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On Eagles & Predation: Why We Need a Padfoot

26 September, 2013 (23:49) | Art, Environment, Modern Life, N.C. Wyeth | By: Peter Kinder


E. Dorset, VT:  Red Tail Hawk looks over its back, through fog, for prey  9/2513

E. Dorset, VT: Red Tail Hawk looks over its back, through fog, for prey 9/25/13

          An eagle stealing a toddler?

           ‘No way’ was my reaction to N.C. Wyeth’s illustration“Just as the baby’s feet cleared the ground Padfoot leaped into the air and buried his teeth into the feathers of his old enemy” (Illustration from Grace of the Dim Strain)’ (1923)[1] on view in the Shelburne Museum’s ‘Wyeth Vertigo’ show through month’s end.   I wrote about the show here.

           But the picture of the great black dog, Padfoot, rescuing a one year old – I reckon — by attacking the Bald Eagle carrying it away,  exaggerated in detail though it may be, does depict reality.


           A number of Google searchs yielded one fairly coherent description of a padfoot from 2001:

A fire-eyed spirit in the form of a great black dog, the size of a small calf. Known to protect lone travelers; or kill the unworthy. Sometimes, an omen of death. Invisible at will; at home in the fens, downs, and marshes of any world. The Padfoot is always completely silent….

 The Padfoot has been a legend [in the midlands and northeast of England] since the 1500′s. The Padfoot was probably descended from the viking legends of Odin’s black hounds and Thor’s own dog, Shukr. At first the Padfoot was seen as an omen of death, and a messenger of the devil. More recently, the Padfoot’s true, benevolent nature has been discovered. Reports and sightings show a protector of travelers, and an understanding of humans. The Padfoot’s form conflicts with his nature, however– a gigantic, firey-eyed black dog….

 And that’s what Wyeth represents:  the padfoot protecting the innocent.


           The idea an eagle would attack a toddler significantly greater – probably three times – than its weight made me say ‘no way’ when I saw the picture.

           I was wrong.

           On Sept. 24, The Daily Mail, a UK tabloid, published pictures of a golden eagle, which usually weighs about 12 pounds, attacking a Sika deer the size of a Labrador Retriever.[2]  The Daily Mail’s source is an article in the current issue of The Journal of Raptor Research which is behind a pay wall.

           The Daily Mail’s excellent article reminds me of the realities of life in the wild.  The pictures accompanying it are not for the squeamish or those inclined to romanticise raptors.  The last picture suggests the deer’s final moments.

          Whatever the story Wyeth illustrated was about – it’s long out of print – his illustration reflected a folk legend at least 400 – perhaps 1400 – years old.  But that legend was grounded in a reality almost impossible for modern urban folk to understand.

           Whether by a padfoot or a St. Christopher, we innocent travelers need protection.



           1.  The picture’s owner, the Hunter Museum of American Art in Chattanooga, has the date wrong on its site.  The story (by Vingie E. Roe) it illustrated appeared in Hearst’s International Magazine for July 1923.

           2.  H/T: Naked Capitalism which consistently reports links to articles I would not have seen without its guidance.

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Comment from Tom Lewis
Time 2013/11/03 at 11:54

Mr. Holmes, these are the footprints of a giant hound. Probably not an exact quote but now I understand a possible source for Doyle’s ghostly dog.

Comment from Peter Kinder
Time 2013/11/06 at 06:32

My father was stationed in Kington, Herefordshire, in 1943-44, awaiting the invasion. Mrs. A.C. Doyle was from Kington, and she and her husband spent a lot of time in this lovely part of the west.

My father was first billeted in a farm with buildings from the 12th century, though the farm house was from the late 15th or early 16th. It is the house in which the murder is set.

A hundred years later, it was easy to imagine the scenes from the book. The rooms are dark, small but not airless owing to the wind whistling through the walls. A huge ground floor fire place only heats/dries your front.

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