top of page
  • Writer's pictureAnne

Mythology Monday: The Hounds of Death

Submitted: Could you maybe talk about the connection between dogs and the underworld that appears in so many cultures' mythologies?

Time to talk about some mythological good buddies!

If you've ever wondered about the oldest dog breed description in the world, it's this curly-tailed baby right here, the Pshdar dog from at least the 10th century B.C.E.

Dogs are really interesting creatures, sociologically speaking, which means that they're also very interesting mythologically. They're not a naturally occurring phenomenon but a human-made one; humans intentionally domesticated and selectively bred them for their own purposes, creating separate a species of creatures that have things in common with their wild forebears but are no longer the same. The dog is an animal, but one of very few animals that is of humanity instead of the wilderness. It belongs to us, in a cultural sense, and has for millennium upon millennium, or perhaps a better description would be to say that we are responsible for it; and that gives many mythologies a peculiarly specific attitude toward the dog and what it means in a symbolic sense. (Other domesticated animals, especially cats, horses, and cattle, are also mythologically special for many of the same reasons, but let's let the canines have this one.)

Dogs crop up related to the ideas of death, the afterlife, and the underworld across several different mythologies, usually because of their association with guardianship. One of the fundamental reasons for humans to domesticate dogs was so that they could serve as guards, a warning system and defense force against hostile predators or other people, and they're therefore perfect fits for protecting fragile life from the terrors of what has gone beyond it. Dogs are often liminal creatures - animals that inhabit the borderlines between places and people, the better to protect and guard them, so they appear on the border between life and death in many cultures and across many times.

You may be a 3rd century B.C.E. laborer in the Chola Empire, but you also have a mastiff

The most famous underworld dog for most western audiences is of course Kerberos, the three-headed hound of Hades that guards the entrance and exit to the underworld and allows none to pass. The dog functions as a guardian who keeps the lands of living and dead necessarily separate; he refuses to allow the living to pass into the land of the dead, where they don't belong, or to let the dead back out to harass the land of the living. As one of the monstrous children of Ekhidna and Typhon, he is clearly a dangerous beast that no one is particularly happy about encountering, but it's his very nature as a dog that allows him to be a useful tool of the gods rather than a monster that needs to be put down.

Kerberos isn't the only canine connection the underworld in classical mythology, however; the goddess Hekate, lady of the crossroads and the lines between life and death herself, is also highly associated with the dog. As one of the underworld goddesses herself, she is accompanied by dogs in artwork and heralded by their howling, and her cults worshiped her by keeping dogs in her temples and offering them to her as sacrifices. One of her titles is Skylakagetis, meaning literally "Leader of the Dogs", and she both appears in ancient myth as a dog herself, playing with young Persephone in the form of a loyal companion, and transforms queen Hekabe into a dog to become her own follower after the mortal woman was killed. Later, the Romans (who called her Trivia, meaning "three-part") even associated her with the dog star, which as the eye of the constellation Canis must of course belong to her.

Voted Best Dog Mom in the Mediterranean three millennia running

Hekate is, like the dogs themselves, a goddess of the space between life and death, controlling the flow of each so that they do not interfere with one another, and so it makes perfect sense that the dog is her most important associated animal.

But the Greco-Roman world is just an easy starting place - dogs are all over the landscape when it comes to the underworld and the gods who administer it. Farther east, the Hindu underworld Naraka is guarded by Shyama and Sabala, two four-eyed dogs faithful to the death god Yama, who prevent unauthorized entrance or exit from the realms of death. The dogs not only guard the underworld but also act as messengers for Yama himself, further extending their role as inhabitors of the space between life and death, and guard the dead who are on their way to Naraka to ensure that they arrive safe.

INDRA: So what you're saying is you refuse to go to the heavenly home of the gods unless you can bring the dog with you?

YUDHISTHIRA: Maybe I didn't explain that he's a VERY GOOD BOY.

Persian mythology, which shares common roots with Hinduism, also mentions four-eyed dogs guarding the bridge of Chinvat, a frightening razor-sharp thread above the abyss that the dead must cross to achieve heaven or damnation. Traditional Zoroastrian funeral rites involve bringing a four-eyed dog (i.e., a dog with markings on its head that make it look four-eyed) in to gaze upon the dead person in a ritual called sagdid, in order that it truly confirm the person's death and allow them to carry on toward the afterlife, again confirming the idea of the dog's importance when crossing the threshold between life and death.

Stroll back up to northern Europe, and the guardian dog of the underworld is present again in Norse mythology, this time as the fearsome hound Garmr that guards the gates of Helheim. Bloodstained and fearsome, Garmr howls to signify the beginning of Ragnarök, symbolically both heralding the imminent death of everyone and everything and performing his function as a watchdog who warns of danger, and once the apocalypse begins he is foretold to find and destroy the god Týr.

That's the signal - sic 'em, boy!

It's especially noteworthy that Garmr is a dog instead of a wolf, when wolves of various dangerous qualities are so widespread in Norse mythology, and that he is the destined killer of Týr, the only god to have tangled with the greatest among wolves and survived. Some scholars theorize that Garmr is just a later translation error or corruption and that Týr is really meant to fight Fenrir, the great wolf he helped bind in its youth, or that the story of Óðinn being killed by Fenrir is being doubled; but then again, it’s also possible that Týr being killed by a domesticated dog as opposed to a wild wolf is an intentional way of signaling that where Óðinn is killed by the wolf he had imprisoned, symbolizing the eventual triumph of the forces of chaos, natural world, or consequences of past actions (whichever flavor of Óðinn scholarship you’re into), Týr, as a god more associated with human civilization and politics, is killed by the dog to represent the fact that human control over nature/chaos/whatever can only be so complete; even generations of domestication later, the dog is still, at its heart, a kind of wolf.

And then we can jump across the ocean completely to Mexico and the Mexica people, where Xolotl, the god of the path between death and life and bringer of souls to the underworld, is depicted as a great dog-headed deity, skeletal and frightening but also undeniably canine. Ancient Mexican death rituals, not only for the Mexica but also the Maya, Zapoteca, and other Mesoamerican peoples, involved dogs heavily, believing that as the guardians of mankind they extended that protection into the afterlife; the dead have to cross many perils and trials to travel to the underworld, but each of them is granted a ghostly dog to help, guide, and protect them on their way. Often, a dog might be killed when an important person died to ensure that they had a companion for the hard road ahead, or a faithful dog buried along with its owner so they could stay together, and in some areas dogs were specifically raised for this purpose, bred from birth to cross over into death with their masters.

Pictured: Underworld god who will keep you safe and also likes ear scratches

That's just scratching the tip of the death-and-dog iceberg, really; there are tons more cultures that associated dogs with the underworld or the boundary between life and death, and this post is already super long. Even Christianity has them, with its popular image of the hellhound that torments and harries sinners. And the guardian dog who watches the threshold isn't the only kind of death-aligned canine - other cultures connect the dog to hunting and say that they accompany the gods of death when they go out seeking mortal souls, baying for unwary humans whose time has come.

It's tempting to write dogs off as less important than the dangerous wild beasts that also populate mythology, but to do so would be a mistake. In spite of - or, in many cases, because of - their close connection to humanity, dogs are among the most powerful and personal of mythological creatures.

87 views2 comments


Sep 01, 2021

Let us not forget Sarama, Indra's hound and mother to Shyama and Sabala (and ancestress of all doggos). She's not strictly an Underworld beast, but well, there are dead people in Indra's Heaven too.

This of course makes the whole test of Yudhisthira hilarious once you remember that just past the threshold of that picture Indra probably has an eager good girl just waiting for him to get home and give her pats :D

Sep 08, 2021
Replying to

Yes! Sarama is a perfect example of the complex relationships between gods, dogs, and other people contemplating the divinity of both.

(Indra, please, Sarama can handle one entire other dog in your heavenly dog park, she probably wants to be friends, in fact!)

bottom of page