Black Dog legends are common all over the world. One of the reasons may be that mankind and dogs have lived and worked closely together for thousands of years.
The dog has shared our fires at night, guarded our homes and worked for us during the day, herding or hunting. In many myths, dogs also carry out these duties at the edges, between worlds. You find Black Dog myths in Siberia, North America and all over Asia. Greek mythology also tells of the dog Cerberus, with three heads, which watches the entrance to the underworld.
In most stories black dogs foretell death or doom but, occasionally, they can be guardians of treasure. However, not all ghost dogs are unfriendly. In some stories they come back to guide or help their masters or others.
How did the myths begin?
The origins of the Black Dog legends in England have been lost in the mists of time. But they might have begun with the Saxons or Vikings. Their god Odin had a dreadful hound and they brought their tales and beliefs to England. In the poem 'Baldrs Draumar' there is mention of the hellhound:
Up rose Odin, the ancient gautr,
and on Sleipnir laid the saddle.
Downward he rode to Nifhel;
he met a hound that came from Hel.
But such dogs are also part of Celtic myths. In Wales they are known as Cwn Annwn, or Dogs of the Abyss or Cwn Wybir, Dogs of the Sky. There are also the Fairy dogs (Cwn Bendith y Mamau) a pack of small hounds, headed by a large dog. Their howl was something terrible to listen to and it foretold death. In Devon the spectral pack are called Yesh hounds, Yell hounds or Wish hounds.
Does this story have anything in common with other stories?
The Old Black Dog Inn, Uplyme
This black dog is far nicer than most. It brought good fortune to the farmer, which is unusual.
Black dogs are sometimes guardians of treasure, as in the story, although they usually guard it in a much fiercer manner.
Despite their terrible appearance and manner, they do not usually attack humans (other than frightening them rigid); instead they are foretellers of doom. In this story the animal made no attempt to attack the man but it made the atmosphere gloomy. The dogs are usually accompanied by fire and even this dog appeared by the fire.
However, rather than a hell hound, the dog seems to fit better the description of an unhappy ghost that cannot settle, due to a violent end or unfinished business, possibly the location of the hidden treasure. Why the dog wishes to help this particular farmer is unclear, perhaps he is felt to be deserving.
There are many stories of ghosts that cannot settle until they lead somebody to the place where they have hidden treasure or something important. Once the treasure is discovered, it seems the dog is happy to depart, or has been chased off by the iron poker, and no longer entered the house.
Whether the dog continued to haunt the area and is the same one seen in the lane near the inn, is unknown. This dog seems to have more in common with the normal hell hounds, except it does not seem to bring bad fortune. It is described as being very large with fiery red eyes.
Such hounds have the ability to frighten or chase away normal dogs. In Welsh myths, dogs cease barking and flee in terror when the Cwn Bendith y Mamau is about. In this story, mortal dogs were kept in at night, for several had disappeared under mysterious circumstances. The Black Dog, said locals, had terrified them to death.
Is any of the story true?
The haunted lane
This old story gives an explanation for the naming of the Black Dog Inn near Uplyme in Devon. The black dog seems to act as a spirit guardian of treasure and was perhaps used to explain the find of some old coins or unexpected wealth.
The farmer supposedly used the coins to purchase a house nearby, which he converted into a pub, naming it the Black Dog after the phantom.
As with most ghost stories, there have been sightings of a dog near the inn. The haunting appears to occur at midnight in Haye Lane adjacent to the inn, also known as Dog Lane.
One encounter with the creature occurred in 1856. The witnesses were a local couple, a nurse and her husband. She described the incident as follows:
"As I was returning to Lyme one night with my husband, down Dog Lane, as we reached the middle of it, I saw an animal about the size of a dog meeting us. 'What's that?' I said to my husband. 'What?' he said, 'I see nothing.' I was so frightened I could say no more then, for the animal was within two or three yards of us, and had become as large a young calf, but had the appearance of a black, shaggy dog with fiery eyes, just like the description I had heard of the 'black dog'. He passed close by me, and made the air cold and dank as he passed along...."
The last reported sighting of the black dog was in 1959, when a family saw it on holiday after visiting The Black Dog Inn!