Story Tellers and Black Dogs

Artwork, copyright Andrew Price
  ‘The sun sank and vanished and darkness gathered quickly… seemed to rise from among the gravestones, to come ducking out from beneath the low-hanging branches of the yew.  Mr Grimsby looked down his road home and saw it dwindling, fading in darkness…From the north side of the churchyard came trotting a dog, a big dog, and it fell in at his side. It was a black and shaggy dog, large of head and large of paw, and its back stood as high as Mr. Grimsby’s wide waist.  It looked up at him in the dusk and its eyes…gleamed red.“Hello boy… What a fine fellow you are, aren’t you?"
          "I’ll see you home,” said the dog… ”A story to shorten the way, since you’re a man for stories… What story shall it be?”

          This comes from my collection of traditional stories, The Story Collector, which is now published with Smashwords - so you can download it to a number of devices, including Kindle.
          Mr Grimsby is an elderly, retired man who amuses himself by collecting old stories from his servants and neighbours.  Here, as he pauses for a moment to rest, he meets a Churchyard Grim. The dog (or Grim) walks with Mr. Grimsby, telling a long and complicated tale to pass the journey.  (The story the Grim tells, if you’re curious, is ‘The Land Where All The Animals Say “Good Day!’)
Ancient churchyard yew: Eirian Evans,
          At the story’s end, the Grim says, 
“And now we must say, ‘good day’…I can go with you no further.”With something of a start…Mr. Grimsby looked about him.  They stood before a tall door… “Where is this?... I don’t know this place.”

      "No,” said the dog. “But you’ll come to know it.”
          I must go home,” Mr.Grimsby said, and turned to leave the strange door - but behind him was nothing but the utmost darkness… “Where are we?” 
          “At the end of the world,” said the dog.  “That is Heaven’s Door.  Knock, and they’ll let you in.”And the… the Churchyard Grim, trotted back along the road… back to Earth, back to his church where, in the last darkness of the night, he slipped again into his own grave in the north side of the churchyard.To meet the…Churchyard Grim means that your own death will follow soon.
          The Grim is a legend found all over Scandinavia and the British Isles.  It used to be believed, it’s said, that the first man buried in a new churchyard had to remain on Earth, to guard the church and its dead against the devil.  To spare a Christian this fate, and free them to salvation, a black dog was buried in the graveyard before any human dead.  The dog then became the Grim, or guardian spirit of the church.  (Behind this may lie the even older practice of burying a sacrifice or ancestor under a building.  Stone Age earthworks have been found with burials in their ditches, and Stone Age houses with graves under their floors.)
          The Grim was usually buried on the churchyard’s north side – which was associated with things a little spiritually dubious.  The Devil’s power was strongest in the north.  Suicides were buried outside the churchyard wall, on the north side; and, in Scandinavia, if not elsewhere, women traditionally stood on the north side during services, to form a protective layer between men and the Devil.  (Women being more sinful anyway, were already closer to the Devil, and might as well be offered to him as a tidbit.)
          Was the Grim buried on the north side because that was where a guard dog was most needed?  Or – as with women – was there felt to be some connection between the Grim and the Devil, or to older, pagan gods?
          It’s been pointed out that the areas of England where the Black Dog walks are the areas where the Scandinavian influence is strongest, and the Black Dog may be Garmr, the watchdog who guards the gates of Hel, the underworld’s queen.  In Eddic poetry Garmr is also associated with Odin, and Odin was the lord of the dead.  The Romans referred to him as the Germanic Mercury – thus firmly identifying Him as a soul-leader, one who guides the dead to the next world.
          Later, post-Christianity, Odin became the leader of the Wild Hunt, riding to hounds after lost souls.  But this was after Christianity had re-cast him as a devil.  If the Romans took a quick glance and readily identified him with their Mercury, who kindly guided the dead on their road, then Odin, originally, must have had a similar role.
          And while the Black Dog is often thought of as sinister and death-dealing, there are kindly Black Dogs.  In Somerset the ghostly ‘Gurt Dog’ is said to protect children and also travellers, walking beside them through dangerous places and frightening away the ill-intentioned.  The Black Dogs of Lincolnshire are also gentle and protective.  In fact, the Black Dog is most malevolent and is called ‘Shuck’ (Devil) in those parts of Essex and Norfolk which were most puritan in the 17th Century, and most prone to label as ‘devilish’ anything that smacked of old, pre-Christian traditions.
          Why does the Black Dog appeal to me?  Well, anything connected with Odin, that most fascinating and complicated of gods, appeals to me – but there’s also the fact that the Black Dog, in the form of Padfoot, walked the lanes of my childhood – those sooty little country-lanes trapped within the sprawl of the industrial Black Country.  And my Dad once met him!  He used to tell us the tale of how, walking home from a late night at work, he met the ghost dog – a story which I tell in my collection, Nightcomers
          My Dad took Padfoot walkies and lived to tell us the tale – but I think that when we have to take the road out of this life, there are worse ways to do it than in the company of a gurt, kindly black dog.  Especially if it tells a story to pass the time!

          This post originally appeared on Lucy Coat's interesting site.