This section is from the book "Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, And Superstitions Of Ireland", by Jane Francesca Wilde. Also available from Amazon: Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, And Superstitions Of Ireland.
Some very weird superstitions exist in Ireland concerning the howling of dogs. If 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 a dog. And this doleful lamentation was also common to other nations of antiquity. The Hebrews, Greeks, and 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, and 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 howl. 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 time 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 time ; 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 (Cam's gracilis Hibernicits) 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 time 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 " Brans" 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, weary and wet, and by this hand," says the chronicler, " his appearance was pitiful. He Jay 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.