Volume 10, Issue 2: Historia
Great Hellenic Dogs
The ancient Greeks loved their dogs as much as we love ours. Perhaps this is because they realized what many of us have known all along: dogs are among the greatest of the lower life forms. In the late Archaic period, the Athenians graced the Acropolis with life-size marble statues of two crouched dogs—crouched, no doubt, in order to subdue some lesser being (such as a cat). Socrates, Greece's wisest man, understood canine superiority over other animals, for he tells the following story: "It is said that when beasts could talk, a sheep said to her master: `It is strange that you give us sheep nothing but what we get from the land, though we supply you with wool and lambs and cheese, and yet you share your own food with your dog, who supplies you with none of these things.' The dog heard this, and said: `Of course he does. Do not I keep you from being stolen by thieves, and carried off by wolves? Why, but for my protection you couldn't even feed for fear of being killed.' And so, they say, the sheep admitted the dog's claim to preference" (Xenophon Memorabilia 2.7.13).
The superiority of this noble animal enables fiction writers to portray dogs as fierce and deadly, as in modernity's Hound of the Baskervilles or Kujo. But not even the combined creativity of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Stephen King could have conceived such a canine fright as Cerberus, the Dog of Hades. Hesiod described him as "brass voiced and fifty-headed" (Theogony 113ff.). Most Greek artists portrayed him with three heads, though he usually appears with two on Attic red-figure vases. Only the great hero Heracles was able to overpower the fearsome canine, and he required Athena's help to do so. But Cerberus retained his dignity even as Heracles chained him and dragged him forth from the underworld, for he scared the dickens out of Eurystheus, who deserved it. Like all dogs, even the fierce ones, Cerberus had a certain sweetness about him, which was evidenced in his being lulled to sleep by Orpheus' music. This side of Cerberus shows that the Greeks understood dogs far better than the one-dimensional depictions of King and Doyle.
The Greeks also regarded dogs for their faithfulness and loyalty. Diodorus, for example, tells of how Gelon, tyrant of Syracuse (d. 478/7 b.c.), was relieved of his discomfort by a dear, concerned pet. "Gelon cried out in his sleep, for he was dreaming that he had been struck by lightning, and his dog, when he noticed that he was crying out immoderately, did not stop barking until he awakened him" (Historical Library 10.29.1). More stirring is an important event from 480 B.C., when the Athenians hastily evacuated to Salamis Island in order to force the Persians to fight them at sea. As the people went down to the harbor, Plutarch recalls, "Much affecting fondness was shown by the tame domestic animals, which ran along with yearning cries of distress by the side of their masters as they embarked. A story is told of one of these, the dog of Xanthippus the father of Pericles, how he could not endure to be abandoned by his master, and so sprang into the sea, swam across the strait by the side of his master's trireme, and staggered out on Salamis, only to faint and die straightway. They say that the spot which is pointed out to this day as `Dog's Mound' is his tomb" (Themistocles, 10.5-6). This episode holds an important place in the Golden Age of Athens, for surely Pericles would not have been such an unparalleled military and civic leader had he not been raised in a household served by so faithful a dog as this.
One other great hound deserves a place in our affectionate memory alongside Xanthippus' dog. He is revered in Homer's verse as "Argos, the hound of Odysseus, of the steadfast heart" (Odyssey 17.292). Odysseus had bred and raised Argos himself, but "had no joy of him" because he was summoned to fight in the Trojan War. He had been a magnificent dog, for one "would be amazed at seeing his speed and his strength. No creature that he started at in the depths of the thick wood could escape him, and in tracking too he was keen of scent" (315-17). As Argos grew older, he became neglected in his master's absence and was finally cast out by Odysseus' household slaves. Homer recounts their mournful reunion after two decades, when Argos was the only one who recognized his long-lost master, Odysseus, King of Ithaca. "There the dog Argos lay in the dung, all covered with dog ticks. Now, as he perceived that Odysseus had come close to him, he wagged his tail, and laid both his ears back; only he now no longer had the strength to move any closer to his master, who . . . secretly wiped a tear away. . . . The doom of dark death now closed over the dog, Argos, when, after nineteen years had gone by, he had seen Odysseus" (300-327). The life of noble Argos was tragic on account of his undying faithfulness, and he died content.
Go now and get yourself a dog and raise him into his natural, noble estate. As the Greeks did, delight in your pet, and give thanks to his Creator for the pleasures he brings. Choose a good Greek name for him, as Xenophon directed us long ago (modern English equivalents are in brackets): "Give the hounds short names, so as to be able to call to them easily. The following are the right sort: Psyche, Thymus, Porpax, Styrax, Lonche [Lance], Lochus, Phrura, Phylax [Sentinel], Taxis, Xiphon, Phonax, Phlegon, Alce, Teuchon, Hyleus, Medas, Porthon, Sperchon, Orge, Bremon, Hybris, Thallon, Rhome, Antheus, Hebe, Getheus, Chara [Ecstasy], Leusson, Augo, Polys [Rover], Bia, Stichon, Spude, Bryas, Oenas [Blue], Sterrus, Crauge, Caenon, Tyrbas, Sthenon, Aether, Actis, Aechme, Noes [Counsellor], Gnome, Stibon, Horme" (On Hunting 7.5).