Books History

When growlers roamed the streets of Athens

A review of ‘Dogs in the Athenian Agora’ by Colin M. Whiting

One of the most moving scenes in literature comes from The Odyssey.

Odysseus, returning to Ithaca in disguise after 20 long years, sees his old dog Argos. He sheds a tear and quickly wipes it away, fearing lest his faithful friend might give him away. His dog, overcome with emotion but too old and tired now to raise himself, dies. Although they had both recognised the other, their final reunion was stolen from them. The scene with such small telling details raises to a pitch, the bittersweet sadness of return and reunion.

Dogs have been humankind’s most faithful friends for centuries. A little book from the American School in Athens presents and contextualizes evidence for dogs in ancient Athens.

Greek art is full of dogs: real and divine. They are often portrayed either as hunting dogs or small lapdogs, although there was a greater variety of ‘breeds’ and sizes on the street as it were. Dogs might also act as guard dogs or to shepherd animals. Colin Whiting also suggests that there was a gender split between the two breeds. The hunters were associated with the outside and men, while lapdogs were associated with domestic interiors and women. 

Hunting dogs are often depicted with wild animals. These were tough animals. In his book on hunting, Xenophon describes the qualities you should look for in a hunting dog and suggests some suitable names: Growler, Force and Sunbeam. Yet even hunters were close to their four-legged friends.

The lap dogs are sometimes called Maltese dogs. These are small, fluffy balls of fun, full of energy. They were very popular, both in art and real life. One fragment of a funerary relief shows a woman sat on a chat, surrounded by three dogs. Perhaps she had just fed them a small morsel of salmon to keep their coats shiny. 

These dogs were much loved members of the family. An epitaph to a Maltese dog called Argos is quoted in the book: “They called him a bull when he still lived / But now the silent paths of night possess his voice”. We have also found burial remains within the Agora itself which show that some dogs were buried with care. One small dog was carefully buried in a ceramic vessel along with an expensive perfume container commonly used in human burials. Another dog was buried in a clay lined pit along with a large beef bone placed in its mouth.

Such archaeological finds bring the Ancient World closer to us, but of course there were key differences.

Dogs were also present in Greek religion, associated with figures as disparate as Artemis, Hecate, Hercules and Aesclipius. Perhaps the most famous divine dogs are Cerebeus and Anubis: two figures associated with death. Cereberus was the many headed beast who guarded Hades, while Anubis transported the dearly departed to the ambershades. An oil lamp found in the Agora shows Isis and Serapis sat on thrones either side of Cerberus.

A faience amulet of Anubis was also found in the Agora, perhaps dropped by a follower on the way to the Athenian Isis Temple, believed to have been located in the area.

More moving, and disturbing, are the archaeological discoveries from the Agora Bone Well which contained the bones of small children and dogs dated to the mid 2nd century BCE. Archaeologists believed that the well was used to deposit the bodies of babies who died shortly after birth. The dogs may have been street dogs killed for ritual purposes, either to absorb the pollution of the dead body or to appease the gods. Perhaps they were killed to accompany the babies into the unknown. 

Dogs have been our companions, through the bad times and good, as this book so poignantly shows. It is only 40 pages, but worth reading. Like a well designed poetry pamphlet but with a lot more learning, style and beauty. Excellent.

By Rhakotis Magazine

Classic beyond the classics