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Black Shuck : an exploration of the loveable demon in our collective unconscious

As I lay here in bed listening to the howling winds come gailing in from across the North Sea, it is no wonder the people of Norfolk mythologised this environment long ago. Strong winds that bring the freezing cold do not always sound so menacing - but a giant, rabid dog on the hunt might be frightening enough to keep you safe indoors.

The Black Shuck, like other cryptids, has been known by many names at this point. Within England alone, different regions have produced a multitude of variants; sometimes our canine friend is simply known as Old Shuck or Shuck Dog, but sightings of a similar beast have given us names that include Moddey Dhoo or Mauthe Doog on the Isle of Man[1], Gwyllgi in Wales[2], the Padfoot of Wakefield[3] and we also have the benevolent Hairy Jack of Lincolnshire[4].

'The Grim', Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, 2004

Due to folklore’s origins of oral traditions, the scent of many wonderful variants are trails that get quickly muddled and crossed. If anyone can find a localised example of a Snarleyow[5], then please do let me know! (And truly, a fabulous word that needs to make a comeback somehow).

Folklorists and folklore enthusiasts have been tracking the pawprints of the Black Dog since the dawn of its first sighting, and now I begin to wonder if there is anything I could possibly add to the current discourse.

An afternoon of mining the internet on Black Dog mythology can lead you to incredible wells of information and projects dedicated to its presence. My discovery of the Folklore Tapes were a delight, as was the meticulous research of Shuckland.

What an honour it is to live in a place identified with this twilight phantom dog.

'Spectre-Hound', Folklore Tapes, 2016

The Black Shuck is a fascination of horror and an indelible mark on the psychological landscape of East Anglia. Accounts of the Shuck still get reported and categorised for research, but I am mainly concerned with the essence of such claims; the ways in which the legend feeds itself and the understanding of our shared consciousness and collective memory in this area.

Yes, out of all the Black Dogs, it seems like Old Shuck is explicitly the charming ghoul character of East England. It seems to be generally accepted by the Shuck community that the derivation of the Shuck’s name comes from Old English, scucca or sceocca meaning Devil[6]. The Shuckland website also suggests the colloquial term shucky as in shaggy. Not so agreed upon, is its origin story. Even the most quoted description of the beast has been pulled apart, analysed, and debunked in several ways[7].

He takes the form of a huge black dog, and prowls along dark lanes and lonesome field footpaths, where, 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. Should you never set eyes on our Norfolk Snarleyow you may perhaps doubt his existence, and, like other learned folks, tell us that his story is nothing but the old Scandinavian myth of the black hound of Odin, brought to us by the Vikings who long ago settled down on the Norfolk coast. Scoffers at Black Shuck there have been in plenty; but now and again one of them has come home late on a dark stormy night, with terror written large on his ashen face, and after that night he has scoffed no more.[8]

Misinterpretations of Dutt’s poetic and fanciful excerpt is largely responsible for the spread of false information that has added to the mystery of the Shuck over the years. The reference to Odin’s black hound has largely been ruled out due to very little evidence of Viking mythology having significant impact upon the existing population[9]. Shuckland’s Mike Burgess, mentions Patricia Dale-Green’s 1966 publication, ‘Dog’ and offers a quote on his website firmly rebuffing the Viking influence, stating it as “untenable – at least from an historical and geographical point of view – for dog-ghosts appear prolifically in parts of England uncontaminated by Nordic beliefs.”[10]

The prevalence of spectral dogs across the world are also strong arguments for the independent development of the British Shuck.

'Inugami' from the Hyakkai Zukan, Sawaki Suushi, 1707

Even in the realm of contemporary imagination, we see continuous reinventions of paranormal dogs. Annie Proulx’s novel The Shipping News is set in the unfriendly landscape of Newfoundland, where the recurring sighting of a white dog with red eyes appears both in waking and dreaming life[11]. The symbol is used throughout to explore anxiety and paranoia in the different characters, and appears as a haunting apparition of the past permeating the present through generational patterns.

Mark Norman, folklorist and specialist in Black Dog research offers a particularly sound understanding of the cryptid’s origins within England. As we dig further into its historical and geographical beginnings, we can also uncover the deeper layers of its representation within the Western mind, and perhaps even more specifically the East of England.

Whilst being an accomplished researcher and writer, Mark Norman is also the host of the Folklore Podcast. In this episode, he has drawn on the research of Theo Brown and discussed the Wild Hunt – a well-known European piece of folk mythology[12]. Depending on the region, the legend of the Hunt varies but Norman states the fundamental similarities as being a group of phantom huntsmen on horses, accompanied by hounds storming across the land or sky. In all variants of the story, witnessing the hunt has a foreboding message that will usually end in death[13].

'The Wild Hunt of Odin', Peter Nicolai Arbo, 1872

He does attribute the Scandinavian Wind-God Woden as being associated with the Hunt, however he also supports the Shuck as a creature of Britain and the linguistic arguments of Anglo-Saxon mistranslations as a red herring[14]. The spread of Black Dog mythology was not through the Viking invasions but rather arrived in Britain during the Middle Ages with variant stories of the Wild Hunt that included King Arthur. Christianity amplified the demonic elements, sometimes including the leader of the pack as the Devil himself on the hunt for sinners[15].

Norman continues to talk about the two main categories of Black Dog that have developed; the benevolent type and the Barghest type. Our Black Shuck is largely that of the Barghest dog: – ominous as fuck and common in East Anglia. Furthermore, he denotes the Shuck as the most relevant to the Wild Hunt for two main reasons: it’s association with the supernatural realm and its link to meteorological phenomena such as thunderstorms and lightning.

The Barghest or Shuck always possesses monstrous attributes, unlike other Black Dogs which are quite literally, large black dogs. Black Shuck has been described as headless[16] and sometimes, he appears with only one eye as in Dutt’s description[17]. These unusual features firmly align Shucky as belonging to another world and considered alongside traditions like that of the hellhound or Cerberus.

'Kerberus' - 12 labours of Herkales, 530BC

The Hounds of Hell are often observed to be coming from either the earth or the sky, linking them to meteorological and geological conditions, typically storms or in rarer cases, earthquakes[18]. This reflects the stormy conditions of the Wild Hunt. Strange or dramatic weather events that stand out in the collective mind often form mythology, which can add further portent to Black Shuck’s spectral reputation.

One of the most infamous Black Shuck episodes in history surrounds such an event. Suffolk, the fourth of August, 1577 almost needs no introduction. A violent thunderstorm shook the little village of Blythburgh, and the Black Shuck bounded in through the Holy Trinity Church doors. A man and a boy were killed in his rampage up the nave that also caused the collapse of the church tower in through the roof[19]. Shuck left his calling card in the manner of scorch marks on the North door, still visible for the enthusiastic Black Dog buff to get a photo opp.

Weathervane at Bungay

Not too far away in the village of Bungay, the Reverend Abraham Fleming recorded in this wonderful pamphlet, “a straunge and terrible wunder” on the same day.

This black dog, or the devil in such a linenesse (God hee knoweth al who worketh all,) running all along down the body of the church with great swiftness, and incredible haste, among the people, in a visible forum and shape, passed between two persons, as they were kneeling upon their knees, and occupied in prayer as it seemed, wrung the necks of them both at one instant clene backward, in so much that even at a moment where they knelled, they strangely died[20].

These places are basically up the road from me right now. Although these storms are true events, these accounts are clearly superstitious events. The actual church records have no mention of a dog ghost and the church was most definitely struck by lightning[21]. Yet, this does offer us another “sky dog” to draw parallels with the Wild Hunt traditions.

Sky Dogs are common all around the world. In her mythopoetic works, J.K. Rowling has firmly planted the association between Black Dogs and Sky Dogs in the collective mind of popular culture with her rendition known as the Grim[22], the name most likely taken from the Church Grim[23]. Rowling’s Black Dog is later revealed to be an “animagus”; a man named Sirius Black. Most novice stargazers can tell you that Sirius is the brightest star within our night sky in the constellation of Canis Major. It is colloquially and fondly named the “Dog Star”.

In Chinese Astronomy, Sirius is known as the star of the “Celestial Wolf” or “Wolf Star” or “Heavenly Wolf”[24]. There is also a Chinese myth about the Tiangou, a dog-like creature. In an ancient text, the Jin Shu, a star called Tiangou is catalogued[25]. Some researchers believe this to be a record of the star now known as Tianlang, within the constellation Da Quon Zho aka The Greater Dog or Giant Dog constellation. This means the mythological Sky Dog Tianguo is potentially none other than Sirius[26]. The myths evolve further throughout Chinese history, eventually bringing us to the myth of Chang’e which has many different variants. In one, the moon is swallowed by the Tiangou dog creature, denoting an eclipse[27].

'Tiangou aka Tian Gou (Heaven Dog), the black sun-eating dog of China', David DePasquale, 2013

Throughout the history of Western mythology, the Dog Star has also been associated with ominous events. Homer’s Iliad mentions Sirius on the dawn of the notorious battle between Hector and Achilles[28]. He describes Priam, the legendary King of Troy, looking out over the Western gate where Hector waited for Achilles to approach.

Priam saw him first, with his old man’s eyes,
A single point of light on Troy’s dusty plain.
Sirius rises late in the dark, liquid sky
On summer nights, star of stars
Orion’s Dog they call it, brightest
Of all, but an evil portent, bringing heat
And fevers to suffering humanity.

Achilles’ bronze gleamed like this as he ran. [29]

Hellish sky dogs coming at us from all corners of the world in time. Could Black Shuck be connected to this unforgettable star that has captured the imagination of cultures far and wide? There may be no heavy evidence or obvious point of connection, but I see no reason why Dog Star mythology would not add to the mystique behind Black Dogs and their reputation over millennia.

Although Sirius is a brilliant white colour, scholars have recorded the star changing colour across the centuries by consulting ancient works from Greece and Rome, notably written by Ptolemy, Seneca and Cicero. They have also looked into Medieval manuscripts; all these Western sources describing the star’s colour as red[30]. Not unlike the eyes of our Shuck.

'Dog/Sirius', Matthew Chin, 2018

Ancient Chinese astrologers wrote many interesting passages, of little use to scientists, but mentioned an interest in the significance of colour:

If the Wolf Star…shows rays or horns, or shakes about, or changes colour, then there will be war; if it shows great brilliance, then weapons will be sought after…if its colour is yellow and smooth, there will be joy; if the colour is black, there will be sorrow.[31]

It is a superstition that all black dogs are ominous. A rather damaging one, as it has even resulted in something known as Black Dog Syndrome[32]. Dog enthusiasts and animal shelters have contended that there are higher rates of black dogs being euthanised as they are much slower to be adopted, if at all[33]. Professor of Psychology, Stanley Coren has suggested that the cultural ingraining of black creatures as symbols of ill-fate has formed, and continues to form, cognitive biases within that specific culture[34].

The colour black is undoubtedly synonymous with jolly old death. Yet in a greater sense, black speaks of the void, or a world before or outside of time. We can see this concept within indigenous art forms. The Maori of New Zealand see Te Korekore, the realm of Potential Being in the colour black. It represents the darkness from which everything emerged, and correspondingly, it represents the heavens[35]. This is an expansive, cosmic interpretation of the colour black that associates the absence of life with a feeling of openness and creation, as opposed to the crushing darkness of a disturbing or hellish underworld.

The Maori adhere to the white, red and black motif found virtually worldwide. It can be seen across Europe, embedded within fairy tales such as Snow White[36]. To create a magnificent, if a little bit terrifying, beast from beyond – utilising the colour black comes as no surprise. Perhaps exploring the relationship between humans and dogs may also hold some answers to the collective experience of the Black Shuck.

composite image of a panel of rock art discovered in Saudi Arabia, 4th Millennium BCE

As an Art Historian on paper, to continue writing this without the acknowledgment of animal’s visual documentation is almost criminal. Like storytelling, art can express our values and shared ideas with others and furthermore, how we were and how we are now.

The oldest depictions of dogs are agreed to be Pre-Neolithic works found carved into the sandstone cliff face in the Arabian Desert. They are approximately 8,000 – 9,000 years old. They depict scenes of dog assisted hunting strategies, showing our canine friends fighting off other animals and biting gazelles. Most noteworthy was the inclusion of what is believed to be leashes, or perhaps lines showing the connection between man and dog. Not only does it show that dogs were critical in hunting but that they were our deep companions. They have been portrayed as individuals, with different markings to show their unique coat patterns[37].

In the Western world, our connection with dogs has long been a positive one. They were our fellow hunters and this was the likely reason for their domestication[38]. They contributed their speed and ferocity, resulting in a very successful partnership.

Throughout our symbiotic relationship with dogs, we have not only utilised their skills for hunting but we also realised along the way their aptitude as sentry. With their superior sense of smell and hearing, they made excellent watchmen in the night and this role within society was transmuted into folklore, becoming spiritual guardians[39].

'The Shadow of Courage', Courage the Cowardly Dog, 1999

In Shamanic cultures and otherworldly lore, the dog as spiritual guardian is a rife motif. Bob Trubshaw discusses this deeply in his article, ‘Black Dogs: Guardians of the Corpse Ways”.

the Altaic Shaman encounters a dog that guards the underworld realm of Erlik Khan. When the Yukaghir Shaman follows the road to the Kingdom of Shadows, he finds an old woman's house guarded by a barking dog. In Koryak Shamanism the entrance to the land of the dead is guarded by dogs. A dog with bared teeth guards the entrance to the undersea land of Takakapsaluk, Mother of the Sea Beasts, in Eskimo Shamanism [1]. The custom of burying a dog and the skin of a favourite reindeer with a dead man was still current among Ugrian people of Siberia earlier this century [2]

This notion of dogs as spiritual guardians is not unlike the Church Grim within British Black Dog folklore. They act as psychopomps, leading and guiding souls whilst they occupy the liminal realms of the in-between, before reaching the Otherworld.

As somebody who has daily encounters with, what I deem, the Spirit World and as a practitioner of Shamanic traditions, aligning myself with Core Shamanism[40], it has been a wonderful experience of synchronicity to have been visited by a Black Dog of sorts. Since moving to the East Coast of England to get away from the drone of London, I have had multiple encounters in my Journey work with what I have identified as the “Wolfen Creature”.

This same entity has appeared to me in several forms; a shadowy wolf figure with red eyes, a grey wolf with the ability to fly, a ginormous black wolfen creature that I am able to ride around the mountainous landscapes of my psyche. I am certain it is the same creature each time, expressing itself in an array of different manners to deliver a particular message within the realm of each Journey, or to help me reach a certain place or state of being. We usually meet at a beach with a cave system – my axis mundi. Beaches are liminal places, neither earth nor water.

Theo Brown also comments on the status of spectral dogs as liminal guardians, remarking on

Roads. These seem to be the natural home of Black Dogs. I have at least 55 examples of these... In addition to the above, there are nine haunting bridges. Numerically it looks as though the emphasis is on the man-made road being guarded, rather than the natural stream.[41]

Mark Norman insists further that common haunts are the cliffs, fens and churchyards which represent a place of “liminal or boundaried state”[42]. Often, there is a particular dog connected to a stretch of road or crossroads, acting like a guardian, and that these are sometimes in connection to dream states[43].

It is clear that some Ghost Dogs are considered as protectors and guides. So, why have some developed to appear more monstrous in the collective unconscious than others, like the British Shuck or the Barghest? Theo Brown has also considered that the meaning of animals as a constant state of movement in response to human relationships[44]. Her findings saw that in modern folktales

people begin to identify these apparitions in terms of canine breed, using descriptors including “as big as an Alsatian” or “as big as a Newfoundland,” rather than simply ‘large black dog’[45]. Not only does this relation to real dogs make the ghostly Black Dog appear less ‘other,’ but it demonstrates humans’ changing relationships with dogs during the modern era—i.e. the nineteenth and twentieth century. Over this time, dog breeds increasingly became standardized [46].[45]

J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban creates a microcosm of England’s changing attitudes towards dogs. Sirius moves from being the deadliest omen to the figure of Godfather, personifying him as a misunderstood protector[46].

Interpretations of Ghost Dogs has largely depended on the religious outlook of each community. Sometimes seen as unclean and sometimes part of the family[47]. In the Folklore Podcast, Mark Norman discusses the cultural shifts that happen within folklore as stories become more localised and move with the times. Norman uses the example of the red eyes, sometimes as large as saucers, a very 12th Century British invention and sometimes green or yellow which is common in Germany, and other parts of Europe[48].

He states that in our culture today, we would be more likely to associate the motif with another cryptid, the werewolf. This may provide ample enough explanation into the appearance of my own Wolfen Creature, as I encounter it here in Black Shuck territory.


Do give the folklore podcast a listen! Mark Norman is perhaps the world’s leading expert on the Black Dog, and he provides an extremely concise and comprehensive look over the Black Dog tradition, outlining its most canonical stories. You can also purchase his book for a more in-depth study.

If you believe that you may have had an encounter with man’s phantom best friend, his database is thought to be the largest compilation of eyewitness accounts, legends and stories within the United Kingdom. I have stumbled upon two email addresses for him:

The first from an interview[49] and the second from the Folklore Society website[50]. Although the second seems a more reliable source, there is no harm in trying both.


[1]Waldron, George, The History and Description of the Isle of Man (2nd ed.), 1744, W. Bickerton, London, p.23. Scott, Walter, Peveril of the Peak (Vol.1), 1823, Pub. for the Trade, p.241-242. [2] Redwood, Charles, The Vale of Glamorgan: Scenes and Tales Among the Welsh, 1839, Saunders and Otley, United Kingdom, p.40-42 [3] [4] Rudkin, Ethel, ‘The Black Dog’, Folklore 49, 1938, p.111-131 [5] Dutt, William Alfred, Highways and Byways in East Anglia, 1901, MacMillan, London, New York, p.216. [6] [7] and [8] Dutt, William Alfred, Highways and Byways in East Anglia, MacMillan, 1901, London, New York, p.216. [9] [10] Ibid. [11] Proulx, Annie, Chapter 5: A Rolling Hitch, The Shipping News, 1993, Scribner, USA. [12] Brown, Theo, ‘The Black Dog in English Folklore,’ Animals in Folklore, J.R. Porter and W.M.S. Russell, eds. Mistletoe Series No. 9. Folklore Society, 1978, London. p.56-57. [13] [14] Ibid. [15] Ibid. [16] Ibid. [17] Dutt, William Alfred, Highways and Byways in East Anglia, MacMillan, 1901, London, New York, p.216. [18] [19] Trubshaw, Bob, ‘Black Dogs in Folklore’, At The Edge, 1996, originally published in Mercian Mysteries No.20 August 1994. [20] Ibid. [21] [22] Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Bloomsbury, 1999, London. [23] Trubshaw, Bob, ‘Black Dogs: Guardians of the Corpse Ways’, At The Edge, 1996, originally published in Mercian Mysteries No.20 August 1994. [24] [25] Stephenson, F. Richard, ‘Chinese and Korean Star Maps and Catalogs’, The History of Cartography, Vol.2. Part Three, Chapter 13; Celestial Mapping in East Asia, J.B. Harley and David Woodward, eds.1994, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, p.538. [26] [27] Ibid. [28] [29] Ibid [30] [31] Ibid. LTMY (Secret Garden of the Observatory), originally compiled by Yu Ji-cai of the Northern Zhou dynasty, revised by Wang An-li et al. of the Northern Song. Juan 14. [32] Quaile, Sheilagh, ‘ “The black dog that worries you at home”: The Black Dog Motif in Modern English Folklore and Literary Culture’, The Great Lakes Journal of Undergraduate History, Vol1. Iss1. Article 3. p.4. [33] Ibid. [34] Ibid. [35],It%20symbolises%20the%20female%20element.&text=Red%20is%20Papatuanuku%2C%20the%20Earth,the%20first%20human%20was%20made. [36] Hemming, Jessica, ‘Red, White, and Black in Symbolic Thought: The Tricolour Folk Motif, Colour Naming, and Trichromatic Vision’, Folklore 123, 2012. p310-329 [37] Guagnin, Maria, ‘Pre-Neolithic evidence for dog-assisted hunting strategies in Arabia’, Journal of Anthropological Archaeology, Vol 49, 2018. [38] Ibid. [39] Trubshaw, Bob, ‘Black Dogs: Guardians of the Corpse Ways’, At The Edge, 1996, originally published in Mercian Mysteries No.20 August 1994. [40] [41]Brown, Theo, 'The Black Dog', Folklore 69, 1958, p.175-192. [42] [43] Ibid. [44] Brown, Theo, 'The Black Dog', Folklore 69, 1958, p.175-192. [45] Ibid. [46] Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Bloomsbury, 1999, London. [47] [48] Ibid. [49],the%20Grim%2C%20among%20other%20names. [50]


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