Admit it, the melancholy sound of a howling dog sends chills up your spine, doesn’t it? If you’re not the superstitious type, then you may blame Hollywood for this association. We’ve all seen movies where the howling of a dog foreshadows something ominous, but do you know where the roots of this concept come from?
The idea that dogs are in tune with the supernatural has been around a long time, and is believed by many cultures. One of the most common superstitions is that a howling dog is an omen of death or extreme misfortune. It’s impossible to trace this concept back to a single source, but here are a few of the more widely accepted origins:
Norse legend links this belief to Freyja, the goddess of magic, love, fertility, war and death. The story goes like this – when Freyja is playing the part of the goddess of death, she rides her chariot on the crest of a storm. This fanciful chariot is pulled by two enormous cats. And since felines are considered canines’ accepted enemies, the belief is that when dogs sense the approach of Freyja they begin to howl at the goddess and her magical oversized cats.
Another superstition about howling dogs and death traces back to ancient Egypt. It is believed that the god that tended to the dead was named Anubis. According to ancient Egyptian religion, this god was also associated with mummification and the afterlife. One of his most important roles was serving as protector of the dead and their tombs. Because Anubis had the head of a jackal, when dogs howl it stands to reason that they are calling souls to Anubis.
The Irish have a much simpler concept. In Ireland, folklore claims that dogs howl when they hear the universal phantom pack of hounds. These mystical hounds are said to lead their riders on a wild, barren hunt through the sky gathering the souls of the dead.
In Wales, tradition has it that God gave the king of Annwn control over demons so he could protect the world. As such, he would ride on his supernatural rounds on a hunt for mortal souls. Only dogs could see the death-bringing “Hounds of Annwn,” and howled their acknowledgement.
The goddess Hecate played a prominent role in Athenian households, where she was worshiped for her protective abilities. Hecate was also associated with crossroads and entryways. According to ancient Greek legend, dogs howled when Hecate was at a crossroads foretelling an imminent death.
Southern U.S. States
Here in the south where I live, superstitions run deep. Regarding death and dogs, some of the old-timers believe that dogs will tell them when their time is coming. They say if a dog howls twice, close together, death is coming for a male. Three howls close together means it’s a woman Mr. Death is after. You can tell the specific man or woman that death is coming for by the direction the dog is looking. If he’s looking at you when he howls, you’re next. Following that same logic, some folks say it is good luck when a dog howls with his back side towards you.
Other superstitions include: a dog howl means the wind god has summoned death, and the spirits of the dead are being released; a howling dog in an otherwise silent night is the first warning of supernatural events; when you hear a dog howling it means bad luck for you or that someone you love will get sick or worse; a howling dog outside the house of a sick person means the person is going to die—especially if the dog was sent away and comes back to howl again.
It goes on and on.
It’s no wonder the plaintive sounds of a dog’s howl has inspired legend and folklore in a variety of cultures. It’s a spooky sound. I’ve covered a lot of ground here, but I know I didn’t get it all. Tell us about some of the superstitions you’ve heard.
Top photo by Phoenix Wolf-Ray
Middle photo by Matt Elsberry
Bottom photo by Nazreth
Read more articles by Langley Cornwell