|Irish wolfhound, image public domain|
The cu sidhe may appear as huge shaggy black or dark green dogs, or as swift white hounds with red eyes and ears, sometimes missing a limb. They are known by their enormous size, often described as being as large as a calf with huge round eyes (Parkinson, 2013). These spectral dogs may be male or female and may appear alone, in pairs, or in packs (Campbell, 2008). A cu sidhe may also appear as a black dog with a white ring around its neck, usually seen on a fairy hill (Evans Wentz, 1911).
The cu sidhe when associated with the Wild Hunt usually frighten people, as the Hunt itself is an omen of war, death, and madness, although it can also bring blessings. The black dogs are seen as omens of death, although it is a bit murky as to whether, like the Irish bansidhe, the dog shows up to warn of an impending death or whether the dog causes the death (Parkinson, 2013). However not all black dogs are bad omens; in at least some cases the appearance of the black dog was protective as in one story from Swancliffe where a man has a black dog appear and accompany him through a dark wood, twice, only to find out later that the dog had saved him from being robbed and killed by highwaymen (Parkinson, 2013). They may also appear as guardians of treasure, something they are known for in Scotland (Parkinson, 2013). In Ireland cu sidhe are often associated with specific fairy locations where they are known to be seen over the course of multiple generations and are known to sit and watch people, but they are only considered dangerous if they are disturbed, otherwise they will remain peaceful (Lenihan & Green, 2004). In at least one Irish example a small white fairy dog appeared as an omen of the coming of the daoine sidhe to a home, to warn the inhabitants to prepare (Evans Wentz, 1911).
Fairy dogs may appear with the daoine sidhe during fairy rades, or they may appear wandering on their own, gaurding fairy hills, or going ahead of the Gentry to warn of their presence. Black dogs seem to be territorial, favoring churchyards, roadways, and crossroads, especially where gallows have been (Parkinson, 2013). In stories they are often associated with a particular area which is considered haunted (Campbell, 2008). Cu sidhe may appear standing motionless on fairy hills or even among mortal dogs on occasion (Evans Wentz, 1911).
Many people assume the cu sidhe and black dogs are ill-omens, and indeed they may be, but not always. While the appearance of such a hound, especially if it is baying or howling, is usually an omen of death the fairy hounds may also appear for other reasons. Sometimes they can be protective, either of a location in which case simply leaving them and the area alone will allow you to walk away unharmed, or of a person. They may also appear for unknown reasons, without directly harming or effecting anyone.
I have seen fairy hounds twice in my life.
The first time, many years ago, a friend and I were sitting in the doorway of a mutual friend's business in the city, beneath the darkness of the early evening sky. Suddenly we both became aware of the eerie silence – the sounds of the city had fallen away, the traffic had stopped going past on the street, everything seemed deserted. As we watched two huge black dogs came trotting down the sidewalk across the street. No one was with them but they walked calmly and with a purpose. My friend broke the silence and joked that perhaps they would cross the (empty) street and no sooner had the words left his mouth then both dogs changed directions and moved across the street towards us. We immediately fled into the building and closed the door; peering out the window we looked out to watch the dogs walk past and saw nothing. Literally no dogs, anywhere. Venturing back out we saw the dogs walking down the sidewalk away from us, although it was impossible for them to have passed where we were without us seeing them. They disappeared when the road curved and moments later the sound and traffic returned.
The second time I saw a faery hound happened when I was working as an EMT. My partner and I were on a layover at 5 am on a winter morning in a city by the shore of Long Island Sound and we had parked in a lot next to a large field fenced off for construction. My partner was reading a book but I decided to get out and stretch my legs while we waited, despite the cold weather. I walked over near the chain link fence that surrounded that field and noticed something white moving on the far side. As I watched in the darkness the white shape moved steadily towards me; it seemed to be moving quickly across the field and eventually I realized it was a dog although its gait seemed odd. I looked past it for any sign of a person out for a morning walk with their pet but saw no one. The white dog, some sort of hound by its shape, was so white that it almost glowed in the pre-dawn darkness and I stood there watching it come straight towards me, trying to puzzle out why it was alone in a fenced in field and why its movement seemed jerky and off even though it moved quickly. When it had crossed about two-thirds of the space between us I finally realized that it had only one front leg – not that it was missing one, but that its front leg was placed in the center of its chest. A wave of fear went over me and before I could think I had turned, run, and jumped back into the ambulance. My partner looked up, startled, and asked me what was wrong, and I told him there was a dog. Looking out he asked me what dog. Sure enough when I looked there was no dog to be seen anywhere, despite the fact that there was nowhere for it to go in the empty field and no time for it to have gone anywhere.
Parkinson, D., (2013). Phantom Black Dogs http://www.mysteriousbritain.co.uk/folklore/phantom-black-dogs.html
Briggs, K., (1978). An Encyclopedia of Fairies
Campbell, J., (2008) the Gaelic Otherworld
Lenihan, E., and Green, C., (2004). Meeting the Other Crowd
Evans Wentz, W., (1911). Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries
originally written January 2014 copyright M. Daimler