Kyrkogrim (Church Grim): Canine Protectors of the Dead

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By: Alex Postrado

The Sacrificial Guard Dogs Of European Churchyards

Wind back the clock to the 19th century. We are somewhere in the northern part of Europe and in front of us is a church in the making.

We already know what is going to happen next.

Around the region, every new religious building 一 customarily 一 has to be protected from the Devil. And in order to achieve that, a sacrifice has to be rendered.

Elders say it is to subdue evil 一 the offering, serving as a protector set to watch over the newly-built structure.

Yet the question remains, how do we go about this?

Historically speaking, some parts of olden-day Europe 一 such as Britain and Scandinavia 一 indeed believed that the first body to be interred in a churchyard will ineluctably become its guardian.

And to avoid designating such duty to a human spirit, animals 一 most commonly, black dogs 一 were often buried in someone else’s place.

With the remains of the sacrificed, situated on the northern side of the churchyard 一 a permanent guardian spirit is created.

The Kyrkogrim 一 also famously known as the Church Grim in English folklore.

Said to bring bad luck even when merely talked about, it is a creature that 一 even in death 一 will protect the very church that called for its demise.

Want to dig around the fascinating lore of the Kyrkogrim?

Kyrkogrim, church grim, black dog protector
Does the Church Grim protect the dead?

Kyrkogrim or Church Grim?

There is a good chance that you have already heard about the spirit of a revenant animal 一 particularly a dog 一 roaming a churchyard, protecting it from delinquents and evildoers alike.

In English folklore, it is famously known as the Church Grim.

Kyrkogrim, on the other hand, is if we are talking about its Swedish counterpart.

A staple creature in both English and Scandinavian tales 一 this spectral hound is noted to be the spirit of an animal murdered and buried in the area where a Christian church is to be built.

As a result of this morbid practice, the sacrificed animal becomes the enduring protector of the consecrated ground 一 one that is ready to pounce at any sign of sacrilege committed against the church it guards.

The attendant spirit is mainly responsible for keeping anyone set to bring harm to the church 一 be it grave robbers or witches 一 at bay.

As for the Church Grim, though, it is also known to spend some of its time ringing the church bells loudly.

While some may easily brush that aside as merely the animal’s high-spirited nature showing, you might be surprised with what it actually symbolizes.

As noble as the tale makes it sound, the Church Grim 一 as much as it is recognized as a protector 一 is also regarded as a portent of death.

And with every toll of the bell, the Church Grim signifies impending and inescapable death.

In other words, waking up to the sound of church bells ringing in the dead of night would mean that someone will soon pass.

Moreover, the spectral animal is said to appear looking out from atop the church tower 一 from where it rang the bell 一 during funerals. And this appearance can determine whether the dead will enter Heaven or Hell.

As scary as it is to spot a large, black dog looking down from a tower, it would be even more frightening if you were to witness the Church Grim in some of the other forms it is also said to take.

Some of the less threatening, alleged shapes taken by the spirit are that of a ram, a horse, a rooster, a raven, or sometimes, even a lamb.

In a more disturbing light, however, Church Grims are also noted to appear as “small, misshapen, dark-skinned people”.

As bad as it sounds, though, not much explanation about it is offered.

Scandinavia’s version of the Church Grim 一 going by the name Kyrkogrim in Swedish and Kirkegrim in Danish 一 is similarly believed to appear not just in the form of dogs, but also of other animals 一 including boars, pigs, lambs, and horses.

Accounts also tell of the Kyrkogrim’s semblance as being a pale-skinned specter. Yet others suggest that this form only represents the spirits of the dead buried in the same graveyard as the Kyrkogrim and not the Kyrkogrim, itself.

Similar to the Church Grim, the Kyrkogrim also serves as the keeper of sacred church grounds 一 likewise punishing those who disrespect the kirk.

In this version of the tale, however, the unfortunate animal selected to take the role of protector is upsettingly buried alive!

With reference to the riveting history of the Kyrkogrim, multiple accounts say that the “first founders of Christian churches” buried lambs 一 instead of dogs 一 under altars following their belief that doing so will strengthen the foundation of the building and transform the lamb into a mark of security.

Sometimes referred to as church-lamb and depicted to only have three legs 一 accounts say that it can be seen whenever someone enters a church where a mass is not taking place.

It can also appear in graveyards, though, that particular sighting would 一 unfortunately 一 herald the death of a child nearby.

Connection Between Dogs and Churches

Generally accepted and practiced by early Christians across Europe — the credence in burying black dogs alive in churchyards has been noted by folklorists in the 1800s.

This practice stems from the belief that the first being to be interred in a holy ground will be forced to become its guardian. And so, unwilling to sacrifice a human life for this cause, a dog is buried instead 一 cementing it as the undead keeper of the sacred edifice.

Seemingly convinced with the practice, numerous black dogs were said to be buried in churches all over the continent 一 most especially in Britain and Scandinavian regions 一 leading to the creation of the tale of the Kyrkogrim and the Church Grim.

There are also tales about the Kirkegrim 一 the Danish counterpart of the revenant guardian 一 that tell of its bravery when faced with potential danger to the church.

For instance, the strand-varsler.

Those are the undead spirits of people who tragically died at sea. When these entities wash up ashore and try to enter churchyards, the Kirkegrim is said to battle them in an attempt to protect their post.

A different, yet related story often called the Devil’s Bridge is noted to follow the theme of using a dog as a sacrificial animal in place of a human.

In one version of the story, it is said that an old woman made a deal with the Devil. And the deal was that the Devil will create a bridge in exchange for a soul 一 that of whoever crosses the structure first.

After the bridge was successfully built, the old woman proceeds to outsmart the Devil by getting a dog to cross the bridge first 一 thereby sacrificing its soul and not that of a human being.

Do dogs protect the souls of the dead?

Does the Graveyard Dog Exist?

Similar to how most creatures of folklore are perceived, the legend of the Kyrkogrim and the Church Grim has people divided.

There are those who affirm its factuality and, of course, those who believe that the tale is fictitious.

But, just as there are countless testimonials from people who claim to have witnessed the legendary church hound, there are also several aspects of the tale that are easily disputable 一 such as the Church Grim’s ever-changing appearance.

Most commonly attributed to that of a dog, it is also said to take the form of other animals and sometimes even humanoid figures, which 一 if it was, in fact, the spirit of a once-living, real-world dog 一 is quite frankly a take difficult to believe.

Another thing is that the Church Grim is said to be a ghostly apparition. Yet the case is, up to this day, no proven explanation about ghosts has surfaced.

And while it might be easy to spot a large, black dog wandering about a churchyard, it is quite a stretch to assume that it is a ghostly entity guarding the building.

But what do we know?

Maybe it is real. And maybe we are just as naively wrong as the people that cursed a dog into a watch that lasts for all eternity.


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