Black Dogs

I want to move away from “my” wolves and werewolves to their cousin, Black Shuck.

Black Shuck, the demon dog whose appearance heralds death, is a now-forgotten standard of English Folklore. He is well represented here, in what could be his homeland of East Anglia.  Linked in Wikipedia and elsewhere with Viking tales of Odin (the creature’s other name, the Grim, who makes a guest appearance along with so many other mythic animals in Harry Potter, has cognate names in various Scandinvaian legends), this is a terrifying creature that has a lot in common – in shock value at least – with the werewolf, and with the hound-like aliens of Attack the Block. Somewhere in our catalogue of things we are frightened of is the sudden, vicious attack that the canine embodies. The Black Dog also makes another appearance, for example at the heels of Winston Churchill, and I’ll be coming back to that in a minute.

Jack Zipes’ still wonderful study of Red Riding Hood that I come back to again and again suggests that Red Riding Hood changes or is changed by storytellers to meet the concerns of the audience over the years. The wolf, too, alters appearance and character, and not just in RRH: sexually predatory, or gluttonous, a wargus  and a killer like Robin Hood or Long Lankin, his defeat in most versions makes the story bearable: so too, we retell the story of the Black Dog, who becomes not a herald of death but a symbol of depression. Winston Churchill descried his depression as a black dog, and the image is taken up by the Black Dog Campaign. It is well worth a look at as a campaign in itself and its aims of reducing stigma, getting people to talk, &c., are really important.

The Black Dog has been used as a metaphor for depression from antiquity to the present day. To bring the campaign to life we have designed visually striking Black Dog statues.  The physical presence of a Black Dog will help people to define their experience of the ‘invisible’ condition, which characterises mental illness, as well as promoting more open discussion, understanding and acceptance. In order to deliver a positive message of support, the black dogs will have a ‘collar of hope’ and wear ‘coats’ designed by celebrities, artists and members of the public.

It is also worth (in a small way) reflecting on how the wolf-dog creature we fear, perambulans in tenebris, transforms as we need it, reflecting our current concerns. The “catalogue of things we are frightened of” is also, because of its place in folklore, a catalogue of things story can help us make sense of, or warn us about.

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