I picked the barghest to examine out of Volo’s Guide to Monsters, recognizing it as a monster that’s been around a long time, but not one I’d ever made use of. Then I read the flavor text. What the what? A monster that only eats goblins? That couldn’t be how this creature was originally conceived.
So I did a little follow-up. Barghests come from Northern English folklore, in which they take the form of huge, black dogs, either possessed by evil spirits or being spirits themselves. The second half of the name is related etymologically to “ghost” and “ghast,” while the first half may mean “city,” “mountain” or even “bear”; no one’s sure. They prey on lone travelers and vagrants, they often have the power to change shape or pass invisibly, and the appearance of a barghest is considered an omen of death.
That’s popular lore. In Dungeons & Dragons lore, barghests began as fiends (as they still are) associated with goblins (as they still are) and often taking a canine shape (as they still do), but the ones that prowled the material plane were the young of those that resided—and ruled their own lands—in Gehenna. The current origin story, in which they’re created by the General of Gehenna to hunt goblins, is a new fifth-edition twist. And, frankly, a preposterous one.
So here’s how I’d interpret the flavor text in the barghest entry: It’s what goblins believe. (more…)