Dogs in the Ancient World



by Joshua J. Mark
published on 18 January 2012

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 (corresponding to the earliest evidence of domestication, the Natufian Grave circa 12,000 BCE discovered in Ein Mallaha, Israel, in which an old man was buried with a puppy).  In the oldest story we have today, The Epic of Gilgamesh from ancient Sumeria (dated to 2150-2000 BCE) the goddess Innana has 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.

Another great cultural epic to significantly feature the dog is The Mahabharata of ancient India (circa 400 BCE). 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. 

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.

“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’” (

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 is associated with the goddess in that both the goddesses Artemis and Hecate kept dogs (Artemis, hunting dogs while Hecate black Molossian dogs).

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.

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 (circa 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 wags his tail in greeting. Odysseus, however, cannot acknowledge the greeting for fear of giving away his true identity before it is time 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 remains the loyal, devoted figure to his master, whether that master returns the devotion or not.

In ancient Rome the dog is seen the same way 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 Ancient Harrapan culture, ancient Sumerians and Ancient Egyptians had deep ties with their dogs and, as seen, this was also common in the times of Ancient Greece and Rome.  Ancient Greeks thought of dogs as geniuses.  Plato referred to the dog as a ‘lover of learning’ and a ‘beasty worthy of wonder.’  Socrates (according to Plato) was also fond of the canine, calling the dog, ‘a true philosopher.’ While other animals have undergone radical 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 every ancient culture.

Written by , published on under the following license: Creative Commons: Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike. This license lets others remix, tweak, and build upon this content non-commercially, as long as they credit the author and license their new creations under the identical terms.


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