I got into my bed and I turned out the light, and I started hearing someone whistling. I don’t remember the tune, I just remember whistling. It was clear. I could hear it everywhere. In my mind, and since we lived in a two story apartment, I remember imagining a man walking across above us and down the hall, and then slowly going down the stairs. And while I imagined that, I heard the whistling got closer, and I started crying and I started to panic, and my mom came in and she was like, “what happened?” And I was like, “don’t you hear it? Someone’s whistling and I hear it coming closer and I’m really scared.” She never said anything, she just hugged me.
Since I’m an English teacher, I recently told my students about this story, and one of my students, she was like “woah, teacher teacher!” she freaked out “oh my god, that’s the silbaco” and I’m like, what or who is that? And she explained to me that it’s a Bolivian legend where if there is a man whistling, someone close to you or a family member is going to die.
I only found this out a few weeks ago, but my dad, at that time, traveled to Bolivia for a few weeks, to visit his dad and his mom and his family. He came back and a few days passed, and my grandfather died.”
- Alejandra, Bolivia (excerpt from Jim Harold’s Campfire, Episode 360)
There’s something of the foreboding in an unexpected sound piercing an otherwise placid stillness; perhaps it’s an eerie hoot borne through the evening hush, or the lull of the afternoon suddenly shaken by a grandfather clock chiming loudly off-time. It might be a mysterious whistling where there ought not be anyone to whistle, or a heavy knocking from an empty doorway. It chills the blood and brings to mind strange, dark suspicions of things to come.
Aural death omens. Those sounds that herald the approach of death. Common across cultures the world over, generations of people have heard them and known, deep down, that they signal an ending. Sometimes it’s the cry of an animal; sometimes it’s the full brassy ring of a bell or the chime of an old broken clock, or an inexplicable knocking or a strange, ghostly figure.
Perhaps my favourite living aural death omen was made famous in Edgar Allen Poe’s short story The Tell-Tale Heart:
He was still sitting up in the bed listening; –just as I have done, night after night, hearkening to the death watches in the wall.
The “death watches” being referred to were, of course, the deathwatch beetle, a woodboring beetle that makes a peculiar tap-tap-tap sound from within the walls of the home or building they’ve infested. As author Laura Martisiute suggests, the beetles’ tap-tap-tapping became associated with the long sleepless vigils held by the bedsides of the dying, during which the sounds of the beetle would persist throughout the otherwise quiet night. Over time, people came to believe that the tap-tap-tap was forecasting death rather than simply accompanying it, and they came to dread it during the long, silent nights.
The natural predator of beetles, birds, are also a common source of aural death omens. Owls in particular, generally seen as magical birds for both good and ill across many countries and cultures, are common among death-signalling birds across vast geographical expanse. The Hottentot in Southern Africa believe that the hooting of an owl predicts death, as do a number of Native American tribes, and people in Mexico and India. A relative to the owl, the tawny frogmouth, also has a cry that portends death throughout Asia and Australia.
Other notable birds whose cry serves as an omen of doom are those beautiful, shining black scavengers, the raven and the crow (whose cry sounds like “corpse, corpse, corpse,” as Nancy Richmond points out in her excellent book Appalachian Folklore Omens, Signs, and Superstitions) and the scruffy-but-actually-pretty-cute whippoorwill. Cementing in our minds the role of these birds presaging death are the common use of both in literature and film, of course, but the sight of large black birds eating a dead animal or the pretty, otherworldly cry of the whippoorwill would doubtless keep those legends alive without assistance.
In general, though, the most alarming death omens must be those animals behaving out of character and making noise when they ought not, doing things which make no sense for them to be doing. Animals are, on the whole, creatures of habit; certainly domestic animals are.
Deviations from their normal habits tend to be interpreted as death omens across the board, be it a cow lowing after midnight, a crowing hen, a black cat meowing precisely at midnight, or a beloved family dog uncharacteristically howling like a jacka. A woodpecker knocking at your door signals a coming death, as well. Certainly it may be true that animals know what we do not and cannot; who knows what an animal might see through those slitted or reflective or strange and beautiful eyes?
Bells and Clocks
It’s not just animals behaving out of character that you need to watch out for, however. There are objects behaving out of character to look out for as well. The chiming of a broken clock or a clock that chimes thirteen times is a sure sign that someone is going to die, as is a clock that chimes between hours or simply stops in the United Kingdom, as noted in Death Omens of the UK by E. Jones.
Bells could mark some real trouble as well, church bells in particular. A church bell ringing spontaneously can predict a coming death, as can a bell that rings during a hymn or a wedding. If you’d prefer to not know death is coming, avoiding clocks and church bells may not help you, certainly in the UK and Appalachia where hearing a bell ringing in your ears, sometimes called “dead bells” after the shepherd-poet James Hogg, may also foretell your doom or that of one of your family, and a sailor who hears bells and feels a phantom touch has been warned that his ship will sink.
In Wales, the phenomenon of three mysterious knocks was known as the tolaeth, and always predicted death DOUK). The same legend exists under different names in Irish, Scottish, Jewish, Indian, African, and Native American folklore. Always three knocks, always before a death. In some places it’s evil spirits, in some it’s ghost carpenters working on the coffin, but while the cause is wildly different, the omen and outcome is always the same.
In Appalachian folklore, uncaused knocks around liminal places (doors, windows, etc) signal a coming death as well, as does a mysteriously rattling church door, regardless of the number of knocks/rattles heard.
In fairness, I can’t think of a lot of good that can come of random knocking and violently shaking of an untenanted door with or without death in mind, let it be said.
Many of us know the Tommyknockers from Stephen King’s novel of the same name, but the Cornish legend of the Tommyknocker is a very different thing. Marrying both knocking death omens and mysterious figures, Tommyknockers, also called simply “Knockers”, were believed by Cornish miners to cause the knocking sounds that precede a cave-in. Some believed they were the spirits of those killed in mining accidents, knocking to warn the living and help them avoid the same fate; others, that they were evil spirits and the knocking was in fact the sounds of the spirits hammering away to cause a collapse in the mine.
Possibly the most famous harbinger of doom, the Banshee, figures in many, many stories and legends, and is well-known as a spectral woman whose blood-chilling scream serves as an omen of death. There is a similar figure in Welsh mythology, the Cyhyraeth, whose cry is often heard three times by those doomed to die, and can be heard on the shore keening before a shipwreck occurs. Scottish folklore has another old keening hag, known as the Cailleach among whose many roles includes that of a shrieking death omen. Old hags are in general considered bad news, and many mythologies include one who presages death with an eerie, hair-raising shriek.
Whistling figures certainly have their place in the hallowed halls of aural death omens as well, and perhaps that’s why there’s a tradition in Thailand that whistling at night brings bad luck. There are a group of spirits known as the Seven Whistlers in the United Kingdom, whose strange whistle sounded like a flock of birds heard from very far away or, in the words of author E. Jones, “the muted sound of children singing a funeral dirge.” The Seven Whistlers were particularly concerned with portending the deaths of miners, sailors, and railway men.
Closing out our survey of aural death omens is quite a different whistler: El Silbon, the Whistling Man of South America. El Silbon in life was a young man with a terrible anger, who killed his father when his father didn’t give him his own way (the circumstances of this varies from story to story), and in some versions attempted to feed his father’s corpse to his father’s very own wife, the young man’s mother. He was cursed to become El Silbon, carrying a sack of bones on his back (generally believed to be his father’s bones) and whistling a very strange, remarkable whistle. In some versions El Silbon kills the hearer himself, but just as often his whistling simply signaled the coming of death. Either way, I’m happy to never hear his peculiar whistle myself, nor most of the aural omens mentioned above. Sometimes, on some topics, it’s just best to not know.
Can’t get enough of death omens, aural or otherwise? Let me recommend these awesome books that I consulted on the subject:
Death Omens of the United Kingdom by E. Jones
The Book of Omens and Superstitions by Sara Zed
Appalachian Folklore: Omens, Signs and Superstitions by Nancy Richmond
Visions of the Cailleach by Sarita d’Este and David Rankine
Want to while away a couple of thoroughly creepy hours on the internet, looking into death omen lore? Can’t fault you there! Here are some great places to get started: