Just like many people my age, I was absolutely obsessed with Harry Potter while I was growing up. I loved debating which Hogwarts house people belonged to, or whether cats or owls made better pets. I even went so far as to read the entire series about thirteen times over a few years.
None of the books enchanted me quite so much as the The Prisoner of Azkaban, though. I’m not entirely sure why, but I think a large part of it was the Grim, a creature of superstition who stalked Harry through much of the book.
The Grim is a large black dog that, according to Harry’s divination teacher, Professor Trelawney, is “an omen–the worst omen–of death!”
It turns out that, just like with many of the other creatures in the series, JK Rowling drew heavily from folklore in creating the Grim.
According to English and Scandinavian legend, the first body to be laid to rest in a churchyard was charged with the eternal task of guarding it from the Devil. This was a lonely profession, and one without rest or respite. To save the souls of their fellow men, the people would instead kill a pure black animal (usually a dog or goat) and bury it in the churchyard. This animal–the church grim–served not just as a substitute, but as a loyal guardian, protecting the bodies and souls of its charges.
Despite its obviously Christian connotation, the church grim tradition likely had roots in pagan beliefs. In his collection of Scandinavian folklore, Benjamin Thorpe explained the origins of the dark custom:
Heathen superstition did not fail to show itself in the construction of Christian churches. In laying the foundation, the people would retain something of their former religion, and sacrificed to their old deities, whom they could not forget, some animal, which they buried alive, either under the foundation or without the wall.
By today’s standards, the thought of burying an animal alive–especially an animal so beloved as a dog–seems morally reprehensible. But it’s important to remember the roots of the tradition. The Celts and Scandinavians were just two of many world cultures who regularly sacrificed animals to their gods. The Egyptians commonly buried mummified household pets alongside their owners. Even today, some choose to have their pets buried alongside them.
Pets bring us protection and companionship, and there are few times when we need that more than when we are about to die. Grims provided much the same purpose–to provide comfort. They were a reassurance that the bodies and souls of your loved ones would be protected.
The church grim wasn’t always an altruistic spirit, though. Irish folklore speaks of the church grim (also known as the barguest) as an omen, much like in Harry Potter. According to the Irish tradition, the grim appears as a “large black dog with fiery eyes” who, upon the death of anyone living near its churchyard, “would appear, followed by all the dogs in the district, howling and baying” (Katherine Briggs, An Encyclopedia of Fairies).
Nineteenth century writers speak of the church grim as something to be feared. They described it as a monster, with eyes of fire and a monstrous roar. However, I feel that is a misinterpretation of the source material, and that it makes much more sense to interpret the church grim not as something so simple as a guardian or a monster, but as a guide.
Humanity has always needed a way to rationalize death. History has proven time and time again that there is little we fear more than the unknown, and there is nothing quite so unknowable as death. Not just what happens when we step beyond the veil, but what happens before. Will the end be soft and slow, or swift and violent?
As if that were not enough, the pagan Celts–despite their general obsession with cycles and repetition–didn’t believe in rebirth. They actually believed in the afterlife and eternal souls, much like the Abrahamic religions. You had one shot at life; after that came eternity in the underworld (or Tir Na Nog, if you were an extraordinary hero).
So maybe it isn’t such a bad thing to have a familiar creature, one revered by cultures across the globe as a protector and a friend of mankind, to warn you when your time is near, and to accompany you into the darkness.
The symbolism of a dog (a common terrestrial animal) being buried deep beneath the earth seems to back up my theory. In a way, it forms a connection between the opposed realms of sky (the mortal, surface-dwelling world) and earth (the eternal underworld). The church grim can pass between these worlds, essentially serving as a furry Charon*.
Of course it’s frightening to come to terms with your own death–that’s just human nature. But church grims were more than a dark omen or a brutal ritual. They were a reassurance to the living–a promise that our loved ones would be cared for in the afterlife.
And as we near the end of our lives, very few of us ask for more.
*Charon, a character in Greek mythology, ferried the souls of the dead across the river Styx to the underworld.
Northern Mythology, Comprising the Principal Popular Traditions and Superstitions of Scandinavia, North Germany, and the Netherlands (vol II), compiled by Benjamin Thorpe
Notes on the Folk-lore of the Northern Counties of England and the Borders by William Henderson
An Encyclopedia of Fairies by Katharine Briggs
Death and the Afterlife in Ancient Celtic Culture by Kristin Hawkins
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by JK Rowling
Year Walk by Simogo
The Atlantic: The Movement to Bury Pets Alongside People