Saturday, June 23, 2012

Samedi: The Black Dog

I was poking through my books, looking for inspiration for a Halloween short story contest that a friend told me about, when I remembered the story of the churchyard guardian known in European folklore as the Church Grim.

I first heard a similar tale in Haiti, where it is believed that the first person buried in a churchyard will become its guardian, looking after those buried there to ensure that bokors do not use the body parts - or indeed the whole bodies - of the dead for evil purposes.  This is also the origin of the legend of the Church Grim in both Celtic and Teutonic lore.  It seems reasonable to imagine that the belief translated to Haitian Voudon through either French belief, or the superstitions of indentured servants brought from Ireland.  Perhaps curiously, the Church Grim is not much part of New Orleans Voodoo lore.

In Northern France and the British Isles, the Church Grim was also considered a guardian of a churchyard but it came in the form of an animal, most often a black dog.  The ancient belief that the first person buried in a churchyard would become its guardian led to concern for the soul of that dead person once Christianity took hold.  How would they find their reward in Heaven - or punishment in Hell or Purgatory - if the soul was tied to earth?  The solution was to bury an animal in the churchyard first, sometimes unfortunately while the poor thing was still alive, to have it take up the position of protector of the dead.

As noted, people of Celtic descent usually chose a dog for the duty; the larger and blacker the dog, the better.  With the advent of Catholicism, the dog's duty expanded from guardian against witches and sorcerers to protector against the Devil.  It was said that a churchyard that had a Grim was the best place to be buried, for the angry spirit of the dog would keep the Devil from dragging your soul off to Hell.  Whether or not that meant you got a free pass to Heaven is left out of the folklore, however.

In Teutonic countries, the legend remained essentially the same but the animal differed.  In Sweden, during the vary early days of Christianity, a lamb was sometimes slaughtered and buried under the altar stone of a new church.  This lamb, often black, was from then on referred to as the kyrkogrim who defended the dead against the Devil.  Meanwhile, in Denmark and Hanover, the Grim came in the form of a black, female pig.  Known as the kirkegrim or "grave-sow" she did the same duty on her graveyard turf.

All of these sacrificial animals get a bit of their own back in the end.  It was universally believed that seeing the Church Grim, and in Celtic countries hearing its howl or bark as well, was a certain sign that death awaited the beholder. 

And that, you have to admit, is a pretty good story.

Header: The Church Grim via Trapped by Monsters (see the sidebar)


Prince of Pinkness said...

I have learned by experience to read most of your stories during the day, Pauline!! So glad that I do. ;))

Timmy! said...

That is a pretty good story (and a cool painting too) Pauline... Although I do think I'd rather have a big black dog defending me than a lamb or a pig.

Just saying.

Pauline said...

Sorry; it is pretty much light up here all the time now so I can get away with this stuff. In January, however, not so much.

Pauline said...

Me too; Timmy!

Blue Lou Logan said...

Perhaps it's the fabulous recent series Grimm, or the sly Sybill Trelawney reference in Harry Potter, but I am now drawn to know the etymology of "grim." It seems to embody--personify? embody?--some sort of dark harbinger...

Pauline said...

I did like that the Harry Potter series mentioned the Grim and, to my mind, Hagrid's awesome dog had a bit of the Grim about him, too.

I'm think of a story about a pagan woman whose village chooses her pet as the Grim for the new Christian church. We'll see where that goes and yeah, I think the actual source of the word could easily come into play.