The Skeletal Remains of a Hellhound in the Folklore of Devil Dogs
Aksel Waldemar Johannessen, "Dog and Raven" (1918), woodcut on paper (via Wikimedia)
Last year DigVentures, a London-based archaeology group, unearthed the bones of a gigantic dog from a shallow grave, about 20 inches deep, in the ruins of Leiston Abbey, Suffolk. Archaeologists estimate that the canine stood more than seven-feet-tall on its hind legs and weighed about 200 pounds. DigVentures researchers believe the canine bones likely date to when the abbey was active, so are likely medieval, but they are awaiting confirmation from testing.
English folklore is full of stories about a supernatural dog, known as Black Shuck, that prowled the countryside around Leiston Abbey about 500 years ago. Due to the size and date of the bones, many have speculated that these large canine remains could be connected to the legend of Black Shuck.
Leiston Abbey (photograph by Ian Patterson)
A Middle Ages wood cut of a rabid dog (via Wikimedia)
Hellhounds in Mythology
A hellhound, or devil dog, is a supernatural animal found throughout mythology, folklore, and fiction. Hellhound legends date back to ancient times and sightings and attacks have been reported throughout history. Hellhounds tend to have black fur, glowing eyes, supernatural strength or speed, large teeth, long claws, and sometimes multiple heads.
Devil dogs guard the entrance to the Underworld and the grounds of graveyards, they also hunt lost souls and protect a supernatural treasure. In European folklore, seeing a hellhound or hearing it howl is seen as an omen of doom or the cause of death.
Hellhounds show up in many cultures and have many names including the three-headed Cerberus in Greek mythology, Anubis in Egyptian mythology, Garmr in Norse mythology, Perro Negro in Latin America, and Black Shuck in England. Most recently hellhounds were used in fiction in The Hound of the Baskervilles, the Grim in the Harry Potter series, and in movies like The Omen and Cujo.
Black Dog of Bungay, Suffolk on a street light (photograph by Keith Evans)
The Folklore of Black Shuck
Black Shuck, Old Shuck, Old Shock, or Shuck is the name given to a medieval hellhound in England. This devil dog was said to have black fur, flaming eyes, sharp teeth and claws, and great strength. Locals described sightings of Black Shuck in graveyards, forests, and roadsides. Shuck’s most famous attack happened on August 4, 1577 at two churches in Blythburgh and Bungay in the English countryside.
During a storm on August 4, 1577, Black Shuck reportedly broke through the doors of Holy Trinity Church in Blythburgh, about seven miles from Leiston Abbey, and charged through a large congregation. It was during this attack that he allegedly killed a man and a boy, before the church steeple collapsed through the roof. As the hellhound departed, he left claw marks on the north door of Holy Trinity Church that are supposedly still visible today.
Holy Trinity Church, Blythburgh, Suffolk (photograph by Robert Cutts)
St Mary's Church, Bungay (photograph by William Metcalfe)
The same day, Black Shuck was rumored to have rampaged through St Mary’s Church in Bungay, about 12 miles away, which was described in A Straunge and Terrible Wunder, a pamphlet written by the Reverend Abraham Fleming in 1577:
“This black dog, or the divel in such a linenesse (God hee knoweth al who worketh all,) running all along down the body of the church with great swiftnesse, and incredible haste, among the people, in a 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 somuch that even at a mome[n]t where they kneeled, they stra[n]gely dyed.”
Title page of Rev. Abraham Fleming's account of "Black Shuck" — "A straunge, and terrible wunder" — at the church of Bungay, Suffolk in 1577 (via Wikimedia)
Though musing about the earthly remains of a legendary creature or cryptid is always fun, this giant skeleton recently found at Leiston Abbey is likely the remains of an abbot’s faithful canine companion or hunting dog. At best, the sightings of this huge, domesticated dog by superstitious people may have sparked the rumors about Black Shuck.