Dog Mythology - Level 3
Dogs in World Mythology
Learn about the significance of dogs in mythology.
By Ramona D. Marek
Guardians, protectors and loyal companions, dogs have long lived with humans as their first animal friends. Archaeologists definitively date the relationship back 12,000 years ago to the end of the Ice Age or Upper Paleolithic, though they believe it started much earlier but lack scientific evidence to support the belief. Mythology, however, places the dog here at the time of creation, and in some cases pre-creation, long before the first humans arrived.
Ancient people used mythology to explain creation, stellar bodies and other naturally occurring phenomena around them, as well as interactions with other humans. “Mythology serves as the reservoir of the prior wisdom and knowledge of a culture reflected in tales and stories that are repeated in the oral tradition,” says J. Joseph Edgette, professor of education and folklorist at Widener University in Chester, Pa. In many cultures the dog plays an integral part in mythology, and the older breeds have richer and more colorful mythology.
Many cultures believe the dog was here before man and accompanied the creator-god during creation, like the myth of the Kato Indians of California. Nagaicho, the Great Traveler, the creator, “took a dog with him” when he set upon the task of creating; there is no mention of the dog’s creation. Maria Leach, author of “God Had a Dog,” writes “Perhaps among the Katos any idea of a man going around without a dog was not only unheard of but was also unthinkable.”
Another pre-creation dog myth comes from the Shawnee Indians, from the Eastern Woodlands of the United States, in which the creatress, Our Grandmother, was accompanied by her grandson and her small dog as she perfected the newly created world. Our Grandmother, bent over a cooking pot, and her little dog are still visible in the full moon. The good souls of the dead live in the presence of Our Grandmother and watch as she weaves a basket. The completion of the basket symbolizes the end of the world and all the good souls will live safely in the basket. But each night the little dog takes apart the basket thus averting the end of the world.
In the Aztec Indian creation myth, Xolotl, the dual entity of Quetzalcoatl, was both a dog and sun god. Xolotl was sent to the underworld to retrieve the bones of the ancestors but was scared by Mictlantecuhtli, the god of death, and as he fled he tripped and the ancestors’ bones shattered into millions of pieces thereby creating the world’s many peoples.
Xolotl is often depicted in temple art – first found in the northern Mexico state of Chihuahua – as a small dog with large round eyes. Like the Egyptian god Anubis, Xolotl escorts the soul of the dead into the afterlife.
The Nyanga people of the former Belgian Congo, present day Democratic Republic of the Congo, have a fire-bringer mythological hero thought to be the early Basenji, the barkless dog. It is said that a man named Nkhango saw a dog named Rukuba guarding a fire in front of the house of a god. Nkhango wanted the fire, and Rukuba asked what he would get in return if he stole some. Nkhango promised he would take care of Rukuba forever. When Rukuba stole the fire, the god disowned him and Rukuba showed up at Nkhango’s doorstep. Nkhango gave him the promised forever home and created a collar from antelope hide and filled it with dried thorns to rattle. Nkhango told Rukuba, “Now you can speak”.
Depicted on ancient Egyptian and Sumerian murals dating back 5,000 years, the Saluki is one of the oldest dog breeds in the world. Mythology says the Saluki is magical and immortal since it was she who guarded seven sleeping youths for 309 years. For that time she never left the cave where they slept, not even for food, and anyone who tried to enter the cave was met with a blistering wind. According to Gerald and Loretta Hausman, authors of “The Mythology of Dogs,” the myth has Muslim, Christian and Jewish roots.
In Norse and German mythology, the Rottweiler named Thunder is companion to Thor, the Great God. Thunder carries Thor’s powerful hammer in his mouth, protecting it from thieves, like the giant Thrym who once stole it from Thor. That’s why it is said a Rottweiler’s growl is like thunder in his throat, he is still guarding Thor’s hammer.
Chinese, and sometimes Japanese, art depicts the Dogs of Fo, a fusion of dog and lion, often viewed as mythological monsters. The representation is thought to be the Pekingese or Peking lion-dog. The Chinese Dogs of Fo are found in pairs, the male with carved globes and the female with one or two cubs, and considered guardians and protectors, just as the Pekingese was the watch dog of the Imperial Palace during the eighth century T’ang Dynasty.
Perhaps the most well known mythological dog is Cerberus, the three-headed hound of Hades who guarded the Underworld in Greek mythology, keeping out the living and keeping in the dead. The concept of dog as guardian of the passage to the underworld is ancient and found in cultures around the world including Iceland, North American Indian and Celtic.
Across the globe, it appears that as long man has been around, developing stories of his own creation, the canine has been by his side – in real life and in myth. While these are just a sample, there are many other cultures that have intertwined their beliefs, spirituality and community with canines, as we continue to do today.
Ramona Marek, a former special education teacher, holds a master’s degree in education. Her heart is full of sweet memories of family dogs who enriched her life, in particular a spaniel mix named Neal who loved playing in the New Mexico snow.
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