Week thirty: GYTRASH (probability 22477), by David Sutton

I first met the GYTRASH in the pages of Charlotte Bronte's 'Jane Eyre', a soppy bit of early chick lit which for reasons mysterious to me was chosen as one of our set texts at school. Jane is walking in a country lane when she is alarmed by a large dog, which turns out to be merely Mr Rochester's Newfoundland, Pilot. 'I remembered certain of Bessie's tales wherein figured a North-of-England spirit, called a 'Gytrash;' which, in the form of horse, mule, or large dog, haunted solitary ways, and sometimes came upon belated travellers.'

This is, it seems, the earliest recorded occurrence of this word, and even the OED makes no guess as to its origin beyond saying 'northern dialect'. One is tempted to link it to the BARGUEST (also spelt BARGEST or BARGHEST), a spectre whose appearance portends death, which is generally conceived of as a dog-like goblin, though sometimes it takes the form of a white cat or a rabbit, and one famous bargest that lived near Darlington was said to take the form of a headless man who would vanish in flames.

Both, at any rate, would seem to be a species of HELLHOUND, and may be remnants of the myths associated with the Wild Hunt, the phantasmal group of huntsmen who pursue the souls of the damned across the sky. The Wild Hunt figures in the folkore of many countries, and makes a cameo appearance in Susan Cooper's excellent sequence 'The Dark Is Rising'. Now why do they never choose books like that as set texts...?


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