Ancient dogs and caltrops

A Paean to Dogs in Ancient Times

Domesticated from earliest times in Greece and Italy as hunters of wild goats, deer and hares, dogs also served humans as guardians of the house and stock and as faithful companions (and bedwarmers).

Louis Frederic Schützenberger, Retour d'Ulysse 1884

Louis Frederic Schützenberger, Retour d’Ulysse 1884

The Greek hero Odysseus, after ten years of fighting in the Trojan wars, then ten more of struggles to return home, disguised himself as a beggar in order to surprise the suitors who were pressing his wife Penelope to accept one of them in his absence, presumed dead, while she resolutely cherished his memory. His dog, Argos, at an implausibly advanced age, fallen on evil times, neglected, ill, dozing on a manure heap, pricked up his ears when he heard a familiar step. He wagged his tail and dropped his ears when his master, incognito, had to pass by and ignore the overjoyed dog, who died. Heartbroken that he couldn’t acknowledge his dog’s greeting without betraying his identity, Odysseus wiped away a tear.

Homer and Hesiod mention sheepdogs and watchdogs: the Molossian Hound of Epirus, mastiff-like, Laconian, was the subject of this post of mine some time ago (the Jennings Dog in the British Museum, via Flaubert and Alcibiades).

The Jennings Dog at the British Museum

The Jennings Dog at the British Museum

Xenophon (ca 430-354 BC), better known as a historian and philosopher, also wrote a treatise on the value of hunting as a suitable training for the soldier, for it makes men sober, pious and upright; in this Cynegetikos he extols the Castorian and the Vulpine hounds. The dispositions and ailments of hounds are delineated, and he describes how they should be trained and cared for. If the hare is caught at the first attempt, he says, the hounds should be brought back in to begin the search for another, he says. Psyche, Pluck, Spigot, Hilary, Yelp, Strongboy, Bodkin, all are suitable names, being short and indicative of hounds’ temperaments and qualities.

 

Caltrop

Caltrop

The boar requires a great deal more effort, and stronger nets. Not so much a pursuit as a fight. Dogs are often injured or killed in the boar hunt. Caltrops are useful in the chase, if unsportsmanlike. Darius used them against Alexander at the battle of Gaugamela, Persia. They served to slow the advances of horses, war elephants and humans. The soft feet of camels are particularly susceptible.

Iron caltrops have been found in Virginia that date from the seventeenth century.

In Italy, Umbrian hunters and sheepdogs were renowned as keen-nosed but lacking in courage. Salentine and shaggy-coated Etruscan dogs lacked speed but were keen-nosed.

Lucius Columella (born in Cádiz, ended up writing about agriculture – and a treatise on trees — in Italy, d. ca 70 AD) praises in his Res rustica the incorruptible dog, steadfast avenger or defender (rather poorly scanned translation into English here). The shepherd prefers a white dog because it is then unlikely to be mistaken at dawn or dusk for a wolf. The farmdog, on the other hand, has a more alarming appearance when approached by an evil man in daytime if he be black, with a sonorous bark and growl. At night, however, he can approach the crafty thief with greater security. The joints of its feet and its claws, which the Greeks call drakes, should be very large, like its head.

The Cú faoil or Irish wolfhound, as its name suggests, was used in the hunting of wolves Cuchalain better picbut also as a war dog. It has an ancient history. Names of kings and warriors often had the prefix ‘Cú’ as a sign that they were worthy of the loyalty of a brave hound. The Irish hero Cúchalain won his name by slaying, when he was a child, the ferocious guard dog of Culain, in self defence, and being taken on as replacement.

As early as 279 BC they may have fought alongside Celtic tribes that sacked Delphi. Caesar in the ‘Gallic Wars’ mentions them, and in 391 a Roman Consul named Symmachus writes about receiving as a gift seven ‘canes Scotici’ for fighting lions and bears, to the wonder of all Rome.

From Gaston Phoebus, Le livre de chasse, 13C

From Gaston Phoebus, Le livre de chasse, 13C

Associated with royalty, these dogs were highly prized. Around 210 King John gave Gelert to the Welsh prince Llewellyn. He is the subject of an ancient folktale motif that’s found in stories from around the world, and the 13C hagiographical legend of the Holy Greyhound, St Guinefort; sadly I’ve mislaid my copy of the superb study by Jean-Claude Schmitt of this bizarre cult, which survived into the 1930s in France, despite the opposition of the church. (The dog-headed saint, or Cynocephalos, is Christopher). In the legend this faithful hound was rashly killed by its owner, who believed the dog had mauled his son, when in fact it had bravely saved him from a serpent’s attack (or in some versions, a wolf’s). When he hears his son’s cries, he realises his mistake and buries the dog with great reverence. The grave became a pilgrimage site and was believed to benefit the health of children if taken there by their parents.

By the way, Lesbia’s sparrow was probably a bullfinch.

(All images are in the public domain)

Snakes, martyr medics and holy shrinks. The Holy Unmercenaries, Agioi Anargyroi

This summer I had a short holiday in SE Cyprus, near to where I’d lived as a child when my dad was stationed there during his army days. I can barely remember that time, apart from attending my first primary school, eating watermelon grown in our garden, and falling into a lime-pit…

I was intrigued by the name of a small church I came across: it was dedicated to ‘Agioi Anargyroi’. I knew from my postgrad research into medieval English hagiography that the first element was Greek for ‘saints’ or ‘holy men’, but had to look up ‘Anargyroi’.

Icon of Sampson the Hospitable

Icon of Sampson the Hospitable

It means ‘Holy Unmercenaries’.  The epithet is applied to a group of saints who performed charitable works, usually as Christian physicians treating the poor and vulnerable, but without taking any payment for their services.

First I’d like to consider the central structure and themes of these legends, which are all essentially similar. The polar opposition between the representatives of Christianity and paganism is clearly dramatised in these narratives, which are didactic and salutary rather than biographical. Their purpose is to edify the faithful who read or hear them (Latin ‘legenda’ means ‘to be read)’: these Acta (legends of the early Christian martyrs) and Lives of Saints would have initially been read aloud in monastery refectories or church services, and later in private devotion. The misguided forces of evil and paganism are seen defeated by the superior forces of Christianity, embodied in the saints. By suffering martyrdom (‘martyr’ is Greek for witness) the saints symbolically transcend persecution and suffering and are ‘crowned’ through their ultimate sacrifice (so-called ‘red martyrdom’; Jesus can be seen as the archetype). After the early centuries of persecution, when Christianity became the state religion, witness was enacted through acts of extreme asceticism and eremitism, as seen in the stories of the Desert Fathers (and Mothers, like my own research subject, Mary of Egypt) – known as ‘white martyrdom’.

The Unmercenaries’ legends follow a similar narrative pattern to the Acta: the protagonists set up unpaid charitable or medical practice in the face of local opposition by pagans, are arrested, taunted and tortured in an attempt to force them to apostatise. They heroically survive various gruesome methods of attempted execution, or divine intervention thwarts the attempts (the iconographical attribute of St Lawrence is a griddle, on which he was being roasted; in a rare example of dark hagiographical humour he told his tormentors that he needed turning over – he was done on one side…) often resulting in the conversion from paganism to Christianity by some of the impressed onlookers. Their acta are commemorated thereafter by the faithful on the anniversary (or ‘feast day’) not of their birth but of their death, which is seen as a rebirth .

This in a way is the underpinning dynamic of the narrative trajectory of heroes in much popular secular fiction, from Harry Potter to The Hobbit: overcoming daunting powers of darkness and tricky deception, trial and temptation to emerge transformed and delivered at the narrative’s end. It’s also the template for many traditional tales and fairy stories.

The Holy Unmercenaries include:

Zenaida (or Zenais) of Tarsus (in Cilicia, modern Turkey) and Philonella (feast day

Zenaida and Philonella

Zenaida and Philonella: Menologion of Basil II, c. 1000 AD

Oct. 11), sisters who were the first Christian physicians after the evangelist Luke, possibly related to the apostle Paul. They lived an ascetic life in a cave near Demetriada, Thessaly, a region known for its shrines to Asclepius (Aesculapius to the Romans), the Greek god of medicine, who like his father Apollo bore the epithet ‘Paean’ (healer), and was father of several daughters who were personifications of aspects of healing, such as Hygieia (hygiene) and Panacea (universal remedy). He was trained in the science of medicine by the learned and cultured centaur

Chiron and Achilles

Education of Achilles by Chiron: fresco from Herculaneum, Mus. Arch.-Naz., Naples

Chiron – a wonderful kourotrophic character (usually in early coroplastic iconography a nurturing/nursing maternal deity; Hathor is an Ancient Egyptian example  – the Madonna and child is the archetypal Christian equivalent), mentor and tutor to numerous Greek culture heroes such as Achilles and Jason, even Heracles — to whom (Chiron) I intend to return at a later date in a blogpost about the battle of the Lapiths and the centaurs – the centauromachy! His image decorates the cap badge of the Royal Army Veterinary Corps and the labels of Rémy Martin cognac bottles: versatile creature.

The term ‘Theraputae’, a Latinised version of the Greek, signifies servant or worshipper of a god (one of the first was Hippocrates). Those who attended on Asclepius in a temple or other building dedicated in his name, known as an Asclepieion, transmitted the god’s healing powers through unusual rituals – anathema to Christians, who saw these as pagan superstition. People suffering from medical ailments would spend the night in wards in an Asclepieion where the non-venomous Aesculapian snakes roamed

Asclepius with his rod

Asclepius with his rod

(can snakes ‘roam’?) freely. The rod of Asclepius – a stick with such a snake entwined – is still the symbol of medicine. The caduceus has two snakes, and has become mistakenly associated since the nineteenth century with medicine. It was the symbol of Hermes or Mercury, and is therefore connected with eloquence, communication and commerce and, by extension, thieving and trickery; this image features in the cap badge of my brother’s old army regiment, the Royal Corps of Signals, to indicate their area of expertise.

Hermes with caduceus: cap badge of the Royal Corps of Signals

Hermes with caduceus: cap badge of the Royal Corps of Signals

Asclepieion inmates were encouraged to report to the theraputae the nature of their dreams, the interpretation of which formed the basis for the rituals of healing treatment. In some Asclepieions sacred dogs were deployed to lick the wounds of the sick. It’s not surprising that the Unmercenaries deprecated such rituals, although Freud would doubtless have no problem with the interpretation of dreams as a basis for therapy.

Physicians in this region charged extortionate fees in treating their rich patients. As in all of these legends of the Unmercenaries, the sisters upset the pagan rivals by administering their healing free of charge, and according to some versions of their story were stoned to death as a consequence. Zenaida went on, interestingly, to specialise in psychiatry, especially the treatment of clinical depression. A holy shrink…

Hermione: Menologion of Basil II

Hermione: Menologion of Basil II

Hermione, a Palestinian of the first century AD, feast day Sep. 4, founded a free clinic in Ephesus. (Hermione, like St Lawrence, was seared on a griddle; she was then boiled in oil in a cauldron, but felt no pain). Her legend has a variant of the topos often appended in martyr narratives: the two servants sent to behead her outside the city begin their task without giving her time to pray. Consequently their hands wither, rendering them incapable, they repent and convert to Christianity, and are happily martyred along with her.

I’ll skim over the next few in order to focus next time on Cosmas and Damian. The narrative elements outlined above are found in most of these legends:

Tryphon: Serbian orthodox icon

Tryphon: Serbian orthodox icon

Tryphon of Phrygia (modern Turkey, died c. 250, feast day 10 Nov.) is the patron saint, among other things, of gardeners and winegrowers, and he is invoked, like most of these Unmercenaries, to counteract the destructive forces of nature, either visibly in the form of pests like locusts and rodents, or invisibly as disease or clinical malady.

Pantaleon (or Panteleimon in the east: his name means ‘mercy for everyone’) is invoked against the usual unwelcome suspects (locusts, headaches, consumption,accidents – and loneliness), but

Panteleimon: icon from St Catherine's monastery

Panteleimon: icon from St Catherine’s monastery

he is also, strangely, patron of midwives and livestock; he’s said to be a helper of crying children. Useful to know. He’s one of the Fourteen Holy Helpers, who became particularly popular during a Rhineland outbreak of Black Death in the fourteenth century. The sailors who mutinied on the Russian battleship Potemkin in 1905 renamed the vessel after him.

The cohort is completed by Thalalaeus (d. 284, another Cilician martyr) and the ‘thaumaturgoi anargyroi’ (wonderworker unmercenaries) Cyrus and John (d. 304 or

Cyrus and John: Menologion of Basil II

Cyrus and John: Menologion of Basil II

311); they are invoked by the faithful who have trouble sleeping. Sampson the Hospitable (died c. 530) was particularly venerated in Russia (and had a St Petersburg cathedral dedicated in his name) after Peter the Great defeated the Swedish in the Battle of Poltava on his feast day, June 27, 1709.

That leaves my favourites: Cosmas and Damian, about whom I shall post soon, in order to keep this piece down to manageable proportions.

As always, images are in the public domain via Wikimedia Commons

 

On Aeschylus and tortoises

Bust of Aeschylus

Bust of Aeschylus

Many years ago I found myself teaching English in a secondary school in Bedfordshire.   I was required to teach Classical Myths (not sure why), and the story of the unfortunate death of Aeschylus (c. 525 BC – c. 456 BC) came up.  It always resonated with me that the father of Greek tragedy (most famous for his trilogy of plays about the family of Agamemnon, king of Argos, The Oresteia) was killed by a tortoise, dropped on him from a great height by a bird of prey that had mistaken his bald pate for a rock on which it intended to smash open the tortoise shell; recently I came across the story again on a great site called Interesting Literature.  I was unable for technological reasons to post a comment there, so here it is, slightly expanded.

On a website called QI Forum someone with the name ‘Flash’ posted a link to this, from Pliny the Elder, The Natural History, Book X, Chapter 3: ‘The Different Kinds of Eagles’; in this early encyclopaedia published c. 79 AD Pliny cites six different kinds of eagle, and has this to say about the third kind, which he calls ‘morphnos’ (which signifies ‘black’ in Greek):

The third is the morphnos, which Homer also calls the “perenos,” while others, again, call it the “plangus” and the “anataria;” it is the second in size and strength, and dwells in the vicinity of lakes… This eagle has the instinct to break the shell of the tortoise by letting it fall from aloft, a circumstance which caused the death of the poet Æschylus. An oracle, it is said, had predicted his death on that day by the fall of a house, upon which he took the precaution of trusting himself only under the canopy of the heavens.

Naturalis Historia, 1669 edition, title page. The title reads: "Volume I of the Natural History of Gaius Plinius Secundus."

Naturalis Historia, 1669 edition, title page. The title reads: “Volume I of the Natural History of Gaius Plinius Secundus.”

It was always my understanding that the bird in question was a lammergeyer (or lammergeier) vulture, aka bearded or lamb vulture, Gypaetus barbatus, formerly known as ‘ossifrage’ – bonebreaker – because of its learned skill of dropping animal bones from a great height to smash them on the rocks below in order to get at the marrow.  (By the way the herb saxifrage gets its name from its alleged medicinal ability to cure kidney stones; its name signifies ‘stonebreaker’.)

Lammergeier vulture

Lammergeier vulture

Its closest living relative today is the Egyptian vulture.  Pliny’s vagueness about the families of vultures and eagles is reflected in the reference in some versions of the story of the death of Aeschylus to the bird which drops the tortoise (or turtle, when repeated by Americans) as an eagle.

Lammergeyers  live high above the tree line, over 2000 metres up, and subsist almost entirely on the marrow extracted from smashed bones of dead animals that they’ve scavenged as carrion; they tend not to eat flesh,  so unless the tortoise was already dead, it seems unlikely that this bird would have dropped a live one in order to smash its carapace with a view to eating its flesh.

The Pliny story seems to have been invented to make an ironic literary point about fate (a variation on the Oedipus legend about the futility of trying to avoid one’s destiny).

The story doesn’t reveal what happened to the tortoise…