SOME very weird superstitions exist in Ireland concerning the howlings of dogs. It a dog is heard to howl near the house of a sick person, all hope of his recovery is given up, and the patient himself sinks into despair, knowing that his doom is sealed. But the Irish are not alone in holding this superstition. The Egyptians, Hebrews, Greeks, and Romans all looked on the howling of the dog as ominous. The very word howling may be traced in the Latin ululu, the Greek holuluzo, the hebrew hululue, and the Irish ulluloo. In Ireland the cry raised at the funeral ceremony was called the Caoin, or keen, probably from χυων, a dog. And this doleful lamentation was also common to other nations of antiquity. The Hebrews, Greeks, amid Romans had their hired mourners, who, with dishevelled hair and mournful cadenced hymns, led on the melancholy parade of death. Thus the Trojan women keened over Hector, the chorus being led by the beautiful Helen herself.
The howling of the dog was considered by these nations as the first note of the funeral dirge and the signal that the coming of death was near.
But the origin of the superstition may be traced back to Egypt, where dogs and dog-faced gods were objects of worship; probably because Sirius, the Dog-star, appeared precisely before the rising of the Nile, amid thereby gave the people a mystic and supernatural warning to prepare for the overflow.
The Romans held that the howling of dogs was a fatal presage of evil, and it is noted amongst the direful omens that preceded the death of Caesar. Horace also says that Canidia by her spells and sorceries could bring ghosts of dogs from hell; and Virgil makes the dog to howl at the approach of Hecate.
It is remarkable that when dogs see spirits (and they are keenly sensitive to spirit influence) they never bark, but only growl. The Rabbins say that "when the Angel of Death enters a city the dogs do howl. But when Elias appears then the dogs rejoice and are merry." And Rabbi Jehuda the Just states, that once upon a the when the Angel of Death entered a house the dog howled and fled; but being presently brought back he lay down in fear and trembling, and so died.
This strange superstition concerning the howling of dogs, when, as is supposed, they are conscious of the approach of the Spirit of Death, and see him though he is shrouded and invisible to human eyes, may be found pervading the legends of all nations from the earliest period down to the present the; for it still exists in full force amongst all classes, the educated, as well as the unlettered peasantry; and to this day the howling of a dog where a sick person is lying is regarded in Ireland in all grades of society with pale dismay as a certain sign of approaching death.
The Irish may have obtained the superstition through Egypt, Phoenicia, or Greece, for it is the opinion of some erudite writers that the Irish wolf-dog (Canis gracius Hibernicus) was descended from the dogs of Greece.
It is strange and noteworthy that although the dog is so faithful to man, yet it is never mentioned in the Bible without an expression of contempt; and Moses in his code of laws makes the dog an unclean animal, probably to deter the Israelites from the Egyptian worship of this animal. It was the lowest term of offence--" Is thy servant a dog?" False teachers, persecutors, Gentiles, unholy men, and others sunk in sin and vileness were called dogs; while at the same the strange prophetic power of these animals was universally acknowledged and recognized.
The Romans sacrificed a dog at the Lupercalia in February. And to meet a dog with her whelps was considered in the highest degree unlucky. Of all living creatures the name of "dog" applied to any one expressed the lowest form of insult, contempt, and reproach. Yet, of all animals, the dog has the noblest qualities, the highest intelligence, and the most enduring affection for man.
The Irish wolf-dog had a lithe body, a slender head, and was fleet as the wind. The form of the animal is produced constantly in Irish ornamentation, but the body always terminates in endless twisted convolutions. The great Fionn MaCoul had a celebrated dog called "Bran," who is thus described in the bardic legends: "A ferocious, small-headed, white-breasted, sleek-haunched hound; having the eyes of a dragon, the claws of a wolf, the vigour of a lion, and the venom of a serpent."
In the same poem Fionn himself is described in highly ornate bardic language, as he leads the hound by a chain of silver attached to a collar of gold: "A noble, handsome, fair-featured Fenian prince; young, courteous, manly, puissant; powerful in action; the tallest of the warriors; the strongest of the champions; the most beautiful of the human race."
Bran, like his master, was gifted in a remarkable degree with the foreknowledge of evil, and thus he was enabled to give his young lord many warnings to keep him from danger.
Once, when victory was not for the Fenian host, Bran showed the deepest sorrow.
"He came to Fionn, wet and weary, and by this hand," says the chronicler, "his appearance was pitiful. He lay down before the chief, and cried bitterly and howled.
" ''Tis likely, my dog,' saith Fionn, 'that our heads are in great danger this day.'"
Another time, the Fenian host having killed a huge boar, Ossian, the bard and prophet, ordered it to be burnt as of demon race. Bran, hearing this, went out readily and knowingly, and he brings in three trees in his paw; no one knew from whence; but the trees were put into the fire and the great pig was burnt, and the ashes of the beast were cast into the sea.
The Fenian princes generally went to the hunt accompanied altogether by about three thousand hounds; Bran leading, the wisest and fleetest of all. The chiefs formed a goodly army, a thousand knights or more--each wearing a silken shirt and a chotan of fine silk, a green mantle and fine purple cloak over to protect it; a golden diademed helmet on the head, and a javelin in each man's hand.
Once, a chief, being jealous of the splendour of the Fenian princes, became their bitter enemy, and set himself to curse Bran above all hounds in the land.
But Fionn answered, "If thou shouldest curse Bran, my wise, intelligent dog, not a room east or west in thy great mansion but I will burn with fire."
So Bran rested on the mountain with Fionn, his lord and master, and was safe from harm.
Yet, so fate decreed, Bran finally met his death by means of a woman. One day a snow-white hart, with hoofs that shone like gold, was scented on the hill, and all the hounds pursued, Bran leading. hour after hour passed by, and still the hart fled on, the hounds following, till one by one they all dropped off from weariness, and not one was left save Bran. Then the hart headed for the lake, and reaching a high cliff, she plunged from it straight down into the water; the noble hound leaped in at once after her, and seized the hart as she rose to the surface; but at that instant she changed into the form of a beautiful lady, and laying her hand upon the head of Bran, she drew him down beneath the water, and the beautiful lady and Fionn's splendid hound disappeared together and were seen no more. But in memory of the event the cliff from which he leaped is called Coegg-y-Bran; while the lake and the castle beside it are called Tiernach Bran (the lordship of Bran) to this day. So the name and memory of Fionn's hound, and his wisdom and achievements are not forgotten by the people; and many dogs of the chase are still called after him, for the name is thought to bring luck to the hunter and sportsman. But the C'ailleach Biorar (the Hag of the Water) is held in much dread, for it is believed that she still lives in a cave on the hill, and is ready to work her evil spells whenever opportunity offers, and her house is shown under the cairn, also the beaten path she traversed to the lake. Many efforts have been made to drain the lake, but the Druid priestess, the hag of the Water, always interferes, and casts some spell to prevent the completion of the work. The water of the lake has, it is said, the singular property of turning the hair a silvery white; and the great Fionn having once bathed therein, he emerged a withered old man, and was only restored to youth by means of strong spells and incantations.
In Cormac's Glossary there is an interesting account of how the first lapdog came into Ireland, for the men of Britain were under strict orders that no lapdog should be given to the Gael, either of solicitation or of free will, for gratitude or friendship.
Now it- happened that Cairbré Musc went to visit a friend of his in Britain, who made him right welcome and offered him everything he possessed, save only his lapdog, for that was forbidden by the law. Yet this beautiful lapdog was the one only possession that Cairbré coveted, and he laid his plans cunningly to obtain it.
There was a law at that the in Britain to this effect: "Every criminal shall be given as a forfeit for his crime to the person he has injured."
Now Cairbré had a wonderful dagger, around the haft of which was an adornment of silver and gold. It was a precious jewel, and he took fat meat and rubbed it all over the haft, with much grease. Then he set it before the lapdog, who began to gnaw at the haft, and continued gnawing all night till the morning, so that the haft was spoiled and was no longer beautiful.
Then on the morrow, Cairbró made complaint that his beautiful dagger was destroyed, and he demanded a just recompense.
"That is indeed fair," said his friend, "I shall pay a price for the trespass."
"I ask no other price," said Cairbré, "than what the law of Britain allows me, namely, the criminal for his crime."
So the lapdog was given to Cairbré, and it was called ever after Mug-Eimé, the slave of the haft, which name clung to it because it passed into servitude as a forfeit for the trespass.
Now when Cairbré brought it back to Erin with him, all the kings of Ireland began to wrangle and contend for possession of the lapdog, and the contention at last ended in this wise--it was agreed that the dog should abide for a certain the in the house of each king. Afterwards the dog littered, and each of them had a pup of the litter, amid from this stock descends every lapdog in Ireland from that time till now.
After a long while the lapdog died, and the bare skull being brought to the blind poet Maer to try his power of divination, he at once exclaimed, through the prophetic power and vision in him, "O Mug-Eimé! this is indeed the head of Mug-Eimé, the slave of the haft, that was brought into Ireland and given over to the fate of a bondsman, and to the punishment of servitude as a forfeit."
The word hound entered into many combinations as a name for various animals. Thus the rabbit was called, "the hound of the brake;" the hare was the "brown hound;" the moth was called "the hound of fur," owing to the voracity with which it- devoured raiment. And the otter is still called by the Irish Madradh-Uisgue (the dog of the water).
The names of most creatures of the animal kingdom were primitive, the result evidently of observation. Thus the hedgehog was named "the ugly little fellow." The ant was the "slender one." The trout, Breac, or "the spotted," from the skin. And the wren was called "the Druid bird," because if any one understood the chirrup, they would have a knowledge of coming events as foretold by the bird.