Canine Corner

The human-animal bond

Religious Rituals and Dog Abuse: The Bizaare Case of Dog Spinning

Rituals involving the sacrifice of dogs have not really disappeared.

Just when I thought that religious practices that abuse dogs as part of their ceremonies had disappeared into the past, a new one comes to light, or in this case an old practice that is making a comeback.

 The sacrifice and torture of dogs was widespread in antiquity, and could be found in many regions around the world, including Greece, China, and in the Americas amongst the Plains Indians. It was in Greece, however, that the practice was most strongly engaged in.

 It all had to do with the goddess Hecate, who is associated with death, ghosts, infernal spirits, sorcery, disease and witchcraft. In modern times she is claimed as the goddess of witches. Dogs were closely associated with Hecate in the classical world, and she is usually depicted accompanied by two ghostly dogs. Hecate’s presence is usually announced by the barking or howling of dogs, which is also taken to mean that something evil or unfortunate is about to happen. Sometimes referred to as the “she-dog” or “bitch”, Hecate was more feared than revered. For this reason dogs were often sacrificed to her. The idea behind killing a dog ritually was to reject Hecate's evil influence, and thus restore purity and well-being to the community.

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 The sacrifice of dogs to Hecate could be done by simply hanging it, often from a bridge, however most typically a more spectacular and complex method was used (perhaps to make sure that the goddess was paying attention). Typically a long rope was secured on top of two wooden poles. The rope was doubled and twisted so as to leave only a loop to take the dog's head. When this had been done the poles were pulled apart, or men tugged on the ends of the rope, which caused it to start unwinding at great speed. This usually broke the dog's neck. Once the rope was unwound, the dog was launched into the air thus ending the ritual.

With the coming of Christianity this practice did not end, but rather became part of the a new calendar of religious events in Greece. Thus Kynomartyrion was usually held on “Clean Monday” the first day of the Lent (forty days before Easter). The practice continued until the 1930s when complaints of animal cruelty mostly brought it to an end.

In Hungary and Bulgaria dogs were routinely sacrificed well into the modern era. These sacrifices were often associated with the construction of new buildings. Puppies were placed in sealed urns and buried next to the foundation of the structure to prevent all of those evils normally associated with Hecate. Once again the advent of Christianity had little effect on this pagan practice, and urns containing the remains of a puppy have even been found even under churches.

 In Bulgaria the ritual sacrifice of dogs was modified so that the dogs need not die in the process. The same apparatus used to spin the dogs to death in Greece was used, however instead of the noose being placed around the dog’s neck it was placed around the dog’s body. Furthermore the apparatus was now placed over a river. This ties the ritual back to Hecate and witches, since the idea is that witches, devils, and demons cannot cross running water. Although more humane, the dogs were clearly often terrified by the process.

bulgaria dog spinning ritual trichane

 

bulgarian dog spinning ritual trichane
For centuries, locals in the remote town of Brodilovo in the south-east of the country have carried out this annual Spring ritual that they call “trichane”.  That was until 2006, when Bulgaria came under close scrutiny because of its application to join the European Union. When animal activists in Europe brought this dog spinning practice to the attention of the press, the ceremony was stopped.

 Unfortunately, in times of stress and uncertainty human beings tend to regress and go back to the comfort of superstitious and ritual behaviors. Thus the mayor of Brodilovo, Petko Arnaudov, restarted the ancient ritual in 2011. He explained that tradition was renewed because the villagers were “looking for hope in the extreme bad economy” and because a recent outbreak of foot and mouth disease has brought the farming town to the brink of despair. “Nobody is killing or hurting the dogs. They are brought by their owners who love them in order to take part in this folklore ritual, which is meant to cleanse the local community of evil and to generate fertility. The dogs are spun for about 15-20 seconds, and then they fall in the water, which amounts to bathing them.”

A Bulgarian website contains a video of the ritual taken in 2011. If you click here you can see it and  evaluate the validity of the mayor's statement for yourself. To my eye this practice seems many times more abusive than a dog bath.

 When this news and videos of the dog spinning ritual got out there was an immediate uproar. Animal rights activists from Sofia and Burgas started a Facebook campaign to ban the practice, and this ultimately brought Prime Minister Boyko Borisov into the fray and he officially condemned it as "barbaric." As a result the government passed a law forcing the villagers to “tone down” the practice. To insure that the locals kept to the new guidelines, members of a group called Animal Rights Sofia guarded the banks of the Veleka River on the date scheduled for the 2012 trichane ritual.

 So what are these new guidelines? Well they do not allow any more dog spinning. However dogs can still be thrown into the river as part of a ritual, with the assumption that they can swim to safety on the other side. I suppose that this is presumed to be enough to tell Hecate, or her modern equivalent, that the people are displeased and don’t want her or her witches or demons to have any influence on their village.

 A spokesman for the town's mayor said: “It is not ideal, but it is better than it was. Some of these traditions have taken root over hundreds of years. You don't change them overnight. You cannot stop a traditional custom with a simple order.”

 Stanley Coren is the author of many books including: Born to Bark, The Modern Dog, Why Do Dogs Have Wet Noses? The Pawprints of History, How Dogs Think, How To Speak Dog, Why We Love the Dogs We Do, What Do Dogs Know? The Intelligence of Dogs, Why Does My Dog Act That Way? Understanding Dogs for Dummies, Sleep Thieves, The Left-hander Syndrome

 Copyright SC Psychological Enterprises Ltd. May not be reprinted or reposted without permission

Stanley Coren, Ph.D., F.R.S.C., is a professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia.

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