Superstition was prominent throughout the Anglo-Saxon era, despite the teachings of the Catholic Church and the spread of Christianity on the island the Romans had called Britannia. Whilst the preachings of the Church denounced the old polytheistic religion of Britain and its practices as paganism, the fear of the unknown, the magical, the supernatural or in any regard the otherworldly was still projected in every aspect of Anglo-Saxon life. Countless eye-witness accounts of ghosts, apparitions, godly spectres, fiends or demons kept reinforcing the belief amongst people that the old gods still had power on the island, awing and terrorising common folk, especially those ignorant who trusted solely on the ‘one true God’.
One such account was the legend of the Black Shuck. A spectre of a giant, black, shaggy dog which roamed the Ancient Kingdom of East Anglia. Claims amongst villagers and townsfolk varied as to the purpose of this gigantic beast. The most pious of them reckoned it was a fiend sent by the Devil himself to punish the heathen Norse and Danes who sailed across the North Sea to claim Britain as their own. Whilst others who still revered the old religion associated the animal with the black hound of Odin, the All-Father God of the Norse or Woden as the Anglo-Saxons called him. Legend or myth, there were those who swore to St Edmund the Martyr’s holy bones that whatever it was, the Black Shuck existed and wandered across the countryside and coastline of East Anglia, sometimes coming near to big settlements, lurking in churchyards and graveyards, searching for unsuspected victims to steal their immortal soul and ravage their earthly body.
Young monk Edmund awoke with a start early that morrow, before the cry of the roaster, for something had disturbed his sleep. Opening his eyelids and realising it was still dark outside, he made to fall back to sleep but his strawbed was as uncomfortable as ever. He laid at his back staring at the triangular ceiling of the thatched-roof quarters which he shared with another dozen monks at the monastery, a few miles west of the Town of Northwic in the Kingdom of East Anglia. He tried to remember what had stirred him from his sleep but to no avail.
Gazing around, he noticed that his fellow monks were still fast asleep. He rose silently, put on his black robes and slowly creaked open the wooden door, exiting thus into the misty night.
The sky was still dark but for a few stars that were stealing away from the cover of the otherwise thick clouds. The ground was frosty and Edmund’s footsteps cracked the icy grass and fallen leaves as he made his way towards the chapel, clutching his robes tight around his neck. It was late in the spring but nights were still freezing cold. Edmund murmured a silent prayer that he would not catch a cold as he hurried across the monastery’s graveyard to reach the chapel.
An uneasy feeling had settled somewhere around his stomach, a feeling of foreboding. Perhaps it was merely the effect of the previous day’s preaching from the Archdeacon of Northwic who had visited their monastery for the first time following his appointment.
The Archdeacon was only second in command after the Bishop of Northwic himself and wielded great power and influence across the parishes of East Anglia. He had been appointed only recently following the untimely death of his predecessor, who had been a Dane and a pagan by birth but had early in his life converted and started following the Christian way of life. Archdeacon Sihtric Sihtricson, or as he was later known by his Christian name, Aethelred, had been a pious and zealous man, following and implementing the church’s doctrines and trying to eliminate paganism in East Anglia. Nevertheless, he was mistrusted by many a Saxon and Angle who considered him to be foreign and a heathen at heart, as he promoted unity across all races. Inevitably, he had created a lot of enemies who had eventually, rumour had it, seen him dead. Hence, the Archdeacon, named Wilfred, had taken up the mantle.
Edmund, as a Benedictine monk, did not bother himself with speculation about the lives of his superiors nor did his position permit him. Like every Benedictine monk, he had taken vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. It was all he had ever wished for, ever since his parents had died of the plague; to devote his life to God, and serve unconditionally for the preservation of his immortal soul.
Now, at two and twenty years of age, he could still recall the incident as if it were yestereve. A decade had passed since his parents had perished by the great pestilence that had ravaged most of Mercia and East Anglia. When Edmund’s parents contracted the mysterious disease, their withered bodies had been spent within two days, and Edmund himself had fallen ill shortly afterwards. Thus, he had done the only thing he knew. He had prayed… He had prayed to his mother’s old gods and the Christ Almighty too. He had prayed to all known deities in the world that he may be spared the same fate as his parents. Most unexpectedly he did, in the end, survive the disease and made a full recovery whilst half his village died.
That is what had meddled with Edmund’s conscience when Archdeacon Wilfred visited the priory, for he had spoken about the importance of one’s soul and how one’s earthly sins may affect its deliverance to Heaven. How had Edmund been worthy enough to be saved and not his parents or his fellow village folk? Was he not a sinner to have begged for the mercy of Thor and Odin as well as Jesus Christ?
‘’Tis the heathens who sow the seed of sin into our Christian Anglo-Saxon lands. The Danes and the Norse, those accursed Vikings who murder and pillage and enslave our folk. They are the disease of East Anglia and the whole of Britannia,’ Archdeacon Wilfred had said in his speech. ‘When Edmund, King of the East Angles, was tied to a pole and shot by two dozen arrows, as he refused to parley with the Devil’s spews, he was martyred for the sake of us all. For our future! Our new king, Aethelstan, albeit from the House of Wessex, understands the importance of this martyrdom. He has sown together all the ripped pieces of the Anglo-Saxon lands, uniting the Christians against the Pagans,’ he had elaborated making Edmund, whose namesake had apparently given himself his life to defend his country, reflect. ‘Beware of the Devil’s spawns, my good Christian men, for even you, may be tempted.’
Yet Edmund felt puzzled, for in the wake of King Aethlestan accession to the throne as King of all the English, in the year of our Lord 927, there were still as many pagan Danes and Norse living in Britain. More than half a century before, the Great Heathen Army had invaded the British shores with the initial objective to conquer all the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms but had to eventually settle for the north, establishing the Danelaw and settling there. Decades of struggle and endless war had seen the West Saxons push northwards and eventually reclaim all the kingdoms, uniting them as one. King Aelfred of Wessex’s ambition had been completed by his grandson, Aethelstan.
‘We must follow in the footsteps of our liege lord, King Aethelstan in eradicating superstition and paganism from our lives, lest our souls be damned to Hell for all eternity,’ Archdeacon Wilfred had finished resoundingly to the general praise of all present.
Edmund himself had clapped hard, following the example of his fellow monks but the words he had just heard had not properly registered on his mind until much later, until he had fallen asleep that night.
Edmund shook his head, awakening from his reverie and realising he had unconsciously walked off his course and towards the nearby woods. The forest sounds had always calmed him, perhaps it was because he had grown up near one, in the south. The whistling of the light wind against the leaves, the hooting of owls, the soft foot sounds of wildlife amongst the trees… Yet, the eerie ambience of the forest that night made the hair at the back of his neck stand. At that very moment, there was nothing comforting about the rustling noises coming from the dark depths of the woods.
Backtracking, he suddenly remembered the reason he had awakened so abruptly. His eyes widened as he saw with his mind’s eye a vision of the demon that had come to disturb his sleep. A four-legged fiend with scarlet eyes and shaggy furry skin, demanding his sinful soul. For a moment, from between the density of the woods, he thought he saw these exact fiery eyes staring back at him menacingly.
He stumbled and fell over to the cold ground. Dissociating from reality, he found himself again next to the deathbed of his parents. It had been their death that had driven him to seek salvation in God’s house for he felt guilty for surviving the disease himself. His miraculous survival in contrast to his parents’ perishment had encouraged him to pursue this life.
Yet something had awakened inside him the day before, after the speech of the Archdeacon. Edmund’s mother had been a Dane by birth and a pagan, converted to Christianity only at her deathbed after her beseeching husband’s request. Edmund had always felt an Angle at heart but at the same time had been proud of his Danish heritage. The piety of the new king, however, seemed determined to suppress such practices of intermarriage and co-existing in a land with multiple religions. Edmund was a Christian, too, of course, but his mother had taught him to respect all gods, old and new alike. ‘Besides, you never know whose help you’re going to need, Thor’s or Christ’s,’ she used to jest, but Edmund knew she was being diplomatic in order to survive in a land that was ripe with unfriendly neighbours that despised paganism and mistrusted foreigners.
Edmund sighed, as he massaged his sore back after falling, his hot, rapid breath creating vapours in the already misty night. Standing up he made to turn around and head back to the dormitories. Regretting his late-night outing, he had decided he would pray on the morrow along with everyone else.
On his way back, he pondered again on the Archdeacon’s speech. It had been naïve of him to take the words of the Archdeacon at heart, for he was well aware of the clergy’s anti-Viking sentiment. No matter how melancholic the situation made him, it was not in his power to better the world around him. His was but a tiny part of the canvas of God’s grand plans for humanity. At least, that is what the monastery’s Prior had taught him.
‘You look terrible, Ed!’ said Alwin, Edmund’s fellow monk, roommate and closest friend the following morrow.
‘Do I?’ replied Edmund absentmindedly. He had barely managed to fall asleep again after returning from his night wander when the rooster cried premonishing the coming of a new laborious day at the monastery.
The mist had lifted completely now, giving way to a dazzling spring sunshine that made Edmund’s back sweat as he was milking the goats.
‘Where were you last night, brother Ed?’ asked Alwin.
‘Whatever do you mean? I was asleep at my bed next to yours, brother Al!’ retorted Edmund.
‘I heard you leaving the room for a night stroll,’ responded Alwin categorically.
‘Oh!’ exclaimed Edmund awkwardly. ‘I needed some fresh air, that is all,’ he said dismissively as if it had been nothing.
Alwin frowned but did not press him further.
The day passed routinely and as it was expected. After the morning prayers at the chapel, the monks proceeded to milk the goats before baking the daily bread, followed by the daily scribing, copying down massive pages of sheepskin into fresh new books that recited the lives of saints.
Edmund could not fool himself. Even though he was keeping busy as usual, in his mind, he continued seeing those red threatening eyes wherever he went. And as the days and weeks passed, he felt haunted by the vision of the big black dog. What did it mean?
One afternoon, a month after his night stroll to the edge of the forest, Edmund decided to consult his mentor and Prior of the monastery, Father Cynefrith.
‘Do you believe in omens, Father?’ Edmund whispered whilst being supervised drawing an enormous, ornate letter S at the beginning of the page he was going to work on that day.
Father Cynefrith seemed to have been taken aback by this odd and unexpected query, however, he recovered quickly and answered: ‘’Tis not the Christian way, to believe in omens, brother Edmund. Divination is forbidden in our religion,’ and then added reciting the memorised verse: ‘Deutoronomy 18:10: There shall not be found amongst ye anyone who practices divination, tells fortunes or interprets omens. The sin of Divination is grave,’ he added then lowered his voice to make sure only Edmund could hear him. ‘Whyever would your mind dwell on such matters?’
Edmund hesitated; his stomach turned at the thought of the black dog. Had it been a figment of his imagination? Manifested by his guilty conscience? Oftentimes, his mother would talk about omens of the old religion, how the Gods of Asgard would send messages to the mortals through animals, in order to point to future events or merely toy with them, for such was the nature of the old gods. Christianity, however, had renounced such beliefs, disregarding them as superstition, even though the Anglo-Saxon culture was littered with instances of its own premonitions and other dark omens, not to mention supernatural beings.
Edmund took a deep breath. Looking around to make sure everyone else was busy with their own scribing, then decided that honesty was his best tactic; the last thing he wanted, was to add lying to the list of his sins. When he explained what had happened, Father Cynefrith did not respond immediately. Instead, he beckoned Edmund to stand from his seat. He led him out of the room and walked out to the backyard.
‘My son, you have seen the Black Shuck!’ said Father Cynfrith once out of the building. It was not a question but a statement.
‘The what?’ asked Edmund perplexed.
Father Cynfrith sighed dramatically and looked disconcertingly towards the woods past the graveyard, then spoke in a low voice as though the nearby trees could hear him. ‘’Tis an old legend. A very old, omen of…’ he paused for a heartbeat and then finished his sentence, ‘death.’
Edmund looked awestruck, his mouth fell slightly open.
‘’Tis said that it is the Devil’s spawn, destined to roam East Anglia’s countryside seeking the souls of sinners. Folk say once you see it, it means it has marked you as a sinner and it will haunt you for the rest of your days until the time comes to devour your body and steal your soul for its master the Devil,’ Father Cynfrith elaborated. ‘Listen, son! I don’t want you to go worrying about such superstitious nonsense. Remember what the Archdeacon said, we must eradicate paganism from our lives, lest we endanger our souls to eternal damnation. Yes?’
Edmund nodded without uttering a word, his lower lip started trembling involuntarily. He was shaken to his core, the Prior’s words echoing in his head: An omen of death.
That evening Edmund wept like an infant in need of his mother’s milk. His fear of his immortal soul had intensified after speaking with Father Cynfrith. That was it, then. The Devil had sent his fiend to claim his soul. Even ten years of devotion to the house of the one true God had not rectified had he had done to save his mortal body. By praying to the old gods, he had doomed himself.
‘Brother Ed?’ said a hushed voice from the other side of the room. ‘Ed? What’s happened? Are you weeping?’ It was Alwin who had heard his muffled crying.
‘’Tis naught!’ responded Edmund, attempting to steady his shaking voice but with little success.
‘You may confide in me, brother,’ Alwin said encouragingly.
‘I-I need some fresh air,’ said Edmund and as quickly as he could, in danger of waking up the others, he put on his robes and rushed out of the quarters and into the chilly night.
Alwin was at his heels, however, once more asking questions. ‘Leave me alone, Al! I said I’m fine. I just had a nightmare, that’s all!’ Edmund said indignantly wiping his wet eyes with the back of his robe’s sleeves.
‘Was it about your parents?’ Alwin enquired sympathetically.
‘What do you know about my parents?’ Edmund countered rather aggressively, his raised tone now carrying into the still night. ‘Naught! I want to be left alone,’ he concluded and started walking away from the dormitories, barely aware of where he was heading.
Moments later, Edmund’s intrusive and ominous thoughts were interrupted when he stumbled upon what seemed like a rough stone. Opening his eyes as wide as possible, trying to see through the almost absolute darkness of the moonless night, he realised his feet had led him to the priory’s graveyard and that he had hit his leg on an old, weathered gravestone.
‘By Christ’s holy bones!’ he cursed out loud involuntarily as pain seared across his knee. Bending down slightly to massage it, Edmund heard a rustling noise coming from behind. Turning his head in apprehension, he searched through the darkness but could not distinguish any movement between the gravestones. Perhaps it had been a rabbit or a squirrel. When he turned to look ahead again, however, two blood-red dots were suddenly piercing the darkness. Initially, Edmund did not quite comprehend what he was looking at and with little thought he motioned towards the two strange sources of light. Nothing happened.
Walking slowly, his arms outstretched to make sure he would not hit another gravestone, he noticed that the two lights were becoming steadily bigger and redder, whilst also he had the odd feeling that they, too, were moving. It was not long before he realised that these lights were eyes. Two enormous, blood-red eyes with no pupils belonging to a ginormous black hound. The Black Shuck had finally come to claim him…
As the dog started running towards him, Edmund’s legs gave way. Knowing he would never be able to outrun the dog, he fell to his knees clasping the cross that was hanging from a string around his neck and started praying whilst trying to accept the inexorable. ‘Dear God forgive your sinner. I atone for my sins. Forgive me! Do not let the Devil take my soul!’ he murmured his eyes shut. He could not look into the eyes of Death.
After mere moments, Edmund’s nostrils filled with a foul smell. The odour of what could have been a hundred corpses piled up in the mass graves in his village during the years of the plague.
Unable to contain himself, he opened his eyes and found himself staring into the depths of the abyss, of Hell itself. The hound had approached him but had not attacked and was now so close that he could see his massive scarlet eyes, whilst his body was so tall, it could have belonged to a horse.
‘I see you are ready to pay your debt to Hel, Edmund of East Anglia,’ said a strange hoarse, barking voice that Edmund was taken aback to realise was coming from the salivating jaws of the Shuck.
‘You-you can talk?’
The Shuck growled in response then in the same bark of a voice said: ‘Present your price to pay!’
‘Wh-what d-do you mean price to pay? Wh-what debt?’ stuttered Edmund fearfully but equally confused.
The Shuck barked loudly and raised one enormous paw in an effort to point somewhere behind Edmund.
Edmund, who was rooted to his spot, his limps not responding, barely had time to wonder about what the dog was pointing at, when a second, this time familiar voice broke the silence of the night.
‘Ed! Do not make any abrupt movements. I shall try and distract the beast and you need to run, all right?’ said Alwin in a would-be brave tone, Edmund noticing his friend’s hands trembling. Alwin was holding a rather small, chopped tree trunk with his left hand and with his right, he was clutching tightly his cross around his neck.
At that moment, a horrible sound came out of the hound’s mouth, something resembling awful laughter, but it was so otherworldly that Edmund’s hair across his whole body stood in terror.
‘Be gone, you beast! BE GONE!’ Alwin yelled. ‘Go back to Hell!’
‘Oh, I shall! Hel is waiting, and you shall be coming along with me,’ said the Shuck and with unprecedented agility for such a big animal, he leapt forwards, his front paws coming in contact with Alwin’s chest, thrusting him onto the cold ground.
Edmund yelped in despair and suddenly found his legs and arms were working again. Mustering courage he never thought he had, he attacked the hound from the back with nothing but his bare hands.
The Shuck, however, did not even feel Edmund’s bashing at its hairy back, he was busy with his dagger-sharp teeth ripping apart the flesh from Alwin’s body. When the Shuck realised Edmund was at its back, it gave a jerk and Edmund was tossed in the air with great force.
‘That was the price, Edmund of East Anglia! The Allfather saved you! He saved you from the plague, and gave you ten years of life,’ the Shuck spoke through bloodied teeth. ‘Hel would not have it though, you see. Nay! She always gets her pay price. Especially for cowards such as yourself. Thus, she sent me, Garm the Hellhound, to forewarn you that your time had come. Ten years in exchange for your soul. Since you were able to provide another one, however, you may keep yours. For now!’ the Shuck explained and sneered terrifyingly, its fang-like teeth dripping blood.
The realisation hit Edmund with the force a warrior’s sword spills a man’s guts. What had he done? Unbeknownst, he had traded his soul for his health. ‘No-NO! It should be me, then. ME! Y-you take me! Alwin is innocent, I am the sinner,’ Edmund said through his whimpering. Perhaps there was still hope, perhaps Alwin was still alive.
The Shuck laughed again. ‘Whyever so? You provided your pay price. Your debt is paid. A life for a life. Alwin is dead and his soul already journeys to my mistress’s kingdom, Niflhel, where the sun never rises, and warmth never exists; where endless frozen fields and non-stop blizzards provide no shelter, for the evil and craven men who die no glorious death in battle find no solace and are doomed to an afterlife of misery and despair.’
‘No! No! Nooo!’ Edmund yelled at the top of his voice now weeping with spasms, his whole body shaking. ‘God Almighty, deliver me! I am a sinner! I atone! Help me!’
‘You should have embraced death by sickness, Edmund of East Anglia. Then perhaps, your nailed god would have delivered you to his Heaven. But you belong to Hel now,’ the Shuck said and snorted disapprovingly, turning once more its attention to the already mangled body of Alwin. It neared him, bared its teeth once more and started tearing off big chunks of flesh, chewing them disgustingly loud.
Edmund’s insides could not hold any longer. Through uncontrollable tears, he started vomiting. When his stomach was finally empty, he crawled to the nearby gravestone, leaned his head on top of it and waited for Death to take him too.
‘Your time will come, Edmund of East Anglia. And have no doubt, you shall eventually follow your friend Alwin to Niflhel, for that is where cowards like you belong,’ the Shuck proclaimed. He took another big leap, jumped over Edmund and disappeared into the night, leaving behind Alwin’s ravaged, soulless body to rot and Edmund on the brink of death having lost the will to live, for how could he live with himself after what he had done?
Father Cynfrith was an old superstitious man that loved and feared his saints whilst also secretly respecting the old religion. He had still been a young monk himself like Edmund, when the Great Heathen Army invaded Britain to wreak havoc and slaughter across the island. The pagans had clearly had the gods at their side and even though, the Great King Aelfred of Wessex had prevailed in the end, the Vikings had managed to establish themselves and integrate into the communities of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms bringing along with them their traditions and superstitions. Gods, old or new, are all to be feared. Father Cynfrith kept telling himself, for he had seen first-hand what happened to those who disrespected either.
Thus, when Father Cynfrith discovered Edmund the following morrow in the graveyard, next to the defiled, almost unrecognisable, corpse of Alwin, he understood immediately what had occurred the previous night. He had been expecting something to happen ever since Edmund had mentioned his vision of the Black Shuck. Of course, he had not wanted to scare the young man, hence, he had lied to him saying it was only a legend, but deep down he knew, for the Black Shuck’s appearance was becoming more and more frequent in the last century or so ever since the Vikings first sailed across the North Sea.
Father Cynfrith had heard about the contracts Hel, daughter of Loki, the Goddess of the Norse underworld Niflhel, granted to mortals, even without their knowledge. She was tricking them, offering life in exchange for their soul. Nevertheless, he had not expected that Edmund would have sacrificed his friend Alwin. However, after examining the scene of the incident more closely, Father Cynfrith realised that was not true. Edmund had been another victim of Hel’s trickery. The trickster God Loki had passed on some of his skill of guile to his daughter.
Poor Alwin must have tailed Edmund the previous night when the Black Shuck appeared, claiming him instead as the pay price for Edmund’s life but in the end, when Edmund finally died, he would have to join him to Niflhel, the frozen hell of the Norse Gods. Hence, Hel would have claimed two souls in the end.
Father Cynfrith sighed sadly. Vowing silently never to reveal what had happened to anyone, he roused Edmund, who rather unwillingly opened his eyes. ‘’Tis alright, lad. Up you go! Let’s get you inside.’ But Edmund either could not or would not move. With an enormous effort, Father Cynftith hoisted Edmund on his two feet and guided him into the dormitories where he issued orders to his brothers to wash him and feed him without asking any questions. ‘He’s ill, I tell you. We’ll speak no more of this,’ he proclaimed.
Then proceeding to the stables, he grabbed a spade and returned to the graveyard. Rolling up his robe’s sleeves, he dug a hole big enough to fit Alwin’s body and with as much strength as his ageing bones permitted him, he lifted the body and placed it inside the grave, then tossed back the disturbed earth.
No one would have to know about this. Hardly anyone visits the graveyard these days, he thought. ‘God may forgive him!’ he then murmured making the sign of the cross in the air once he had finished burying Alwin, then murmured a prayer for Alwin’s soul, although he knew it was of no use. Poor Edmund, what will become of him now?
Once back inside, the monks started enquiring as to the manner Edmund reached his state. ‘I said no questions, by God’s holy blood!’ swore Father Cynfrith, and the brothers ceased speaking at once. They knew not to cross the Prior when he swore, as it indicated he was close to losing his temper.
Father Cynfrith approached Edmund who was lying on his strawbed unmoving, his eyes staring into the void, looking at nothing in particular.
‘Are you all right, lad?’ Father Cynfrith asked but received no response or any indication whatsoever that he had been heard. ‘Time heals everything. Here, in the house of God, you shall eventually heal and hopefully forget. Let me give you a piece of advice, however, and then I shall let you rest as needed. Respect the gods, brother Edmund. Old and new. You may choose whom to follow, and I’m glad you’ve chosen Christ. Stick with one belief, though. That is essential! Nonetheless, do not grudge or besmirch the old gods’ names for they shall punish you, whether you are Christian or pagan,’ Father Cynfrith concluded and patted Edmund on the shoulder who at the sound of the last few words had stirred his head slightly. ‘Sleep now, you need it. We shall speak later.’
Edmund turned his head as the Prior left the room. His mentor’s advice had penetrated his mind like the Shuck’s teeth had torn Alwin’s flesh. Thinking painfully of his friend, and that he would never forget him, Edmund made a vow… He never spoke again.