It’s not clear where the popularity of the dog as a folkloric figure comes from. Could it be that this is simply because dog has been human’s companion for such a long time? Or should we look into mythology – perhaps it has something to do with Odin’s wolves, or with werewolves or with Cerberus, the guardian dog of the Greek underworld?
There’s a huge body of dog folklore in (early) modern Northwest Europe that centers on the animal as connected to demons, ghosts (often the dog is a demon or ghost itself) and portents of death. But they are also found as companions to (Romano-)Celtic deities on ancient sculptures. These aspects are what this article focuses on for now, but other aspects of the dog in myth and folklore will be added as my research progresses.
Ghosts and demons
The black dog has been sighted many times in folklore, especially in the English countryside. Dozens of stories about black dogs called ‘shuck’ or ‘shock’ (in fact a sort of demon) can be found in Suffolk. A black dog terrorized church-goers in 1577 during a storm.
Yorkshire has its on spectral dog, called padfoot* – a large, black dog with shaggy hair an huge round eyes. It follows people during nighttime and hinders them when they are traveling. Another apparation of padfoot looks more like a ‘black mastiff-type dog with eyes shining red or green’.** Padfoot may bring either luck or bad luck, depending on the circumstances. Just as other ghostly dogs, it is hard to determine where his story originates.
In the Netherlands too, many sightings of ghost dogs have been reported. For example, there was a dog in the Betuwe (central Netherlands) with glowing eyes and a fiery tongue, walking on its hind legs and rattling its chains. According to some researchers, there may be a connection with werewolves here. In the small town of Grave in Noord-Brabant, a dog walked around with a glowing key in its mouth, and in Oerle close to Eindhoven a dog as large as a foal would accompany travelers during the night. Also in Noord-Brabant, close to the Belgian border, a headless dog was said to wander about (this is not the only known sighting of a headless dog in the Netherlands, an I can’t help but wonder if it has anything to do with tales of the headless hunt).
Other large black dogs have been found throughout the Netherlands and Belgium – although sometimes the dog is actually white and small, such as a haunting spitz in Rijkevoort in Noord-Brabant.
In Groningen (northern Netherlands) there were dogs known as spoekgulers – ghost howlers. They were dogs with a yellow spot above their eyes, who could see evil. The name ‘ghost howler’is derived from the idea that such a dog would start to howl when it could see that someone would die.
Other names for ghost dogs in Groningen are borries, a large black dog with a short tail and eyes as large as saucers; the polderhond (‘polder dog’), a large black dog that dwells in water as much as on land; witte wind (‘white wind’) a small white dog that grows larger an is actually the devil in disguise; and ’t zwarte hondje (‘the little black dog) a black dog that walks along with travelers.
Going much further back in time, we find another role for the dog: some Celtic deities have this animal as a companion. Case in point is Nehallenia, a goddess who was worshipped on the westcoast of the Netherlands. Dozens of altars dedicated to her were excavated in the 20th century. They almost all have the same images of a seated goddess with several attributes. One of those attributes is a dog at her side. The meaning of this dog is not clear – it may be a chthonic (underworld) symbol connected to fertility and/ore watchfulness, although as with many symbols in Celtic art its actual meaning will probably stay unclear.
*Many Harry Potter fans who didn’t already know this will now think: ‘Aha, so that’s where J.K. Rowling got Sirius Black’s nickname from!’
** Griffiths, p. 54.
Griffiths, Bill. Aspects of Anglo-Saxon Magic. Anglo-Saxon Books, 2006.
Laan, K. ter. Folklore en Volkswijsheden in Nederland en Vlaanderen. Prisma, 2005.