This appeared in last month’s North Clare Local…
Last month, we had a look mysterious black hounds and dogs straight from hell. But what of domestic dogs? Where does the ordinary pet dog fit in folklore and belief?
Dogs are mentioned in many global religions. For example, the ancient Persian belief system of Zoroastrianism saw dogs as sacred beings, almost equal to humans. To kill a dog was to lead to damnation, and giving bad food to a dog was as bad as giving a human a rotten meal. “Respect for the dog” was a central tenet of ancient Zoroastrianism; humans were expected to watch over a pregnant dog like they would a pregnant woman. Dogs were brought into funeral rites and they were engaged in the rite of ‘sagdid’ meaning ‘dog sight’. This is where a dog, preferably with white spots, was brought in to view a corpse. However, the rituals involving dogs were scaled down in the 19th century and hardly exist nowadays.
Judaism and Christianity take rather dim views of dogs. The word ‘dog’ is usually intended as an insult when it appears in the bible. However, in Christianity dogs are valued for their loyalty. Witness St Rocco, who lived in France in the 14th century. While tending to plague victims, he caught the disease himself and retreated into a forest to die. However, a dog befriended him and licked his sores, curing Rocco. He is now the patron saint of dogs and his feast day, August 16, is celebrated as the ‘birthday of all dogs’ in Bolivia. Then there is Dominican Order, called the hounds of the Lord, due to a Latin pun on their name.
Islamic belief considers canines to be unclean and it is unusual for practicing Muslims to keep dogs as pets. This is in sharp contrast to the earlier religions of the Middle East, such as the aforementioned Zoroastrianism and earlier pagan belief in Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq) which saw dogs as sacred creatures. However, Mohammed himself advocated kindness to all animals, including dogs.
In Hinduism, dogs are sacred and in certain parts of Nepal and India, worshipped during the five-day festival of Tihar which takes place in November. Dogs get special garlands and have tika, the sacred red dot, applied to their heads and paws. Meanwhile in China, the second day of the New Year is a special one for all mutts, and humans must be kind to them on this day. Surely this is something we should think of adopting here in Ireland.
Folk belief about dogs usually centres on their ability to sense things beyond human bounds, their loyalty and their dogged (sorry!) pursuit of matters. A common belief is that dogs can sense when their owners are under threat from external forces. Anecdotally, I know of one dog who barked and growled whenever a particular person came near; this person, it transpired, was planning to defraud the family. There is scientific evidence that dogs’ extraordinary sense of smell can detect certain forms of cancer. Perhaps they can, too, sniff out certain pheromones that arise from devious behaviour?
It’s also believed that dogs are highly attuned to the presence of spirits. The dog will howl, or stare intently into space, or begin barking at nothing. If your dog does this, it’s a sign that a ghost is near.
Dogs are believed to foretell death. A howling dog at night means the death of a friend, and if a dog howls at a sick person’s home, all hope of recovery is doomed. Ancient belief held that dogs could see the Grim Reaper for what he was, a gift denied to us humans. A dog howling thrice meant a death had occurred.
But it’s not all gloom and doom. Indeed how can it be? We all know how lively, excitable and energetic dogs can be, and what good friends they make. There are some positive legends surrounding the dog too. The Scots believed that a strange dog coming to your door was a sign of a new friendship.
In the US, belief around dogs are generally more positive. The Native Americans thought seeing three white dogs together meant good fortune. Indeed a lot hinges on the colour of a dog’s coat. Black dogs get a rough (ruff?) time of it in Europe, in the US owning a black dog means your home will be protected. A gold-coloured dog indicated prosperity, and a white one love.
Dalmatians were considered lucky, especially in England, where seeing a black-and-white dog meant good fortune. If a dog licks a child, it means they will be protected and afforded good health. And the much-maligned greyhound will always ensure their home is free of evil spirits and bad luck.
Next month, I’ll be moving on to the other usurper of the fireside, the cat.