With Halloween just past, and the numerologically significant day of 11/11/11 upon us, it seemed fortuitous, if not a matter of supernatural necessity, for me to acknowledge the occasion by delving into the ominous history of dogs and superstition.
What makes 11/11/11 so important to the mystically inclined is that, first of all, it is a once-a-century singularity. Second, the date is made up of all 11s and 1s, like 11:11, the time of day noted for its synchronistic power to focus life’s supernatural forces by none other than Uri Geller, the man who had my occult-obsessed 11-year-old self staring for hours at spoons pinched between my fingers as I fruitlessly attempted to bend them with the power of my mind.
Not surprisingly, considering dog’s presence at man’s side since long before the dawn of history, there’s no shortage of dog-related superstitions and beliefs. The greater portion of these superstitions have to do with bad luck, death and dying—a quality, to be fair, that they probably share with the majority of all superstitions, anywhere, ever. But there are a handful of warmer and fuzzier superstitions attributed to dogs. If a dog licks a baby, for example, the child will be a fast healer; meeting a dog, especially a Dalmatian, means good luck (a belief no doubt set in motion by the owner of a Dalmatian); a greyhound with a white spot in its forehead means good fortune (a belief no doubt set in motion by the owner of a greyhound with a white spot in its forehead). On a statue in Moscow’s Revolution Square metro stop, the nose of the patriotic soldier’s faithful dog has been rubbed pale by an unending stream of metro passengers, who believe that touching it will bring them good luck, including college students who often rub their essays on it in pursuit of a good grade.
But man’s best friend’s main place in the world of superstition and myth is most often related to man’s ultimate end. With amazing consistency across different cultures, dogs serve in mythology as messengers of death, protective companions of the newly departed as they move to the afterlife, and fierce guards at the doors of heaven and hell.
One prevalent superstition is that a howling dog either indicates a death soon to come or newly arrived. This belief will come as no surprise to anyone who has ever had the deeply creepy sensation of being in a cabin, or camping in the middle of a forest in the dead of night, and hearing a dog or a wolf howl at the moon.
One form of this ominous howler is the ghostly “black dog” found in legends throughout England, New England and Appalachia. The black dog is known by literally dozens of names, depending on the local legend: Hairy Jack, Skriker, Churchyard Beast, Black Shuck, Hateful Thing, among many more equally vivid names. Padfoot, as the black dog is known in Lancashire, Leeds and elsewhere, is the name J.K. Rowling chose to give the animagus black dog form of Harry Potter’s godfather Sirius. While Led Zeppelin’s monster hit “Black Dog” was reportedly named after an actual flesh-and-blood dog that hung around outside their recording studio, the song does include the line “eyes that shine burning red,” a well-known trait of the canine specter.
One New England variation was the Black Dog of the Hanging Hills in Connecticut. According to 19th-century geologist W.H.C. Pynchon “if you meet the Black Dog once, it shall be for joy; if twice, it shall be for sorrow; and the third time shall bring death.” One imagines this read ominously in the voice of Vincent Price, with the sound of howling wind and possibly a church organ wheezing out three climactic chords in the background. In 1898, Pynchon (whose relation to the cult author I tried but failed to ascertain) reported that in 1891 he’d been out in the region with his companion, fellow geologist Herbert Marshall. Marshall had apparently seen the legendary dog twice but had scoffed at the story Pynchon told him about the dangers of seeing the dog for a third time. Regardless, the next time Marshall saw the dog, he slipped on a patch of ice and plunged to his death. This death was one of no less than six ascribed to triple sightings of the dog.
One form of the black dog, the barghest, is considered not just a messenger of doom, but a demonic force of violent destruction. One form of the barghest, known as Black Shuck, is the inspiration for Arthur Conan Doyle’s Hound of the Baskervilles:
“A hound it was, an enormous coal-black hound, but not such a hound as mortal eyes have ever seen. Fire burst from its open mouth, its eyes glowed with a smouldering [sic] glare, its muzzle and hackles and dewlap were outlined in flickering flame. Never in the delirious dream of a disordered brain could anything more savage, more appalling, more hellish be conceived than that dark form and savage face which broke upon us out of the wall of fog.”
As it turns out however, the hound is just a hound, albeit a massive one, and the flames just a preparation of phosphorus cleverly mixed by the novel’s villain to literally scare his victims to death, victims as much to their own magical thinking (and Doyle’s stretched and implausible plots, sorry Holmes lovers) as they are to his involved machinations.
I knew the barghest from Dungeons and Dragons, where it made its appearance in the Monster Manual, a book I studied in seventh grade, along with the Player’s Handbook and Dungeon Master’s Guide, with the focused, religious attention of a Talmudic scholar. As I always chose to play magical characters, usually illusionists, it’s safe to say I was still in thrall to a certain amount of my own magical thinking, the kind that had previously led me to try moving objects and melting spoons with my mind. Still, by the ninth grade, I realized I was the only one in our group willing, if not wanting, to put the time and attention into running the game as Dungeon Master, and this—along with a sneaking suspicion that pursuing a passion for role-playing games was directly harmful to future romantic prospects—finally led me to give away my much-coveted collection of multi-sided dice and move on.
Superstitions, of course, are all about magical thinking, one form of which, both terrifying yet strangely comforting, is a belief in ghosts and the ability to contact the dead. A number of superstitions insist on canines’ ability to see the spirits of the dead. One states that if you look between a dog’s ears when it is suddenly staring intently at nothing for no good reason, you’ll see a ghost. In China it is believed that a dog’s ability to see the spirits of the dead comes from the fluid in a dog’s eye. As a result, mediums will smear this fluid over their own eyes in order to see into the supernatural world, while it is believed that if the average, uninitiated person did so they would die from the shock of seeing into the afterlife.
Given the role dogs often fill in peoples’ daily lives as guards and protectors, it’s hardly surprising that their mythological role in death is often more protective than ominous. In a number of traditions, they serve as man’s benevolent companion, leading them, like a calm, reassuring tour guide, from the world of the living to the world the dead. Anubis, the jackal-headed god of death, served this role in Egyptian mythology, and a dog also accompanies the dead to the afterlife in the Indian epic Mahabarata. Curiously, an ocean and half a world away in Meso-America, the Aztec god Xolotl was also a dog-headed god who fulfilled this role, guiding the dead on their way to eternity.
Dogs stand, throughout folklore, as guards before the doors of the afterlife. The Greeks described the three-headed dog Cerberus who guarded the gates of Hades in order to prevent those who’d crossed the River Styx from turning back; in Norse mythology there was Garmr, the blood-stained hound that guarded the gates of Hel (not to be confused with the Christian Hell); the Celts had C≈µn Annwn, the dog guardians of the otherworld; and in India dogs are considered to guard the doors of both heaven and hell.
Many of these beliefs have faded with the passage of time. But the world is vast and there are still plenty of people who pursue traditions the rest of us would consider completely bizarre. One example is the practice of human-dog marriage that still take place today in certain parts of India. Most often these take place when a young child starts growing a tooth above their gumline, usually above another tooth, considered by certain tribes to be a very bad omen. The child’s tribe will then sometimes marry the child to a dog who will serve to guard the child, and the tribe, from evil spirits. While the full Hindu marriage rite is observed, the marriage is nevertheless considered more of a good luck charm than an actual marriage, and it is fully expected that the child will marry a human spouse later in life. As the owner of one of the canine “brides” explained: “This is just a ceremony to please the tribal deity—in the great epic Mahabharata a dog helped the Pandavas reach heaven.”
While these marriages usually involve young children, in 2007 a 33-year-old man named P. Selvakumar married a female dog in order to shed a 15-year-old curse of paralysis and deafness that he said he brought on himself when he stoned two dogs to death and hung them from a tree. As one of his relatives described it: “On the advice of an astrologer and others, he decided to marry a bitch to get cured.” It was not reported, unfortunately for my curiosity, whether marrying a bitch actually managed to solve Mr. Selvakumar’s condition.
To the western mind it all seems crazy. But one person’s crazy is another person’s deeply held belief. Consider one well-known historical tribe who believe their spiritual savior to have been born of a virgin impregnated by the word of their tribal god. This same savior then died at a young age and was raised three days later from the dead. In between this birth and death and resurrection, a host of other events occurred that are fully impossible by all the physical rules of the rational, known universe. And yet if you are raised a Christian, as I was, these events are somehow taken in, accepted and, most importantly, believed with an astonishing degree of psychological aplomb.
While religion for me has faded away, at least until I get older and grow inevitably more terrified of burning in the hot place with Mr. Scratch, superstition for me in one form or another is probably here to stay. I will readily admit, for example, to a hopeless and indefensible weakness for astrology (where, in the Tarot, dogs serve as a symbol of faithful guidance and protection). Because while I may pooh-pooh the irrational for public consumption, deep inside the overheated furnace of my teeming and self-contradictory brain remains the trace of an 11-year-old still convinced he will one day, with the power of his mind, bend a motherfucking spoon.