“‘To that Providence, my sons, I hereby commend you, and I counsel you by way of caution to forbear from crossing the moor in those dark hours when the powers of evil are exalted.’”
-Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Hound of the Baskervilles
The folklore of the British Isles is filled with its share of things that go bump in the night, but few are as ominous or as frequently sighted as the Black Hounds.
Seen as a portent of impending death, Black Hounds are most commonly witnessed at crossroads and places of execution. While dogs are man’s best friend, there’s a long tradition of them being associated with death. In Greek and Norse mythology, large canines guarded the entrance to the Underworld. Hecate, the Greek goddess of magic and the crossroads, was sometimes depicted with a dog head. Her Egyptian counterpart, Anubis, is well known for his jackal-headed visage. And in Ireland, the white Hounds of Annwn were part of the Wild Hunt and to see one meant that you were not long for this world.
While the legend gained fame when Sherlock Holmes poked his nose in, the legend of the Black Hound has been around since at least the Middle Ages. One story tells how, in the early twelfth century, Peterborough Abbey gained a new Abbot named Henry of Poitou. Shortly after his appointment, locals began seeing large, dark men riding black steeds at night and accompanied by huge Black Hounds. When this Wild Hunt had passed, a solitary Black Hound was always seen skulking around and looking for a victim on two legs.
Four hundred years later, in the little town of Bungay, a Black Hound appeared in the local church during a thunderstorm. He killed members of the congregation before being driven off. It was seen again an hour later at another church, where its claws left scorch marks in the church doors and several more people lost their lives. Shortly after all of this, lightning struck the bell tower of the church the dog first appeared in and killed two men in the resulting fire.
But don’t think this legend is trapped in the Middle Ages. In 1945, a boy reported seeing a phantom canine nine times. On the ninth sighting, a woman ran by him shrieking and then vanished. The boy, shaken, arrived home to discover that his sister had died while he was out.
Even today, the “snickleways” of York – narrow, winding footpaths and tiny streets that run through the city – are said to be haunted by a Black Hound. Tourists out alone at night report being chased through the maze-like pathways by a malevolent Hound that appears from nowhere and then vanishes again without reason.
I’ve only scratched the surface of Black Hound stories. It seems every remote village, ancient city, and broken down castle has its own Black Hound legend. These spread throughout the British Isles, with a few cropping up in France, Germany, and even Latin American. Rural areas in the United States that were settled by Scottish and Irish immigrants (such as the Appalachians) also see guest appearances in their local folk tales by these dark and mysterious canines.
What’s the truth behind Black Hounds? Are they really harbingers of death? Are they phantoms of some sort? Or, like so many folk tales, are they simple symbolism used to deal with the harshness of ancient rural life?
The next time that you’re walking down a dark alley or along a deserted and tree-lined street, and you hear a soft crunch of leaves or the scrabble of claws on concrete, maybe you’ll find out…
Brad C. Hodson is a writer living in Los Angeles. To check out some of his work, please visit the Bibliography page on this site.