The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Complete A-Z for the Entire Magical World - Judika Illes 2005
The history of dogs’ ancient alliance with humans is shrouded in the mysteries of time. They have been our steadfast companions and guardians since that proverbial time immemorial. Even cultures that historically do not domesticate animals, such as many of the indigenous cultures of North America, have maintained dogs as companion animals.
Because of this long alliance, it should come as no surprise that dogs have intense spiritual associations with protection and with healing and death, two sides of the same coin. In every one of these aspects dogs are understood to be guardian spirits:
Dogs protect people from spiritual and physical dangers in life.
Ancient people perceived illness as both physical ailment and spiritual crisis: dogs battle on behalf of their human allies.
Dogs protect dead human souls and accompany, guide, and assist them in their journey to the next realm.
Perhaps because feral dogs were observed lurking in ancient cemeteries ready to devour offerings and dig up bodies, dogs achieved early identification with death and funerary rites. Dogs also lingered on battlefields where they competed with crows for their share of the dead.
Although everyone dies alone, it was once commonly believed that without a dog’s assistance one would never be able to locate the realm of the dead. This was a widespread concept although how it was interpreted and acted upon varied. In some Central American beliefs, there’s no need to do anything: when one’s soul begins that journey, a dog will be found waiting by a riverbank ready to serve as your guide. Of course, should that spirit-dog not show up for any reason, your soul would wander for ever, never achieving peace. Some cultures refused to take chances: dogs were sacrificed and buried together with a person (or placed on the pyre) so that they might start the journey together. The Aztecs evolved a happier solution: they buried their dead with terracotta dogs who, through ritual and spell-casting, were able to perform this function just as well as flesh and blood dogs.
The ancient Egyptians may not have rigidly distinguished between jackals and dogs: Anubis, Lord of Embalming, Guide to the After-Life, may be understood as either species or both. His color is black, not because it is the color of death but because for the Egyptians it represented regeneration and rebirth. Anubis rules the Dog Star in conjunction with his adopted mother Isis, the first syllable of whose Egyptian name Au Set resembles a dog’s bark: ow, ow, ow!
The Norse Queen of the After-Life, Hel (Christianity borrowed her name for the eternal realm of post-life punishment) has her own companion pack of wolves and dogs that nibble arriving corpses. (Vestiges of the ancient Indo-European custom of offering dogs a bite of the corpse may survive in this legend.) These may be the original hell-hounds who will survive to ride with the Wild Hunt.
Dogs are most profoundly identified with the Eurasian witch goddess Hecate, Queen of the Night, spirit of birth, death, magic, healing, witchcraft, travel, and victory. Hecate guards the threshold between life and death, serving as a psychopomp (one who guides the dead). Hecate also serves as the personal handmaiden of Persephone, Queen of Hades.
Hades is famously guarded by Cerberus, the monstrous three-headed hound of hell. Hecate’s sacred number is three; she is typically depicted with three heads and very frequently assumes the guise of a dog. Cerberus may be Hecate’s pet dog or he may even be Hecate in disguise. Whether Hecate transforms into a dog or is in fact a dog spirit who transforms into other shapes (old crone, seductive beauty, occasionally even a black cat!) is a little like asking which came first, the chicken or the egg. See DIVINE WITCH: Hecate.
Dogs serve as sacred companion animals to many spirits, most having to do with healing, death, war, and protection:
Babalu-Aye (West African)
Erinyes (Greek justice spirits who chase sinners like blood-hounds in pursuit)
Hecate originated in what is now Turkey. In Sumer, another goddess was intensely linked to dogs: Bau, the daughter of Sirius the Dog Star. Sometimes depicted as dog-headed, it’s tempting to associate her name with “bow-wow.” In her later Babylonian incarnation, Gula Bau, spirit of healing, walks Earth accompanied by her pack of hounds.
Hecate is not the only deity to transform into canine form. The Middle Eastern and North African spirits known as djinn have been known to lurk in the form of dogs, usually loitering in the marketplace just before dawn. In Jewish mystical folklore, Lilith and Asmodeus, respectively Queen and King of Demons, travel incognito disguised as large black hounds.
Black hound is the key: although to some extent all dogs have associations with funeral rites, magical healing, and protection, the dog most powerfully identified with magic, witches, and witchcraft is the black dog, the bigger and blacker the better. (Large black poodles have particularly strong associations, perhaps in honor of magician Cornelius Agrippa’s beloved pet, Monsieur.)
In addition to serving as witches’ familiars, black dogs may be transformed witches or witch goddesses. Nicholas Remy, the merciless witch-trial judge from Lorraine, alleged that women transformed into rabid dogs and wolves.
In witch-crazed Europe, dogs were understood as the devil’s favored companion or maybe even his favorite disguise. According to witch-trial transcripts, Satan routinely appeared at the sabbats he hosted in the shape of a massive black dog.
Dogs are believed to venture out at night to do battle with evil spirits. This is not an untypical international belief: lone dogs at night, particularly large black ones, are understood to either be evil spirits or out battling evil spirits. British folklore is full of stories of spectral black hounds mysteriously appearing to guard, guide, and accompany lone travelers, particularly when venturing through forests. Once the journey is over or safety is reached, the dog vanishes as mysteriously as it arrived.