by Audrey Harper
The church grim is a guardian spirit from English and Scandinavian folklore, who protects churchyards from thieves, vandals, witches, warlocks, and even the Devil himself. The grim most often takes the form of a large black dog, though it has occasionally been known to take on other animal forms.
Imagine it’s the 19th century and a new church is set to be built. According to custom, and in order to protect the churchyard from the Devil, you must offer a sacrifice to serve as a guardian. So what will you do? You couldn’t possibly assign this fate to a human soul, not when it was believed that the first person buried in the churchyard would be here forever. So you decide to bury a dog, alive, beneath the northern cornerstone of the church. A foundation sacrifice fit to defend the churchyard forever.
According to Yorkshire tradition, the grim also serves as an omen that foreshadows death. It’s known to toll the church bell at midnight before a death takes place. During funerals, clergymen would see it in the church tower, and depending on its aspect they could determine if the soul of the deceased was destined for Heaven or Hell.
A Scottish belief is that the job of church guardian would pass onto the spirit of the person who was most recently buried. Then, at the next funeral, there would be a new grim to take their place. This vigil was called the faire chlaidh or “graveyard watch.” This is a case of the church grim taking the form of a human.
There’s a Yorkshire folktale of a dog named Grim who served as a sacrifice in place of a human. The tale is called the “Devil’s Bridge” and tells of how there were attempts to build a bridge that would stand against floods. Every attempt was unsuccessful, so the Devil offered to build one with the condition that the first living creature that crossed over would serve as a sacrifice. And so once it was built, a shepherd swam across the river and whistled for his dog, Grim. The dog crossed over the bridge and became the Devil’s sacrifice. The bridge was known as Kilgrim Bridge, until with was later renamed Kilgram Bridge, and still resides over the River Ure in North Yorkshire today.
In Scandinavian folklore, the grim is still defined as a protective revenant of an animal buried in a church’s foundation. In Swedish they’re called “Kyrkogrim” and in Danish they’re called “Kirkegrim.”
It was said that the first founders of Christian churches would bury a lamb under the alter as a representation of Christ. It was also said that if someone were to enter the church while there were no services in session, they would be able to see the lamb. If it appeared in the graveyard, then it was thought to portend the death of a child.
Other animals buried in Scandinavian churchyards have included boar, pig, and horse. The ghost of a grave-sow was often seen in the streets of Kroskjoberg and regarded as a death omen.
No matter the form in which a church grim takes, the common role they all serve is to protect the well-being of their respective churches from anything that might cause sacrilege. Be it human, dog, lamb, or pig, the grim holds its post as a guardian and portent, no matter how traumatizing the death that put them there.