Dogs in the Ancient World

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published on 21 June 2014

Dogs have been a part of the history of human beings since before the written word. The ancient temple of Gobekli-Tepe in Turkey, dated to at least 12,000 years BCE, has provided archaeologists with evidence of domesticated dogs in the Middle East corresponding to the earliest evidence of domestication, the Natufian Grave, (c. 12,000 BCE) discovered in Ein Mallaha, Israel, in which an old man was buried with a puppy. In many cultures throughout the ancient world, dogs figured prominently and, largely, were regarded in much the same way that they are today. Dogs were seen as faithful companions, hunters, guardians, and as a treasured part of the family.

Dog Mosaic

Dogs in Mesopotamia 

In the oldest story from the Near East, The Epic of Gilgamesh from ancient Mesopotamia (dated to 2150-1400 BCE), dogs appear in an elevated role as the companions of one of the most popular goddesses of the region; the goddess Innana (Ishtar) travels with seven prized hunting dogs. In the famous Descent of Innana (a story considered older than and not a part of Gilgamesh) in which the goddess goes down into the underworld, her husband, Dumuzi, keeps domesticated dogs as part of his royal retinue. Dogs featured prominently in the everyday life of the Mesopotamians. The historian Wolfram Von Soden notes this, writing:

The dog (Sumerian name, ur-gi; Semitic name, Kalbu) was one of the earliest domestic animals and served primarily to protect herds and dwellings against enemies. Despite the fact that dogs roamed freely in the cities, the dog in the ancient Orient was at all times generally bound to a single master and was cared for by him. Of course, the dog was also a carrion eater, and in the villages it provided the same service as hyenas and jackals. As far as we can tell, there were only two main breeds of dog: large greyhounds which were used primarily in hunting, and very strong dogs (on the order of Danes and mastiffs), which in the ancient Orient were more than a match for the generally smaller wolves and, for that reason, were especially suitable as herd dogs. The sources distinguish numerous sub-breeds, but we can only partially identify these. The dog was often the companion of gods of therapeutics. Although the expression `vicious dog' occurred, `dog' as a derogatory term was little used (91).

Dogs were featured prominently in Mesopotamian art as hunters but also as companions. Dogs were kept in the home and were treated in much the same way by caring families as they are today. Inscriptions and inlaid plaques depict dogs waiting for their masters and, according to the historian Bertman, even listening to their master play music: "The images on inlaid plaques, carved seal-stones, and sculpted reliefs transport us back...We watch a shepherd playing his flute as his dog sits and attentively listens" (294). Further, the "gods of therapeutics" Von Soden references above were the deities involved with health and healing and, most notably, the goddess Gula who was regularly depicted in the presence of her dog. Dog saliva was considered medicinal because it was noted that, when dogs licked their wounds, it promoted healing.

The Dog in India

In ancient India the dog was also highly regarded. The Indian Pariah Dog, which still exists today, is considered by many to be the first truly domesticated dog in history and the oldest in the world (though this has been challenged). The great cultural epic The Mahabharata  (circa 400 BCE) significantly features a dog who may have been one of these Pariah Dogs. The epic relates, toward the end, the tale of King Yudisthira, many years after the Battle of Kurukshetra, making a pilgrimage to his final resting place. On the way he is accompanied by his family and his faithful dog. One by one his family members die along the path but his dog remains by his side. When, at last, Yudisthira reaches the gates of paradise he is welcomed for the good and noble life he has lived but the guardian at the gate tells him the dog is not allowed inside. Yudisthira is shocked that so loyal and noble a creature as his dog would not be allowed into heaven and so chooses to remain with his dog on earth, or even go to hell, than enter into a place which would exclude the dog. The guardian at the gate then tells Yudisthira that this was only a last test of his virtue and that, of course, the dog is welcome to enter also. In some versions of this tale the dog is then revealed to be the god Vishnu, the preserver, who has been watching over Yudisthira all his life, thus linking the figure of the dog directly to the concept of god.

Egypt and the Dog

The dog connection with the gods and the dog’s loyalty to human beings is further explored in other cultures.  In ancient Egypt the dog was linked to the jackal god, Anubis, who guided the soul of the deceased to the Hall of Truth where the soul would be judged by the great god Osiris. Domesticated dogs were buried with great ceremony in the temple of Anubis at Saqqara and the idea behind this seemed to be to help the deceased dogs pass on easily to the afterlife (known in Egypt as the Field of Reeds) where they could continue to enjoy their lives as they had on earth.

Dogs were highly valued in Egypt as part of the family and, when a dog would die, the family, if they could afford to, would have the dog mummified with as much care as they would pay for a human member of the family. Great grief was displayed over the death of a family dog and the family would shave their eyebrows as a sign of this grief (as they also did with their cats). Tomb paintings of the pharaoh Rameses the Great depict him with his hunting dogs (presumably in the Field of Reeds) and dogs were often buried with their masters to provide this kind of companionship in the afterlife. The intimate relationship between dogs and their masters in Egypt is made clear through inscriptions which have been preserved:

We even know many ancient Egyptian dog's names from leather collars as well as stelae and reliefs.  They included names such as Brave One, Reliable, Good Herdsman, North-Wind, Antelope and even "Useless".  Other names come from the dogs color, such as Blacky, while still other dogs were given numbers for names, such as "the Fifth". Many of the names seem to represent endearment, while others convey merely the dogs abilities or capabilities.  However, even as in modern times, there could be negative connotations to dogs due to their nature as  servants of man. Some texts include references to prisoners as `the king’s dog’ (TourEgypt.com).

Dogs in Ancient Greece

Clearly, the dog was an important part of Egyptian society and culture but the same was true of ancient Greece. The dog appears in Greek literature early on in the figure of the three-headed dog Cerberus who guarded the gates of Hades. One example of this in art is the Caeretan black-figure hydria vase of Heracles and Cerberus from c. 530-520 BCE (presently in the Louvre Museum in Paris, France). In Greece, as in ancient Sumeria, the dog was associated with female deities in that both the goddesses Artemis and Hecate kept dogs (Artemis, hunting dogs while Hecate kept black Molossian dogs).

Statue of Hades and Cerberus

The philosophic school of Cynicism in ancient Greece takes its name from the Greek for `dog’ and those who followed this school were called `Kynikos’ (dog-like) in part because of their determination to follow a single path loyally without swerving. The great Cynic philosopher Antisthenes taught in a locale known as Cynosarges (the place of the white dog) and this, perhaps, is another reason for their name. Dogs are also featured in Plato's famous dialogue of Republic. In Book II, Socrates claims that the dog is a true philosopher because dogs "distinguish the face of a friend and of an enemy only by the criterion of knowing and not knowing" and concludes that dogs must be lovers of learning because they determine what they like and what they do not based upon knowledge of the truth. The dog has learned who is a friend and who is not and, based on that knowledge, responds appropriately; while human beings are often deceived as to who their true friends are.

Probably the most famous dog story from ancient Greece, however, is that of Argos, the loyal friend of King Odysseus of Ithaka from Book 17 of Homer’s Odyssey (c. 800 BCE). Odysseus comes home after being away for twenty years and, thanks to help from the goddess Athena, is not recognized by the hostile suitors who are trying to win Odysseus’s wife, Penelope’s hand in marriage. Argos, however, recognizes his master and rises up from where he has been faithfully waiting, wagging his tail in greeting. Odysseus, in disguise, cannot acknowledge the greeting for fear of giving away his true identity in front of the suitors and so ignores his old friend; and Argos lays back down and dies. In this, as in the story in The Mahabharata, the loyalty of the dog is depicted in the exact same way. Though separated by different cultures and hundreds of years, the dog is depicted as the loyal, devoted figure to his master, whether that master returns the devotion or not.

Dogs in Rome

In ancient Rome the dog was seen in much the same way as in Greece and the well-known mosaic, Cave Canem (Beware of Dog) shows how dogs were appreciated in Rome as guardians of the home just as they had been in earlier cultures and are still today. The great Latin poet Virgil, wrote, “Never, with dogs on guard, need you fear for your stalls a midnight thief”(Georgics III, 404ff) and the writer Varro, in his work on living in the country, says that every family should have two types of dog, a hunting dog and a watchdog (De Re Rustica I.21). The Romans had many pets, from cats to apes, but favored the dog above all others. The dog is featured in mosaics, paintings, poetry and prose. The historian Lazenby writes:

There is a large series of both Greek and Roman reliefs showing men and women with their canine companions. Gallic reliefs especially show a remarkably human touch in scenes depicting this household favorite with its owners. In these we see charming pictures of healthy, happy childhood: a boy reclining on a couch and giving his pet dog his plate to lick clean; again, a small girl, Graccha, who, the inscription tells us, lived only 1 year and 4 months, holds in her left hand a basket which contains three puppies, the mother of which looks up at them with much concern (1).

Dogs are mentioned in the Roman law code as guardians of the home and flocks. In one case which was recorded, a farmer brings a suit against his neighbor because the neighbor's dogs rescued the farmer's hogs from wolves and the neighbor then claimed ownership of the hogs. The complaint, which was settled in favor of the farmer, reads:

Wolves carried away some hogs from my shepherds; the tenant of an adjoining farm, having pursued the wolves with strong and powerful dogs, which he kept for the protection of his flocks, took the hogs away from the wolves, or the dogs compelled them to abandon them. When my shepherd claimed the hogs, the question arose whether they had become the property of him who recovered them or whether they were still mine, for they had been obtained by a certain kind of hunting (Nagle, 246).

Varro claimed that no farm should be without two dogs and they should be kept indoors during the day and let free to roam at night in order to prevent just such a possibility as the one discussed above. He also suggested that a white dog should be chosen over a black one so that one could distinguish between one's dog and a wolf in the darkness or the twilight of early morning.

Chinese Ceramic Dog

The Dog in China

Ancient China had an interesting relationship with the dog. Dogs were the earliest animals domesticated in China (c. 12,000 BCE) along with pigs and were used in hunting and kept as companions. They were also used, very early on, as a food source and as sacrifices. Ancient oracle bones (which were the bones of animals or shells of turtles used to tell the future) mention dogs repeatedly as both good and bad omens depending upon how, in what condition, and under what circumstances, the dog was seen. The blood of a dog was an important component in sealing oaths and swearing allegiances because dogs were thought to have been given to humans as a gift from heaven and so their blood was sacred. As a gift from the divine, they were honored but it was understood that they had been provided for a purpose: to help human beings survive by providing them with food and with blood for sacrifice.

Dogs were once killed and buried in front of a home, or before the city's gates, to ward off disease or bad luck. In time, straw dogs replaced actual dogs as the practice of sacrificing dogs became less popular. The disease or ill fortune which threatened the city or home was thought to be as easily deceived by the straw dog figure, thinking it was a guard dog, and would flee as from an actual dog. The practice of setting a statue or image of a dog in front of one's house may come from this custom of burying a straw dog in one's yard for protection against harm.

Dogs in Mesoamerica

The Maya had a similar relationship with dogs as the Chinese. Dogs were bred in pens as a food source, as guardians and pets, and for hunting, but were also associated with the gods. As dogs were noted as great swimmers, they were thought to conduct the souls of the dead across the watery expanse to the afterlife, the netherworld of Xibalba. Once the soul had arrived in the dark realm, the dog served as a guide to help the deceased through the challenges presented by the Lords of Xibalba and to reach paradise. This has been inferred from excavations in the region which have uncovered graves in which dogs are buried with their masters and from inscriptions on temple walls. Similar inscriptions in the surviving Mayan Codices depict the dog as the bringer of fire to the people and, in the Quiche Maya holy book, the Popol Vuh, dogs are instrumental in the destruction of the ungrateful and unknowing race of humans which the gods first produced and then repented of.

The Aztecs and Tarascans shared this view of the dog, including the dog as a guide to the afterlife for the deceased. The Aztecs also had a story in their mythology regarding the destruction of an early race of human beings in which dogs are featured. In this tale, the gods drown the world in a great flood but a man and woman manage to survive by clinging to a log. Once the waters recede, they climb onto dry land and build a fire to dry themselves. The smoke from this fire annoys the great god Tezcatlipoca who tears off their heads and then sews the heads to the rear-ends of the man and woman and, in doing so, creates dogs. According to this myth, dogs pre-date the present race of human beings and so should be treated with respect the way one would treat an elder. The Aztecs also buried dogs with their dead and their god of death, Xolotl, was imagined as a huge dog.

The Tarascans, like the Aztecs and Maya, kept dogs as pets, for hunting, and for food and also linked them with the gods and the afterlife. The souls of those who died without proper burial, such as those who drowned or were lost in battle or died alone on a hunt, were found by spirit dogs who would ensure their safe passage to the afterlife. In all three of these cultures (as, indeed, in the others mentioned above) the belief in ghosts was very real. A ghost could not only make trouble in one's daily life but could actually bring physical harm and even death. The Tarascan tale about the spirit dogs allayed the fear that, if one had not been able to properly bury a loved one, the deceased's ghost would return to trouble the living. The people would not have to fear because the dog would take care of the problem.

Conclusion

In ancient India, Mesopotamia, China, Mesoamerica and Egypt, the people had deep ties with their dogs and, as seen, this was also common in ancient Greece and Rome. Ancient Greeks thought of dogs as geniuses, as `possessing a certain elevated spirit'.  Plato referred to the dog as a ‘lover of learning’ and a ‘beast worthy of wonder.’  The philosopher Diogenes of Sinope loved the simplicity of the dog's life and encouraged human beings to emulate it. While other animals have undergone significant changes in the way they are perceived through history (the cat, most notably) the dog has remained a constant companion, friend, and protector and has been portayed that way through the art and in the writings of many ancient cultures. The old claim that a dog is one's best friend is substantiated through the historical record but needs no proof for anyone in the modern day who is lucky enough to enjoy the company of a good dog.

 

Author's Note: This article is dedicated to Sophia the Dog, my own true philosopher.



Bibliography

Dogs in the Ancient World Books

 

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