Archaeology Magazine Archive

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A dog (ca. 400 B.C.) from Arizona's White Dog Cave may have accompanied its owner to the afterworld. (Courtesy Dody Fugate)

Many ancient people assumed they would encounter dogs in the afterworld, from readers of the Rig Veda, the Vedic Sanskrit hymns composed in India in the second millennium B.C., to Greeks and Romans reared on tales of Cerberus, the three-headed hound who guards the entrance to Hades. The Aztecs even believed that the dead ascend to the afterworld by holding on to the tail of the dog god Xolotl, who also first brought people into this world when he dug a hole into the lower world. For many cultures, dogs likely served a critical role as pyschopomps, a Greek word meaning "guide of souls."

Run on the right path, past the two brindled, four-eyed dogs, the four-eyed keepers of the path, who watch over men.
Farewell to a dead man from the Rig Veda, 10.12.10-10.14.10

Dody Fugate, a curator at the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture in Santa Fe, New Mexico, has studied more than 700 dog burials in the Southwest, and believes that for many ancient Americans following shamanic ways, dogs were spiritual escorts to the afterlife. "Dogs have been a part of our lives for so long, they are hooked into our brains," she says, noting that rock art in Utah shows figures interpreted as shamans accompanied by dogs. But by about a.d. 1300, when organized religion along with the katchina cult began to replace shamanic beliefs in much of the Southwest, dogs disappear from grave sites. Fugate thinks that in the new belief systems dogs were no longer considered spiritual escorts to the next world, and were reduced to the simple role of companions in this one.