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What’s a Black Dog?

What’s a Black Dog? Well, not dogs. Not really. It’s clear from descriptions that they are something else, some variety of spirit that sometimes takes other forms in addition to dogs.

This is the name of an apparition or cacodemon, that has sorely frightened many people in the neighbourhood of Woodbridge. It sometimes assumes the shape of a dog ; and gives chase to those whose alarm compels them to run (Lincolnshire, pg. 85)

a spectre which takes the form of a bear or black dog, with large flaming eyes as big as saucers, and whose appearance is a sign of death.(East-Riding, pg. 40)

What is a Boggart ? A sort of ghost or sprite. But what is the meaning of the word Boggart ? Brand says that “in the northern parts of England, ghost is pronounced gheist and guest. Hence har-guest, or bar-gheist. Many streets are haunted by a guest, who assumes manystrange appearances, as a mastiff-dog, &c. It is a corruption of the Anglo-Saxon gast, spiritus, anima.” Brand might have added that bar is a term for gate in the north, and that all the gates of York are named ” bars,” so that a bar-gheist is literally a gate-ghost ; and many are the tales of strange appearances suddenly seen perched on them top of a gate or fence, whence they sometimes leaped upon the shoulders of the scared passenger. (Lancashire, pg. 49)

by remembering how its tutelar spirit or Boggart could assume at will the shape of a rabbit, dog, bear, or still more fearful form.(Lancashire, pg. 55)

He had the power of appearing in the form of any quadruped, but usually chose that of a large black dog. (northern counties, pg. 275)

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Where are they?

In short, everywhere. I’m sure most cultures have some form of dangerous spirit-dog. But the ‘classic’ manifestation, or at least the one I’m most familiar with, is English. And they show up all over England, with different names and somewhat different attributes. In some places, they specifically haunt graveyards. In others, you only see them on the roads at night. The embedded map below shows named places with some kind of Black Dog story. Rather than trying to find an individual road mentioned in an account from the 1800s, I’ve just pinned the overall area that GoogleMaps showed me. This doesn’t mean that the blank areas don’t have any Black Dog stories. It just means that I haven’t seen any yet.

What do they do?

Different things. Sometimes they’re just omens of death. Sometimes they only seem to frighten people. Sometimes they actively attack people. Or at least harass them until specific things are done. It just varies by area.

and phantoms of the same breed are said to prowl about lonely plantations, by-ways, and waste places to attack anyone passing, (Lincolnshire, pg. 53)

A bah-ghaist or bar-gest … is a spectre which takes the form of a bear or black dog, with large flaming eyes as big as saucers, and whose appearance is a sign of death. (East Riding, pg. 40)

Be this as it may, the barguest, like the church-Grim is a harbinger of death to those who happen to hear its shrieks in the night ; for they are not audible except to people ‘ whose times have nearly come.’ (North Riding, pg. 127)

The Gabriel hounds, as they call them in Durham and some parts of Yorkshire, are described as monstrous human-headed dogs, who traverse the air, and are often heard though seldom seen. Sometimes they appear to hang over a house, and then death or calamity are sure to visit it. (Northern Counties pg. 129)

Still good boys?

Yes, when they take the form of dogs. And aren’t attacking people. The church-grim for example is sometimes portrayed as benevolent, or at least benign. But do not pet. And definitely don’t boop the snoot.


County Folk-Lore Vol. V. Lincolnshire. Collected by Mrs. Gutch and Mabel Peacock

County Folk-Lore Vol. VI. East Riding of Yorkshire. Collected and Edited By Mrs. Gutch

Lancashire Folk-Lore: Illustrative of the Superstitious Beliefs and Practices, Local Customs and Usages of the People of the County Palatine. Compiled and Edited by John Harland, F.S.A. and T. T. Wilkinson, F.R.A.S.

Notes on the Folk-lore of the Northern Counties of England and the Borders by William Henderson

County Folklore Vol. II. North Riding of Yorkshire and the Ainsty. Collected by Mrs. Gutch.

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