It would be a travesty for me not to dedicate at least one post to all things Canine. They are a few, several, a lot of my favourite things. I have two corporeal familiaris; but there is more than one kind of familiar, and there is more than one kind of “dog person” if the rumours are true.
It’s not something one might immediately think of as being Australian. Not like, say, kangaroos & koalas. Dogs as pets are everywhere, sure, but dogs in folk-lore and myth tend to belong more immediately to the Northern Hemisphere, at least in the overarching culture of Europeans, one only need think of the Black Shuck, Hellhounds, Kyrkogrim and Hans Christen Andersen. There also tends to be a lot of wolf when one considers Asia, and especially North America, as well as Europe. Wolf myth and folklore abounds! Literally everywhere. Just not so obvious in Australia. Yet our collective colonial and Indigenous experience with canines is abundant, unusual, generally very shady and often unpleasant.
The Australian Dingo, actually turns out to be something else. An immigrant. And a dog. At least for the most part. It’s scientific classification has changed a few times. Theorised to have arrived around 4,000 years ago (and some suggest up to 11,000 years ago) it arrived already tame, with people. Dingos readily breed with wild dogs imported since European invasion, genetic studies that have been undertaken in more recent decades struggle to find ‘pure breeds’ and suggest several possible ancestors. But they don’t seem to have been a mixed breed, so to speak. It is highly possibly the dingos in Australia come from a very few animals, (and possibly even one individual!) and one kind or breed of dog, or breed of Canis lupis familiaris. These days they are more commonly referred to as Canis lupis dingo. Australian law only counts the dingo as native in part. And therefore only half protected, and in some cases entirely fenced out.
Whilst these things are not really what I want to discuss in terms of this animal, it is interesting to note; its very unusual origin story, and that Australians still hold such diametrically opposed views regarding the animal, serve to add to the overall character of this creature.
Regardless of how comparatively recent their appearance on the continent, the Dingo features heavily in the Aboriginal Dreamtime. As well as continually in Aboriginal society. Probably the most thorough and oft quoted read available on the internet for those interested is Aboriginal Dogmatics: Canines in Theory, Myth and Dogma by Erich Kolig (1978), an anthropological article.
Dingoes are, suffice to say, vastly interesting. They are almost always agents of destruction and chaos in the Dreaming that we know, serve almost universally as spiritual security, are often considered the embodiment of ancestor spirits and have names and status in clans, and yet are regularly consider the cad of the animal world and various dingo monikers are also used as slurs to describe people who fail to adhere to Law and social conventions. What I find interesting is how alike they seem to be to their canine cousins in European Myth. At once a force of chaos and terror, but recognised as having an important role to play in the spiritual well-being of people and environment, reminiscent of the Kyrkogrim, wolf and others. Their reputation as promiscuous cads of wanton shagging reminds me that the word for wolf in Latin lupa was also slang for “whore” and continued to describe sexually promiscuous males even to the present day. It seems canine is what canine does regardless of the scientific nomenclature. Which is to straddle the gaps between slutty Hellhound, keeper of Ancestral wisdom, and man’s best friend with remarkable ease.
There are, as it happens, no dingoes in Tasmanian. Dogs arrived with Europeans for their hunting ability. “Kangaroo Dogs” were highly valued, and then as the wild dogs became a nuisance to sheep farmers, dogs on the Island came to be rather on par with dingoes on the Mainland. At least in the minds of the Colonials, dogs and dingoes and all those things that could be either were vermin.
The exception of course was the infamous Dog Line of Eagle-Hawk Neck. They served a very specific purpose. Not a convicted man’s best friend by any stretch.
The Dog Line was an organic alarm system to prevent escapees from the notorious Port Arthur penal colony, stretching across the approx. 30m wide isthmus the only way out, and at it’s height consisted of 18 dogs, chained and apparently, half starved making them quite viscous. Their value was not as tools to bring down escapees, but rather to alert guards over the sound of the waves.
This dark and gloomy guard dog persona the image inspires is so very European, and partakes entirely of those sorts of myths of hunting hounds and Hell’s own. But whilst that was happening, Tasmanian Aboriginals were happily taking on the wild dogs whose numbers were growing on the Island, and forming relationships not entirely unlike those of their Mainland counterparts had long had with Dingoes.
Two in One
It is easy to think, given these things, there is not something or anything at all particular to Dingoes or even dogs in Australia different to canines dog and / or wolves anywhere in the world. There is Dingo Dreaming, no doubt, but I do not know it. But for the purposes of understanding the spiritual nature of this beast from a European Witchcraft perspective, what I do know, and has entered into a broader cultural understanding, informs my experience, and it occurs to me the Dingo straddles more gaps than they have perhaps been given credit for so far.
On June 15 2012, noted environmental scientist Tim Flannery wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald following the fourth and final Coronial Inquest into the death of Azaria Chamberlain in 1980, which found her mother Lindy Chamberlain innocent, and that a dingo did in fact take and kill little Azaria:
At the time of the first two coronial inquests I was a doctoral student and my biases were such that I accepted Lindy Chamberlain’s guilt uncritically.[…] [M]ore significant, I think, was Lindy’s assertion that a dingo had taken her baby. Dingoes were introduced from south-east Asia about 4000 years ago, and most Australians thought of them as part of the native fauna. Biologists feared that they would face widespread persecution if found to be the cause of Azaria’s death.
In her post ‘Dingo Dreaming‘ at Historians are Past Caring, Marion Elizabeth Diamond wrote of the Tasmanian adoption of kangaroo dogs, ” there seems to be a dog-sized hole in the human heart – or vice versa. Although Tasmanians had no experience of dogs, within a few years, they were adopting these kangaroo dogs, presumably as pets.” I began to think that perhaps, actually, there is a wolf-shaped hole in the Australian myth experience, particularly for those of us of European ancestry; that Tim Flannery is correct, there’s a wild space that we’re ready and waiting to be fearful of, have defined and understand its avatar. And the animal who bares the brunt of the image of the tooth and claw of wild Nature outside the hedge, where the Wolf occupies the apex in Nature and the mind in Europe and North America, is also the same animal that here is and has always been also the thing children play with and keep feet warm at night. The Dingo, having dispatched the thylacine on the Mainland, (and Europeans having done so in Tasmanian), embodies both the dog, the worker, the familiar, and the wild apex predictor Wolf.
Further, where the spectral, spiritual omen/guide/teacher/mythical creature and the corporeal canine as both Wolf and Dog in Europe are often vastly and deeply separated in character, (that is to say, for example, the Dogs of the Wild Hunt are no very alike to the the family pet, and the Ancestral Wolf Spirit Teacher not wholly alike to the pack hunting in the snow) the Dingo does both, wholly embodied. Barking dogs in the neighbourhood are not the sound of the Wild Hunt. Wolves howling in the forest not always an omen of spiritual significance. But the Dingo is precisely that animal. Ancestor embodied, omen of spiritual alarm, familiar foot warmer, lone baby eating wolf, pet. Honoured part of the ordered space of Clan and home, and Chaos Maker of the Dark Wild.
Wolf and dog myth, and even our scientific and anthropological understanding, point to a species that we share an evolution and magic with. An animal kin. Dogs seem to be our shared children in a sense, humanity has been altered in our evolution by our participation with both. We seem to share a Wisdom ancestry. The Dingo, having travelled around the world with us to find itself a friend of a stone age culture formed free of that relationship, has come full circle. Representing a sort of fusion of the two arms of the canine tree as they find expression in both dogs and wolves. Perhaps then the Dingo is perfectly Mercurial, perfectly flexible, trickster, perfectly capable of both being here and there, spirit and material, in the very same way humanity is, occupying that separate space that one might compare to the place of the human spirit worker or witch or shaman. Capable of both healing and destructive magic. Wild and domesticated as it chooses.
Perhaps it is fair to say I am very biased. The young girl is me, and the rather old dog that looks remarkably like a Dingo cross is my Woof, circa 1988. And the philosophical looking creature is named Brindle.
Brindle, as it happens, is not the first Brindle to have been imported onto the Island and who chased kangaroos. The first Brindle belonged to a man named G.P. Harris, a surveyor, who wrote to his mother from Van Dieman’s Land in October 1805 of his property and his pack of Kangaroo dogs “as good as any in the whole country- namely Lagger, Weasel, Lion, Boatswain, Brindle etc etc”. Of course, we try very much to prevent that happening at all. And no Bennett’s Wallabies have been harmed. Thankfully, my Brindle is not as good as any in the country at that particular sport. She’s more a one dog night sort of girl…
P.S. ‘C’ is for Canine! This post participates with the Pagan Blog Project!
1. Van Diemen’s Land, James Boyce, Black Inc., 2009, pg.47 (Which is excellent and available here.)