Ancient Dogs

I love my dog. He is a lhasa apso x west highland terrier called Gus, and he is a vital member of the family. He looks like an ancient breed known as the Maltese, and because of this likeness I often find myself asking about the Classical world and their relationships with dogs.

Some of it seems very familiar. During the Hellenistic and Roman periods we have many epitaphs dedicated to dogs which reveal a close familial relationship:

“You who passes on the path . . . laugh not, I pray, though it is a dog’s grave; tears fell for me, and the dust was heaped above me by a master’s hands, who likewise engraved these words on my tomb.” Adapted from J. Mackaill, Select Epigrams from the Greek Anthology, LVII

However, the ancients had some uses for dogs which may not sit well in our own cultural norms. Firstly, they were sometimes used for military purification rituals in Macedonia and Thebes:

“The body of a bitch was divided in the middle, the forepart with the head was placed on the right side of the road and the hinder part with the entrails on the left, and the troops marched between them.” (Livy, History of Rome, 40.6.1)

Plutarch, who tells us that the Thebans had a similar rite of purification, even alleges that “[n]early all the Greeks used a dog as the sacrificial victim for ceremonies of purification.” (Quaestiones Romanae, 68).

But this is nothing compared to what ancient medicine had in store for some unlucky dogs!

It was believed that a woman’s womb could wander about the body in search of moisture, this had some nasty effects on the woman in question, as you’d imagine. One solution was to disembowel a puppy, stuff it with herbs and other sweet-smelling substances and then use it as the basis of fumigation. The moisture and sweet smells were thought to attract the uterus back to its proper position . . . although I doubt the puppy saw the reasoning behind it.

Similarly – maybe worse, I’ll leave it for you to decide – dogs could be served in another, unpalatable way. The Hippocratic text Regimen III mentions the preserving of meat for eating and, you guessed it, our four legged friend makes an appearance:

“Meat may be preserved in either salt or vinegar. Dog’s flesh roasted; the flesh of pigeons, and of other such-like birds, boiled or roasted.” [Hippocrates], Regimen III,79

I’m not sure my own dog would make an appetising preserve, but the eating of man’s best friend is not unheard of today and so should not come as a major shock, I suppose. So, much like today, the ancient world had a very varied relationship with dogs. It was so varied that we have only really scratched the surface here, so I imagine it will become the topic of a few more blogs in the future.

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