The church grim is a guardian spirit in English and Scandinavian folklore that oversees the welfare of a particular Christian church and protects the churchyard from those who would profane and commit sacrilege against it. It often appears as a black dog but is known to take the form of other animals.
The English church grim usually takes the form of a large black dog 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.
Like many spectral black dogs the grim, according to Yorkshire tradition, is also an ominous portent and is known to toll the church bell at midnight before a death takes place. During funerals the presiding clergyman may see the grim looking out from the churchtower 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.
When a new churchyard was opened it was believed that the first person buried there had to guard it against the Devil. In order 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. 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 him or her. This churchyard vigil was known as the faire chlaidh or “graveyard watch”.
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 fury of the floods but none were successful. 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. The bridge then became known as Kilgrim Bridge and was later renamed Kilgram Bridge which today crosses the River Ure in North Yorkshire.
The Scandinavian church grim is also known as the Kyrkogrim (Swedish) and Kirkegrim (Danish) and likewise defined as the protective revenant of an animal buried alive in the church foundation. It dwells in the churchtower or some other place of concealment, or 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. 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. 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.
Other animals used to create the church grim included a boar, pig and horse. 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.
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.
“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”.