Befriending the Black Dog: A New Webinar

November 28, 2014

Illustration by Sidney Paget from The Hound of the Baskervilles
Illustration by Sidney Paget from The Hound of the Baskervilles

Several people had seen a creature upon the moor which corresponds with this Baskerville demon, and which could not possibly be any animal known to science. They all agreed that it was a huge creature, luminous, ghastly, and spectral. I have cross-examined these men, one of them a hard-headed countryman, one a farrier, and one a moorland farmer, who all tell the same story of this dreadful apparition, exactly corresponding to the hell-hound of the legend.

—From The Hound of the Baskervilles: Another Adventure of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle

The creator of Sherlock Holmes had a vivid imagination that his famous protagonist would have sneered at. Conan Doyle’s impressionable mind was piqued by a story he chanced upon in 1901 when driven from the golf course by a storm. His companion regaled him with tales of a phantom dog that haunted the countryside, with bloody eyes and a luminous aura. Throw in a family curse, an evil aristocrat, and a lovely victim, and the legend had all the ingredients of a first rate mystery. The Hound of the Baskervilles is considered Conan Doyle’s most expertly crafted plot and one of the best detective novels ever penned.

But this was not an obscure folktale, at least not the hellhound part of it. Legends of a phantom dog from the death realm, usually huge and black, are found wherever there has been Celtic influence, most notably the British Isles but also France, Germany, and Spain. Black Dog anecdotes have even cropped up in North and South America, all containing elements of the core fable: a black dog inhabiting liminal spaces, strongly connected with death. Conan Doyle probably did not know that the Black Dog is also a storm dweller, making the eminent author’s retreat from the golf course that inclement day appear to have the paw prints of fate.

In this upcoming webinar we will examine the origin of the Black Dog as emissary of the Mother-goddess. We will also discuss myths originating in Mesoamerica and the Philippines that provide clues to the meaning of the strange and persistent tales of the phantom dog.

Befriending the Black Dog
Monday, December 8, 2014
7:00–8:00 pm Eastern Time (US)
Attend live or stream later
Cost $25 $10
Pre-registration required

More information and registration here

X Marks the Spot

November 21, 2014

In magic we use symbols frequently: scrawled on a candle, a piece of paper, or even in dirt. The symbol X is a particularly versatile symbol that belongs in anyone’s bag of tricks.

I believe in general that a symbol, like a word, should have a clear definition, that it should mean something, but X is often the symbol for the unknown. In algebra, for example, it is used as the symbol for the unknown quantity and does not necessarily have a precise definition, which is not the same thing as saying it is undefined. It may be a real number, for instance, or a whole number, or a prime number less than 100. Likewise X in a magical equation can stand for a specific unknown – perhaps a manuscript that is sought whose title is unknown. In detective fiction, X often stands for an unknown person, either the person who commits the crime or some other enactor of an anonymous deed. You would not be using X in your magic to summon a criminal (at least I hope not), but X could stand for an unknown donor or other helper.

The X shaped rune gyfu means “A sign of hospitality and friendship, of joy and celebration.”* It may represent an offering to the gods or some other kind of gift. This interpretation of gyfu relates to another important intimation of the symbol X: as a mark on a map indicating the location of buried treasure. X can mean treasure or it can refer to the place that is sought, be it literal or metaphorical.

*D. Jason Cooper, Using the Runes. (Wellingborough, UK: The Aquarian Press), 1986.

Wildcat Swipe

November 14, 2014

Wildcat illustration by A. Thorburn.
Wildcat illustration by A. Thorburn.

The persecution of cats in Western Europe during the Witch Craze is widely known. Under Christian influence cats were considered agents of the devil or witches in disguise. The terrifying specter of the cat may have pre-Christian antecedents in Celtic countries however. The legend of “King Arthur and the Cat,” though recorded well into Christian times, may reveal something about earlier Celtic attitudes toward the cat, attitudes possibly influenced by interactions with the indigenous wildcat.

The story begins with a fisherman alone in his boat making a vow to offer the first fish he catches to the Lord. But the first catch is unusually fine, so the fisherman hedges and says he will donate the second fish. The second fish is even bigger than the first, so the third catch is then offered. The third fish, however, is not a fish at all, but a small black kitten. The fishermen has need of a mouse catcher, so this third catch does not go to the Lord but is taken to the man’s home.

The kitten grows into a giant cat who eventually strangles the fisherman and his family, then escapes into the countryside where he wreaks havoc, taking many lives. The populace lives in terror and the land becomes desolate.

Eventually Merlin intervenes and enlists the aid of King Arthur. It takes both Merlin’s magic and Arthur’s courage to vanquish the cat, who attacks so persistently that the feet of the dead cat remain fastened to Arthur’s shield.

This fourteenth century French tale has parallels in the eleventh century Irish Voyage of Mael Duin and the sixteenth century English short story Beware the Cat. In all of these stories there is a fierce, implacable cat who takes human life. The cat in these cases does not follow the witch hunter’s narrative as a devilish seducer of the innocent: he is an agent of retribution for a serious offense against Celtic morality. In King Arthur and the Cat the sin is a broken vow, in Beware the Cat it is a brutal raid, and in Voyage of Mael Duin it is a violation of hospitality. The savage cat is not an expression of evil, but of justice.

The webinar “Magical History of the Cat” has been rescheduled for Monday, November 24th, so there’s still time to register. Details are at the webinar website.


“An Irish Odyssey: The Voyage of Mael Duin” in Celtic Mythology. New Lanark, Scotland: Geddes and Grosset, 1999.

Baldwin, William. Beware the Cat.

“Wilde, Lady Francesca Speranza. “King Arthur and the Cat” in Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, and Superstitions of Ireland.

The Owner’s Handbook

November 7, 2014

Reminder: The Magical History of the Cat, a free webinar with yours truly, is this Monday November 10 at 7:00 Eastern Time. Here is the web page for the event. You may attend live or listen to the recording at your convenience. You must pre-register to attend or to stream the recording. You can register through the webinar webpage or through this link.

They say you are a mystery
They say you have secrets you will not give up
I say they have not tried to understand

I will study you
Catalogue your movements
Write your words
Analyse your tastes
Cater to your preferences

I will let you decide whether we will pet or not pet
play or not play
I will let you hide in your solitude
I will accept chastisement when I leave the house
I will be the human you rely on
and I will apologize for being human

I will wonder why I am behaving so oddly
and friends will wonder when I became so strange

Then I can say with authority that you are mystery
Then I can speak honestly about secrets that cannot be known