘Beddgelert’, which in the Welsh language means ‘The Grave of Gelert’.
When the Vikings invaded England many legends were brought and told of the ‘Hounds of Odin’. In coastal settlements in the north of England (UK) stories of these dogs abounded. They became known as ‘spectral dogs’, believed to take the form of terrifying spirits who had served Odin as war-dogs. Hounds of the ‘Otherworld’ or ‘Underworld’ have been frequently seen in British mythology to be represented by white dogs with red-tipped ears. They were accompanied by other dogs who form what was known as the ‘Wild Hunt’.