Around Christmas time, my family always loved telling old stories and yarns of creatures in the hills and strange lights on the mountains. Going with tradition, I’ve decided to do just that with a series of blog post that’s will go into January. So pull up a chair and stay a spell. We’ll start with the Black Dog.
The folklore surrounding black dogs has a living legacy in the modern American backwoods that traces its roots back to old Europe, where the most famous was that spirit called Shuck.
Old Shuck was a spirit who was said to only appear either before a death or only to those who would soon die. Nothing could get him to leave as he must wait for his owner, Death, which is a trait shared with the white phantom dogs in Appalachia that either sit outside homes or follow folks around.
Both black and white dogs share the message of death in these hills but the lord surrounding them differs.
The black dog, I was always told growing up, was the best dog to have no matter the kind. The catch was they “carried” rabies and could turn in a split second. While I ain’t never seen it, many folks still believe it and will avoid them just as much as folks still avoid black cats here.
The black dog is thought to be the primary animal form of the Devil himself, the Hound. These large black spirit dogs are described as being larger than a normal dog, with glowing red or yellow eyes and smelling of rotten eggs. A name I have heard it called is Gert/Gurt (spelling it by the way it was pronounced to me).
The legends extend from the British Isles, where they often had different forms such as being headless, having human faces, or walking on their hind legs. I know what you’re thinking… I’d shit bricks too if I saw that!!
There are numerous stories, such as the the black dog that appeared in a church and took two lives in Bungay, Suffolk 1557.
Black dogs also have their benevolent side as well: stories of protecting graveyards, walking lost people out of a dense forest, or simply keep guard over people from thieves or other threats.
One story is of the Black Dog of the Blue Ridge:
“In Botetourt County, Virginia, there is a pass that was much traveled by people going to Bedford County and by visitors to mineral springs in the vicinity. In the year 1683, the report was spread that at the wildest part of the trail in this pass there appeared at sunset a great black dog, who, with majestic tread, walked in a listening attitude about two hundred feet and then turned and walked back. Thus he passed back and forth like a sentinel on guard, always appearing at sunset to keep his nightly vigil and disappearing again at dawn. And so the whispering went with bated breath from one to another, until it had traveled from one end of the state to the other.
Parties of young cavaliers were made up to watch for the black dog. Many saw him. Some believed him to be a veritable dog sent by some master to watch; others believed him to be a witch dog. A party decided to go through the pass at night, well armed, to see if the dog would molest them. Choosing a night when the moon was full they mounted good horses and sallied forth. Each saw a great dog larger than any dog they had ever seen, and, clapping spurs to their horses, they rode forward. But they had not calculated on the fear of their steeds. When they approached the dog, the horses snorted with fear, and in spite of whip, spur, and rein gave him a wide berth, while he marched on as serenely as if no one were near. The party was unable to force their horses to take the pass again until after daylight. Then they were laughed at by their comrades to whom they told their experiences. Thereupon they decided to lie in ambush, kill the dog, and bring in his hide.
The next night found the young men well hidden behind rocks and bushes with guns in hand. As the last ray of sunlight kissed the highest peak of the Blue Ridge, the black dog appeared at the lower end of his walk and came majestically toward them. When he came opposite, every gun cracked. When the smoke cleared away, the great dog was turning at the end of his walk, seemingly unconscious of the presence of the hunters. Again and again they fired, and still, the dog walked his beat, and fear caught the hearts of the hunters, and they fled wildly away to their companions, and the black dog held the pass at night unmolested.
Time passed, and year after year went by, until seven years had come and gone, when a beautiful woman came over from the old country, trying to find her husband who eight years before had come to make a home for her in the new land. She traced him to Bedford County, and from there all trace of him was lost. Many remembered the tall, handsome man and his dog. Then there came to her ear the tale of the vigil of the great dog of the mountain pass, and she pleaded with the people to take her to see him, saying that if he was her husband’s dog, he would know her.
A party was made up, and before night they arrived at the gap. The lady dismounted and walked to the place where the nightly watch was kept. As the shadows grew long, the party fell back on the trail, leaving the lady alone, and as the sun sank into his purple bed of splendor the great dog appeared. Walking to the lady, he laid his great head in her lap for a moment, then turning he walked a short way from the trail, looking back to see that she was following. He led her until he paused by a large rock, where he gently scratched the ground, gave a long, low wail, and disappeared. The lady called the party to her and asked them to dig. As they had no implements, and she refused to leave, one of them rode back for help. When they dug below the surface, they found the skeleton of a man and the hair and bones of a great dog. They found a seal ring on the hand of the man and a heraldic embroidery in silk that the wife recognized. She removed the bones for proper burial and returned to her old home. It was never known who had killed the man. But from that time to this the great dog, having finished his faithful work has never appeared again.“
Those that protect graveyards were called the Church Grim. In the British Isles it used to be a custom to have a dog be buried alive under a church to protect the cemetery from witches, thieves, and even the Devil.
One story collected in Lincolnshire by Ethel Rudkin is about the Bells Hope Boggart. Belle Hope was a farm where a nurse had been working. The children she had been caring for mentioned that she had a long walk home that night and wondered what she might do should the Black Dog Boggart appear. She told them playfully that she’d “put him in her pocket.” Later on her walk home the report says the Dog appeared and was running around her and saying, “Put me in your pocket! Put me in your pocket!”
Should you see one, Lord have mercy on your sole, keep away from it. Avoid crossroads, large fields, bodies of water, lonesome roads at 3am, and graveyards.
The Black Dog in Appalachia also has some of the same beliefs around it like the Black Cat. It was black luck for a black dog to howl during a wedding, which portended doom to the couple; bad luck for it to cross your path; if you saw a black dog walking away from you, it meant death cause it was “walking off with your soul.”
It’s fur, bones, blood and meat were also used to heal, much like the black cat. Grease from a black dog stewed and applied during the dark of the moon was an old cure for rheumatism. A more humane way was to sleep with the dog for three nights past Sunday (so starting on Friday) and the dog was said to absorb the rheumatism.
The blood of a black dog, taken from the tip of the tail was wiped over the doorway to keep out haints and other boggarts, a possible off branching of the black dog’s role as protector.
Aside from all of these tales, my family has never been fearsome of Black Dogs, physical or spiritual. You just gotta treat em right, “ain’t nothing wrong with ’em, best protector folks could have,” as mama said once when a neighbor came over and another neighbor had a black dog there. Bless her, she was from New Orleans so she was terrified of it, as well as our black cat.
In conjuring, carry the fur of a black dog taken from between the ears and none of your enemies can mess with you. Hair from the tip of the tail, as long as the tail is exceptionally long, will ensure you to be slick and lucky in all you go for.
Personally, I have had one encounter. I was walking down 11-E between Jonesborough and Johnson City some years ago around 3 am to the store. I kept hearing something following but when I look I didn’t see anything. I never saw the dog, only heard the pad pad pad of it feet and a growl; after that I just had a feeling of what it was. If you have your own stories about the Black Dog, please feel free to share them in the comments below!
Order Black Dog Folklore by Mark Norman
Herrick, Mrs. R. F. “The Black Dog of the Blue Ridge.” Journal of American Folklore 20 (1907): 151-52
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