The Giant Phantom Dog of Tanao Atoll

The Giant Phantom Dog of Tanao Atoll Cerberus, William Blake, Source: Wikipedia

The Giant Phantom Dog of Tanao Atoll Cerberus, William Blake, Source: Wikipedia

The discovery of the so-called “Black Shuck’s” skeleton set me to thinking about the Black Dogs of British lore. They are almost universally associated with death and witnesses say that they sometimes swell to gigantic size. Today we look at a creature with similar attributes on the other side of the world–on a tiny Pacific atoll.

Dusk came on as we sat over our meal. Ruau sat with her hands on her knees, leaning back against a tree, talking to Crichton. I understood nothing of what she was saying, but it was a pleasure merely to listen to the music of her voice. It was a little below the usual register of women’s voices, strong and clear, but softer even than those of the Tahitians, and so flexible that I could follow every change in mood. She was telling Crichton of the tupapaku of her atoll which she dreaded most, although she knew that it was the spirit of one of her own sons. It appeared in the form of a dog with legs as long and thick as the stem of a full-grown coconut tree, and a body proportionally huge. It could have picked up her house as an ordinary dog would a basket. Once it had stepped lightly over it without offering to harm her in any way. Her last son had been drowned while fishing by moonlight on the reef outside the next island, which lay about two miles distant across the eastern end of the lagoon. She had seen the dog three times since his death, and always at the same phase of the moon. Twice she had come upon it lying at full length on the lagoon beach, its enormous head resting on its paws. She was so badly frightened, she said, that she fell to the ground, incapable of further movement; sick at heart, too, at the thought that the spirit of the bravest and strongest of all her sons must appear to her in that shape. It was clear that she was recognized, for each time the dog began beating its tail on the ground as soon as it saw her. Then it got up, yawned and stretched, took a long drink of salt water, and started at a lope up the beach. She could see it very plainly in the bright moonlight. Soon it broke into a run, going faster and faster, gathering tremendous speed by the time it reached the other end of the island. From there it made a flying spring, and she last saw it as it passed, high in air, across the face of the moon, its head outstretched, its legs doubled close under its body. She believed that it crossed the two-mile gap of water which separated the islands in one gigantic leap.

That is the whole of the story as Crichton translated it for me, although there must have been other details, for Ruau gave her account of it at great length. Her earnestness of manner was very convincing, and left no doubt in my mind of the realness to her of the apparition. As for myself, if I could have seen ghosts anywhere it would have been at Tanao. Late that night, walking alone on the lagoon beach, I found that I was keeping an uneasy watch behind me. The distant thunder of the surf sounded at times like a wild galloping on the hard sand, and the gentle slapping of little waves near by like the lapping tongue of the ghostly dog having its fill of sea water.

Faery Lands of the South Seas, James Norman Hall, Charles Nordhoff, 1921

Hall calls Ruau “the old Paumotuan woman.” She was the owner of Tanao Atoll, a minute island in the Pacific. All of her immediate family had died and she was alone, except for her memories and “spirits present to her in strange and terrible shapes.” She moved back to Tahiti briefly, but was sad being so far from the graves of her husband and children. Crichton, a solitary man described as “the English planter,” by the author, was looking for his dream remote-tropical-island and when he overheard Ruau trying to persuade her relatives to return with her to Tanao, he made an agreement with her: he would lease Tanao for ten years, take care of her as long as she lived and “at her death, bury her decently beside her husband.” I do not know the end of her story.

James Norman Hall had a Boy’s Own Paper sort of life. He pretended to be Canadian and enlisted in the BEF in the First World War, getting kicked back to America when his real identity was discovered. When he was assigned to write about the Lafayette Escadrille, he enlisted in the French Air Service and went on to win a number of decorations for valor. With fellow flier, Charles Nordhoff, he was the author of The Bounty Trilogy, which includes Mutiny on the Bounty. He spent most of the rest of his life in Tahiti, writing adventure and travel books.

The color of the giant dog-spirit is never described so we can’t literally call it a Black Dog, but we might deem it a tropical cousin. The word “tupapaku” literally means “corpse,” but the way it is used here makes it sound like a genius loci and that each island or atoll had its own version. It appears as though Ruau believed that her son could have shown himself in a different, less terrifying guise.  Why “must” her brave son appear in the dog form? Perhaps it has something to do with transmigration of souls. I don’t know enough about Pacific folklore to understand the role of dogs in Ruau’s world–were they petted or driven away with stones or eaten? Was she afraid of dogs in a general, cultural sense, or of the monstrous size and sheer uncanniness of the creature? We are a long way from the slavering hound of the moors in this gamboling vision–in spite of Ruau’s terror, I thought of Clifford the Big Red Dog.

Thoughts on giant Polynesian dogs: chriswoodyard8 AT

If you like animal ghost stories, see Mrs Daffodil for cats and rats and revenants in a story about a ghostly sailor-cat named “Guts.”

Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead. And visit her newest blog, The Victorian Book of the Dead.

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