Dogs are our companions, service animals, and best friends. So, it’s no surprise that they would also be by our side to guide us in the afterlife.
Dogs were likely domesticated in southern China around 14,000 BCE. By 10,000 BCE, Canis familiaris was playing an important role in the lives of humans across the world. Dogs were buried with humans, featured in ancient astrological systems, and they were depicted in a wide variety of myths and rituals. In these myths and rituals, dogs serve as guardians, hellhounds, and psychopomps, or after-death guides.
Dogs in the Afterlife: Ancient History, Myths and Religious Beliefs
Dogs as Guardians and Companions
Dogs are often depicted as guardians of death realms or the deities associated with death. The Greek goddess Hekate (or Hecate) was the goddess of death, ghosts, and acts typically classified as magic. Her association with dogs may have originated with her original role as a birth goddess; birth goddesses often received sacrifices of dogs.
As Hekate became associated with death and ghostly hauntings, around the fifth century BCE, she was portrayed as being accompanied by bands of howling dogs during her nighttime strolls. Because dogs have excellent night vision and were known for herding and guarding fields and homesteads, they were often associated with the gods that wandered the night and the line between this world and the next.
This description is also what gives rise to the folkloric entity of the “black dog,” or “grim” (yes, of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban fame), that are associated with death and churchyards. Although sometimes depicted as an omen of death or as servants of the devil, the Church Grim is the guardian spirit that protects the Christian churchyard from demonic enemies. It was not unusual in the 19th and even 20th centuries for a dog to be buried under the cornerstone of a church to honor the custom that the first person buried in the graveyard was destined to protect it. Instead, our trusted companion, the dog, took on this role.
Dogs as Hellhounds
In addition to their role as guardians, dogs of death are also cast as hellhounds that track down the errant dead to return them to the next world, or to inspire terror. The “black dog” folklore discussed above sometimes overlaps with the English conception of hellhounds. One of the most famous examples is Cerberus, the hound of Hades, which also stems from Greek mythology (also made popular by Harry Potter).
Cerberus is the multi-headed dog who guarded the gates of the Underworld. Its task was to prevent the dead from leaving, and to track down escapees, if needed. Hellhounds are often depicted in multiple guises or pairs to represent the two-sidedness of life/light and death/darkness; other examples are Odin’s hounds Gifr and Geri and the hellhounds of Armenian legend, Siaw (“Black”) and Spitak (“White”).
Representing the dual nature of the hellhound role, dog-like creatures “El Cadejo” of Central American folklore have both good and evil Cadejos. The good Cadejo will protect the vulnerable, like drunks and vagabonds, as they walk home to safety. The evil Cadejo will lure people to make bad decisions and to their ultimate death, leading them to the afterlife in a more roundabout way.
Dogs as Psychopomps
Dogs are also found in the underworld as psychopomps, or guides who lead the recently deceased through the paths to the underworld or the place of the dead. The Egyptian god Anubis was depicted as having a canine appearance with the head of a dog or jackal. In addition to his role assisting Osiris as the final judge of the soul, Anubis was believed to be the protector of the dead. He stood with the dead even after judgment, facilitating their transition into the next world.
Anubis also had a more physical connection with dogs. In ancient Egypt, the city in which Anubis was honored was called Cynopolis, or “Dog City.” It was a necropolis of dogs located in the Nile delta that featured millions of mummified dogs.
In Mesoamerica, the Aztec dog-god Xólotl also serves as a guide in the underworld. Unlike Anubis, Xólotl has a more sinister presentation and is also the god of monstrosities. Not exactly Fido. However, the Xoloitzcuintli, or Xolo, a hairless dog bred in Mesoamerica have long been regarded as guardians and protectors. The commonly called “Mexican hairless dog” gets its name from Xólotl and “itzcuintli” (dog). Many ancients went so far as to sacrifice their Xolo at death and bury them with their owners to act as a guide for the soul in the underworld.
Do Dogs Go to Heaven?
Dogs have long held a reverent place in our afterlives and hearts, but some groups have been less clear about the state of our pets. The Catholic Church has long debated whether or not animals have a place in the Christian heaven. In 2014, Pope Francis suggested in a speech at the Vatican that animals do indeed join us in the afterlife. Some pet owners, like the ancient Aztecs, were known to euthanize their dogs so that both human and companion could be buried together and reawaken in the afterlife together.
Dogs have been closely connected with humans for thousands of years and they continue to play important roles in our lives today. And while there are fewer depictions of them in modern myths and beliefs as afterlife guides or hellhounds, we honor their deaths and mourn them after they are gone. And today, some cemeteries will now allow people to be buried with their pets, so you can physically remain together after death–best friends “furever.”