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Death Dog

icon of an indo-european death dog sharvara garm cerber surma ortros

Sharvara (शर्वर) is a Dog of Yama an ancient Hindu religion. It is one of the two dogs that guard the netherworld. Sharvara is identified with the constellation Canis Major, the other dog with Canis Minor, together they guard the gates of the netherworld, known as pitriloka or vaivasvataloka, which is the domain of Yama. The word sharvara means variegated (streaked or spotted with a variety of colours) or spotted. In older Sanskrit it is written as कर्वर (karvara) and means: variegated, sin, tiger, demon. It is a cognate to Greek "Kerberos", Finnish "kirjava", Croatian "šaren". Yama (Yima) in Zoroastrianism guards hell with help of two four-eyed dogs.

The line in Rig Veda about the two dogs of Yama is the following: "Run and outspeed the two dogs, Saramā's offspring, brindled, four-eyed, upon thy happy pathway. Draw nigh then to the gracious-minded Fathers where they rejoice in company with Yama.". Their mother (female dog) Sarama appears also in an earlier story about the Panis (cognate to Polish "pan" meaning "lord", in one hymn Indra himself is addressed as "pani", "pań"). The Panis appear in Rig Veda 10.108 as watchers over stolen cows. They are located behind the stream Rasā ("moisutre", "humidity", cognate to Latvian "rasa") and sought out by Sarama. They boast to Sarama that they are well-armed and will not yield the cows without battle, and that the cows are furthermore well hidden in a rocky chamber. Sarama threatens them with the might of Indra and the Angirasas (fire priests) who will recover the cows.

In Norse religion the goddess of death Hel had a huge dog named Garm in her realm. He is blood-stained and guards the gates of Niflheim. In Greek mythology the hellhound Cerberus belonged to Hades, the Greek god of the underworld. Cerberus was said to be a massive, three-headed black dog that guarded the entrance to the underworld.

In Greek mythology Orthros (Ὄρθρος) was a two-headed dog who guarded Geryon's cattle and was killed by Heracles. He was the offspring of the monsters Echidna and Typhon, and the brother of Cerberus, who was also a multi-headed guard dog of Hades.

From Welsh tales, the Cŵn Annwn (Kun Annun) are the spectral hunting hounds of Arawn, the ruler of the Welsh Underworld Annwn. The hounds are said to be of white coloration with red ears, red being the color associated with death for the Celts and white being associated with the supernatural. They are mentioned, although not by name, as also having Gwyn ap Nudd as their master. Both Arawn and Gwyn are lords of the Underworld and of the Fair Folk. The Cŵn Annwn are said to hunt the area around the mountain Cadair Idris, where their howling foretells death of those that hear it. It is also said that their howling is louder the further away they are, with the volume becoming softer and softer as they near their prey.

In Kalevala one of the challenges Lemminkäinen faced was a character named Surma. Surma was a terrible beast which embodied sudden, violent death and guarded the gates of the Tuonela (the underworld) to prevent escape. Surma is often described as being a large dog with a snake-tail and can turn people into stone (with a stare). An often-used Finnish metaphor is "surman suuhun" meaning "into Surma's mouth", as if the victim was mauled to death by Surma.

Tuonela is described as being at the Northernmost part of the world but is sectioned apart from the world of the living by a great divide. In the divide flows the dark river of Tuonela. The river is wild, and the dead can be seen trying to swim across it. The dead must cross the river, either by a thread bridge, swimming, or taking a boat piloted by the daughter of Tuoni. The river is guarded by a black swan that sings death spells. At times living people visited Tuonela to gather information and spells. The journey required a trip through thorn thickets and dangerous woods, and the defeat of the monster Surma, a flesh-tearing monster that works for the goddess of decay, Kalma (In Norse religion Hel could come from earlier form *Kel or *Kelma). Once in Tuonela, the living were not allowed to leave. They would be welcomed by Tuonetar, who would offer them a memory-erasing beer to erase their former lives.

The guardians of the underworld were not so uncommon in other non-Indo-European religions too. In Sumerian, Babylonian, and Akkadian mythology, Neti is a minor god of the underworld. He is the chief gatekeeper of the netherworld and a servant of the goddess Ereshkigal. Neti features prominently in the epic legend of "Inanna's Descent into the Underworld" when he opens the seven gates of the realm and admits the goddess, removing one emblem of her power at the threshold of each gate until she is ultimately left naked and powerless.

In Aztec mythology Xolotl was a god of fire and lightning. He was commonly depicted as a dog-headed man and was a soul-guide for the dead. He was also god of twins, monsters, misfortune, sickness, and deformities. Xolotl is the canine brother and twin of Quetzalcoatl, the pair being sons of the virgin Chimalma. He is the dark personification of Venus, the evening star, and was associated with heavenly fire.

The mytheme of a dog guarding the Otherworld (Land of the Dead) possibly stems from an older Ancient North Eurasian (ANE) belief, as suggested by similar motifs found in Indo-European, Native American and Siberian mythology. In Siouan, Algonquian, Iroquoian, and in Central and South American beliefs, a fierce guard dog was located in the Milky Way, perceived as the path of souls in the afterlife, and getting past it was a test. The Siberian Chukchi and Tungus believed in a guardian-of-the-afterlife dog and a spirit dog that would absorb the dead man's soul and act as a guide in the afterlife. Anthony and Brown note that it might be one of the oldest mythemes recoverable through comparative mythology.


Article created on the 11th of August 2021.


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