The Dog – Part III, The Dog In Myth and Bible

There are many references to the dog in myth as well as in the bible.

In Part II, we discussed the similarities between the dog and the wolf, and concluded that there was a high probability that the dog was a descendent of the wolf. This was based more on the basis of the ability to cross-breed the two species, but not on scientific evidence. Today, there is much more that science can do to either prove or disprove the theory, but that is for another post!

In Part III, we will explore the dog in myth and the dog as related in the Bible. Some of what you read today may upset you as a dog lover, and I will attempt to explain some of the thinking within the discussion. Hopefully, you will enjoy this portion of the book, and consider some of what the thoughts were at the time.

The Dog In Myth and in the Bible

It may appear singular that in both the Old Testament and the New the dog was spoken of almost with abhorrence. He ranked among the unclean beasts[1]. (Reference to unclean beasts in the Bible simply relates to those animals that were not supposed to be eaten. It is not the dirty connotation some will derive from the word) The traffic in him and the price of him were considered as an abomination, and were forbidden to be offered in the sanctuary in the discharge of any vow[2].

One grand object in the institution of the Jewish ritual was to preserve the Israelites from the idolatry which at that time prevailed among every other people. Dogs were held in considerable veneration by the Egyptians, from whose tyranny the Israelites had just escaped. Figures of them appeared on the friezes of most of the temples[3], and they were regarded as emblems of the Divine Being. Herodotus, speaking of the sanctity in which some animals were held by the Egyptians, says that the people of every family in which a dog died, shaved themselves — their expression of mourning — and he adds, that “this was a custom existing in his own time.”[4]

The cause of this attachment to and veneration for the dog is, however, explained in a far more probable and pleasing way than many of the fables of ancient mythology. The prosperity of Lower Egypt, and almost the very subsistence of its inhabitants, depended on the annual overflowing of the Nile; and they looked for it with the utmost anxiety. Its approach was announced by the appearance of a certain star — Sirius. As soon as that star was seen above the horizon, they hastened to remove their flocks to the higher ground, and abandoned the lower pastures to the fertilizing influence of the stream. They hailed it as their guard and protector; and, associating with its apparent watchfulness the well-known fidelity of the dog, they called it the “dog-star,” and they worshipped it. It was in far later periods and in other countries that the appearance of the dog-star was regarded as the signal of insufferable heat or prevalent disease.

anubis dog in mythOne of the Egyptian deities — Anubis — is described as having the form and body of a man, but with a dog’s head. These were types of sagacity and fidelity.

“Who knows not that infatuate Egypt finds
Gods to adore in brutes of basest kinds?
This at the crocodile’s resentment quakes,
While that adores the ibis, gorged with snakes!
And where the radiant beam of morning rings
On shattered Memnon’s still harmonious strings;
And Thebes to ruin all her gates resigns,
Of huge baboon the golden image shines!
To mongrel curs infatuate cities bow,
And cats and fishes share the frequent vow!”
Juvenal, Sat. xv. — Badham’s Trans.

In Ethiopia, not only was great veneration paid to the dog, but the inhabitants used to elect a dog as their king. He was kept in great state, and surrounded by a numerous train of officers and guards. When he fawned upon them, he was supposed to be pleased with their proceedings: when he growled, he disapproved of the manner in which their government was conducted. These indications of his will were implicitly obeyed, or rather, perhaps, dictated.

Among the many strange and wonderful things mentioned by Pliny as being discovered in Africa, is a people called Ptoembati or Ptremphanæ, whose principal city is Aruspi, where they elect a dog for their king and obey him most religiously, being governed entirely by the different motions of his body, which they interpret according to certain signs. (See Pliny, lib. vi, c. xxx.)

Even a thousand years after this period the dog was highly esteemed in Egypt for its sagacity and other excellent qualities; for, when Pythagoras, after his return from Egypt, founded a new sect in Greece, and at Croton, in southern Italy, he taught, with the Egyptian philosophers, that, at the death of the body, the soul entered into that of different animals. He used, after the decease of any of his favorite disciples, to cause a dog to be held to the mouth of the dying man, in order to receive his departing spirit; saying, that there was no animal that could perpetuate his virtues better than that quadruped.

It was in order to present the Israelites from errors and follies like these, and to prevent the possibility of this species of idolatry being established, that the dog was afterward regarded with utter abhorrence among the Jews[5]. This feeling prevailed during the continuance of the Israelites in Palestine. Even in the New Testament the Apostle warns those to whom he wrote to beware of dogs and evil-workers;[6] and it is said in The Revelations that “without are dogs, and sorcerers,”[7] Dogs were, however, employed even by the Jews. Job says, “Now they that are younger than I have me in derision, whose fathers I would have disdained to have set with the dogs of my flock.”[8] Dogs were employed either to guide the sheep or to protect them from wild beasts; and some prowled about the streets at night, contending with each other for the offal that was thrown away.

To a certain degree this dislike of the dog continues to the present day; for, with few exceptions, the dog is seldom the chosen companion of the Jew, or even the inmate of his house. Nor was it originally confined to Palestine. Wherever a knowledge of the Jewish religion spread, or any of its traditions were believed, there arose an abhorrence of the dog. The Mohammedans have always regarded him as an unclean animal, that should never be cherished in any human habitation — belonging to no particular owner, but protecting the street[9] and the district rather than the house of a master. (It is not as clear cut as this paragraph implies, see Jews and Dogs and Muslims and Dogs)

The Hindus regard him likewise as unclean, and submit to various purifications if they accidentally come in contact with him, believing that every dog was animated by a wicked and malignant spirit, condemned to do penance in that form for crimes committed in a previous state of existence. If by chance a dog passed between a teacher and his pupil during the period of instruction, it was supposed that the best lesson would be completely poisoned, and it was deemed prudent to suspend the tuition for at least a day and a night. Even in Egypt, dogs are now as much avoided as they were venerated. In every Mohammedan and Hindu country, the most scurrilous epithet bestowed on a European or a Christian is — “a dog!”[10]

This accounts for the singular fact that in the whole of the Jewish history there is not a single allusion to hunting with dogs. Mention is made of nets and snares, but the dog seems to have been never used in the pursuit of game.

[1] Leviticus 11:27, KJV

[2] Deuteronomy 23:18, KJV

[3] In some of Belzoni’s beautiful sketches of the frieze-work of the old Egyptian temples, the dog appears, with his long ears and broad muzzle, not unlike the old Talbot hound.

[4] Herodotus, lib. ii. c. 66

[5] No dog was suffered to come within the precincts of the Temple at Jerusalem. was a prevalent expression among the Jews. Byrant’s Mythology, vol. ii. p. 42.

[6] Philippians 3:2, KJV

[7] Revalation 22:15, KJV

[8] Job 30:1, KJV

[9] Psalms 59:6, KJV

[10] Carpenter’s Scripture Natural History, p.109. It is a remarkable fact that from this faithful animal, the companion of man, and the guardian of his person and property, should originate as many terms of reproach as “dog,” “cur,” “hound,” “puppy,” “dog-cheap,” “a dog’s trick,” “dog sick,” “dog-weary,” “to lead the life of a dog,” “to use like a dog.” All this probably originated in the East, where the dog was held in abhorrence as the common scavenger of the streets.


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