Aural death omens that are believed to be harbingers of doom across cultures around the globe. Tune into some of the sounds of death on this episode of Unpleasant Dreams. That is, if you dare.
Cassandra Harold is your host. EM Hilker is our principal writer and researcher with additional writing by Cassandra Harold. Jim Harold is our Executive Producer.
Unpleasant Dreams is a production of Jim Harold Media.
A copy of EM Hilker’s original article can be found HERE
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 all over the world, 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.
Aural death omens can often take the form of an animal messenger.
Perhaps one of the most interesting living aural death omens 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.
Birds, the natural predator of beetles, are also a common source of aural death omens. Owls in particular are generally seen as magical birds for both good and ill across many countries and cultures. And as such, they are also commonly considered death-signalling birds across vast geographical expanses. 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 cries serve 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). The whip-poor-will, named for its song, also comes to mind as a bird of warning. The common use of these birds in literature and film certainly help cement in our minds their role presaging death. However, merely the sight of large black birds eating a dead animal or the pretty, otherworldly cry of the whip-poor-will would doubtlessly 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 jackal. 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, reflective, strange or beautiful eyes?
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 be aware of 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 one that 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 be unaware of impending death, avoiding clocks and church bells may not help you. In both the UK and Appalachia, 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 loved ones. And a sailor who hears bells and feels a phantom touch has been warned that his ship will sink.
When discussing aural death omens, as with writing, death, and other hardships, the rule of three is important to remember. This perhaps remains even more true when it comes to mysterious knocking.
In Wales, the phenomenon of three mysterious knocks was known as the toll-Aith, and always predicted death. 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 (like doors or windows) signal a coming death as well, as does a mysteriously rattling church door, regardless of the number of knocks or rattles heard.
In fairness, it’s difficult to think of any good that could come from random knocking and violent shaking of an untenanted door with or without death in mind.
But sometimes these knocking sounds are not uncaused. Mysterious Figures also often serve as aural death omens.
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.
Then, we have possibly the most famous harbinger of doom, the Banshee. The Banshee figures into 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 ku-hu-reth, 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 Kall-ick 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 foretells 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. He killed his father when he refused to give him what he wanted (the circumstances of this varies from story to story). In some versions, he attempted to feed his father’s corpse to his 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 have heard his peculiar whistle myself, nor most of the aural omens mentioned. Some sounds don’t need to be heard to be believed.
SOURCES AND FURTHER READING
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: