Church grim

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Impression of a church grim

The church grim is a guardian spirit in English and Nordic folklore that oversees the welfare of a particular Christian church, and protects the churchyard from those who would profane and commit sacrilege against it.[1] It often appears as a black dog but is known to take the form of other animals.[2][3] In modern times, when black dogs are kept as pets in churches and their attached parsonages, these are called church Grims since they reside on and guard ecclesiastical property.[4]

English folklore[edit]

The English church grim usually takes the form of a large black dog with red eyes and guards churchyards from those who would profane them, including thieves, vandals, witches, warlocks, and the Devil himself. In the 19th century, folklorists believed that it had once been the custom to bury a dog alive under the cornerstone of a church as a foundation sacrifice so that its ghost might serve as a guardian.[2][3]

Like many spectral black dogs, the grim, according to Yorkshire tradition, is also an ominous warning and is known to toll the church bell at midnight before a death takes place. During funerals, the presiding clergy may see the grim looking out from the church tower and determine from its aspect whether the soul of the deceased is destined for Heaven or Hell. The grim inhabits the churchyard day and night and is associated with dark stormy weather.[3][5]

When a new churchyard was opened, it was believed that the first person buried there had to guard it against the Devil. To prevent a human soul from having to perform such a duty, a black dog was buried in the north part of the churchyard as a substitute.[3][6] According to a related belief in Scotland, the spirit of the person most recently buried in a churchyard had to protect it until the next funeral provided a new guardian to replace them.[3][7] This churchyard vigil was known as the faire chlaidh or "graveyard watch".[7]

A folktale of the Devil's Bridge type is also an example of the motif of a dog (in this case, a dog also named Grim) being sacrificed in place of a human being. In the North Riding of Yorkshire, attempts were made to build a bridge that could withstand the floods' fury, but none succeeded. The Devil promised to build one on condition that the first living creature that crossed it should serve as a sacrifice. When the bridge was complete, the people gave long consideration as to who should be the victim. A shepherd who owned a dog named Grim swam across the river then whistled for Grim to follow, who went over the bridge and became the Devil's sacrifice.[8] The bridge then became known as Kilgrim Bridge[8] and was later renamed Kilgram Bridge, which today crosses the River Ure in North Yorkshire.[9][10]

Scandinavian folklore[edit]

The Scandinavian church grim is also known as the Kyrkogrim (Swedish), Kirkonväki (Finnish), and Kirkegrim (Danish)[2][3][11] is likewise defined as the protective revenant of an animal buried alive in the church foundation. In Sweden, this tradition is mainly found in the formerly Danish areas in the south (Scania, Halland, and Blekinge).

It is also connected with a creature called the "natteramm" in Scanian or, in English, "night raven".[12] It dwells in the church tower or some other place of concealment, wanders the grounds at night, and is tasked with protecting the sacred building. It keeps order in the church and punishes those who perpetrate scandals.[11]

It is said that the first founders of Christian churches would bury a lamb ("church-lamb") under the altar. When a person enters the church when services are not being held, he may see the lamb, and if it appears in the graveyard (especially to the gravedigger), then it portends the death of a child.[2][11] In some tellings, the lamb is said to have only three legs.[13]

The lamb is meant to represent Christ (the Lamb of God) as the sacred cornerstone of the church, imparting security and longevity to the physical edifice and congregation.[11] Other animals used to create the church grim included a lamb, boar, pig, and horse.[2] A grave-sow (or "graysow"), the ghost of a sow that was buried alive, was often seen in the streets of Kroskjoberg where it was regarded as an omen of death.[1][2]

There are tales of the Danish Kirkegrim and its battles with the Strand-varsler that tried to enter the churchyard. Strand-varsler are the spirits of those who die at sea, are washed up on the shore, and remain unburied.[11]

In Swedish tradition, a person attempting the Årsgång, or year walk, a divination ritual that involved circling a churchyard on New Year's Eve, would have to contend with the church grim, which was the natural enemy of the year walker.[14]

In popular culture[edit]

The Last of the Giant Killers published in 1891, includes a story where Jack the Giant Killer defeats an evil church grim that takes the shape of a goat. In this tale, Jack is helped by the ghost of a young woman who, like the church grim, was buried alive as a foundation sacrifice.[15]

"The Church-grim" by Eden Phillpotts is a short story published in the September 1914 edition of The Century Magazine, New York.

In the novel Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J. K. Rowling, the Divination teacher, Sybill Trelawney, associates Harry's tea leaves with the Grim, which she calls a "giant spectral dog that haunts churchyards."[16]

The character "Ruth" in The Ancient Magus' Bride manga and anime series is a church grim.

In the mobile game Year Walk, the player's task is to reach the church and consult a church grim to see what the future holds.

In the subsequent Year Walk: Bedtime Stories for Awful Children, the fifth chapter is devoted to the Church Grimm.[17]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Thiselton-Dyer, T. F. (1893). The Ghost World. London: Ward & Downey. pp. 125–6.
  2. ^ a b c d e f Henderson, William (1879). Notes on the Folk-Lore of the Northern Counties of England and the Borders London: W. Satchell, Peyton, and Co. p. 274. Retrieved 8 April 2015.
  3. ^ a b c d e f Briggs, Katharine (1976). An Encyclopedia of Fairies. Pantheon Books. pp. 74–5. ISBN 0394409183.
  4. ^ Menjivar, Mark. (2005) The Luck Archive: Exploring Belief, Superstition, and Tradition. Trinity University Press.
  5. ^ Wright, Elizabeth Mary (1913). Rustic Speech and Folk-Lore. Humphrey Milford, Oxford University Press. p. 194.
  6. ^ Tongue, Ruth (1965). County Folk-Lore (Vol. 8). p. 108.
  7. ^ a b Campbell, John Gregorson (1900). Superstitions of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. Glasgow: James MacLehose and Sons. p. 242.
  8. ^ a b Gutch, Eliza (1901). County Folk-Lore (Vol. 2). London: David Nutt. p. 19.
  9. ^ "So where does Wensleydale end?". Darlington & Stockton Times.
  10. ^ "Kilgram Bridge, North Yorkshire". Brigantes Nation.
  11. ^ a b c d e Thorpe, Benjamin (1851). Northern Mythology (Vol. 2). London: Edward Lumley. pp. 102, 166–7.
  12. ^ Reimund Kvideland; Henning K. Sehmsdorf (1991). Scandinavian Folk Belief and Legend p. 247. ISBN 0-8166-1967-0. Accessed 2008-10-20.
  13. ^ Craigie, William A. (1896). Scandinavian Folk-Lore; Illustrations of the Traditional Beliefs of the Northern Peoples. Detroit: Singing Tree Press. pp. 402–403.
  14. ^ Kuusela, Tommy (2016). ""He met his own funeral procession": The Year walk-ritual in Swedish folk tradition". In Kuusela, Tommy; Maiello, Giuseppe (eds.). Folk Belief and Traditions of the Supernatural. Beewolf Press. pp. 58–91.
  15. ^ Atkinson, John Christopher (1891). The Last of the Giant Killers: or, the Exploits of Sir Jack of Danby Dale. London; New York: Macmillan and Co. pp. 149–191.
  16. ^ Rowling, J. K. (1999). Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Scholastic Press. p. 107. ISBN 0-439-13635-0.
  17. ^ "Year Walk Bedtime Stories for Awful Children". Simogo. 2015-09-02. Retrieved 2022-06-17.