During Tihar, the festival of lights, five different elements of nature are worshipped. What many might not know is that the five elements are all associated with death, and the festival ‘Yama Panchak,’ is named after Yamaraj, god of death. But crows and dogs, particularly, are also known as ‘Yamadut’ or messengers of death, and their association with death is almost universal, even beyond the Hindu culture.
Dr. Bina Paudel, Professor of Culture at Tribhuvan University, explains that the festival is a very logical one from the ecological point of view.
“Everything in nature is connected, and by worshipping elements that are ignored everyday, we realize their importance,” she said. Dr. Paudel informs that dogs are worshipped because they help protect human lives and property, especially during Tihar when the year’s harvests are brought in. Also, they are the most lovable and attached of domesticated animals.
Birds are usually pretty and have a beautiful voice, and crows are an exception to both. But by worshipping crows, we acknowledge that even the humblest of birds has a role to play in the ecological cycle.
In the larger ecological circle, crows and dogs are eaters of carrion and help dispose of the remains of living beings. As such, they are naturally attracted to and associated with Yamaraj, the god of death. It is believed that when a person is about to die, Yamaraj does not come to fetch the dead one but sends his messengers. And true to that, a large number of crows are seen around places of death like battlefields, graveyards, and also when someone is dying.
Other birds like vultures also eat carrion, but since crows appear to foretell death, it came to be believed that they have oracular powers in other areas too. For example, in Nepal there is the belief that if a crow caws near your house, it brings news, especially of those members away from home. The news may be good or bad, and meanings are read into all kinds of crow behavior. It is said to be a good sign if you see a crow with a mouthful of meat at the beginning of a journey, and a bad sign if a crow swoops in from the left.
Recognizing their functions in nature, mythology has accorded a place for these birds which fits their activities. Crows are most prominent in Norse mythology (practiced in north European countries before the advent of Christianity) where they are associated with the father-god Odin. Odin is the god of poetry, wisdom, and not to forget, death. He has two ravens (birds similar to crows) named Hugin and Munin (Thought and Memory). They ride with him into battle, and everyday, bring him news of death from all over the world.
Hindu mythology has split the two functions of crows—messengers and symbols of death—into two parts.
Dr. Dirgha Raj Ghimire, former professor of religion at Valmiki Sanskrit University, informs that during creation, Brahmaji gave different rights to different animals. According to information found in Ananda Ramayana and Padma Puran, crows were assigned the function of traveling all over the world and communicating messages. That is the reason there is meaning in everything that crows do.
On the other hand, their function as ‘Yamadut’ is to warn of imminent death. They are the favorites of Shani, the lord of fate and destiny. Many Hindus in India feed crows during Shraddha as a symbol of death and ancestors. In Nepal, it is customary to feed crows on the tenth day of the 13-day death rituals. Dr. Ghimire advises that as messengers of death, crows should be fed everyday. But since most people forget to do so, there is a special day designated for this during Tihar.
Ravens are believed to be the spirits of dead people in Denmark, and many other mythologies, from Celtic to Greek to Swedish, have given crows predictive and/or death-related functions.
This powerful mythology has seeped into popular culture as well. In the fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire, a raven is the constant (invisible) companion of young Brandon Stark who slips in and out of consciousness after a fatal accident. The raven here is a symbol of the underworld, and Brandon emerges from the world of the dead where the raven took him. In the series Mortal Instruments, a raven called Hugo (a play on Odin’s bird Hugin) secretly watches and gathers information for years.
Odin, who takes half of the dead warriors who have gathered in the great hall of Valhalla, also has a pair of wolves. Called Geri and Freki, these wolves (from which dogs evolved) assist him in his ghostly duties.
Similar to that, Yamaraj in the Hindu mythology has two dogs: Shyam and Sadal. They guard the doors of Narka. Unlike crows which are seen as messengers, dogs are seen more as guardians, which relates to their function as guardians of human homes and properties. If you want an easy passage into hell, Dr. Ghimire recommends that you feed dogs everyday and stay in their good books.
Dogs as symbols of death make frequent appearances in Hindu mythology. In the Mahabharata, a dog follows the five Pandavas and their wife Draupadi on their final journey. Yudhishthir is asked to abandon the dog before he ascends to heaven, but he refuses because of the dog’s loyalty. It is then revealed that the dog is a form of Yamaraj himself who wanted to test Yudhishthir. A dog is also the vahana of Lord Bhairav, the god of destruction.
Perhaps the Greek guardian of hell is the most famous dog of all. Known as Cerberus, a three-headed dog stands outside the doors to the underworld kingdom of Hades. Cerberus features in many Greek stories. A notable one is the story of Orpheus, a musician. Since Cerberus eats only live meat, no one alive can pass him and enter hell with their body intact. But Orpheus, a living man in search of his dead wife, lulls Cerberus with his music and is one of the few persons to enter and exit hell.
In a playful take on this myth, JK Rowling has created Fluffy, a three-headed dog, in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Fluffy only looks fierce: if you play any musical instrument, Fluffy falls asleep. Considering that Harry was not very skilled with the flute which he used to lull Fluffy, Fluffy does not need music to be played well, unlike Cerberus who has excellent taste in music. Dog as a symbol of death makes its appearance again in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban where most of the wizarding world believes that anyone who sees the Grim, a big black dog, dies soon.
This motif has been recurring in literature for a long time. The Hound of Baskervilles, a Sherlock Holmes novella, features a hound of extraordinary size and supernatural powers, the sight of which sends people to death. In fact, even this tale borrows from old British folktales about the black dog of death.
Hence, we see that mythology draws intimately from nature, and animals are given roles according to their natural behavior. At some point human interpretation of animal behavior takes over, and we interpret things that the animals perhaps never intended. For example, the crow may not be aware of its function as a ‘messenger’ of death when it follows soldiers into battlefields; it is just acting according to its instincts. The dog may not be aware of its role as a ‘guardian’ of human property, all it cares about is its relationship with its owner.
But for humans, it is the interpretations of animal behavior that is the most relevant, which they enshrine in their mythologies, by giving divine functions and meanings to animals. These stories are replicated in popular culture and serve to embed those ideas deeper in our psyche. In the end, they strengthen our belief in a human-centered outlook where animals play peripheral and human-oriented functions.
Published in Republica on October 17