The Dog – Part IV, the Hunting Dog

The hunting dog shows up late in the history of the dog.

In Part III, we discussed how the dog was treated and referenced in both ancient mythology and in the Bible. While revered in Egyptian mythology, the Bible appeared to be less kind, even lumping the dog in with other unclean beasts. This really was not as bad as it sounded, though, since unclean really referred to not eating them.

In Part IV we discuss the movement of the dog from acting as companion and defender to another role that he has succeeded greatly in… that of the hunting dog.

The Hunting Dog

In the early periods of the history of other countries this seems to have been the case even where the dog was esteemed and valued, and had become the companion, the friend, and the defender of man and his home. So late as the second century of the Christian era, the fair hunting of the present day needed the eloquent defense of Arian, who says that

“there is as much difference between a fair trial of speed in a good run, and ensnaring a poor animal without an effort, as between the secret piratical assaults of robbers at sea, and the victorious naval engagements of the Athenians at Artemisium and at Salamis.”[1]

The first hint of the employment of the dog in the pursuit of other animals is given by Oppian in his Cynegeticus, who attributes it to Pollux, about 200 years after the promulgation of the Levitical law.

Of the precise species of dog that prevailed or was cultivated in Greece at this early period, little can with certainty be affirmed. One beautiful piece of sculpture has been preserved, and is now in the possession of Lord Feversham at Duncombe Hall. It is said to represent the favorite dog of Alcibiades, and to have been the production of Myson, one of the most skillful artists of ancient times. It differs but little from the Newfoundland dog of the present day. He is represented as sitting on his haunches, and earnestly looking at his master. Any one would vouch for the sagacity and fidelity of that animal.

Hunting Dog - GreyhoundThe British Museum contains a group of greyhound puppies of more recent date, from the ruins of the villa of Antoninus, near Rome. One is fondling the other; and the attitude of both, and the characteristic puppy-clumsiness of their limbs, which indicate, nevertheless, the beautiful proportions that will soon be developed, are an admirable specimen of ancient art.

The Greeks, in the earlier periods of their history, depended too much on their nets; and it was not until later times that they pursued their prey with dogs, and then not with dogs that ran by sight, or succeeded by their swiftness of foot, but by beagles very little superior to those of modern days[2]. Of the stronger and more ferocious dogs there is, however, occasional mention. The bull-dog of modern date does not excel the one (possibly of nearly the same race) that was presented to Alexander the Great, and that boldly seized a ferocious lion, or another that would not quit his hold, although one leg and then another was cut off.

It would be difficult and foreign to the object of this work fully to trace the early history of the dog. Both in Greece and in Rome he was highly estimated. Alexander built a city in honor of a dog; and the Emperor Hadrian decreed the most solemn rites of sepulture to another on account of his sagacity and fidelity.

The translator of Arrian imagines that the use of the pugnaces (fighting) and the sagaces (intelligent) — the more ferocious dogs, and those who artfully circumvented and caught their prey — was known in the earlier periods of Greek and Roman history, but that the celeres, the dogs of speed, the greyhounds of every kind, were peculiar to the British islands, or to the western and northern continents of Europe, the interior and the produce of which were in those days unknown to the Greeks and Romans. By most authors who have inquired into the origin of these varieties of the dog, the sagaces have been generally assigned to Greece — the pugnaces to Asia — and the celeres to the Celtic nations.

The vertragi, canes celeres, or dogs that hunted by sight alone, were not known to the ancients previous to the time of the younger Zenophon, who then describes them as novelties just introduced into Greece:

“But the swift-footed Celtic hounds are called in the Celtic tongue ; not deriving their name from any particular nation, like the Cretan, Carian, or Spartan dogs, but, as some of the Cretans are named from working hard, from their keenness, and mongrels from their being compounded of both, so these Celts are named from their swiftness. In figure, the most high-bred are a prodigy of beauty; their eyes, their hair, their color, and bodily shape throughout. Such brilliancy of gloss is there about the spottiness of the parti-colored, and in those of uniform color, such glistening over the sameness of tint, as to afford a most delightful spectacle to an amateur of coursing.”

It is probable these dogs were carried, about this time, into the southern parts of Europe by the various tribes of Celts who over-ran the continent, and also occupied Ireland, Britain, and the other western islands, and ultimately took possession of Gaul.

Of the aboriginal country of the latter there can be little doubt; but the accounts that are given of the English mastiff at the invasion of Britain by the Romans, and the early history of the English hound, which was once peculiar to this country, and at the present day degenerates in every other, would go far to prove that these breeds also are indigenous to our island.

Oppian thus describes the hunting dog as he finds him in Britain:

“There is, besides, an excellent kind of scenting dogs, though small, yet worthy of estimation. They are fed by the fierce nation of painted Britons, who call them agasœi. In size they resemble worthless greedy house-dogs that gape under tables. They are crooked, lean, coarse-haired, and heavy-eyed, but armed with powerful claws and deadly teeth. The agasoeus is of good nose and most excellent in following scent[3].”

Among the savage dogs of ancient times were the Hyrcanian, said, on account of their extreme ferocity, to have been crossed with the tiger[4], — the Locrian, chiefly employed in hunting the boar, — the Pannonian, used in war as well as in the chase, and by whom the first charge on the enemy was always made, — and the Molossian, of Epirus, likewise trained to war as well as to the honors of the amphitheatre and the dangers of the chase. This last breed had one redeeming quality — an inviolable attachment to their owners. This attachment was reciprocal; for it is said that the Molossi used to weep over their faithful quadruped companions slain in war.

Of all the dogs of the ancients, those bred on the continent of Epirus were the most esteemed, and more particularly those from a southern district called Molossia, from which they received their name.

These animals are described as being of enormous size, great courage and powerful make, and were considered worthy not only to encounter the wolf, bear, and boar, but often overcame the panther, tiger, and lion, both in the chase and amphitheatre. They also, being trained to war, proved themselves most useful auxiliaries to this martial people.

The learned translator of Arrian states that

“the fabled origin of this breed is consistent with its high repute; for, on the authority of Nicander, we are told by Julius Pollux, that the Epirote was descended from the brazen dog which Vulcan wrought for Jupiter, and animated with all the functions of canine life.”

These were not the only dogs fashioned by the skillful hands of the Olympic artist, as we find Alcinous, king of the Phæacians, possessing golden dogs also wrought at the celestial forge.

Pliny states that a dog of enormous magnitude was sent as a present by the king of Albania to Alexander the Great when on his march to India; and

“that this monarch being delighted at the sight of so huge and fair a dog, let loose unto him first bears, then wild boars, and lastly fallow deer, all of which animals he took no notice of, but remained perfectly unconcerned. This great warrior being a man of high spirit and wonderful courage, was greatly displeased at the apparent cowardice and want of energy in so powerful an animal, and ordered him to be slain. This news was speedily carried to the king of Albania, who thereupon sent unto him a second dog, stating that he should not make trial of his courage with such insignificant animals, but rather with a lion or elephant, and if he destroyed this one also, he need not expect to obtain any other of this breed, as these two were all he possessed.”

Tanta: suis petiere ultra fera semina sylvis,
Dat Venus accessus, et blando fœdere jungit.
Tunc et mansuetis tuto ferus erat adulter
In stabulis, ultroque gravis succedere tigrim
Ausa canis, majore tulit de sanguine fœtum.
Gratii Falisci Cyneget.,
liv. 1. v. 160.

Alexander being much surprised, made immediate preparations for a trial, and soon saw the lion prostrate, with his back broken, and his body torn in pieces by the noble dog. Then he ordered an elephant to be produced; and in no fight did he take more pleasure than in this. For the dog, with his long, rough, shaggy hair, that covered his whole body, rushed with open mouth, barking terribly, and thundering, as it were, upon the elephant. Soon after he leaps and flies upon him, advancing and retreating, now on one side, now on the other, maintaining an ingenious combat; at one time assailing him with all vigor, at another shunning him. So actively did he continue this artificial warfare, causing the huge beast to turn around so frequently on every side to avoid his attacks, that he ultimately came down with a crash that made the earth tremble with his fall.” (Book viii. chap. 40.)

The Molossian dogs were at a later period much esteemed by the Romans as watch dogs, not only of their dwellings, but also to guard their flocks against the incursions of wild animals. Horace, in the following lines, passes a just tribute to the worth of this animal, when referring to his watchfulness, and the ardor with which he pursues those wild animals, even ‘per altas nives,’ that threaten the flocks entrusted to his care.

“Quid immerentes, hospites vexas canis,
Ignarus adversum lupos?
Quin huc inanes, si potes, vertis minas,
Et me remorsurum petis
Nam, qualis aut Molossus, aut fulvus Lacon,
Amica vis pastoribus,
Agam per altas aure sublatâ nives,
Quæcunpue præcedet fera.”

Ælian relates that one of them, and his owner, so much distinguished themselves at the battle of Marathon, that the effigy of the dog was placed on the same tablet with that of his master.

[1] Arrian’s Cynegeticus, cap 26

[2] New Sporting Magazine, vol. xiv. p. 97

[3] Oppian’s Cynegeticus, lib. i. v. 468-480

[4] “At contrà faciles, magnique Lycaones armis. Sed non Hyrcanæ satis est vehementia genti.” Latin for “On the other hand , are quick, of great the Lycaones arms. But it is not enough that the intensity of the nation hyrcanum”

This entry was posted in Books. Bookmark the permalink. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.