Mirrii dog (Philippa Foster)
As its name clearly reveals, the Centre for Fortean Zoology is interested not just in corporeal mystery beasts but also in other, more esoteric, paranormal creatures, i.e. zooform entities, of which there seems to be an abundance of canine versions.
It is well known, for example, that many reputedly paranormal, phantasmal dogs - in particular the so-called Black Dogs - have been reported from the British Isles and from North America. However, a surprising variety of comparable entities have also been recorded from elsewhere around the world. Some of these canine curiosities are every bit as exotic as their localities, but others appear surprisingly familiar.
Take, for instance, the linani of East Africa. Judging from its description, this erstwhile phantom beast was very similar to Britain's famous spectral black dogs with flaming eyes and mouths. According to Kenya's Bantu people, the linani was a big black dog with sparks of fire spurting out of its mouth. By day, it slept tranquilly in the grass, but at night it roamed the countryside in search of unfortunate human victims to devour. Happily, by the early years of this century it had apparently disappeared, as no-one speaks of it any more.
Equally daunting is the lightning dog of the Lower Congo. Here, in traditional lore, lightning is believed to take the form of a magical dog that springs down to earth in a single great bound, and emits a single sharp bark. As soon as it gives voice to a second bark, however, it leaps back into the sky. The lightning dog is said to be either black or red in colour, with a shaggy coat and a curly tail. If it should happen to touch someone, that person will immediately catch fire and die, but no magical charm has any effect upon this creature, and not even the most skilful witch-doctors and wizards can prevent its attacks.
As we might expect, the mystic lands of the Orient are well-supplied with unearthly hounds. One of these is a peculiar composite of sorts, combining the striped body of a tiger with the head of a wolf. Reported from Nepal and known as the chuti, it is frequently portrayed in traditional Nepalese art, in which each of its paws is depicted with four claws pointing forwards and one pointing backwards. As revealed in his book Look Behind the Ranges (1979), when renowned mountaineer Hamish MacInnes visited Nepal he was informed by the local lamas that chutis could be found in the Choyang and Iswa Valleys. One Russian scientist, Dr Vladimir Tschernesky, suggested that the chuti may actually be one and the same as the striped hyaena, but at present it remains firmly entrenched in Nepalese legend.
So too, luckily, do the sharameyas or yama-dutas of India, for according to Vedic belief, each of these monstrous dogs has a huge muzzle, smoke-belching nostrils, and four eyes! A pair of sharameyas guards the road to Yamapur - India's Underworld, or City of the Dead. Equally terrifying is the t'ien kou - the red-furred celestial dog of China. Its normal abode is the night sky, but sometimes it descends to earth, and when it does it resembles a blazing comet with a great fiery tail. Emphasising its comet affinities is the tradition that this beast's appearances portend disaster and doom - an ancient belief in relation to comets too.
Chile in South America lays claim to a very distinctive preternatural dog, called the calchona. It is described as a huge white dog resembling a Newfoundland but with a very woolly coat and a billy goat's beard. Notwithstanding its placid, almost sheep-like form, however, the calchona is exceedingly mischievous, delighting in playing tricks upon evening travellers passing through its dark mountainous domain, and also frightening their horses.
Perhaps the most intriguing phantom dogs of all are the mirrii dogs or mirriuula, featuring in the ancient lore of the Wiradjuri aboriginals inhabiting the central west of New South Wales, Australia - because in spite of their wholly separate ethnological origin, they bear an uncanny resemblance to the black dogs of British and North American traditions.
Several stories concerning these weird entities are contained in You Kids Count Your Shadows (1990) - a fascinating book dealing with Wiradjuri folk traditions, by folklore researcher Frank Povah from Wollar in New South Wales. According to the Wiradjuri, when a mirrii dog is first seen it is only quite small, with red eyes and noticeably pointed ears - but the longer that someone looks at a mirrii dog, the bigger it will grow. Indeed, it can sometimes attain the size of a calf or even a pony. As with certain British black dogs, mirriuula are often associated with water, and some are actually referred to as water dogs:
"They'll follow you and coax you away. They live in the river, in the water, and they've got real big eyes like saucers. The eyes is [sic] on the side of their face, like a fish...I've heard a lot of stories about people being followed home at night by these big dogs. People just see em. Down the river fishin, a dog'll come out of the river, or a dog'll suddenly be behind em, followin em. Every time you look back, it's a bit bigger. Look back again and there's nothin there. We got a very special site called the Mirriigana and mirriigana means - well mirrii is a dog and gana is like ganya, place. Place where the water dog lives. It's one of our sacred sites."
Several Wiradjuris recalled modern encounters with mirriuula to Povah. For instance:
"They used to go to the pictures and when they'd come home this little dog used to follow them. He had pointy ears and red eyes. When they got to their house he used to disappear. Another one, too, you'd see a little dog in front of you about sundown, and as you get closer it'd get bigger and bigger. And it was hairy, real hairy. Oh yeh, it'd send you. It'd make you run, I'll tell you...Goin' to Bushranger's Creek one night and this big, black Doberman lookin thing kept appearin and disappearin. You'd see it and then you wouldn't. Oh it was a scary lookin thing. Mirriuula they used to call em. Great big dogs that grow."
Today, most scientists would swiftly dismiss tales of the mirrii dogs as mere folklore, discounting them as fanciful spirit beasts of the Dreamtime - belonging to an early age long since past. But time is never still, and perhaps, one day, their time will come again.