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)

Flaubert, Alcibiades, and Laelaps the dog

“Mastiff, greyhound, mongrel grim.” Shakespeare, King Lear (III.6)

ALCIBIADES – Famous on account of his dog’s tail. A kind of debauchee. Visited Aspasia. (Flaubert, Dictionary of Received Ideas, Oneworld Classics edition, 2010, from the Alma Classics website).

Flaubert made the notes for this ironically banal spoof of the platitudinous mentality of the bourgeoisie of the Second Empire in the 1870s; it remained unpublished until 1913. 

The Jennings Dog (also known as The Duncombe Dog or The Dog of Alcibiades) is a Roman sculpture of a dog with a docked tail.  Named after its first modern owner, Henry Jennings, it is a 2nd-century AD Roman copy of a Hellenistic bronze original, probably of the 2nd century BC.

The Jennings Dog at the British Museum

The Jennings Dog at the British Museum

Jennings (1731-1819) saw it in a pile of rubble in a workshop in Rome between 1753 and 1756, bought it and took it back to Britain.  The sculpture became famous on its arrival in Britain, and its importer became known as ‘Dog Jennings’.  The sculpture was praised by Horace Walpole; copies proliferated and were said to make “a most noble appearance in a gentleman’s hall”, according to Dr Johnson.

A story in Plutarch’s life of Alcibiades tells of the Athenian statesman, orator and general owning a large, handsome dog; he cut off its tail so as to invoke pity from the Athenians and distract them from his worse deeds. The broken tail of his sculpture led Jennings to link it to this story, calling it “the dog of Alcibiades”.

Under this title a pair of copies were installed by Robert Adam at Newby Hall, Yorkshire, about 1780, and in the later 19th century a pair was set in the gardens at Basildon Park, Bedfordshire.

The Basildon Park dogs

For 150 years the sculpture stood guard in the entrance hall of Duncombe Park, the family mansion in Yorkshire of its next English owner.  It remained there until 1925, when the Duncombes rented out the hall to a girls’ school, whose pupils were rumoured to feed the dog unwanted sandwiches.  It was acquired by the British Museum in 2001, where it was identified as a Molossian guard dog, so it is assumed to have been associated with some civic monument in Epirus, and to have been brought to Rome.

The Molossian hound, according to Nicander (quoted by Pollux, Onomasticon, XXXIX) was a descendant of a dog (Laelaps, “Whirlwind” or “Tempest”) forged in bronze by Hephaestus and given to Zeus.

In Greek mythology the Teumessian fox or Cadmean vixen was a gigantic animal that was impossible to catch.  It was one of the offspring of Echidna, a draikana– a female dragon with the face and torso of a beautiful woman and the body of a snake. This fox was said to have been sent by the gods to punish the people of Thebes for some crime.  Creon, the ruler of Thebes, assigned Amphityron the impossible task of destroying this animal. He called upon the services of the magical dog Laelaps.

This prodigious hound was said to have been a gift from Zeus to Europa.  He was passed down to Europa’s son, King Minos of Crete, and then to Procris, whose husband, Cephalus, had been seduced by Eos the goddess of dawn while he was out hunting.  She handed him back to his wife after an interval of eight years because he was pining for her so much – but made disparaging comments about Procris’ lack of fidelity as she did so.  Once reunited with Procris, Cephalus tested her by returning from the hunt and seducing her while in disguise.  Procris fled in shame to the forest to hunt.  On her return, Procris brought two propitiatory magical gifts, a spear that never missed its target, and Laelaps, who never failed to catch his quarry.

Piero di Cosimo, Death of Procris, with Laelaps and faun

Piero di Cosimo, Death of Procris, with Laelaps and faun

Zeus, faced with a paradox in the mutually cancelling qualities of Laelaps and the fox, turned the two animals into stone so that the one might not catch the uncatchable and the other not escape the inescapable. The pair were petrified and cast into the heavens as stars.

The Molossus (Μολοσσὸς) is a breed of dog that is now extinct, but which gave its name to the modern group of dogs known as Molosser, solidly built, large dog breeds that all descend from the same common ancestor.

From the Encyclopedia Romana: “The Molossian is mentioned in the literature more often than any other breed…[including] Aristophanes (Thesmophoriazusae, 416), where it frightens off adulterers; Aristotle (The History of Animals, IX.1), where as a sheep-dog, it is considered superior to other breeds in size and courage; Plautus (Captivi, 86), where the parasite is like a greyhound (venaticus) when business is put aside and a Molossian when it recommences; Statius (Thebaid, III.203), where the maddened hounds do not recognize Actaeon, their master; Lucretius (De Rerum Natura, V.1063ff), where the dog growls and bays, fawns over its pups, howls when left alone, and whimpers when threatened with the whip; Horace (Satires, VI), where the country mouse has his fill of the city when the house resounds with the barking of Molossians. 

The Molossian hound may have similarities to the Alaunt, the dog of the Alans- a group of nomads of the first millennium AD.  The Alans were known as superb warriors, herdsmen, and breeders of horses and dogs.

The Ayran Flock Guardian or Sage Koochi Asian steppe breed was used to domesticate the horse and control and defend large livestock preceded these types. The steppe nomads, such as the Kurgan, introduced the use of the horse and chariot, as well as the Mastiff-Alaunt war dogs.

J. del Sallai, Alaunt sheep guard

J. del Sallai, Alaunt sheep guard

The Molossus reached Epirus in about 1200 BC.  They differed from the Mastiff prototype, having a long nose of a narrow type, and a long mane. Varro, however, described a herding dog of Epirus which was white and large headed, used to defend sheep and goats.  Molossis of Epirus is located in Southern Albania. It is most plausible the Alaunt gave rise to the fighting dogs of the Molossi, which were introduced to Britain by Roman Invasion in 55BC. The Alans provided cavalry for Rome and in 50AD, 5,500 Alans were sent to Britain to guard Hadrian’s Wall.  In this way the Alaunt  were probably the genetic ancestors of the British Pugnances, fighting dogs which English Mastiffs and Bulldogs descend from.

Mastiffs are often referred to as Molossus dogs or Molossers. It is one of the best-known ancient breeds; however, its physical characteristics and function are questionable. Though the Molossus breed no longer exists in its original form, it is noted as being instrumental in the development of modern breeds such as the St Bernard, Rottweiler, Great Dane and Newfoundland. (Some of this text is derived and adapted from Wikipedia).

Alma Classics edition of Flaubert's 'Dictionary of Received Ideas'

Alma Classics edition of Flaubert’s ‘Dictionary of Received Ideas’