“There’s no such thing as a bad dog, just a bad owner” – John Grogan, Marley and Me
All modern domestic dogs (Canis lupus familiaris) are ultimately descended from the gray wolf (Canis lupus). This might not be so obvious when you place a Chihuahua and wolf side by side, but it is nonetheless true. We know this because genetic similarly between any given domestic dog and grey wolves approaches 98.4%, whereas the similarity between grey wolves and any other sort of wolf-like canine is more like 96%. While my Pekingese is unlikely to thrive in the wild (despite his delusions of fearsomeness), his distant ancestor was a wolf. Roughly 2 million years ago, the grey wolf evolved from the common ancestor of wolves and coyotes, and at that point pretty much looked like a grey wolf does today. Humans only got around to domesticating grey wolves about 30,000 years ago, and selective breeding for certain morphological characteristics and social skills resulted in what we now regard as man’s best friend in all his variations. The reason dogs were domesticated first among all animals is because they have qualities that even a hunter-gatherer can appreciate. The wolf’s acute sense of smell and hearing makes them a desirable hunting buddy, as well as an organic early warning system. Basically, dogs excel at detecting things and guarding stuff. Thus, it’s perfectly reasonable to assume the gates to the afterlife are guarded by dogs. These hellish hounds don’t sit, won’t roll over, refuse to shake paws, and won’t play dead, mostly because they already are.
If there is a pop star in the pantheon of diabolical guard dogs, it is the Greek/Roman Cerberus (Gk. Kerberos), a diabolical dog with anywhere from 3 to 100 head that kept watch on the gates of Hades. According to classical myth, Cerberus was the horrific offspring of Echidna (half woman, half serpent) and Typhon (a gargantuan sea monster), and while one needed to be granted access to the underworld by him, his primary role was to keep all those dead souls in. The traditional three-headed Cerberus has an appetite for live meat, and requires three heads because one sees into the future, one sees the present, and one sees the past. A little known fact is that Cerberus had a two-headed brother named Orthrus with the far less distinguished job of guarding the red cattle of a three bodied Giant named Geryon. This no doubt made family dinners a little uncomfortable. Greek epic poet Homer (8th Century B.C.) mentions an unnamed pet dog of Hades. Hesiod (c.700 B.C.), Stesichorus (640-555 B.C.), and Plato (428-348 B.C.) name this cruel canine Kerberos, but the image that stuck came from mythographer Apollodorus of Athens (180-120 B.C.)
A twelfth labour imposed on Hercules was to bring Cerberus from Hades. Now this Cerberus had three heads of dogs, the tail of a dragon, and on his back the heads of all sorts of snakes. When Hercules was about to depart to fetch him, he went to Eumolpus at Eleusis, wishing to be initiated. However it was not then lawful for foreigners to be initiated: since he proposed to be initiated as the adoptive son of Pylius. But not being able to see the mysteries because he had not been cleansed of the slaughter of the centaurs, he was cleansed by Euraolpus and then initiated.’ And having come to Taenarum in Laconia, where is the mouth of the descent to Hades, he descended through it. But when the souls saw him, they fled, save Meleager and the Gorgon Medusa (Apollodorus, Bibliotheca, II v.12).
Curiously, many classical scholars believe the incomplete Bibliotheca (one of the most valuable surviving (partial) works of mythology in the ancient Mediterranean could not possibly have been written by Apollodorus himself, since it cites a number of authors who lived hundreds of years after Apollodorus died, and these days is attributed to a shady anonymous character that gets the creepy title of Pseudo-Apollodorus, and whose actual identity remains unknown. At any rate, Greek and Roman heroes spent a lot of time figuring out ingenious ways to anaesthetize Cerberus (ranging from drugged cookies to lute music), so they could sneak past into the underworld for one reason or another. Cerberus might be the most familiar of the watch dogs of hell, but he is certainly not alone. A close cousin of Cerberus is Garmr of Norse mythology, generally described as a four-eyed, blood-spattered wolf-like creature that stands guard at the gates of Niflheim, which started off as the realm of the Frost Giants, but later became associated with the Norse underworld Hel. Garmr may also be the terrible wolf Fenrisulfr, implicated in vanquishing the gods in Ragnorak (doing up a murder-suicide thing with Tyr at the end) and who kicks off Armageddon with his howl, but opinions vary. This is one seriously bad dog. Baldrs Draumar (“Baldr’s Dreams”, also called “The Lay of Vegtam” or “Vegtamskvida”) is an Eddic poem in a fragmentary Icelandic manuscript dated to the early 13th Century A.D., but likely preserving old Teutonic traditions, and makes reference to Odin’s encounter with Garmr. The story goes that Odin needed to break into Hel (for all intents and purposes, the Teutonic “Hell”) to ascertain why his son Baldr is having evil dreams, where he encounters none other than the terrible Garmr, guarding the entrance.
Up rose Odin
lord of men,
and on Sleipnir he
the saddle laid;
rode thence down
A dog he met,
from Hel coming.
It was blood-stained
on its breast,
on its slaughter-craving
and nether jaw.
and widely gaped
at the sire of magic song: —
long it howled.
Forth rode Odin —
the ground rattled —
till to Hel’s lofty
house he came.
(Thorpe, 1866, p34)
A few brave scholars out there have suggested that Cerberus and Garmr have a common proto-Indo-European origin, at least etymologically because (1) they don’t generally believe in Hell, and (2) there is nothing new under the sun, but that eschews the far more reasonable conclusion that there is a monstrous canine basking at the door to the afterlife. It doesn’t appear to matter if your particular version of hell is hot or cold, rest assured its guarded by an especially horrible hound. Hinduism puts a guard dog at the doors of both Heaven and Hell. Yama, the Hindu god of death has two four-eyed dogs, named Shyama and Sabala, offsprings of the “bitch of the Gods” and mother of all dogs, Sarama (linguists have a field day with the vague correspondence of the name to Cerberus), and who “functioned as messengers of death and as guardians of the nether world, preventing the evildoers from entering the realm of bliss, situated beyond the river of death” (Kohler, 1923, p26). The Rig Veda, a sacred collection of Vedic Sanskrit hymns compiled around 1700 B.C. includes a number of verses devoted to these mystical mutts.
Go ye, depart ye, hasten ye from hence. The Fathers have made for him this place. Yama gives him an abode distinguished by days, and waters, and lights. By an auspicious path do thou hasten past the two four-eyed brindled dogs, the offspring of Sarama. Then approach the benevolent Fathers who dwell in festivity with Yama. In-trust him, o Yama, to thy two four-eyed, road-guarding, man-observing watch-dogs; and bestow on him prosperity and health. The two brown messengers of Yama, broad of nostril and insatiable, wander about among men. May they give us again to-day the auspicious breath of life, that we may behold the sun (Rig Veda, x. 14, 1, verses 9-12).
Now don’t start in on me about Anubis, he was supposed to be jackal-headed, as well as being the god of the Egyptian underworld, rather than a mere gatekeeper. Far more interesting are those frightening folkloric dogs that seem to maintain the same relationship with the gods that dogs have here on earth with us mere mortals. The sacred Zoroastrian Avesta, likely originating sometime in the 7th Century B.C., posits that the Chinvat Bridge (“Bridge of Judgement”) where souls of the dead are separated from the souls of the living, and the wicked are separated from the righteous is guarded by two four-eyed dogs, suspiciously similar to the Hindu hounds of Yama. The Zoroastrian Vendidad, a portion of the Avestan scriptures that reportedly record conversations between the prophet Zoroaster and his god Ahura Mazda make reference to the dogs that help sift the good folks from the bad ones.
Ahura Mazda answered: When the man is dead, when his time is over, then the wicked, evil-doing Daevas cut off his eyesight. On the third night, when the dawn appears and brightens up, when Mithra, the god with beautiful weapons, reaches the all-happy mountains, and the sun is rising then the fiend, named Vizaresha, O Spitama Zarathushtra, carries off in bonds the souls of the wicked Daeva-worshippers who live in sin. The soul enters the way made by Time, and open both to the wicked and to the righteous. At the head of the Chinwad bridge, the holy bridge made by Mazda, they ask for their spirits and souls the reward for the worldly goods which they gave away here below. Then comes the beautiful, well-shapen, strong and well-formed maid, with the dogs at her sides, one who can distinguish, who has many children, happy, and of high understanding. ‘She makes the soul of the righteous one go up above the Hara-berezaiti; above the Chinwad Bridge she places it in the presence of the heavenly gods themselves (Avesta, Vendidad, Fargard 19: 28-30)
Aztec mythology has Xolotl, a dog closely associated with the Mictlantecuhtli, Lord of the Dead, and consequently dogs were depicted as essential in ferrying souls across to the 1st level of the nine levels of Mictlan (the Aztec underworld), where the newly dead crossed the river Apanoayan (also called “the Place of Dogs”). Typically, a dog was cremated with the deceased, and they spent a number of years as a wandering spirit looking for their dog on the shores of Apanoayan. Once they were recognized by their faithful dog, it would obligingly carry them across the river on its back, allowing them to continue their journey through the afterlife. The Aztec conception of the ghostly guide dog is closer to psychopomp status, that is, as a guide for dead souls, which is often a role assigned to dogs across Mesoamerican and Indo-European cultures. Many European superstitions surrounding death and dogs have long maintained vestiges of this doggy psychopomp status.
In the office assigned to the dog of the Aryans, as a messenger from the world of the dead, we see the origin of that very wide-spread superstition which recognizes a death-omen in the howling of a dog. An intelligent Londoner tells me he has often seen the omen given, and verified its fulfilment. The dog’s mode of proceeding on such occasions, he says, is this: The animal tries to get under the doomed person’s window; but if the house stands within an inclosure, and it cannot get in, it runs round the premises very uneasily, or paces up and down before them like a sentry. If the dog succeeds in making an entry, it stops under the window, howls horribly, finishes with three tremendous barks, and hurries away. The same superstition prevails in France and in Germany. In the latter country, a dog howling before a house portends either a death or a fire. If it howls along the highway that is held in Westphalia to be a sure token that a funeral will soon pass that way. In the German, as in the Aryan mythology, the dog is an embodiment of the wind, and also an attendant on the dead. It appears in both characters in Odin’s wild hunt. Dogs see ghosts, and when Hel, the goddess of death, goes about, invisible to human eyes, she is seen by the dogs (Kelly, 1863, p109-110).
The dog has been with us longer than any other domesticated animal, thus it stands to reason that our religions ubiquitously invest them with supernatural significance, and in fact, some scholars have suggested that the dog was so central to the evolutionary success of our species, that its mythological status was a foregone conclusion, and in fact may have been essential in the development of our complex theologies.
The introduction of the domesticated dog may have influenced the development of religious beliefs. Cro-Magnon hunters appear to have performed ceremonies in the depths of caverns where they painted and carved wild animals, with purpose to obtain power over them. Their masked dances, in which men and women represented wild animals, chiefly beasts of prey, may have had a similar significance. The fact that, during the Transition Period, a cult art passed out of existence, and the caves were no longer centres of culture and political power, may have been directly or indirectly due to the domestication of the dog and the supremacy achieved by the intruders who possessed it. There can be no doubt that the dog played its part in the development of civilization. As much is suggested by the lore attaching to this animal. It occupies a prominent place in mythology. The dog which guided and protected the hunter in his wanderings was supposed to guide his soul to the other world (Mackenzie, 1922, p63-64).
We are fairly confident that dogs are morally superior to us. Will Rogers echoed this when he said, “If there are no dogs in Heaven, then when I die, I want to go where they went” and Woodrow Wilson suggested that “If a dog will not come to you after having looked you in the face, you should go home and examine your conscience.” Luckily, we probably won’t be faced with a dogless afterlife, since innumerable mythological traditions place dogs right at the eternal velvet rope, and even in death they are still working for us. Epicurus suggested that “the art of living well and the art of dying well are one”. Living well often involves a faithful dog, yet dying well is still a big concern for Homo sapiens, and we haven’t quite figured out how to do it right yet. If you want to go out in style you can choose to take a pile of gold like the Egyptian pharaohs or terra cotta armies like the Chinese emperors, but I for one, will be bringing dog biscuits.
Apollodorus. The Library. London: W. Heinemann, 1921.
Kelly, Walter Keating. Curiosities of Indo-European Tradition And Folk-lore. London: Chapman & Hall, 1863.
Kohler, Kaufmann, 1843-1926. Heaven And Hell In Comparative Religion: With Special Reference to Dante’s Divine Comedy. New York: The Macmillan company, 1923.
Mackenzie, Donald A. 1873-1936. Ancient Man In Britain. London [etc.]: Blackie and son limited, 1922.
Muir, J. 1810-1882. Original Sanskrit Texts On the Origin And History of the People of India, Their Religion And Institutions. 2nd ed., rewritten and greatly enlarged. London: Trübner, 1868.
Thorpe, Benjamin, 1782-1870, and Fiske Icelandic Collection. Edda Saemundar Hinns Frooa: The Edda of Saemund the Learned. London: Trubner, 1866.