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World Animal Day: Like Us, the Ancient Greeks Loved Their Dogs

ancient greeks dogs
Riders and their dogs depicted on an ancient Greek vase c. 510-500 BC. Credit: Public Domain

Ancient Greeks had a great love and respect for their dogs, cherishing them as companions, protectors, and hunters, as evidenced by several dog tombstones discovered over the centuries.

The most well-known story about the relationship between ancient Greeks and their pet canines comes from Homer and his Odyssey. Written as early as c.800 BC, it is a story of the unending loyalty of dogs to man.

Argos, is the loyal friend of King Odysseus. His master finally returns home after being away on his adventure for twenty years and is not recognized by the hostile suitors who are vying to win the hand of Odysseus’s wife, Penelope. But Argos recognizes his master and rises up from where he has been faithfully waiting, wagging his tail in greeting.

Odysseus could not hold back his tears, which secretly wiped away. However, he is in disguise and he is afraid that if he acknowledges the greeting, he will give away his true identity in front of the suitors. Argos tragically lays back down and dies.

The great philosopher Socrates himself saw wisdom in dogs. He claimed that dogs are true philosophers because they “distinguish the face of a friend and of an enemy only by the criterion of knowing and not knowing” and concluded that dogs want to learn things because by learning they determine what they like and what they do not like based upon knowledge of the truth.

Socrates said that the dog has learned who is a friend and who is not and, based on that knowledge, responds appropriately while human beings are often deceived as to who their true friends are.

The Philosopher Diogenes of Sinope, who lived from 412 to 323 BC was called by the local society “The dog” from which the name “cynic” is derived. As to why he was called a dog, Diogenes replied: “Because I fawn upon those who give me anything, and bark at those who give me nothing, and bite the rogues.”

ancient greeks dogs
Ancient Greek statue of a dog and her puppy. Credit: User:MatthiasKabel/Wikimedia Commons/ CC BY-SA 3.0

How Ancient Greeks named their dogs

Ancient Greeks built the Parthenon, became philosophers, wrote the world’s greatest tragedies and comedies, and overall laid the foundations of Western civilization—yet, apparently, they had a hard time choosing names for their beloved dogs.

Nowadays, we usually just pick a name we like, which reminds us of something or has some pleasant meaning for us. At that time, however, there was a far more complex way of naming one’s dog.

According to Xenophon, dog names preferred by the ancient Greeks were short, consisting of one, or, at most, two syllables. They also paid special attention to the meaning of the name of the dog and no name was ever bestowed at random or on a whim.

The reason for this was that a dog’s name also affected the owner’s psychology. So ancient Greeks chose names which expressed courage, power, speed, appearance or other material or spiritual values. The name Xenophon himself chose for his own dog was “Impetus” (Ορμή).

Atalanti, on the other hand, the famous huntress of Greek mythology, named her dog ‘Avra’ (meaning aura or breeze).

Other notable dog names of antiquity that we know of are Impetuous  (Ορμητικός), Follower (Μεθέπων), The One Who Awakens You (Εγέρτης), Crow (Κόραξ), The Shining One (Λαμπρός), Good Shooter (Εύβολος), and, of course, Odysseus’ faithful dog Argos.

The list of dog names from antiquity was supplemented by Polydeuces, who also mentioned names such as White (Λευκός), Ink (Μελανός), Flower (Άνθος), Storm (Θύελλα), Hunter (Κυνηγός), Digger (Σκαφτιάς) and Guard (Φύλαξ).

ancient greeks dogs
Ancient Rhyton in the shape of a dog’s head from ancient Greece, painted by the Brygos Painter in the early 5th century. Credit:  Clio20, /Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0

Ancient Greeks’ love for dogs engraved forever on gravestones

After their loyal friend and companion departed from this world, ancient Greeks were not afraid to express their grief for their loss, openly crying and mourning.

Greeks would bury their pets along the roadside in marked graves, and the entire ceremony for this was undertaken in a very solemn manner.

dog grave
Grave stele depicting two men and a dog in ancient Greece, c. 400 BC. Credit:Mary Harrsch /Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 4.0

Archaeologists have uncovered countless epitaphs on tombstones dedicated by Greeks to their furry friends.

One gravestone reads: “This is the tomb of the dog, Stephanos, who perished, Whom Rhodope shed tears for and buried like a human. I am the dog Stephanos, and Rhodope set up a tomb for me.”

“Helena, foster child, soul without comparison and deserving of praise,” reads another. This particular epitaph shows that some ancient Greeks, just like today, saw their dogs as their foster children.

In another example, a hunter mourned the female hound who had helped him hunt in the three Greek mountains mentioned on the tombstone: “Surely, even as you lie dead in this tomb, I deem the wild beasts yet fear your white bones, huntress Lycas; and your valor great Pelion knows, and splendid Ossa and the lonely peaks of Cithaeron.”

Another tombstone of a beloved family dog from Ancient Greece reads: “You who pass on this path, if you happen to see this monument, 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 hand.”

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