Monday, 2 March 2009

Le Chien Noir

Winston Churchill, that great wartime prime minister, suffered terribly with depression. He called it The Black Dog. When the dog was upon him he was almost unable to move, so great was the weight of depression upon his shoulders. Commentators have pointed out that any politician of our present age who suffered similarly would be unlikely to make high office, so it's probably just as well that parliament in the 1940s was rather more accommodating.

If you trawl the internet (as I'm sure some of you do some of the time!) you'll find a good many references to the black dog of depression. But what you'll also find is a very different kind of black dog. I'm talking about the spectral hounds that seem to be very common in Britain, including Sussex, my new home county.

These canines are generally very large, albeit some apparently have the ability to change their size, if not their shape. They are often described as having glowing eyes, very large eyes, very large heads, more than one head, and sometimes no head at all. They also have the rather worrying ability to disappear and then re-appear somewhere else entirely, especially if you happen to be passing by that somewhere else when they do their re-appearing act!

Black dogs can appear pretty well anywhere, but are commonly encountered at crossroads (a place of burial for witches and murderers), footpaths, roads, graveyards, and in areas where ancient barrows and burial mounds are common. These latter locations suggest that the dogs are attracted to ley lines, the supposed ancient lines of power that criss-cross the country and supplied our long-dead ancestors with spiritual energy.

Perhaps not unexpectedly, to see a black dog portends the death of the viewer or of a close relative. In Peterborough in the 16th century a black dog somehow managed to wring the necks of a number of parishioners in two churches, and set fire to a similar number. But not all are so homicidal; tales are also told of spectral hounds that have protected travellers or saved them from harm.

This being Britain, you would not, of course, expect black dogs to be Dogs. Curious names for them abound. Here in Sussex, they are generally referred to as Witch or Wish Hounds. But elsewhere you may be unlucky enough to encounter Black Shuck, Barguest, Guytrash, Yeth Hounds, Shriker, Black Skeff or Moddey Dhoo.

Just south east of the village of Ditchling in Sussex, a headless dog haunts an old 'corpse road'; a track along which coffins were taken to church for burial, giving rise to the suggestion that this particular beast may be a guardian of the dead. And at a wood near Henfield, tales have been told of a dog the size of a calf with flaming red eyes, albeit it is believed to be an invention of local smugglers, who wanted to keep prying eyes away from the wood where they stored their booty!

I've only just started researching the subject of these nice doggies, so I don't know whether they appear in folklore elsewhere in the world. All I will say is, if you should happen to be out walking when you encounter a black labrador the size of a horse, with six heads, two tails and fiery breath, do yourself a!


Raph G. Neckmann said...

I think Hals, our neckshund, would frighten it away, Chris!

The black dog within is harder.

I would have expected people to be more accommodating these days rather than narrower! What greatness could they be missing out on?

Moley Willows said...

See that's the nature of the black dog, the one on the outside you can run from; the one on the inside you just hope doesn't bite you or pee on the carpet.

Madame DeFarge said...

I shall bear this in mind the next time I am wandering around the Peak District or Westminster. Especially when emerging from the Speaker, several gins to the wind.

willow said...

The thought of the headless ghost dog gives me the absolute collywobbles!

Abraham Lincoln battled The Black Dog, as well.

chris hale said...

Raph - you'd like to think there was a more enlightened attitude to depression now, but I fear not.

MW - Absolutely. We just need to housetrain those spectral hounds!

MDF - Are we talking the Rt Hon M. Martin, MP...or a pub?

Willow - Yes, I've heard that about Lincoln before. Strange how greatness and depression often seem to go hand in hand.

Derrick said...

Hi Chris,

My neighbour has two black labradors and the farmer has one! Now, I'm not going to be able to go out without being armed with all sorts of talismans - just in case!

That's a depressing thought!

Comedy Goddess said...

I was traumatized by the movie Kujo, when I saw it as a child. I had always thought of the St Bernard as big furry softie until Hollywood ruined that for me. And then they marketed Beethoven, the smart St Bernard, and I forgave them.

I think whomever started those rumors of spectral hounds were indeed the ancestors of the Hollywood fear mongers. Yup.

chris hale said...

Derrick - Probably the only talisman you'll need is a decent pair of running shoes. Failing that, a pocketful of doggy chews should keep even the most devilish dog occupied!

CG - I never saw Cujo, fortunately. But it's not just the big dogs you have to look out for. There are some pretty vicious chihuahas and pomeranians out there.

Jeane said...

point taken! yikes!

chris hale said...

Jeane - yikes indeed!