Animals As Portents Of Death

CeberusHumans have had a close association with the natural world to some degree, despite the number of walls built, concrete poured or lights lit to keep the wild where many think it should be in check. But despite how civilized the world may appear, there can be many reminders that our fate is not always in our control.

In nearly every tradition around the world, animals have often been seen as symbols as a bridge from world of the dead. Sometimes, their physical appearance or behavior in the wild could be reason enough for the association with death. But, with others, the roots of their origins as harbingers have become as lost as the undergrowth of a dark woods.

Black Dog

For centuries, English folklore has told of a creature typically seen at night along a deserted road or bridge, red eyes glaring from an enormous canine head, blacker than shadows. If you were foolish enough to pass by the beast, you were certain to die. However, avoiding a black dog did not always guarantee life. Black dogs were often associated with the devil and sinners had much to fear about the underworld.

The origins of this myth could have sprung from the pool of Greek and Roman traditions that spoke of Ceberus, the three-headed dog that guarded the gates of Hades. Given the influence Rome left upon Briton during and after the invasions, it would stand to reason that more than Roman roads and fortifications were left imprinted into Celtic soil.

But then, canines have often become symbols of death, in a variety of ancient traditions, such as with the jackal-headed god Anubis. Perhaps due to their habits of scavenging to survive by lurking cemeteries for fresh graves, battle sites and field hospitals, they have been linked with death and dying.

Crows And Ravens

This is but one more animal that, as a result of often being found scavenging the dead, has worked its way into our fear of death and ultimately, into our mythology. Nearly everyone is familiar with Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven,” who torments the narrator with portents of unending gloom:

And the Raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting
On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door;
And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon’s that is dreaming,
And the lamplight o’er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor;
And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor
Shall be lifted – nevermore!
~~Edgar Allan Poe

The color black has also come to represent death in many ways in many traditions, symbolizing the unknown, the decay of flesh and the opposite of illumination and light. It may be no wonder that crows and ravens fill the role of being omens of our end quite naturally.

For the ancient Romans, to hear an owl’s hoot meant that death was certain to be close. Even Julius Caesar was not immune from mortality, as his death was thought to have been predicted by an owl. Hopefully, for the offending owl, it did not fall to the custom of being killed and nailed to Caesar’s door as a talisman against death.

Some Native American tribes, held the belief that owls were messengers of a family member’s sickness or even their demise, while others saw them as living creatures that held the spirits of the departed, requiring respect and observance. Other people, like the Hopi, l saw the owl as a living god of the dead. There were likely as many variations of the owl’s myth as there were tribes, but typically, the agreement was that the owl was a creature to be listened to, that it talked of transition from life to death with the silence of its wings.

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