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This first chapter describes all those superstitious omens that have traditionally been deemed to indicate that death is nigh.

The most common death omens are those related to animals, usually domesticated ones such as the dog and rooster, and also wild ones, particularly nocturnal birds of prey and crows.

Church bells tolling for no reason or the bell tower clock chiming during the consecration at Mass, along with the amount weighed, measured or paid coinciding with the amount requested, strange cracking sounds or noises in the house and other different occurrences, have also been considered death omens.

Animal-related omens

These omens include those associated with strange behaviour of some domesticated animals, mainly dogs and roosters, and also cows and cats; or with the presence close to the house, sometimes accompanied by hooting, screeching or cawing, of barn owls and other birds of prey, along with crows. Insects, such as blowflies and black butterflies, swarming in a room are also believed to herald death.

Dog howling

Dog’s howling is best known omen of death.

In Bermeo (B), for example, it is a widespread belief that dogs have a special ability to know when death is approaching. When they bark non-stop at night, they are heralding the death of someone in the neighbourhood. In the 1950s, a dog barked in a vegetable garden in Atalde for two or three consecutive nights and the local women began to say that someone was going to die. A woman who lived near to that vegetable patch suddenly died, which led to all sorts of comments. These included that she had stolen so much during her life that the devil had circled her home in her last days, that dogs had a special ability to sense the presence of the devil and that explained the barking.

Rooster crowing

The rooster crowing, oilarraren kukurrukua, at night or at the wrong time is also seen as an omen of death or at least impending doom. The bird was killed or sold in some places to avert the omen and some people also threw a handful of salt into the fire, in the same way as when they heard a dog howling. Similar beliefs related to hens were also seen in some locations.

Behaviour of livestock and cats

The belief in some locations is that the farmstead's livestock become restless when a death is about to occur. In Apodaca (A), they say this about the oxen. In Aramaio (A), they also say that the livestock acts strangely, seems sad, jumps, etc. In Berganzo (A), they say that restless livestock augers death or bad weather. In Berastegi (G), some people believe that the cows in stalls moo in a different way. In Aoiz (N), they say the same about the oxen.

Screeching or presence of night birds

The screeching of some nocturnal birds of prey and sometimes their mere presence have been seen as harbingers of death. This very common belief has possibly been related with barn owls in many locations, but inaccuracies related to the popular names for those birds were noted when conducting the survey and it was sometimes difficult to establish whether the people interviewed were talking about barn owls or other birds of prey involved in this belief, such as long-eared owls, little owls and tawny owls.

Presence of crows and other birds

In addition to the nocturnal birds of prey, other birds, particularly crows, have been seen as harbingers of doom. In the same way as with the species mentioned in the previous section, their cawing and mere presence has been interpreted as heralding death.

In Mélida (N), it is believe that a crow circling the case heralds death and the saying goes: “When the crow circles a home, carrion is near”.

Presence of insects

The presence of certain insects, mainly blow flies and black butterflies, has been association to a harbinger of death.

In Berganzo (A), it was believe that if a black blow fly circled a person, their death was nigh. The people surveyed in San Martín de Unx (N) had heard that when a fat black blow fly comes into a room, someone will die, but they think it is hearsay.

Omens related with facts and events

Not all death omens are animal-related and there are other different ones that are listed below.

Bells tolling

The most widespread one is based on the bells tolling for no reason.

In Berganzo (A), the bell reverberating more than usual was taken as a sign that death was coming. When the bells of the church in Apellániz were heard in San Román de Campezo (A), they thought someone in San Román would die. They also said that when the sound of the bell or the clock is sustained, someone in the village was going to die.

Paying, measuring or weighing just enough

This section considers a new coincidence considered to be an omen of death. In this case, the bad omen affects the person who, when asked for money or any other products, accurately pays, measures or weighs the amount requested. Paradoxically, this is sometimes interpreted the other way round, so that person is guaranteed to live for a certain period of time.

Noises and other coincidences

Several death omens are different to the ones considered so far. The most common is the one when strange or sudden noises are associated with death.

Interpreting noises as an omen of death is related to the belief that they are supposedly caused by ghosts[1]. Thus, when someone was ill at home in Pipaón (A) and strange noises were heard or objects fell for no reason, they were said to be caused by ghosts telling the ill person and the family that the patient was going to die soon.

Omens resulting from the act of dying

At times, how the person looked after they died was taken to be a premonition of future deaths.

The most significant one in this regard is that the corpse had its eyes open. It used to be said that this was a sign that someone else would soon die (Lecároz-N)[2], who could well be a member of the deceased’s family.. This explains the concern about trying to close them as quickly as possible (Bermeo, Kortezubi-B).

  1. See the chapter Ghosts and Wandering Spirits.
  2. Resurrección M.ª de AZKUE. Euskalerriaren Yakintza, I, Madrid, 1935, p. 217.