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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.