Wednesday, 18 November 2020

Phantom animals to chill the blood - by Lu Hersey

As background research for a new book, I've recently been reading all about animal phantoms, signs and portends. And as dusk deepens (at only 4pm on a November afternoon) I'm about to light the fire in an attempt to convince myself these are mere folktales. But are they?

Let's start with the Beast of Bodmin Moor as a sort of intro. Over the years, there have been numerous accounts of sightings of a great black cat roaming the Cornish countryside - I've seen pictures in local newspapers (always distant and usually blurry), read stories of dog walkers whose poodles have been terrified by something much bigger than a domestic cat, and read a fascinating exercise book full of people's hand written accounts of Bodmin Beast sightings (kept in a cafe in Minions in Cornwall) from cover to cover. Urban myth, I thought. Highly unlikely there's anything out there. Then one night, driving back late across a stretch of empty Cornish countryside, I saw a fleeting shadow, something that took the shape of a giant feline leaping across the narrow road in the headlights. Far too big to be any normal cat - so fast it was there and then gone in the blink of an eye (which I was trying to keep on the road).  Even though my heart was racing as I drove on, I tried to rationalise what I'd just seen. The mind plays tricks on tired people, driving late, and they make shadows into shapes that aren't real. Hopefully. 

Not the Beast of Bodmin Moor - just a neighbour's idea of a gateway ornament. But it is huge (and very alarming at dusk...)

Which brings me on to Black Shuck, the ghost dog of the fens. Seen by many people over the last thousand years or more, Black Shuck gets about too - versions of this beast have been spotted over much of Northern Europe. Folkloric rumour has it that he could be one of Odin's spectral hounds, or even one of Odin's two wolves. (Odin was known to the Anglo-Saxons as Woden - as in Wednesday, originally Woden's Day). Others suggest this ghostly black hound is tied in with the Wild Hunt, when spectral hunters ride out for the souls of the living to drag them back to the underworld. Either way, he's considered an omen of death - and that makes him pretty damn scary. 

Here's an early (translated from Middle English) account of phantom black hounds from the Peterborough Chronicle, one of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, written in about 1127: 

'Let no-one be surprised at the truth of what we are about to relate, for it was common knowledge throughout the whole country that immediately after (Abbot Henry of Poitou's arrival at Peterborough Abbey), the Sunday when they sing Exurge Quare, many men both saw and heard a great number of huntsmen hunting. The huntsmen were black, huge and hideous, and rode on black horses and on black he-goats and the hounds were jet black with eyes like saucers and horrible. This was seen in the very deer park of the town of Peterborough and in all the woods that stretch from that same town to Stamford, and in the night the monks heard them sounding and winding their horns. Reliable witnesses who kept watch that night declared that there might well have been as many as twenty or thirty of them winding their horns as near as they could tell. This was seen and heard from the time of his arrival all through Lent and right up to Easter.'

But the most famous account of Black Shuck (shuck is derived from scucca, OE for demon) comes later, in August 1577, in the church of Bungay and Blythburgh in Suffolk. This is the contemporary account published by Abraham Flemming: 'A strange and terrible wunder wrought very late in the parish of Bongay: a town of no great distance from the citie of Norwich, namely the fourth of this August, in the yeere of our Lord 1577, in a great tempest of violent raige, lightning and thunder, the like wherof hath been seldom seene. With the appearance of an horrible shaped thing, sensibly perceived of the people then and there assembled' (Flemming obligingly drew his version of this horrible shaped thing 'in a plain method according to the written copye'.)

Anyway, he goes on to tell us: 'this black dog, or the divel in such a likenesse (God he knoweth al who worketh all) running all down the body of the church with great swiftnesse, and incredible haste, among the people in visible fourm and shape, passed between two persons, as they were kneeling uppon their knees, and occupied in prayer as it seemed, wrung the necks of them bothe at one instant, clene backward, in so much that even at a moment where they kneeled, they strangley dyed.'

Apparently there was a clap of thunder as the great dog raced into Holy Trinity Church and killed two of the congregation, simultaneously causing the church steeple to fall through the roof. The dog left great scorch marks on the north door as he left, which can still be seen to this day. 

So what actually happened? A whole congregation of people saw something terrifying - but what was it? One explanation might be ball lightning, or some freak weather phenomenon - but the legend of Black Shuck stuck, and he has since been seen by many lone walkers across the Fens. Last century, a midwife in the 1930s recounted being followed by a phantom dog as she cycled home through the lanes near Tolleshunt Darcy. The dog was huge, and silently kept pace with her however hard she pedalled, until it suddenly vanished. Black Shuck was also (reportedly) seen by several people after a man out walking fell into the River Great Ouse and drowned - and as recently as 1953 a sighting of a great black beast was reported by a woman returning from a dance near Cromer. So maybe Black Shuck is out there still? 

Folklorist Christina Hole points out in English Folklore that early humans saw little difference between people and animals, and believed they had spirits of equal importance. To this day, a great many superstitions are based on animal lore, and the appearance of various animals and birds is seen as significant, portends of things to come. Not all are bad - the cuckoo is welcomed as the embodiment of spring, and the wren, robin and swallow are (or were) considered lucky. But there are also many animals of ill omen, depending on where and when you see them - and Black Shuck definitely counts as one. 

Of course it's impossible to say whether the phantom animals of folklore exist or not. Along with Faeries, belief in such things was universal before the Puritans came along - and so people saw ghosts, faeries and otherworldly creatures all the time. There are far fewer reports of them these days, but that could simply be because when we no longer believe something exists, we no longer see it. Or we rationalise what we do see to make it something else, a bin liner flapping in the road, a waving branch, a shadow, optical migraine, freak weather. Or maybe people fear ridicule if they report what they see.

The shadow cat I saw in the headlights might simply have been plastic covering from a silage roll blowing across the road. A deer that my mind made cat-shaped. A monster created in my imagination. Such things our early ancestors made stories about around the camp fires.

Or maybe it was a massive ghost cat....the Beast of Bodmin Moor itself. I rather like the possibility.

Lu Hersey

Twitter: @LuWrites


Nick Garlick said...

I'm sure there are rational explanations for these sightings but I'd *much* rather believe in the supernatural. Fascinating post.

LuWrites said...

Thanks Nick - I'm thinking of writing a follow up post with any experiences of strange creatures other people have had that they haven't felt brave enough to share...yet! :)

Susan Price said...

My Dad met Padfoot -- the Midland version of Shuck -- as he walked home from work late one night.

LuWrites said...

Wow Susan - that's really interesting! What did he say about it? Might have to include that in the follow up post!

Susan Price said...

I wrote a story about it. It's in my collection, 'Nightcomers.' (
Dad used to tell us about it when we were spooked by ghost stories. It was a night of freezing fog. He didn't see Padfoot, but clearly heard the sound of a big dog padding along beside him, keeping pace. For a while, he was seriously scared -- Padfoot is a death omen. But then he figured out the truth about Padfoot... I would tell all, but don't want to spoil the story for anyone who might want to read it!

LuWrites said...

Hi again, Susan - the link takes you to Nightcomers 2 - before I buy a copy (looks fab!) is the Padfoot story in vol 1 or 2? (This will make a great Christmas present for my oldest daughter btw!)

Anne Booth said...