The dog: myths and symbols


Dogs have lived alongside humans for almost 15,000 years, so it is only natural that they are a major component in our imaginations. Man has always used day-to-day objects and creatures to represent the invisible and the mystical. The dog’s appearance and especially its behaviour have been used to symbolise situations, powers and even divinities.

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Guardian of hell

Dogs are guardians, they howl at the moon and often hunt at night. For these reasons, many cultures have associated dogs with death. Both Cerberus, the three-headed black dog of Greek mythology, and Garmr in Norse mythology protected the gates of hell, preventing the living and the dead from breaking through the gate separating the two realms.

Guide of the spirits of the dead

Dogs were seen as everyday companions in life and in death. They symbolised the guide of spirits on their journey to the place of the dead in Greek mythology. The best-known is Anubis, an ancient Egyptian god with the head of a jackal, whose role was to oversee the embalming of the dead before leading the spirits to their judgment, where he would weigh their heart against the feather of truth.

Anubis’ counterpart in ancient Mexican civilisation is the god Xolotl, a lion-coloured dog who accompanied the sun god on his journey to the underworld. Traditionally, a Mexican Hair-less Dog, with a yellow coat like the sun, was sacrificed at funerals. The dog of the deceased person might also be sacrificed, to protect the owner until he arrived at the gates of death. In Guatemala, dog figurines were traditionally placed at the four corners of the tomb, a practice still observed today.

In oriental cultures, the dead and dying were entrusted to dogs charged with guiding them to heaven, the seat of the pure divinities.

Messenger between the living and the beyond

Dogs have also been seen as a link between the world of the living and the beyond. There are two variations on this theme: either the dog delivered its messages to a sorcerer in a trance, as believed in Congo by the Bantus and in Sudan, or it was given a message for the dead after being sacrificed, as believed by the Iroquois of North America.

It is easy to understand from these examples how the dog’s association with death, together with his nocturnal hunting habits, might have fuelled rumours of sorcery and evil spells regarding dogs.

Dual symbol

Islam brought out this dark side of dogs, considering them impure creatures like pigs. Dogs were seen as carcass eaters who frightened the angels and heralded death with their barking. People were to avoid dogs, and anyone who killed one became as impure as the dog itself. On the other hand, they believed they could protect themselves from evil spells by eating the flesh of a puppy, and they acknowledged the dog’s loyalty to its owner.
Paradoxically, Muslims reve-red the Greyhound as a noble animal and a symbol of kindness and luck. The Koran also states that anyone can have a dog, provided they are left outside the home, which is a health rule that is very understandable in the historical context.

The duality of dog symbolism is also found in the Far East. In China, the dog was alternately a destroyer in the shape of a huge, hairy dog called T’ien Khuan, or a loyal companion who escorted immortals to heaven. The philosopher Lao Tzu portrays the dog as an ephemeral creature, describing the ancient Chinese custom of burning straw effigies of dogs to ward off evil spells. On the contrary, in Japanese culture the dog was a good animal that protected children and mothers. In Tibet, dogs were symbols of sexuality and fertility, providing the spark of life. This leads us to another aspect in the symbolism of dogs: fire.

Dogs and fire

In most cases, dogs do not evoke fire themselves, but they are recognised as having passed it on to humans. The dog was therefore the equivalent of Prometheus in certain African and Native American tribes. On the South Sea Islands, the dog was the master of fire, growling and sleeping beside the flames.

For the Aztecs it was fire itself, while for the Mayas it was simply the guardian of the sun during the night.

Alternatively, dogs could symbolise war and victory. This was true of the Celts, who showered it with praise. For these ancient Europeans, it was an honour to be compared to a dog.

Symbolic ambiguity

In time, the dog became an important symbol, although the ambiguity of human feelings towards it was shown in the range of symbolism. Protector and watchdog for some, evildoer and demon for others, the dog’s symbolic image has evolved and gradually disappeared in modern civilisations.

The dog is evoked in many common expressions, often with a negative connotation: no one wants to have to “work like a dog,” but some say it’s a “dog eat dog world,” so if you don’t want to “go to the dogs” you may just have to. There are plenty of examples in other languages also. Expressions in which “dog” is used in a positive sense are far and few between, although they are lauded for their loyalty.

Given the growing importance of dogs in our lives, they may begin to be perceived in a more positive light in future generations.

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The dog: myths and symbols
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