Ritual Hounds v. 2
In memory of Irony, Bran, Scolaighe, Cù, Òrlaith, Sachairi, and Gráinne… and Gleann, the greatest Ritual Dog of all
by Saigh Kym Lambert (copyright 1999, 2004, 2012 © Saigh Kym Lambert, all rights reserved do not republish anywhere)
That this was sent by someone from the Pagan Community was shocking. Why? Because I figured that the connotations of the word “use” in such a context to be something that would flung by the most blatant anti-Pagan fundamentalist Christian. To be accused of somehow “using” an animal companion from another “Pagan” was very upsetting. The context of this exchange was that I my site, which was at the time only this Hound section, was being rejected from a Pagan banner exchange (remember those) due to it not being Pagan. At the same time several cat sites were already on the exchange.*
We don’t use our dogs in ritual we include them. They are, after all, a part of our family. And if they did not want to be there, they certainly would not be ( in fact, if we’re doing a cold, wet Samhuinn our Greyhounds may well wait at home while we do the offerings outside with our fuzzier dogs, but will happily accept the blessing when we get to the house and cuddle us while we feast) for trying to run a ritual with unhappy animals present is not going to work. But what role do they play? And how aware are they?
One of the classic ideas of animals in Pagan ritual or magical work is, of course, the “familiar.” Well, then I guess we can see where the idea of “using comes in, if any modern Pagans had familiars. Classically, familiars ran errands for a witch, or even let the witch use their body to travel in. And during the Witch Trials familiars were not thought to be animals at all but demons in animals form. The idea of the ”familiar” does seem to be a production of the Witch Trials to begin with, it is difficult to say how much it was rooted in reality and how much it was a way to get rid of a lonely and inconvenient person who, due to the loneliness, might be the most likely to have a pet. Beyond the historical possibilities, the modern usage of the term “familiar” indicates an animal companion that in some way aids with magical workings, offering energy, or grounding the modern Witch. An animal that might also communicate on a different level than most do with the Witch, who might “find things out” (that running errands thing), or such. And this has never been the relationship I have felt for all the years my animals have shared ritual or magical work with me.
With my cats and ferrets there might have seemed more of a familiar relationship in some ways, but not completely even in the most modern interpretation of the word. My cats actually seldom had anything to do with ritual at all. Some would meditate with me however and help me ground out. One, Mojo, however never let me go into trance when he was around, there was a reason for this, I believe, for he came into my life when another magic user was trying to attack me in my dreams and at first he would never let me even sleep through the night, later just freaking every time I started to get into a deep trance. My ferret, Mugwort, did seem to have a natural love for herbs (hence the name) and we usually did have him running about during ritual and at Imbolc when our “wine” (I was still Wiccan at the time) was milk, we would let him “bless” it by drinking a bit, as we had found some obscure reference to such a milk blessing. (It seems this was actually a cure for whooping cough in Ireland and Britain)
The dogs however, always had a clear purpose in ritual. Guardian. With the Doberman it was a bit overly obvious, as he was a guard dog. But even a Toy Poodle was more than able to determine Otherworldly or this worldly interference. Gabe, my first dog of my own, would lie at the edge of the circle and keep an eye on things. As Gaelic Heathens, this role is even more defined.
In our ritual, at least ideally, there are many more participants than just priestly. As Tuath nan Sgàthan was rather small even at its largest incarnation, members often wear more than one hat in the ritual. But one of those “hats” is that of warrior. The warrior’s role in the ritual is multiple in its own, and preferably there would be more than one. On one hand we watch out for Otherworldly interference, on another we watch out for this worldly interference. We are the ones that, without any ritual weapons we might have in the ritual area, would leave the ritual to extend a friendly hand to anyone passing by who is a bit too curious or looks like they might cause trouble if the ritual was in a public place. And if trouble starts we’re the ones that try to deflect it, working with any needed law enforcement (who would be in charge at that point, of course). The hounds would be with the warriors (again that is if things were perfect and the warrior didn’t have to sometimes pass them to another person while s/he did something else) watching. In Celtic cultures dogs have always been known for seeing into the Otherworld better than we, actually this is probably pretty universal. And, of course, they are and always have been guardians of the World we are in as well.
Warriors are also the ones that are likely, along with any healers and counseling clergy, to be watching how folks in the ritual are doing. Likely we would be the first to notice if someone is having a problem, whether a physical illness or a spiritual crisis. And part of our training in crisis intervention is to help talk people down when they are in crisis, as well as helping someone out of the ritual area, getting them a chair or a drink of water, or whatever is needed. Healers and some clergy would be involved to if they are present in that Tribe. And the hounds are part of this. Most dogs, as well as being very keyed into the energies of the environment, are very sensitive to people’s state of well being. And dogs are very comforting to those in crisis. They can help someone ground out, give comfort to someone feeling ill. This is of course contingent on the person being comfortable with the dogs, something that should be known about all in the ritual before it starts.
Of course involving any dog in a ritual creates certain problems. One that has often plagued us before moving to the country is where to have the ritual. We held public rituals for several years, so we had to have space comfortable to strangers. As we share a back yard with our neighbors, and there were, um some issues with them about who is responsible and has usage of the yard (which meant it was often disgusting and dangerously filthy), that was not our favorite choice. Parks often do not allow dogs; for Imbolc, which we do indoors, we were faced with the fact that most UU churches aren’t going to smile on them in their building either. So, finding a place was difficult until we got our own land.
And there is the fact that dogs, like young children, often do not understand that the offerings are off limits. Keeping our hounds who are walking stomachs from eating the offerings is often a challenge. In our outdoor rituals it’s not that difficult, we keep them leashed and most offerings go into the fire. But for Imbolc and our regular devotional offerings, we have to keep an eye on them. Our house altar was raised, as it had been a coffee table which was just too easy for them to surf, now it is two coffee table height and that means they have to reach up. So while the offerings are on the altars, the hounds are not out of somebody’s sight. And when they are later deposited outside, it is away from where they can get to them.
When we do our rituals after our offerings and the omen, we share a food or drink as a symbol of Blessing in return. This is something that all present must partake, so along with trying to always be careful to check for any humans’ food sensitivities, we also make sure it’s dog safe. Even though it often is not something most folks would consider feeding dogs. However, ours eat everything, so they have joined us with berries, apples, cakes, and a lick of milk. When I was practicing Wicca and had Gabe, who was a tad fussier, she always had her own “cakes and wine” which was a dog biscuit and water (which I’d rub on her lips as you can’t exactly convince a dog to drink just because it’s “time”). So there are alternatives, but I do think it is important, no matter the tradition, that any such ritual sharing of food or drink involve the non-humans as well even if it means they have something different than the humans.
And in answer to the “wise sage” quoted at the top, our hounds obviously love to be involved in ritual. And why not? It means they are with us, it means they have something to do and dogs need to have jobs or they get bored. And of course, they love the blessing/treat. Do they understand the spiritual aspect of it? That would take someone better at communicating with them than I am to know for sure. But there is often an obvious awareness that there is more Otherworld activity around us than there might otherwise be. But I don’t think that animals are ever in “mundane space” and perhaps that is their biggest role in ritual, to help us see that what we humans often feel we need to make things “sacred” is just our own lacking, that we should be able to connect with our Gods and the Otherworld at all times, like they can. That everything we do is magical and sacred.
I hope that this page grows as we do more and more ritual with our hounds and we may include some stories as they happen (or I think of them). For more on how I’ve found canines to be important on my own path and some stuff on deity connections please go to Canines on my Path. For how hounds played an important role in Celtic culture with a bit of their connection to deity and heroes please check out The Celtic Hound.
I further explore the canine nature of the Irish warrior on Scáth na Feannóige
*This turned out to be a blessing, as not long after this the “gentleman” who owned the exchange turned it over as a porn exchange, pumping full-on pornographic images on all the Pagan sites that were allowed on it.
Contents and design, except where noted otherwise, copyright © 1999, 2004, 2012 Saigh Kym Lambert
2 hounds Chris’ Celtic Clip Art –dead link