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THE SIGNS OF DEATH


HISTORY

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Throughout the history of man people knew how death could appear during life. They looked for the signs of the Reaper, so that they would be ready to meet him when the time came. Accepting that death was inevitable, they did not want to go to their graves unprepared or leave their world without goodbys, all dignity lost in fear.

There were many types of warnings, things that were out of the ordinary. A clock that stopped or chimed between the hours meant Death's eye was on the household. A candles melting wax sliding down in a wide stream - a winding-sheet shape - was another. Bees that swarmed down chimneys into houses were another. A rooster that crowed not in the middle of the night, was still another.

Birds of the countryside in flight served as heralds of Death more than any other beasts. A bird that thrashed against a windowpane or, worse, flew into a house, brought dismal news to those inside. Owls which hunted at night and possesed sharp eyes that saw every movement in the dark, knew when the Reaper drew near: An owl that hooted steadily near a house or tapped at the windowpane carried a the message. And all over the world, the raven was a forebearer of death: It has been such since the early days of time.

It was sacred to Apollo and the oracles in ancient Greece. In Arabia, it was called Abu Zajir, or "Father of Omens." In Germany, when a raven flew over a house by itself or croaked harshly near the door, the family inside knew death was near. The British thought it could sense the smell of decay in a sick person while they were still alive.

All of these were from the natural world, and even though differences in their usual behaviors might mean that Death was coming, they could also have simple explanations. But there were other omens of death that had no natural explanation and that couldn't be dismissed with a shrug or a show of unconcern.

One of which were black dogs, nightwalkers feared throughout the British Isles. The dogs that came before death were given various names - Black Shuck in East Anglia, Skriker and Trash-hound in Lancashire, Padfoot in Yorkshire - but all came the same way. They appeared on dark nights in country lanes, scampering easily along, Black Dog looking for lone travelers who should have been at home. The people of Lancashire said that as such a dog came near it got bigger until it was the size of a calf, and its eyes glowing red in the dark, driven by malice and hunger. Those who saw the dog knew - even though it passed them with little more than a glance - that their time had come.

Just as alarming were the banshees that cried for the dying throughout the British Isles and France, The name is from the Gaelic bean side, meaning "woman of the fairy folk," and some banshees did come from fairy lineage; others, it was thought, were ghosts themselves. They seemed close to individual families, and they mourned the coming of death into the clan. BansheeFamily members might hear their terrible cries around the house in the night, coming from the walls and floors. Sometimes the howling came from outside, and those looking through the window would see a rail-thin women, her face white, her long hair streaming, her eys blood red from weeping. She would hover in the air around the walls, looking through the windows for the one whose death she awaited. When she found that one and beckoned, the person had to go.

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