The old claim that a dog and a man are the best of friend is validated by numerous records, be it art, history, folklore or books. Yet it requires no proof to anyone lucky enough to enjoy the company of a dog in modern day’s society. The stories and the inspiration behind art such as this is what fuels my writing.
I invite you to travel with me through a fast-paced, awe-inspiring journey from the past’s “once upon a time” to the 20th century illustrating the human-dog bond.
More to come in the following weeks on the astounding role dogs, these silent heroes, played during the Great War, World War II, the Vietnam Wat, and the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as what it takes to become a Military Working Dog.
How dogs helped the human brain to evolve
There isn’t a shadow of a doubt that, at some stage during their passing on this planet, humans decided to domesticate wolves (the grey wolf). Why they did it, choosing a breed they will have to compete against for food, is mysterious enough to feed the imagination of many writers.
Perhaps domesticating the cunning foxes failed or it was the super-olfactory ability of dogs that triggered the human determination. Or was it all a coincidence? Theories speak of more than one time when human attempted to domesticate dogs, starting as far as 20 000 – 32 000 years ago.
What is certain is that the canines evolutionary journey from wolves to dogs happened simultaneously with the human’s development of speech (about 150 000 years ago). The time when our ancestors’ acute olfactory capabilities began to diminish, their brain accommodating the extra neural synapses and cortex area dedicated to verbal communication.No wonder that dogs , with their super-olfactory ability, looked, all of a sudden, so much more appealing to have as companions. Not mentioning the cuteness of their puppies.
Dog and man in Ancient World’s art and history
Footprints in the Chauvet Cave: a child and his dog
Chauvet Cave located in the southern France is renowned as the site of some of the world’s oldest mural paintings, and not only.
At the back of the cave the soil and rock have preserved the footprints of a small child (estimated at about 1,4 m height and 8-10 years old) walking beside a dog. The trace is 45 meters long, enough for scientists to analyze and conclude that the child was walking and not running. What is amazing is that the prints he left show that at some stage the child slipped in the soft clay and that at some stage he stopped to clean his torch (proven by the stain of charcoal left behind).
Alongside the child’s footprints are those of a large dog or a wolf friend.
Dogs in Mesopotamia
The Epic of Gilgamesh
I still remember learning n school about oldest piece of epic world literature, written c. 2150 – 1400 BCE – that is 1500 years before Homer even put pen on paper.
It explores a theme as old as humankind, he quest for the meaning of life.
Dogs are mentioned and shown their importance in everyday life: they are the companions of one of the most popular goddesses of the region, the goddess Innana (Ishtar). She travels with seven prized hunting dogs in collar and leash.
The Nimrud dog amulets
So many cultures still rely on amulets today, and thus was the role of the Nimrud dog artifacts. These are canine clay figurines discovered in Nimrud (modern-day northern Iraq) that were once buried under the main doorstep of homes for their protective power (it was believed they carried the dog’s protective power).
Dogs in Ancient Persia
Ancient Persians, too, associated dogs with divinity as a dog’s soul was thought to be constituted of one-third human, one-third wild beast, and one-third divine. But Persians also kept dogs for companionship, protection or herding. In the Persian faith of Zoroastrianism, it was believed that the way one treated dogs during one’s lifetime will have an influence on his / hers journey through the afterword.
Dog and man in the art and history of Ancient Egypt
4 000 years ago lived Abuwtiyuw, the first ever documented dog whose name is known. His tomb is near the Great Pyramid of Giza & a wooden statue of Anubis, the jackal-headed deity, was found next to his mummified body. He was a sighthound, like today’s greyhound.
Anubis is perhaps the dog most associated with pharaohs and Ancient Egypt, represented as a lying jackal or a jackal-headed man. Some new research done on the DNA of the contemporary Egyptian jackal showed that it belongs to the wolf family. Imagine that!
Dog and man through the art and history on Ancient India
Dogs in Mahabharata, the longest epic poem ever written
Also from school (who would have thought?) I remember the Mahabharata as being one of the most important texts of ancient Indian and world literature.
Written 400 BCE the Mahabharata features a dog that might have been an Indian Pariah Dog.
“The dog must come with me,” said YudhisthiraMahabharata
“That is not possible,” said Indra. “All cannot attain heaven. The dog is old and thin and has no value.”
“In that case, I do not seek heaven, “replied Yudhisthira. “The dog was my faithful companion and I cannot abandon it. It sought my help and gave me unconditional love. The pleasures of heaven will mean nothing to me in comparison to its grief. It has done nothing to deserve abandonment and had none of the weaknesses of my wife and brothers. If it does not deserve to go to heaven, then neither do I.”
Further evidence that dog and man have been the best of friends is depicted by the art and history of ancient India, China, Greece, Rome and Mesopotamia. Plenty of canines decorations are found in temples and mosaics from all over the world.
Dogs in antiquity: China
I feel I should mention dogs in ancient China because modern dog’s DNA analysis shows that all present dog breeds stem from the grey wolf in China that was tamed around 16 000 years ago. At the same time wild rice was used extensively, agriculture developed and first villages appeared.
Furthermore, the Chinese honored the dogs for thousands of years. Remember that Dog is one of 12 animals in the Chinese zodiac. People born under this sign are said to be loyal, trustworthy, and kind, qualities often associated with the dog.
There is a lovely Chinese saying translating in:
‘a dog would not mind if its master is poor, a son would not mind if his mother is ugly.’Chinese proverb
An Ancient Roman dog footprint, a Greek pot and a dog cameo
Dogs in the art of Ancient Rome
I particularly love this dog footprint on a Roman terracotta, next to a statuette of a dog displayed in Vidy Roman Museum, Lausanne, Switzerland. I think it depicts the human’s affection and longing towards his departed dog.
In the Georgian National Museum there is this Roman cameo of a dog. It looks like it is carved in stone with an oval frame hand made out of ceramic and, perhaps, sealed with gold. I love the dog’s playful pose. It tells of his comfortable life. Romans appreciated the dogs for their fidelity. I wonder if the woman wearing this cameo led a happy life.
The Dog from Pompeii, Cave Canem
Pompeii was an ancient Roman city near modern-day Naples, in Campania, Southern Italy. It became renowned after Mount Vesuvius erupted in AD 79, burying the city and its inhabitants in 4 to 6m of ash and pumice. Today Pompeii is a precious, well-preserved archeological site and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
A dog mosaic was found in “The House of the Tragic Poet” – proof of the Pompeian love and appreciation for canines.
Just look at it. Made from hundreds of tiny tesserae, in this case cube splinters of stone, hand-cut. It probably took a team of highly skilled craftsmen a whole week to create this life-like image.
See the red chips of stone used for the dog’s collar, but also to add detail inside his slobbering mouth and his angry eyes?
See how focused his ears are, how alert his eyes? His mouth bare, showing off teeth, the chain straining from the dog’s pull?
This dog is a warning. Cave Canem. Beware of the Dog.
“CAVE CANEM” = BEWARE OF THE DOG
Did you know that Romans were superstitious? Very. So Cave Canem was also meant to ward off bad luck, like the Evil Eye.
But what breed were the Pompeii dog? Who are their descendants?
By studying the bones of over one hundred remains of dogs caught in the eruption and comparing their findings with the images of the dogs’ mosaics, scientists were able to conclude that the direct descendants of the Pompeii guard dogs, of these ancient guard dogs, are the the Neapolitan Mastiff or Mastino Napoletano.
The Neapolitan Mastiff are descendants from the Molossus breed dog, now extinct, while the Cave Canem was, indeed, a Molossus dog breed. Like this one below:
The Molossus dogs were used by Romans as guard dogs, hunting dogs, and dogs of war famously loyal and protective of their owner.
Dogs in the art of Ancient Greece
Protector, hunter and companion to the ancient Greeks who also invented the spiked collar to protect their beloved doggo from wolves, the dog enters Greek literature as the three-headed Cerberus guarding the entrances to Hades (the final destination for the souls of the dead). Greeks, too, called their god of the underworld Hades.
Dogs also feature in Plato’s Republic writings. His contemporary Socrates even considered the dog a true philosopher as a dog could distinguish between friend or foe just by looking at the human face.
Maybe you remember the story of Argos, the dog from Homer’s Odyssey, the only one to recognize his master who returned home after a twenty years of absence. Sadly, Odysseus was undercover and can’t acknowledge his dog’s welcome. So the old dog lays back on his spot and gives his last breath.
This typical Leagros Group artwork of the 6th century Greek art is striking. And it depicts the close relationship between men, dogs and horses. So much is said with the use of only a few colors.
Did you know that the Greeks were the first to carve stone in relief, in fifth century B.C., the antecedents of cameos? The carving principles they implemented are still in use today.
The Dogs in the art of Mesoamerica
The Mayan (today SE Mexico) believed that dogs guide the souls of the dead across the watery border and into the afterlife, Xibalba or place of fear, since hounds were such good swimmers. But the dog did not leave. Dogs always look after us, don’t they? The dog would stay to help the man, or woman, go through all the challenges that separated him from paradise.To prove this love humans hand for dogs, the remains of dogs have been discovered buried near human remains.
The Colima Dog
One of the first tangible proofs of human-dog interaction is the Colima Dog, West Mexico, dating to the Late Formative Period (300 BC-300 AD).
Art often represented themes important to the culture: weddings, children’s births, and royal feasts.
Made of terracotta (earth) clay burned in an oven, the Colima Dog shows a hairless dogs symbolizing both life and death themes, through its association with the places where he was found, near food (grains) remains and graves.
Dogs in Celtic and Norse ancient art
Nehalennia, the Celtic goddess of trading, shipping, horticulture and fertility. She is often depicted with a benign-looking dog at her feet. As with other cultures, the dog was associated with guiding and protection after death.
More proof that dog and man have been the best of friends is shown through the art and history of medieval and modern times. Plenty of canines decorations are found in temples, mosaics, artifacts, or paintings from all over the world. Read on.
One of the most interesting pieces of art from the Middle Ages is the Bayeux Tapestry. The Bayeux Tapestry was created in the late 11th century to depict the events of the Norman Conquest of England in 1066.
Do you see the little dog crying and howling at his master’s funeral? The tapestry scene below shows us the burial procession of King Edward the Confessor.
From protector, hunters and companions during ancient times, Medieval dogs were considered part of the family and even learned to perform tricks. But they also joined kings in battles. But dogs were also used to hunt wolfs extensively, who became extinct in the most of western Europe and especially England by the end of Medieval period. The deep connection that dog and man shared during the Middle Ages is depicted in various art objects (paintings, tapestries, objects of decor, coat of arms) and entered even the pages of history. See below, among others, the little dog in Van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait, the dogs in the Coat of Arms of Henry VII.
Dogs in Modern World art
Dogs frolicking in The Wedding Feast at Cana
Don’t be out off by its size (70 m², taking Veronese 15 months to paint it – and not alone). It tells a beautiful biblical story of the Marriage at Cana, at which Jesus converts water to wine. Plus there are dogs painted right in the center (it is said the painter himself is the one in white, holding the viola)
and one other dog is in the left.
Notice how Jesus is placed in the center of the wedding feast? The bride and groom are at the left end of the table. Jesus performed his first miracle at Cana, turning water into wine.
Finally, a 16th century book on dogs!
“Lawes of the Forrest” by John Manwood is a book with a full 141 words title. The book was first published for private circulation in 1592. The 1598 edition is the oldest book in the library of London’s Kennel Club—the “biggest library of books about dogs” in Europe.
Apparently during the 16th century was easier to keep “little dogs”. For greyhounds or mastiffs one needed special hunting license issued by the king! Talk about bureaucracy.
Modern times are abundant with images of dog and man depicted as friends in art as well as entering history.
Gaugan’s puppies and Dogs Playing Poker
We’ll sail past the 19th century “Life with Three Puppies” by Paul Gauguin, inspired by Japanese prints and children’s book illustrations. Just look at those tails!
I hope you will have a good laugh at this American artwork that came shortly after Gaugain’s: “Dogs Playing Poker” by Cassius Marcellus Coolidge, 19th to 20th century. Dogs do observe human faces and often copy us – any dog lover knows.
While other pets and animals have undergone substantial changes in the way they are perceived throughout history dogs have endured the marks of wars and joys alongside humans, as constant companions, protectors and, of course, friends, as we have seen portrayed by the art of various cultures around the world.
I hope you will return to find out more about the way dogs and humans have faced together the many wars of the 20th and the 21st century.
My latest book is ‘Silent Heroes’, a highly emotional read, action-packed, a vivid story of enormous sacrifice and bravery that will keep you on the edge of your seat. It is a book extremely well researched, with authentic details and an epic sense of the place. The war and the military involved, Marines and dogs, are described with reverence, as are the civilians caught in the middle of the fire.