Church Grim // Black Shuck

A_Staunge_and_terrible_WunderIn this Blog article I would like to write about Church Grims & Black Shuck – two Spectres that cannot be separated in my imagination. As readers of my blog will testify, I have a keen interest in the Social History & Beliefs of this fair Isle that I call Home. The UK has a wealth of supernatural ghouls that needs no Harry Potter (however, HP may have switched on a whole host of new celebrants). Indeed, in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Sybill Trelawney, the divination teacher, associates Harry’s tea leaves with the Grim, which she calls “a black dog who haunts churchyards.” Church Grims make a digital comeback in the iOS and Steam game Year Walk, which is based on Swedish mythology, the Church Grim is the last creature the player encounters. In the game, the Grim takes the form of a cloaked goat-headed figure and if the player touches its heart they can see the secrets of the universe (derived from an old southern Swedish folktale).

The Church Grim, or Kirk Grim if you are North of The Border (Kyrkogrim (Swedish) or Kirkonväki (Finnish)), is a figure from English and Scandinavian folklore, said to be an attendant spirit, overseeing the welfare of its particular church. English Church Grims are said to enjoy loudly ringing the bells. They may appear as black dogs (even as other animals, such as rams, horses, roosters or ravens) or as small, misshapen, dark-skinned people. The Swedish Kyrkogrim are said to be the spirits of animals sacrificed by early Christians at the building of a new church. In parts of Europe, including Britain and Scandinavia, it was believed that the first man buried in a new churchyard had to guard it against the Devil. To save a human soul from the duty, a completely black dog would be buried alive on the north side of the churchyard, creating a guardian spirit, the church grim, to protect the church.

The Scandinavian and Nordic Kyrkogrim or Kirkonväki can also occasionally appear as pale-skinned ‘ghosts’, said to be the spirits of the folk who lived in the proximity of the church that they now ‘guard’. William Henderson in his 1878 Folk-Lore of the Northern Counties attributes it to a foundation sacrifice and points out that the Kirkogrim of Sweden appears in the form of a lamb, which in the early days in Christianity in Sweden was buried under the altar. The Kirkegrim of Denmark took the form of a ‘grave-sow’.

Being born in the County of Norfolk (and therefore being superstitious), I associate this Church Grim with the beast Black Shuck. According to folklore, the spectre haunts the landscapes of East Anglia, primarily coastline, graveyards, side-roads, crossroads, bodies of water and dark forests. W. A. Dutt, in his 1901 Highways & Byways in East Anglia describes the creature thus:

He takes the form of a huge black dog, and prowls along dark lanes and lonesome field footpaths, where, although his howling makes the hearer’s blood run cold, his footfalls make no sound. You may know him at once, should you see him, by his fiery eye; he has but one, and that, like the Cyclops’, is in the middle of his head. But such an encounter might bring you the worst of luck: it is even said that to meet him is to be warned that your death will occur before the end of the year. So you will do well to shut your eyes if you hear him howling; shut them even if you are uncertain whether it is the dog fiend or the voice of the wind you hear. Should you never set eyes on our Norfolk Snarleyow you may perhaps doubt his existence, and, like other learned folks, tell us that his story is nothing but the old Scandinavian myth of the black hound of Odin, brought to us by the Vikings who long ago settled down on the Norfolk coast.

It is Dutt’s description which gave rise to one misnomer for Black Shuck as “Old Snarleyow”; in the context of his description it is a comparative to Frederick Marryat’s 1837 novel Snarleyyow, or the Dog Fiend, which tells the tale of a troublesome ship’s dog.

According to some legends, the dog’s appearance bodes ill to the beholder – for example in the Maldon and Dengie area of Essex, the most southerly point of sightings, where seeing Black Shuck means the observer’s almost immediate death. However, more often than not, stories tell of Black Shuck terrifying his victims, but leaving them alone to continue living normal lives; in some cases it has supposedly happened before close relatives to the observer die or become ill.

By contrast, in other tales the animal is regarded as relatively benign and said to accompany women on their way home in the role of protector rather than a portent of ill omen. Some black dogs have been said to help lost travelers find their way home and are more often helpful than threatening; in his book, Apparitions of Black Dogs, Dr. Simon Sherwood notes that benign accounts of the dog become more regular towards the end of the 19th and throughout the 20th centuries.

One of the most notable reports of Black Shuck is of his appearance at the churches of Bungay and Blythburgh in Suffolk. On 4 August 1577, at Blythburgh, Black Shuck is said to have burst in through the doors of Holy Trinity Church to a clap of thunder. He ran up the nave, past a large congregation, killing a man and boy and causing the church steeple to collapse through the roof. As the dog left, he left scorch marks on the north door which can be seen at the church to this day.[15]

The encounter on the same day at St Mary’s Church, Bungay was described in A Straunge and Terrible Wunder 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.

Adams was a clergyman from London, and therefore probably only published his account based on exaggerated oral accounts. Other local accounts attribute the event to the Devil (Abrahams calls the animal “the Divel in such a likeness”). The scorch marks on the door are referred to by the locals as “the devil’s fingerprints”, and the event is remembered in this verse:

All down the church in midst of fire, the hellish monster flew, and, passing onward to the quire, he many people slew.*

Dr David Waldron and Christopher Reeve suggest that a fierce electrical storm recorded by contemporary accounts on that date, coupled with the trauma of the ongoing Reformation, may have led to the accounts entering folklore.

However, as reported in The East Anglian Daily Times, in May 2014 a large dog was excavated at Leiston Abbey and was linked to the legend of Black Shuck. Carbon dating of the bones “indicated a date of either 1650-1690, 1730-1810 or post 1920” and the animal “was likely to have been interred when there was no surface trace of the original building remaining”.

  • Enid Porter, The folklore of East Anglia, Volume 1974, Part 2


The Dancing Plague of 1518

This story sounds like something straight out of fiction, but it’s well documented in 16th century historical records. In 1518, one of the strangest epidemics in recorded history, The Dancing Plague or “Dance Epidemic“, struck the city of Strasbourg, France.

Sometime in mid-July, a woman, referred to as Frau Troffea, stepped into the street and started to dance, for no apparent reason. There was no music and her face betrayed no expression of joy. That lasted somewhere between four to six days and she appeared unable to stop herself from her madness. Within a week, more than 30 people had joined, dancing night and day on the streets of Strasbourg. And it didn’t stop there. Within a month, at least 400 citizens (mostly female) of Strasbourg were swept up in the phenomenon, dancing for days without rest, experiencing the madness.

Engraving of Hendrik Hondius portrays three women affected by the plague. Work based on original drawing by Pieter Brueghel, a Renaissance painter, who supposedly witnessed a subsequent outbreak in 1564 in Flanders.
Engraving of Hendrik Hondius portrays three women affected by the plague. Work based on original drawing by Pieter Brueghel, a Renaissance painter, who supposedly witnessed a subsequent outbreak in 1564 in Flanders. source

As the situation got worse, the rulers of the land started to become concerned. Some of these dancers eventually died from heart attacks and strokes. Many died from pure exhaustion. Physicians were called in to document the event and try to find a solution. With no other explanation for the phenomenon, local physicians ruled out astrological and supernatural causes, instead announcing that the plague was a “natural disease” caused by a condition known as “hot blood”. In the 1500s, “hot blood” was usually considered as a process known as “bleeding” or “bloodletting”. During that period in time, doctors believed withdrawal of “bad blood” could cure or prevent many illnesses. The authorities believed and eventually decided that the only way the dancers would recover is if they danced it out of their systems. A stage was constructed and professional dancers were brought in. They even hired a band of musicians to provide backing music.

Ggroups of people caught up in 'dancing mania' or a 'dancing plague' .
Groups of people absorbed in ‘dancing mania’ or a ‘dancing plague’

In August, as mysteriously as it began, the Dancing Plague was over leaving almost 400 dead and one truly strange event.

Modern researchers proposed numerous theories for the cause of the bizarre event, including poisoning, epilepsy, typhus and mass psychogenic illness. Other theories have suggested the dancers were members of a religious cult (originating from a Christian church legend, was that if anyone provoked the wrath of Saint Vitus, a Sicilian martyred in 303 A.D., he would send down plagues of compulsive dancing), or even that they accidentally ingested ergot fungus, the organic version of LSD, a toxic mold that produces spasms, seizures, and hallucinations.

Best get myself to RETRO Bar ….

Roast Egg? …. Anyone?

Try this old Elizabethan recipe – but beware of explosions! A dish I am sure John Dee would have relished. A roast egg, according to the recipe, is cooked to perfection when it begins to vibrate on its skewer. So far, my eggs have done everything except vibrate. They have cracked, split, oozed, smashed, buckled, dribbled, shattered and rolled off their spits into the fire. My boots have been spattered in shell shrapnel and there’s yellow yolk in my hair. Continue reading →

First Stop In Prague

In 1576, Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II chose Prague to be his home. More than any other person, Rudolf made Prague a hotbed of alchemical interest. Rudolf lived in the Prague Castle, where he welcomed not only astrologers and magicians but also scientists, musicians, and artists. In addition to noted alchemists Edward Kelley and John Dee, Prague was also home to the astronomers Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler, the painter Arcimboldo, the poet Elizabeth Jane Weston, among others. Rudolf arguably spawned the most intense period of occult activity in history. Continue reading →

The Worst ‘Get Rich Quick’ Scheme Ever

Among get-rich-quick schemes, the nábrók, which directly translates as “necropants,” is one of the more extreme.

Necropants, a replica of which can be found in the Museum of Icelandic Sorcery and Witchcraft in Hólmavík, Iceland, are an example of just how desperate things really were in 17th-century Iceland. Crushed by a terrible class system, natural disasters, and pirate raids, the peasants of Iceland barely survived. But hope came in the form of necropants, for which you needed to find a dead male friend, skin him, wear his skin like pants, and drop a coin taken from his widow into the scrotum of the skin trousers. As the legend went, once this had been achieved, every time you checked the pocket thereafter, there would be more money in your “money sack.” Continue reading →

Allantide & My Mate Allan

I have a mate called Allan – he is probably unaware of Allantide so I thought I would trawl the internet and find some facts out about this day, today, for him – and post them up here. Needless to say me and my mate, Allan, will not be indulging in these traditions – we are, instead, DJing at an event called VIBE tonight.

Allantide (in Cornish Calan Gwaf or Nos Calan Gwaf) is a festival celebrated on 31st of October . The festival itself seems to have pre-Christian origins similar to most celebrations on this date, however in Cornwall it was popularly linked to St Allen or Arlan a little known Cornish Saint. Because of the this Allantide is also known as Allan Day. As in all celtic cultures this time of year was seen as being a significant one and sometimes considered to be the celtic New Year (although this is disputed). In the celtic mind this was the point in the year when the veil between this world and the next was most thin.  At one point Allantide was a popular time for parties across Cornwall. It is customary to give large polished Red Apples at Allantide which in the past  were bought at large “Allan Markets”. Continue reading →

Cemetery Symbolism

Put aside everything horror movies have ever taught you about cemeteries and you’ll find that the final resting places of our dearly departed can be hauntingly beautiful bits of green space. And every gravesite has a unique story to tell, whether it’s with a clever epitaph or a symbolic decorative detail.

Atlas Obscura spent some time uncovering the meanings behind some of the most common gravesite symbols, which they’ve compiled into the below infographic. It’s sure to come in handy (and equip you with some fascinating talking points) when you encounter a set of clasped hands or a flying hourglass on your next graveyard stroll.


“Celts” At The British Museum

Celts: Art and Identity shows how Celtic identity was made, not born.

If I say or write the phrase “Celtic art”, you know exactly what I mean. The word “Celt”, or “Celtic”, instantly conjures an image as recognisable as “Greek” or “Roman”. The twining tendrils found in the Book of Kells, the fabulously elaborate vellum Gospel made in County Meath in the 8th or 9th century; a patterned stone cross; the trinkets on sale at an Edinburgh gift shop, interlaced designs woven into tea towels, printed on to mugs, worked into affordable jewellery. And the St Patrick’s Day Parade in New York, a festival of Celtic identity, when even the city’s bagels are dyed green.

Yet the new exhibition at the British Museum – presented in association with National Museums Scotland – sets out to demonstrate that “Celt” is the Schrödinger’s cat of identities. It exists, because we can see it before our eyes; and yet, it does not exist, because in all likelihood the people we now call Celts never defined themselves that way. Those step-dancers and baton-twirlers who stride through the streets of New York and London every 17 March are attaching themselves to an identity retrospectively adopted in the past couple of hundred years.

The show sets out its stall immediately, questioning the visitor’s preconceived notions with a striking, life-size stone statue from Glauberg, in Germany, dating from 450BC. He is clad in armour and holds a shield, and his legs are powerful and well muscled. Around his neck is a torc, one of the distinctive neck ornaments often made of twisted metal wire – echoed in some of the treasures from the gorgeous hoard found just a few decades ago in ­Snettisham, Norfolk, also on display as you move through the exhibition. The powerful Glauberg statue was not carved from the imagination: he was discovered guarding a grave that held a warrior adorned in exactly the same way – his leaf-shaped headdress next to his body, his sword in its sheath.

This warrior would have been a Celt to the Greeks, who used the term interchangeably with “barbaroi” (barbarians) for people who were not themselves. Those people to the north, to the east and the west, those who were separate from classical culture – they were the Celts, although as the word is not Greek or Roman in origin, it may be an adaptation of an indigenous name. (To the Romans, “Celt” and “Gaul” were indistinguishable terms.) So, the artefacts in this exhibition have an extraordinarily wide provenance, as shown in a case of torcs with a map displayed behind them – the map stretches from the far west of the European continent to the east as far as Persia.

“Celtic culture”, in so far as it can be described that way, is a product of fusion, and the show traces a remarkable journey from the early Iron Age, into Britain’s Roman ­period, over to Scandinavia and into the 20th century. Throughout, those intricate patterns of leaves, animals and faces interlace themselves into many civilisations, connected by contact and trade if not by blood. And although the displays are div­ided by both period and theme – warfare, ritual, feasting – much of what is on display remains a compelling mystery.

Perhaps the greatest treasure in this exhibition is the stunning Gundestrup cauldron, on loan from the National Museum of Denmark. It was found at the end of the 19th century, but there is still doubt about exactly when it was made; and the stories it  hides are compelling. Made from nine kilos of solid silver and more than half a metre in diameter, it is decorated on the outside with faces that stare out from the bowl; inside are elaborate scenes of what appear to be the stories of gods – but just what gods, and what they stand for, are completely unknown. Julia Farley, one of the curators, remarks that if you or I saw an image of a man and a whale in a religious context, that would be enough to indicate the story of Jonah; perhaps these images served a similar purpose. (The British Museum’s display includes a step so that visitors can see right into the cauldron; down at its base is a sword-wielding woman arched over a bull. Would that we knew her story!) That said, some of the show’s tiny treasures – harness fastenings, the decorative handles on cups and flagons – reward close inspection, and repeatedly challenge the belief that non-representational, abstract art is a product our times.

The show weaves a circuitous route through the new Sainsbury Exhibitions ­Gallery, its square grey space softened by curving walls and shimmering fabric hung from the ceiling. Quite a few of the objects come from the British Museum’s own collections; displayed anew, they ­provoke consideration of the context in which they were made. The Sutton Hoo burial blends Celtic decorative motifs with enamel techniques introduced to Britain by the Romans; huge neck rings found in the north-east of Scotland are made from recycled Roman silver.

As the director of the museum, Neil MacGregor, noted when the exhibition was announced, “The word Celt was used to describe what people were not – not Roman, not Viking, not Mediterranean, not metropolitan or imperial,” he said. “The name Celt is a badge of otherness.” And so it has continued to be: the last section of the show investigates the Celtic revival that took place in Britain from the 18th century onwards and has continued to flourish, Celtic identity becoming a mark of distinctiveness for those small, fierce nations – Wales, Scotland, Ireland – bound up in the imperial project. Queen Victoria had a passion for “Celtic” brooches: some of her collection is displayed alongside the originals that inspired them (the 8th-century Tara Brooch, discovered in Ireland in 1850, was widely exhibited, copied and admired).

John Henry Foley’s 1859 sculpture of a ­heroic Caractacus, who led the British resistance to the Romans, seems a clever counterpoint to that ancient Glauberg warrior. The museum brings its display right up to date with a copy of Asterix in Korean – remember, the Romans didn’t differentiate between “Celts” and “Gauls” – and a Marvel comic featuring one of their lesser-known heroes: Cúchulainn, “The Irish Wolfhound”.

The title of the exhibition perhaps gives the idea that Celtic identity will be fully and clearly delineated behind these glass cases. It is not, because it can’t be: that is what makes it fascinating. “In using the word ‘Celt’ you are naming something real, but the use of the word is a coincidence,” Julia Farley says. Celt was a distinction imposed, not adopted; an idea with great ­resonance in a 21st century of mass migration and fluid ideas of being. (The catalogue is called In Search of the Celts – which resonates rather better with my experience of the show.)

Both catalogue and exhibition are another example of what the British Museum has accomplished under the leadership of MacGregor, who will step down in December after 13 years as director. A place that once seemed staid and self-satisfied in its display of cultural treasures from around the world has been transformed into an outward-looking, dynamic institution that is never afraid to question long-cherished ideas about the politics of identity.

“Celts” is at the British Museum until 31 January 2016 and will be at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh from 10 March to 25 September 2016. This article first appeared in The New Statesman.