Friday, August 17, 2012

PBP: The right hound for the right quarry

Two days now, I have tackled very heavy subjects in general, as well as for me personal. It becomes wearisome to write about such topics, so today, I'm writing about puppies. Well, hunting dog, but they were puppies once, so it counts. Also, as this is a Pagan Blog Project post, I should explain that there are no words starting with 'Q' in Greek because the letter does not exist in the language. 'Quarry' is the closest I'm getting so it will have to do.


Dogs had a very special and particular place in ancient Hellenic society. The Hellenic word for 'dog' is 'kuón' (κύων), and there were a couple of breeds that were favored. First and foremost, the Molossus, a now extinct species of dog related most to the mastiffs of current times, enjoyed great prestige. Another favorite was the Laconian, which was especially popular in Sparta. The Molossus was most often used as a guard dog, while the Laconian was the go-to hunting dog of the time. Also known were the Cretan, a Laconia probably crossed with the Molossian; and the Melitan, a small long-haired, short-legged lap dog.

Even back then, hunting dogs had to be purebred, which made buying a hunting pack an incredibly costly affair which came with a lot of prestige. Quarries for the Laconian hunting dogs were often wild goats, deer, and hares. For the more dangerous animals like boars and even humans, the Molossus breed was chosen.

Dogs used for the hunt had to have very different qualities than those needed to guard a house, herd, field or person. There are no existing Hellenic sources of traits looked for in either type of dog, but Marcus Nemesianus, a Roman poet, has the following to say about breeding good, strong, dogs which almost certainly applied to Hellens as well:

"... you must choose a bitch obedient to speed forward, obedient to come to heel, native to either the Spartan or the Molossian country-side, and of good pedigree. She must stand high on straight legs; with a comely slope let her carry, under a broad breast, where the ribs end, a width of keel that gradually again contracts in a lean belly: she must be big enough with strong loins, spread at the hips, and with the silkiest of ears floating in air as she runs. Give her a male to match, everywhere similarly well-sized, while strength holds sway, while bodily youth is in its joyous flower and blood abounds in the veins of early life. For burdensome diseases creep on and sluggish age, and they will produce unhealthy offspring without steadfast strength. But for breeding a difference of age in the parents is more suitable: you should release the male, keen for mating, when he has already completed forty months: and let the female be two full years old. Such is the best arrangement in their coupling. Presently when Phoebe has completed the round of two full moons since the birth-giving womb fertilised by the male began to swell, the pregnancy in its due time reveals the fruitful offspring, and straightway you see all round an abundant noisy litter."

For hunting dogs, swiftness was paramount and for guard and shepherding dogs, Marcus Varro, a notable Roman scholar and writer, advised the following: a large head, drooping ears, thick shoulders and neck, wide paws, thick tail, a deep bark, and be white in color so as to be more easily recognized in the dark, were important.

Of course, only the best in the litter were good enough to become hunting or guarding dogs. As such, the first litter of any bitch was done away completely while the second litter was (at least) halved so only the strong survived. After this, Nemesianus advices any breeder or buyer the following:

"You will be able to examine the strength of a puppy by its weight and by the heaviness of each body know in advance which will be light in running. Furthermore, you should get a series of flames made in a wide circuit with the smoke of the fire to mark a convenient round space, so that you may stand unharmed in the middle of the circle: to this all the puppies, to this the whole crowd as yet unseparated must be brought: the mother will provide the test of her progeny, saving the valuable young ones by her selection and from their alarming peril. For when she sees her offspring shut in by flames, at once with a leap she clears the blazing boundaries of the fire-zone, snatches the first in her jaws and carries it to the kennel; next another, next another in turn: so does the intelligent mother distinguish her nobler progeny by her love of merit." 

It sounds a bit harsh but I'm pretty sure no puppies (or their mothers) were harmed in this process. When the proper dog is selected, there is still the matter of naming them, and there was a definite science behind this process. Xenophon, a historian, soldier, mercenary and philosopher who lived in ancient Hellas, advices the following:

"Give the hounds short names, so as to be able to call to them easily. The names are significant of the colour, strength, spirit, sagacity or behaviour of the hounds. Hebe and Psyche are still in the list of bitches' names, and modern equivalents of several of the other names are in use, e.g. Lance (Lonché), Sentinel (Phylax), Ecstasy (Chara), Blueskin (Oenas), Crafty (Medas), Hasty (Sperchon), Vigorous (Thallon), Impetus (Hormé), Counsellor (Noës), Bustler (dog) or Hasty (bitch)."

When you have aptly named your dog, they still need to eat. As they didn't have Pedigree, the ancient Hellens had to improvise. Ordinary pups recieved barley bread softened with cow’s milk or whey, but more valuable puppies eat bread soaked in sheep or goat milk. Puppies who would grow up to hunt game recieved a little blood from the type of animal the pup was supposed to hunt. Grease stained bread, other table scaps and meat broth were also dog food favorites. After a sacrefice, dogs got special treats in the form of roasted ox liver coated in barley meal. Of course, a bit of the meat from any hunted animal was given to the dog who helped hunt it.

There are actually a lot of myths featuring dogs. The most famous are probably Atalanta and her hunting dog Aura (Breeze), Odysseus and his hunting dog Argos (who, after waiting for his master for twenty years, dies after seeing him return home) and Actaeon, who is hunted and killed by his own hunting pack after being transformed into a stag upon seeing Artemis bathe.

Artemis is associated with a lot of dog-related mythology. As the Goddess of the hunt, she is often depicted amongst her own hunting pack. Another Goddess associated with dogs is Hekate. She is often described as being of dog-shape or tended to by dog. The dog was also her favored sacrificial animal and the meat of the dog was eaten solemnly. That it was eaten at all is a testament to Hekate's rule extending even beyond the Underworld, as Khthonic (Underworld) Deities often received their sacrificial offerings in a holókaustos. A famous Underworld dog is, of course, the three-headed Kerberos who guards the entrance gates.

Dogs aren't a requirement for the modern practice of Hellenismos, but they are a nice throw-back to life in ancient Hellas. Modern Hellenists take in a dog for any reason a non-Hellenist might; companionship, guard duty, hunting, education or simply because they are so very, very cute.

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