Domestication and Contribution of Dogs in the Ancient World

A floor mosaic from Pompeii depicting a guard dog. (1st century CE) / Wikimedia Commons

Dogs have been a part of the history of human beings since before the written word.

By Dr. Joshua J. Mark / 01.15.2018
Professor of Philosophy
Marist College

Dogs in the Ancient World


Dogs have been a part of the history of human beings since before the written word. The ancient temple of Gobekli-Tepe in Turkey, dated to at least 12,000 years BCE, has provided archaeologists with evidence of domesticated dogs in the Middle East corresponding to the earliest evidence of domestication, the Natufian Grave, (c. 12,000 BCE) discovered in Ein Mallaha, Israel, in which an old man was buried with a puppy. In many cultures throughout the ancient world, dogs figured prominently and, largely, were regarded in much the same way that they are today. Dogs were seen as faithful companions, hunters, guardians, and as a treasured part of the family.

Dogs in Mesopotamia

In the oldest story from the Near East, The Epic of Gilgamesh from ancient Mesopotamia (dated to 2150-1400 BCE), dogs appear in an elevated role as the companions of one of the most popular goddesses of the region; the goddess Innana (Ishtar) travels with seven prized hunting dogs in collar and leash. Although Egypt is credited with the invention of the dog collar, it most likely developed in Sumer.  It can be assumed the development of the dog collar was suggested shortly after dogs were domesticated which happened in Mesopotamia prior to Egypt. A golden pendant of a dog (clearly a Suluki) was found at the Sumerian city of Uruk dated to 3300 BCE and a cylinder seal from Nineveh (dated c. 3000 BCE) also features a Saluki. The dog pendant wears a wide collar; evidence of the dog collar in use at that time.

In the famous Descent of Innana (a story considered older than and not a part of Gilgamesh) in which the goddess goes down into the underworld, her husband, Dumuzi, keeps domesticated dogs as part of his royal retinue. Dogs featured prominently in the everyday life of the Mesopotamians. The historian Wolfram Von Soden notes this, writing:

The dog (Sumerian name, ur-gi; Semitic name, Kalbu) was one of the earliest domestic animals and served primarily to protect herds and dwellings against enemies. Despite the fact that dogs roamed freely in the cities, the dog in the ancient Orient was at all times generally bound to a single master and was cared for by him. Of course, the dog was also a carrion eater, and in the villages it provided the same service as hyenas and jackals. As far as we can tell, there were only two main breeds of dog: large greyhounds which were used primarily in hunting, and very strong dogs (on the order of Danes and mastiffs), which in the ancient Orient were more than a match for the generally smaller wolves and, for that reason, were especially suitable as herd dogs. The sources distinguish numerous sub-breeds, but we can only partially identify these. The dog was often the companion of gods of therapeutics. Although the expression `vicious dog’ occurred, `dog’ as a derogatory term was little used (91).

This gypsum wall panel relief depicts huntsmen with hounds under palm trees. Neo-Assyrian Period, reign of Ashurbanipal II, 645-635 BCE. Panel 13, Room E of the North Palace at Nineveh (Kouyunjik), Northern Mesopotamia, modern-day Iraq. (The British Museum, London)

Dogs are depicted in Mesopotamian art as hunters but also as companions. Dogs were kept in the home and were treated in much the same way by caring families as they are today. Inscriptions and inlaid plaques depict dogs waiting for their masters and, according to the historian Bertman, even listening to their master play music: “The images on inlaid plaques, carved seal-stones, and sculpted reliefs transport us back…We watch a shepherd playing his flute as his dog sits and attentively listens” (294). Dogs protected the home and amuletic images of canines – such as the one mentioned above from Uruk – were carried for personal protection. The famous Nimrud Dogs, clay figurines of canines found at the city of Kalhu, were buried under or beside the threshold of buildings for their protective power. Five other dog statuettes were recovered from the ruins of Nineveh and inscriptions relate how these figurines were imbued with the power of the dog to protect against danger. Further, the “gods of therapeutics” Von Soden references above were the deities involved with health and healing and, most notably, the goddess Gula who was regularly depicted in the presence of her dog. Dog saliva was considered medicinal because it was noted that, when dogs licked their wounds, it promoted healing.

The Dog in India

In ancient India the dog was also highly regarded. The Indian Pariah Dog, which still exists today, is considered by many to be the first truly domesticated dog in history and the oldest in the world (though this has been challenged). The great cultural epic The Mahabharata  (circa 400 BCE) significantly features a dog who may have been one of these Pariah Dogs. The epic relates, toward the end, the tale of King Yudisthira, many years after the Battle of Kurukshetra, making a pilgrimage to his final resting place. On the way he is accompanied by his family and his faithful dog. One by one his family members die along the path but his dog remains by his side. When, at last, Yudisthira reaches the gates of paradise he is welcomed for the good and noble life he has lived but the guardian at the gate tells him the dog is not allowed inside. Yudisthira is shocked that so loyal and noble a creature as his dog would not be allowed into heaven and so chooses to remain with his dog on earth, or even go to hell, than enter into a place which would exclude the dog. The guardian at the gate then tells Yudisthira that this was only a last test of his virtue and that, of course, the dog is welcome to enter also. In some versions of this tale the dog is then revealed to be the god Vishnu, the preserver, who has been watching over Yudisthira all his life, thus linking the figure of the dog directly to the concept of god.

Egypt and the Dog

The dog connection with the gods and the dog’s loyalty to human beings is further explored in other cultures.  In ancient Egypt the dog was linked to the dog-jackal god, Anubis, who guided the soul of the deceased to the Hall of Truth where the soul would be judged by the great god Osiris. Domesticated dogs were buried with great ceremony in the temple of Anubis at Saqqara and the idea behind this seemed to be to help the deceased dogs pass on easily to the afterlife (known in Egypt as the Field of Reeds) where they could continue to enjoy their lives as they had on earth.

The best known dog honored in this way is Abuwtiyuw who was honored with a grand burial in the Old Kingdom (c. 2613-2181 BCE) near the plateau of Giza. Abuwtiyuw was the dog of an unknown servant of the king, (whose identity is also unclear) whose limestone memorial slab was discovered in 1935 CE by Egyptologist George Reisner. The inscribed slab would have once been part of the owner’s memorial chapel and relates how “His Majesty ordered that he [the dog] be buried ceremonially, that he be given a coffin from the royal treasury, fine linen in great quantity, and incense.”

Although Abuwtiyuw was especially honored, dogs in general were highly valued in Egypt as part of the family and, when a dog would die, the family, if they could afford to, would have the dog mummified with as much care as they would pay for a human member of the family. Great grief was displayed over the death of a family dog and the family would shave their eyebrows as a sign of this grief (as they also did with their cats). Tomb paintings of the pharaohRameses the Great depict him with his hunting dogs (presumably in the Field of Reeds) and dogs were often buried with their masters to provide this kind of companionship in the afterlife. The intimate relationship between dogs and their masters in Egypt is made clear through inscriptions which have been preserved:

We even know many ancient Egyptian dog’s names from leather collars as well as stelae and reliefs.  They included names such as Brave One, Reliable, Good Herdsman, North-Wind, Antelope and even “Useless”.  Other names come from the dogs color, such as Blacky, while still other dogs were given numbers for names, such as “the Fifth”. Many of the names seem to represent endearment, while others convey merely the dogs abilities or capabilities.  However, even as in modern times, there could be negative connotations to dogs due to their nature as  servants of man. Some texts include references to prisoners as `the king’s dog’ (

The dog as servant was most clearly represented through these collars which would have served to train and control the animals. The earliest evidence of the dog collar in Egypt is a wall painting dated c. 3500 BCE of a man walking his dog on a leash. The leash appears to be a simple affair of a rope or cloth tied to the collar. Egyptian dog collars were manufactured from a single piece of leather stitched and glued to form a ring which then was slipped over the dog’s head. From simple leather rings, the collar became more elaborate in design by the time of the Middle Kingdom (2040-1782 BCE) when they were ornamented with copper or bronze studs. In the New Kingdom (1570-1069 BCE) they were even moreso with elaborate etching involved. This is most clearly seen in the dog collar from the tomb of Maiherpri, a noble under the reign of Thutmose IV (1400-1390 BCE) which is a leather band adorned with horses and lotus flowers and dyed a pale pink.

Dogs in Ancient Greece

Clearly, the dog was an important part of Egyptian society and culture but the same was true of ancient Greece. The dog was companion, protector, and hunter for the Greeks and the spiked collar, so well known today, was invented by the Greeks to protect the necks of their canine friends from wolves. Dogs appear in Greek literature early on in the figure of the three-headed dog Cerberus who guarded the gates of Hades. One example of this in art is the Caeretan black-figure hydria vase of Heracles and Cerberus from c. 530-520 BCE (presently in the Louvre Museum in Paris, France). In Greece, as in ancient Sumeria, the dog was associated with female deities in that both the goddesses Artemis and Hecate kept dogs (Artemis, hunting dogs while Hecate kept black Molossian dogs).

Statue of Hades and Cerberus, his dog. On display at the Archaeological Museum of Crete.

The philosophic school of Cynicism in ancient Greece takes its name from the Greek for `dog’ and those who followed this school were called Kynikos (dog-like) in part because of their determination to follow a single path loyally without swerving. The great Cynic philosopher Antisthenes taught in a locale known as Cynosarges (the place of the white dog) and this, perhaps, is another reason for their name.

Dogs are also featured in Plato’s famous dialogue of Republic. In Book II, Socrates claims that the dog is a true philosopher because dogs “distinguish the face of a friend and of an enemy only by the criterion of knowing and not knowing” and concludes that dogs must be lovers of learning because they determine what they like and what they do not based upon knowledge of the truth. 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.

Probably the most famous dog story from ancient Greece, however, is that of Argos, the loyal friend of King Odysseus of Ithaka from Book 17 of Homer’s Odyssey (c. 800 BCE). Odysseus comes home after being away for twenty years and, thanks to help from the goddess Athena, is not recognized by the hostile suitors who are trying to win Odysseus’s wife, Penelope’s hand in marriage. Argos, however, recognizes his master and rises up from where he has been faithfully waiting, wagging his tail in greeting. Odysseus, in disguise, cannot acknowledge the greeting for fear of giving away his true identity in front of the suitors and so ignores his old friend; and Argos lays back down and dies. In this, as in the story in The Mahabharata, the loyalty of the dog is depicted in the exact same way. Though separated by different cultures and hundreds of years, the dog is depicted as the loyal, devoted figure to his master, whether that master returns the devotion or not.

Dogs in Rome

In ancient Rome the dog was seen in much the same way as in Greece and the well-known mosaic, Cave Canem (Beware of Dog) shows how dogs were appreciated in Rome as guardians of the home just as they had been in earlier cultures and are still today. The great Latin poet Virgil, wrote, “Never, with dogs on guard, need you fear for your stalls a midnight thief”(Georgics III, 404ff) and the writer Varro, in his work on living in the country, says that every family should have two types of dog, a hunting dog and a watchdog (De Re Rustica I.21). Dogs protected people not only from wild animals and thieves but also from supernatural threats. The goddess Trivia (the Roman version of the Greek Hecate) was the Queen of Ghosts, haunted crossroads and graveyards, and was associated with witchcraft. She stole upon people silently to prey on them but dogs were always aware of her first; a dog who seemed to be barking at nothing was thought to be warning one against the approach of Trivia or some other disembodied spirit.

The Romans had many pets, from cats to apes, but favored the dog above all others. The dog is featured in mosaics, paintings, poetry and prose. The historian Lazenby writes:

There is a large series of both Greek and Roman reliefs showing men and women with their canine companions. Gallic reliefs especially show a remarkably human touch in scenes depicting this household favorite with its owners. In these we see charming pictures of healthy, happy childhood: a boy reclining on a couch and giving his pet dog his plate to lick clean; again, a small girl, Graccha, who, the inscription tells us, lived only 1 year and 4 months, holds in her left hand a basket which contains three puppies, the mother of which looks up at them with much concern (1).

Dogs are mentioned in the Roman law code as guardians of the home and flocks. In one case which was recorded, a farmer brings a suit against his neighbor because the neighbor’s dogs rescued the farmer’s hogs from wolves and the neighbor then claimed ownership of the hogs. The complaint, which was settled in favor of the farmer, reads:

Wolves carried away some hogs from my shepherds; the tenant of an adjoining farm, having pursued the wolves with strong and powerful dogs, which he kept for the protection of his flocks, took the hogs away from the wolves, or the dogs compelled them to abandon them. When my shepherd claimed the hogs, the question arose whether they had become the property of him who recovered them or whether they were still mine, for they had been obtained by a certain kind of hunting (Nagle, 246).

Varro claimed that no farm should be without two dogs and they should be kept indoors during the day and let free to roam at night in order to prevent just such a possibility as the one discussed above. He also suggested that a white dog should be chosen over a black one so that one could distinguish between one’s dog and a wolf in the darkness or the twilight of early morning.

The Dog in China

Green-glazed ceramic dog, Eastern Han Dynasty, 25-220 CE. Palace Museum (Beijing, China).

Ancient China had an interesting relationship with the dog. Dogs were the earliest animals domesticated in China (c. 12,000 BCE) along with pigs and were used in hunting and kept as companions. They were also used, very early on, as a food source and as sacrifices. Ancient oracle bones (which were the bones of animals or shells of turtles used to tell the future) mention dogs repeatedly as both good and bad omens depending upon how, in what condition, and under what circumstances, the dog was seen.

The blood of a dog was an important component in sealing oaths and swearing allegiances because dogs were thought to have been given to humans as a gift from heaven and so their blood was sacred. As a gift from the divine, they were honored but it was understood that they had been provided for a purpose: to help human beings survive by providing them with food and with blood for sacrifice.

Dogs were once killed and buried in front of a home, or before the city’s gates, to ward off disease or bad luck. In time, straw dogs replaced actual dogs as the practice of sacrificing dogs became less popular. The disease or ill fortune which threatened the city or home was thought to be as easily deceived by the straw dog figure, thinking it was a guard dog, and would flee as from an actual dog. The practice of setting a statue or image of a dog in front of one’s house may come from this custom of burying a straw dog in one’s yard for protection against harm.

Dogs in Mesoamerica

The Maya had a similar relationship with dogs as the Chinese. Dogs were bred in pens as a food source, as guardians and pets, and for hunting, but were also associated with the gods. As dogs were noted as great swimmers, they were thought to conduct the souls of the dead across the watery expanse to the afterlife, the netherworld of Xibalba. Once the soul had arrived in the dark realm, the dog served as a guide to help the deceased through the challenges presented by the Lords of Xibalba and to reach paradise.

This has been inferred from excavations in the region which have uncovered graves in which dogs are buried with their masters and from inscriptions on temple walls. Similar inscriptions in the surviving Mayan Codices depict the dog as the bringer of fire to the people and, in the Quiche Maya holy book, the Popol Vuh, dogs are instrumental in the destruction of the ungrateful and unknowing race of humans which the gods first produced and then repented of.

The Aztecs and Tarascans shared this view of the dog, including the dog as a guide to the afterlife for the deceased. The Aztecs also had a story in their mythology regarding the destruction of an early race of human beings in which dogs are featured. In this tale, the gods drown the world in a great flood but a man and woman manage to survive by clinging to a log. Once the waters recede, they climb onto dry land and build a fire to dry themselves. The smoke from this fire annoys the great god Tezcatlipoca who tears off their heads and then sews the heads to the rear-ends of the man and woman and, in doing so, creates dogs. According to this myth, dogs pre-date the present race of human beings and so should be treated with respect the way one would treat an elder. The Aztecs also buried dogs with their dead and their god of death, Xolotl, was imagined as a huge dog.

The Tarascans, like the Aztecs and Maya, kept dogs as pets, for hunting, and for food and also linked them with the gods and the afterlife. The souls of those who died without proper burial, such as those who drowned or were lost in battle or died alone on a hunt, were found by spirit dogs who would ensure their safe passage to the afterlife. In all three of these cultures (as, indeed, in the others mentioned above) the belief in ghosts was very real. A ghost could not only make trouble in one’s daily life but could actually bring physical harm and even death. The Tarascan tale about the spirit dogs allayed the fear that, if one had not been able to properly bury a loved one, the deceased’s ghost would return to trouble the living. The people would not have to fear because the dog would take care of the problem.


In ancient India, Mesopotamia, China, Mesoamerica and Egypt, the people had deep ties with their dogs and, as seen, this was also common in ancient Greece and Rome. Ancient Greeks thought of dogs as geniuses, as `possessing a certain elevated spirit’.  Plato referred to the dog as a ‘lover of learning’ and a ‘beast worthy of wonder.’  The philosopher Diogenes of Sinope loved the simplicity of the dog’s life and encouraged human beings to emulate it. While other animals have undergone significant changes in the way they are perceived through history (the cat, most notably) the dog has remained a constant companion, friend, and protector and has been portayed that way through the art and in the writings of many ancient cultures. The old claim that a dog is one’s best friend is substantiated through the historical record but needs no proof for anyone in the modern day who is lucky enough to enjoy the company of a good dog.

Dogs and Their Collars in Ancient Mesopotamia


Among the many contributions to world culture credited to Mesopotamia is an object so familiar to people in the modern world that few pause to consider its origin: the dog collar. Throughout the ancient world, from China to Rome, dogs are depicted in works of art on a leash attached to a collar. The dog collar was so integral an aspect of the people’s daily lives that even the dogs of the gods are seen in collar and leash; a relationship first evident in art from ancient Mesopotamia.

In the same way that scholars debate the origin of the dog and its first domestication, it is difficult to say with certainty that the people of Mesopotamia were the first to invent the collar. It is probable, even quite likely, that the collar – like people’s relationship with dogs themselves – developed independently in many different regions at different times. Even so, as far as the collar’s depiction in ancient art is concerned, the earliest come from Mesopotamia.

This clay plaque depicts a striding man who leads a large dog (domestic scene?). From Sippar (modern-day Tell Abu Hubba, Babel Governorate, Iraq), Mesopotamia. Old-Babylonian period, 2000-1600 BCE. (The British Museum, London).

Dogs were greatly esteemed in Mesopotamia as protectors, healers, and companions of the gods. The healing goddess Gula was always depicted with a dog, as was Inanna, one of the most – if not the most – popular deities in the Mesopotamian pantheon. Images, amulets, statuary, and engravings of dogs were regularly produced for a variety of reasons, and in most of these, the dog is seen wearing a collar. In the modern day, then, the simple act of a dog’s owner putting collar and leash on his or her friend is a repetition of a practice going back thousands of years to another time and place. Although the dog collar of the present is made of different materials, the basic design remains unchanged and, it seems, the essential relationship between people and their dogs does as well.

This relationship is well established in Mesopotamia from as early as 3300 BCE in the southern area known as Sumer. Orientalist Samuel Noah Kramer, in his book History Begins at Sumer, examines 39 “firsts” in history from the region, among which are the first schools, the first proverbs and sayings, the first messiahs, the first Noah and the Flood stories, the first love song, the first aquarium, the first legal precedents in court cases, the first tale of a dying and resurrected god, the first funeral chants, first biblical parallels, and first moral ideas.

The Sumerians also essentially invented time in that their sexagesimal system of counting (a system based on the number 60) created the 60-second minute and the 60-minute hour. They also divided the night and day into periods of 12 hours, set a limit on a ‘work day’ with a time for beginning and ending, and established the concept of ‘days off’ for holidays. Although Kramer does not list the dog collar among his “firsts,” and there is no official record establishing the invention, it is evident from artistic and literary works that the Sumerians valued dogs and used collars quite early in their history.

Dogs in Literature

Long before the famous Aesop of Greece (c. 620-564 BCE) wrote his fables, the Sumerians were already well-versed in the genre. Kramer points out how the dog is featured most prominently in these stories, writing, “the dog comes first, being referred to in some 83 proverbs and fables” (124). Aesop, in fact (or the unknown compiler we know by that name) probably collected earlier Greek and Sumerian fables rather than composing anything original himself. Aesop’s fame rests entirely on the efforts of 15th-century CE printers to find material they could publish through the new invention of the printing press. The first English edition of Aesop’s Fables was brought out by William Caxton in 1484 CE to provide the public with inspiring reading material. The Sumerians had already accomplished this goal some 3,000 years earlier through stories such as Why the Dog is Subservient to Man and The Show Dog.

In the former story, a dog barks at a lion who is approaching a village and is struck by it while the fox cowers nearby pretending to be frightened. The fox slyly declares that, if one pretends to be humble and show fear, one can walk easily with lions. The dog in the story is the hero, however, because he shows his true intentions in protecting the people from the lion.

In The Show Dog, a purebred has puppies and complains to her mongrel friend that they will never win a prize because of their sire’s lineage. The mongrel responds, “Whether I have fawn-colored puppies or whether I have brindled ones, I love my young.” The show dog is thus presented as shallow in that she only values her puppies by the prestige they can bring her while the mongrel, the common dog, loves her young unconditionally.

Many of the best-known fables attributed to Aesop are actually Sumerian in origin, including the famous maxim of the “dog in the manger” referring to someone who refuses to enjoy an experience but also will not allow any others to enjoy it. Although dog collars are not specifically mentioned in these fables, it is assumed they were in use – especially if there were dog shows as the above tale suggests – and they are clearly represented in art.

Collars and Amulets

The dog collar features in almost every depiction of dogs in Mesopotamian art. Inscriptions from the Ur III Period (2047-1750 BCE) describe a caravan coming into the city which includes dogs and their handlers. Scholar Paul Kriwaczek notes how “images show large mastiff-like creatures; the food they consumed suggests that they were nearly as heavy as the men who looked after them” (144). These dogs were restrained by thick collars and leashes, most likely of leather, though how they were made or ornamented cannot be discerned from the images.

This gypsum wall panel relief depicts huntsmen with hounds under palm trees. Neo-Assyrian Period, reign of Ashurbanipal II, 645-635 BCE. Panel 13, Room E of the North Palace at Nineveh (Kouyunjik), Northern Mesopotamia, modern-day Iraq. (The British Museum, London)

There are other images, however, which present a clearer picture. A golden dog pendant, currently at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, USA, dates from c. 3300 BCE and was found at the Sumerian city of Uruk. It is a figure of a dog with a wide collar that seems decorated with stripes. The dog appears to be of the Saluki breed, curly tail and tall ears, which is unsurprising since the Saluki is attested to in Mesopotamia as a popular breed in that period. A cylinder seal from c. 3000 BCE, found near Nineveh, clearly shows a Saluki and the intimate nature of such seals suggests the dog’s importance.

The small gold amulet would have represented a dog of the upper class in the city whose owner most likely wore it for protection. Dogs were associated with Gula, the goddess of healing, and were often invoked through statuettes, amulets, and figurines for protection from supernatural, or natural, threats.

The Nimrud Dogs

Among the best examples of this practice are the famous figures known as the Nimrud Dogs from the ancient city of Kalhu (known since the 19th century as Nimrud) in Mesopotamia. These are five dog figurines discovered in 1951-1952 CE by the archaeologist Max Mallowan (husband of famed mystery writer Agatha Christie). These dog statuettes represent the Mesopotamian concept of magic and magical protection. The Mesopotamians believed that people were co-workers with the gods to maintain order against the forces of chaos. Humans took care of the tasks the gods had no time for, and in return, the gods gave them all they needed in life.

Bronze statuette of a dog, part of the Nimrud dogs, a Neo-Assyrian collection of dog figurines found at Nimrud, currently on display in museums at Baghdad, Iraq; Cambridge, England; New York, America, and Melbourne, Australia. This figurine is exhibited in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

There were many gods in the Mesopotamian pantheon, however, and even though one might mean a person only the best, another might be offended by one’s thoughts or actions. Further, there were ghosts, evil spirits, and demons – either sent by the gods or acting on their own – one had to defend against. The Mesopotamians, therefore, developed charms, amulets, spells, and rituals for protection, and among these were the dog statuettes.

Scholar Jeremy Black notes how statuettes of sitting or standing dogs were often created as protective amulets or statuettes, not associated with any specific god or goddess, which reflected the strong, reliable, protective nature of the dog. The statuettes, such as those Mallowan discovered, were often brightly painted and buried on either side of a doorway to a palace or home to ward off danger.

Protectors, Healers, and Guides

A collection of dogs, corresponding to Black’s description, were found at the city of Nineveh in the 19th century CE by the famous archaeologist Austen Henry Layard. The power of such figurines, even if they bear no inscription specifying a deity, came from the gods. The powerful Ishtar (also known as Inanna), goddess of love, passion, war, and fertility was depicted with her dogs held on leashes and, as previously noted, Gula was always shown in the company of her dog and, eventually, the goddess was represented as a seated dog, with a collar, facing a supplicant.

These counterparts of real mastiffs were buried to guard a property from devils and demons. Ritual instructions for making and inscribing them survive on clay tablets. This pack was found beneath a palace doorway at Nineveh. Each is named after a quality required in guard dogs: 

Loud is his bark! (black dog). 
Bitter of his foe! (blue dog). 
Don’t think, bite! (white dog). 
Catcher of the enemy! (red dog). 
Expeller of evil! (white dog with red spots). 

From the North Palace (Room S, door D) at Nineveh, Northern Mesopotamia, Iraq. Neo-Assyrian Peridod, circa 645 BCE. (The British Museum, London)

The dog was associated with Gula and healing early on but is clearly attested to during the Ur III Period. It was noted that the dog healed itself through licking its wounds and so its saliva was considered a medicinal property (a belief which has since been proven sound in modern times). In the case of Inanna/Ishtar, her dogs were seen as her companions and protectors and, since she was often invoked for protection, her dogs acquired that same reputation. The natural inclination of dogs to protect their people, of course, gave rise to this aspect of the goddesses’ dogs.

Dogs not only healed and protected one in life, however, but also assisted in the transition from earthly existence to the afterlife. Children, especially, were thought to be accompanied in their journey to the land of the dead by the spirits of dogs. These dogs were considered familiar and playful companions to the children who would ease their transition but were also fierce guardians of their charges who would protect them against evil spirits and demons.

Dog Collars and Breeds

This protective aspect of the dog was reflected in the Mesopotamian dog collar. Whatever the earliest collars may have been – most likely rope – before the time of the Ur III Period they are already depicted as thick bands of leather, usually ornamented in some way. They protected the dog’s throat while, attached to a leash, providing a safeguard to others from dog aggression.

Judging by the depictions on amulets, inscriptions, and figurines, these collars seem to have had a loop attached, no doubt made of some high-quality material for the top-shelf products and cheaper material for more modest pieces, to which a leash would be attached. Since there were no metal clasps, these early leashes would have been rope or sturdy cloth or even notched sticks (as were used later in ancient Egypt).

Rope collars were still in use during the Ur III Period and no doubt later. A terracotta plaque from Borsippa dated to c. 2000 BCE-1600 BCE shows a man walking beside a large, powerful, dog who wears a rope collar with tassels. The rope seems to be wound around the dog’s neck twice and tied at the back with the long end providing a leash and the short one ending in the ornamental tassel. This appears to be similar to the slip-lead commonly used in the present day.

Orientalist Wolfram von Sodden has noted there are three dog breeds positively identified from ancient Mesopotamia, the Greyhound, Dane, and Mastiff, and all three of these breeds would have required a sturdy collar and substantial leash to control. The Saluki, also of Mesopotamian origin, would have needed the same.

The collar not only helped to control and train the dog but also offered protection for the throat, may have included the dog’s name, and probably – at least among the upper class – gave some indication of the owner. Mesopotamian cylinder seals – small impression stamps used to authenticate one’s identity in writing – frequently depict dogs with collars in the company of their masters, and it is not unreasonable to assume that such seals depict realistic relationships, including the use of the collar.

The Collar as Art

The dog collar in Mesopotamia may have inspired the so-called “dog collar necklace”, an expression of high fashion and wealth. Queen Pu’abi of Ur (more accurately known as Queen Pu-Abum, c. 2600 BCE) is the best known royal figure to wear the “dog collar necklace” which became standard jewelry for women during this period. These were made of gold and lapis lazuli but such high-quality metalwork seems to have been only for humans since no actual dog collars of such elevated refinement have yet been found.

There are, however, depictions in art of dogs with intricately designed collars. It is entirely speculative that actual dog collars gave rise to the necklace, but the claim is probable given that dogs, and their collars, were so integral to people’s daily lives. All art comes from something, after all, and the necklace may have developed from designs for dog collars.

The Saluki pendant mentioned above seems to have the same design on the collar as the necklace or, at least, is similar. A votive dog statuette from Lagash (dated to between 1894-1866 BCE), presently in the Louvre Museum, also shows an intricately designed collar. This statuette, a beautifully crafted candle-holder, is made of steatite and was dedicated to the goddess Ninisina, one of the older names for Gula when she was a regional deity of the city of Isin. It was given “for the life of Sumu-El, king of Larsa” and crafted by a physician of Lagash probably as a sacrificial gift to the goddess in gratitude for healing.

Pair of silver dogs wearing hatched collars from the 3rd-2nd millennium BCE originating in Bactria in Central Asia. The dogs are 1.5 inches (4cm) long with a vertical hole through each. It is thought they may have been worn as pendants on a necklace or could have been ornamental pins to secure a cloak or tunic. The metal stem would have gone through one end of the cloth, then through the hole in the silver dog, and fastened to another end of one’s fabric. Louvre, Paris

Another interesting example of the dog collar in Mesopotamian art from the Louvre is the pair of two silver dogs wearing hatched collars from the 3rd-2nd millennium BCE originating in Bactria in Central Asia. The dogs are 1.5 inches (4cm) long with a vertical hole through each. It is thought they may have been worn as pendants on a necklace or could have been ornamental pins to secure a cloak or tunic. The metal stem would have gone through one end of the cloth, then through the hole in the silver dog, and fastened to another end of one’s fabric.

The collars of these dogs seem to be ornamented, but the same design extends from their mid-back to half-way down their tails. Perhaps this was the design of the collar or maybe the artist was just interested in a kind of marked symmetry between the front and back of his pieces. Interestingly, two other dog pendants, found at Susa, are similar in design. These date from the 4th millennium BCE, one in gold and the other in silver, both with collars which resemble the dogs of Bactrian design.


Whether the dog collar inspired the now famous “dog collar necklace” cannot be proven, but it is clear that dogs were an important aspect of Mesopotamian life and a frequent subject in painting and sculpture. They are not always mentioned favorably, there were derogatory statements concerning a person being “a dog” then, just as there are now, but the overwhelming evidence is that the dog was highly regarded and played an important role in people’s daily lives.

The attention paid to the dogs’ collars in art is further evidence of this in both the original collar and the effort of the artist to render it precisely. The uniformity of depictions of collars suggests that these are representations of actual dogs wearing their collars and not artistic license. The dog collar of ancient Mesopotamia reflected the people’s belief that, in as much as they could afford it, their canine friend was worth a respectable article of clothing as well as being immortalized in art wearing it.

Dogs in Ancient Egypt


Ancient Egypt is well known for its association with cats but the dog was equally popular and highly regarded. Egyptologist Margaret Bunson notes that dogs “were probably domesticated in Egypt in the Pre-Dynastic eras” and they “served as hunters and as companions for the Egyptians and some mentioned their hounds in their mortuary texts” (67). An early tomb painting dated to c. 3500 BCE shows a man walking his dog on a leash in a scene recognizable to anyone in the modern day.

The dog collar and leash were most likely developed by the Sumerians earlier although evidence for both of these in Mesopotamia appears later than 3500 BCE in objects like a golden Saluki pendant from Ur dated to 3300 BCE. It is probable, however, that the Sumerians – among their many other inventions – also created the dog collar and leash since the dog was domesticated earlier in that region than in Egypt.

Domestication and the Dog

A toy dog in glazed turquoise. Egyptian, Middle Kingdom. (British Museum, London)

Animals such as cattle, sheep, goats, pigs, asses, and different kinds of birds were domesticated in the Pre-Dynastic Period (c.6000 – c. 3150 BCE) as evidenced by gravegoods and overuse of the land for grazing. By the time of the Early Dynastic Period (c. 3150-c. 2613 BCE) cattle were the most important animal and were regarded as objects of substantial wealth as made clear through the Egyptian Cattle Count which was a form of calculating and collecting taxes.

Prior to the domestication of any of these animals, however, is that of the dog. Scholars have reached this conclusion based upon physical evidence from graves as well as inscriptions and tomb paintings. The dog, either a Basenji, Greyhound, or Saluki, is frequently depicted helping to herd cattle, wearing a wide collar fastened with a bow at the back of the neck. According to historian Jimmy Dunn, dogs “served a role in hunting, as guard and police dogs, in military actions, and as household pets” (1). The Egyptian word for dog was iwiw which referenced their bark (Dunn, 1). Whether as hunters and companions or guards, police, or religious figures, the dog was a common feature of the ancient Egyptian landscape.

Egyptian Dog Breeds

Dogs are represented in Egyptian art work from the Pre-Dynastic Period forwards either as companions, at the hunt, or in afterlife vignettes. They also appear on ceramics such as the siltstone palettes which were used in daily life (such as the Four Dogs Palette at the Louvre for cosmetics) or in ceremonies or commemorations (as with the Narmer Palette).

The Egyptian ‘Four Dogs’ cosmetic palette. (Louvre, Paris)

The kinds of breeds are sometimes difficult to identify but, essentially, seem to be of seven distinct kinds. Hunting dogs were regularly referred to as tesem, a term which has attached itself to the ancestors of the Basenji, but could have been applied as easily to any dogs used in the hunt.

A tesem was not a breed of dog but designated a hunting dog. The following breeds are identified by their modern names but it should be understood that these were not the names they were known by in ancient Egypt except, perhaps, for the Basenji and Ibizan.

The Basenji: This breed is among the best attested to in ancient Egypt. It no doubt came from Nubia where it seems to have been quite common. The name is usually translated as “dog of the villagers” because it was so commonly associated with communities of people. The Basenji was used in hunting small game and as a companion, family pet, and guard dog. Basenjis could be among the dogs on the funerary stele of Intef II (2112-2063 BCE) of the 11th Dynasty and possibly his favorite dog, Beha, for whom he had an individual stele carved.

A detail of the funerary stele of Intef II depicting his dogs. Egyptian, c. 2063 BCE, 11th Dynasty. (Egyptian Museum, Cairo)

The Greyhound: Although the origin of the Greyhound is contested, evidence of the breed has been found in both Mesopotamia and Egypt. Graves containing Greyhounds in Mesopotamia date back to the Ubaid Period c. 5000 BCE and in Egyptian images c. 4250 BCE.  The Greyhound was used in open-area hunts for large game but was also kept as a pet and a guard dog. Greyhounds are depicted throughout Egypt’s history as a hunting dog but may also be the breed featured in battle scenes like the Victory Stele of Ramesses II (1279-1213 BCE) celebrating his triumph over the Hittites at the Battle of Kadesh.

The Ibizan: Probably the dog most often represented in Egyptian art. The Ibizan is of Egyptian origin but was brought from Egypt to the island of Ibiza by Phoenician traders sometime in the 7th century BCE.  The breed, and its name, is usually dated from this time but there is no evidence of the dog on the island of Ibiza originally while there is a great deal suggesting its presence in Egypt. This is the dog most often referred to as the tesem and so the ‘typical’ Egyptian dog.

The Pharaoh: This breed is routinely claimed to have originated much later, in the 17th century CE on Malta, but its ancestors are thought to have been kept by the ancient Egyptians. Most likely it was an Egyptian breed brought to Malta by Phoenician traders. This claim is based upon art work, such as that on the tomb of Intef II toward the end of the First Intermediate Period (2181-2040 BCE). His funerary stele depicts dogs which resemble a breed similar to the later pharaoh hound more than other known Egyptian breeds. The Pharaoh is often depicted in hunting scenes and was considered the best breed for sacrifice to Anubis at Cynopolis.

An illustration of three different dog types depicted on Egyptian monuments.

The Saluki: First bred in Mesopotamia by the Sumerians, the Saluki was one of the most popular breeds in the region and, later,  in Egypt. Amulets and art work in Mesopotamia regularly depict this breed and it has been found in graves with and without human remains accompanying the bones. The Saluki (or Sloughi breed) was definitely present in Egypt, in spite of claims to the contrary, just not as early as in Mesopotamia. Salukis are clearly represented in tomb paintings and stelae as hunting dogs and companions.

The Whippet:  Whippets were the dogs of the Egyptian kings and most likely originated through the breeding of Greyhounds with pariah dogs. The result was a smaller, faster, hunting dog. Whippets were popular for hunting in open terrain where they could make the best use of their speed in bringing down game. Although they are sometimes cited as a late breed in Egypt they seem to be the dogs represented in art from the Old Kingdomonwards.

A detail from a wall painting in the Tomb of Nebamun showing a dog seated beneath its master’s chair. Egypt, 18th Dynasty, 1479-1458 BCE, Thebes, facsimile. (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)

The Molossian: Bred in Greece in the region of Epirus, these dogs came to Egypt through trade. They take their name from the king of Epirus, Molossus, said to be the grandson of Achilles. These dogs, or some variant of them, were well-known hunters and guard dogs in Mesopotamia and were used by the Egyptians for the same purpose but also as police dogs. They may be among the dogs, like the greyhound,  depicted on the Kadesh Victory Stele of Ramesses II. The Molossus would later become best known as the fighting and war dogs of ancient Rome but seem to have become quite popular in Egypt and were most likely introduced by the Hyksos in the Second Intermediate Period (c. 1782-c.1570 BCE).

There were also pariah dogs, wild dogs and strays of mixed breed, who often hunted around the outskirts of a village or necropolis. These dogs often traveled in packs and scavenged for food. It has been suggested that the presence of pariah dogs encouraged the Egyptian practice of burial in tombs to protect the remains from them. In the early Pre-Dynastic Period the dead were buried in simple earthen graves, often quite shallow, which allowed for the pariah dogs to easily dig down and disturb them. The mastaba tomb may have, in part, developed to prevent this.

Ancient Egyptian inscriptions mention the ketket but, like the tesem, this was not a breed of dog but a description of a kind of dog. Ket means `little’ in ancient Egyptian and so a ketket was any kind of small dog. Dogs which seem to be the ancestors of the modern harrier also were kept by the Egyptians but what this breed was is unknown. They seem to have been small or medium dogs of impressive speed.

A small figurine of a dog. The dog is swallowing a fish, with its tail here rendered in bronze. Egyptian, 18th Dynasty (1350-1300 BCE), Thebes, ivory and bronze. (British Museum, London)

An example of a dog who would’ve been called a ketket is the small statue presently in the British Museum known as Dog Swallowing A Fish (item number EA 13596) dated to the late 18th Dynasty c. 1350-1300 BCE. The statue shows a puppy “wearing a collar which shows traces of gilding, with lop ears and a long bushy tail which curls around its hind quarters” and “adopts the well-known posture of a dog at play with front legs bent and rump raised in the air” (British Museum, 237). The dog holds a small bronze object in its mouth which has been interpreted as either the tail of a fish or a large fly it is playing with. The piece is carved from tusk with the bronze attachment glued in place on the mouth and two holes in its base which most likely held the statue to a wall. The British Museum observes:

The piece is brilliantly observed and belongs to a class of small carvings made towards the end of the 18th Dynasty which portrays animals that were familiar to and beloved by the Egyptians. It can have been made for no other purpose than to delight and amuse its owner. (237)

Dogs and Anubis

Indeed, dogs were familiar and loved by the Egyptians. This devotion is clear from the number of times they are depicted and referenced in art and inscriptions throughout the history of the civilization and the way they were generally treated.

As already noted, dogs were depicted on palettes in the Pre-Dynastic and Early Dynastic periods. During the Old Kingdom, the dog of king Khufu (2589-2566 BCE), Akbaru, was said to have been buried in the king’s tomb with him. One of the best known dogs of Egypt was given his own funeral stele in this same era. Abuwtiyuw was the dog of a servant of the king (though which Old Kingdom monarch is unclear) who was honored with a burial fit for a noble. The dog’s stele reads:

The dog which was the guard of His Majesty. Abuwtiyuw was his name. His Majesty ordered that he be buried ceremonially, that he be given a coffin from the royal treasury, fine linen in great quantity, and incense. His Majesty also gave perfumed ointment and ordered that a tomb be built for him by the gangs of masons. His Majesty did this for him in order that he [the dog] might be honored before the great god, Anubis. (Hobgood-Oster, 41-42).

The Basenji is the most often cited as the inspiration for the image of Anubis, one of the principal gods of the dead who guided the soul to judgment in the afterlife (although the Greyhound, Pharoah, and Ibizan are also contenders). Anubis is often referred to as “the jackal dog” but this is not how he was known to the ancient Egyptians where he is always referenced as a dog as in his epithet “the dog who swallows millions”. It should be noted, however, that the Egyptians did not distinguish between the jackal and the dog, especially so with pariah dogs.

Anubis is the Egyptian god of mummification and the afterlife as well as the patron god of lost souls and the helpless. Modern reproduction.

The town of Hardai was the cult center of Anubis and so was called Cynopolis (“City of the Dog”) by the Greeks. Here dogs freely roamed through Anubis’ temple and were also bred for sacrifice. Mummified dogs were brought to the temple as offerings to Anubis (the “red dog”, identified with the Pharaoh breed, being preferred) but the death rate of the temple dogs was not high enough to meet the demand for mummified sacrifices. A kind of puppy mill was initiated for the sole purpose of breeding dogs for sacrifice to Anubis.

Dogs, Collars, and the Afterlife

Under ordinary circumstances, however, killing a dog carried severe penalties and, if the dog was collared and clearly owned by another, its murder was a capital crime. The death of a family dog elicited the same grief as for a human and the family members would shave their bodies completely, including the eyebrows. As most Egyptian men and women shaved their heads to avoid lice and maintain basic hygiene, the absence of the eyebrows was the most notable sign of grief. In some periods the opposite was observed and people would not shave at all.

Even so, just as with the mourning of the death of a human being, it was believed that one would meet one’s canine friend again in the afterlife.  Tomb paintings of the pharaoh Tutankhamun show him in his chariot with his hunting dogs and Rameses the Great is depicted similarly. As in the case of Khufu and his companion, dogs were often buried with their masters in order to accompany them closely in the afterlife. Some dogs seem to have been killed after the death of their master and then mummified while others died earlier and still others, as at Cynopolis and perhaps at Saqqara, were ritually sacrificed.

A mummy containing the remains of a dog. Egyptian, 400-100 BCE, Kharga Oasis, el-Deir. (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)

As in many other cultures, earlier and later, the dog was seen as a kind of intermediary between worlds who could act as a guide; this is most clearly seen in the image of the dog-god Anubis. The dog who aided and guided one in life would serve the same purpose in the afterlife.  The intimate relationship between dogs and their masters in Egypt is made clear through inscriptions in tombs, monuments, and temples and through Egyptian literature. Dogs, unlike cats, were always named and these names were inscribed on their collars. Dunn writes:

We even know many ancient Egyptian dog’s names from leather collars as well as stelae and reliefs. They included names such as Brave One, Reliable, Good Herdsman, North-Wind, Antelope and even “Useless”.  Other names come from the dog’s color, such as Blacky, while still other dogs were given numbers for names, such as “the Fifth”. Many of the names seem to represent endearment, while others convey merely the dog’s abilities or capabilities. (Dunn, 2).

These dog collars most likely began in the early periods as simple rope, probably similar to the slip-leads used today, but evolved over time into intricate works of art. Already by the Old Kingdom the collar was a thick leather ring glued together and pulled over a dog’s head. During the Middle Kingdom these collars became more elaborate and were often adorned with copper and bronze studs. In the New Kingdom (c. 1570-1069 BCE) the dog collar reached its height with gold and silver collars inscribed with the dog’s name.

Two particularly interesting pieces from this period come from the tomb of Maiherpri, a noble during the reign of Thutmose IV (1400-1390 BCE), whose name translates as “Lion of the Battlefield” and so was obviously regarded as a great warrior. In addition to his quiver, wrist guards, and arrows in the tomb were two dog collars which are dyed pink and intricately adorned with images. One is ornamented with images of lotus flowers and horses punctuated by brass studs while the other depicts dogs hunting ibex and gazelle and includes the name of the dog, Tantanuit, which suggests this dog was female as “Tantanuit” was a woman’s name.

Leashes, throughout Egypt’s history, were either leather or papyrus rope. A dog collar excavated from a grave in modern Sudan at the site of the necropolis of Tombos, dated to the New Kingdom, is a leather band with a diamond-shaped terminus which was fitted into a slit cut in the collar; the remaining length of the leather was then used as a leash.

The devotion of people to their dogs, and the affection the dogs returned, continued in the afterlife where it was believed one found all that had seemingly been lost at death. Once the soul had been justified by Osiris and allowed to move on, one would travel to the Field of Reeds which was an idealized version of the life one had left behind on earth. All of the loved ones who had gone on before would greet the soul as it stepped into this realm and there would be the same house, the garden, the stream one had enjoyed in life and, with them, souls would again find their favorite dog faithfully awaiting their arrival home.

More on the Nimrud Dogs


In 612 BCE the Neo-Assyrian Empire fell to the invading forces of Babylonians, Persians, Medes, and Scythians. The empire had been expanding in every direction since the reign of Adad Nirari II (c. 912-891 BCE) and grew more powerful under great kings such as Tiglath Pileser III (745-727 BCE), Shalmaneser V (727-722 BCE), Sargon II (722-705 BCE), Sennacherib (705-681 BCE), and Esarhaddon (681-669 BCE) until, by the time of Ashurbanipal (668-627 BCE), it had grown too large to manage effectively. Ashurbanipal was the last of the Assyrian kings who had the personal power and skill to manage an empire, and after he died the vassal states recognized their chance to free themselves. The many regions which had been held so tightly under Assyrian control seized on the weakness of the fracturing empire and, banding together, marched to destroy it.

All of the great Assyrian cities, many of which had endured for millennia, were sacked and their treasures carried off, destroyed, or discarded at the various sites. The Assyrians had held the region under such a tight grip that, once it was loosened, the former subject-states knew no restraint in venting their frustrations and seeking revenge for past injustices. Great cities such as Nineveh, Kalhu, and Ashur were sacked, with Nineveh so thoroughly destroyed that future generations could not even tell where it had been.

Excavations and Discovery

At Kalhu, site of one of the former capitals of the empire, the sands of Mesopotamiagradually covered the ruins, and the city probably would have been forgotten were it not for the prominent mention of Mesopotamian cities such as Babylon and Nineveh in the Bible. In the 19th century CE European explorers, seeking historical evidence for biblical narratives, descended upon Mesopotamia and recovered these lost cities. Among these was Austen Henry Layard (1817-1894 CE) who was the first to systematically excavate Kalhu, afterwards known as Nimrud.

Bronze statuette of a dog, part of the Nimrud dogs, a Neo-Assyrian collection of dog figurines found at Nimrud, currently on display in museums at Baghdad, Iraq; Cambridge, England; New York, America, and Melbourne, Australia. This figurine is exhibited in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Layard and the others were sponsored by European organizations and museums who hoped their efforts would uncover physical evidence proving the historical accuracy of the Bible, specifically the books of the Old Testament. These expeditions, however, had a completely different effect than what was intended. Prior to the mid-19th century CE, the Bible was considered the oldest book in the world and the narratives thought to be original works; the archaeologists discovered that contrary to this belief Mesopotamia had created narratives of the Great Flood and the Fall of Man centuries before any of the biblical books were written.

These discoveries increased European interest in the region, and more archaeologists and scholars were sent. When Layard began his work at Kalhu, he did not even know which city he was excavating. He believed he had discovered Nineveh and, in fact, published his bestselling book on the excavation, Nineveh and its Remains, in 1849 CE, still confident of his conclusions. His book was so popular and the artifacts he uncovered so intriguing that further expeditions to the region were quickly funded. Further work in the region established that the ruins Layard had uncovered were not those of Nineveh but of Kalhu, which the scholars of the time associated with the biblical Nimrud, the name the site has been known by ever since.

The Nimrud Ivories

Layard’s work was continued by William K. Loftus (1820-1858 CE) who discovered the famous Nimrud Ivories (also known as the Loftus Ivories). These incredible works of art had been thrown down a well by the invading forces and perfectly preserved by the mud and earth which covered them. Historian and curator Joan Lines of the Metropolitan Museum of Art describes these pieces:

The most striking objects from Nimrud are the ivories – exquisitely carved heads that once must have ornamented furniture in the royal palaces; boxes inlaid with gold and decorated with processions of small figures; decorative plaques; delicately carved small animals. (234)

The discovery of the ivories suggested there could be even greater finds buried in the former wells, crypts, and ruined buildings of the cities and further expeditions to Mesopotamia were funded. Throughout the rest of the 19th and into the 20th century CE, archeologists from all over the world worked the sites of the region, uncovering the ancient cities and retrieving artifacts from the sands.

A winged human-headed sphinx wears the double crown of Egypt. An apron hangs down on the chest with a projecting uraeus (rearing cobra) similar to those worn by Egyptian pharaohs. A striking Phoenician style. Excavated by Sir Max Mallowan. Purchased from the British School of Archeology in Iraq; acquisition date 1961. Neo-Assyrian Period, 9th to 8th centuries BCE. From Fort Shalmaneser at Nimrud (ancient Kalhu), Mesopotamia, modern-day Iraq. (The British Museum, London).

In 1951-1952 CE, the archaeologist (and husband of mystery writer Agatha Christie) Max Mallowan (1904-1978 CE) came to Nimrud and discovered even more ivories than Loftus had. Mallowan’s discoveries, in fact, are among the most recognizable from museum exhibits and photographs. The ivories are routinely cited, naturally, as Mallowan’s greatest find at Nimrud, but a lesser-known discovery is of equal importance: the Nimrud Dogs.

Dogs and Magic

Dogs featured prominently in the everyday life of the Mesopotamians. The historian Wolfram Von Soden notes this, writing:

The dog (Sumerian name, ur-gi; Semitic name, Kalbu) was one of the earliest domestic animals and served primarily to protect herds and dwellings against enemies. Despite the fact that dogs roamed freely in the cities, the dog in the ancient Orient was at all times generally bound to a single master and was cared for by him. (91)

Dogs were kept as pets but also as protectors and were often depicted in the company of deities. Inanna (later Ishtar), one of the most popular goddesses in Mesopotamian history, was frequently depicted with her dogs, and Gula, goddess of healing, was closely associated with dogs because of the curative effect of their saliva. People noticed that when a dog was injured it would lick itself to heal; dog saliva was considered an important medicinal substance and the dog a gift of the gods. The dog, in fact, became a symbol of Gula from the Old Babylonian Period (c. 2000-1600 BCE) onward.

The dog as a protector, however, was as important as its role as healer. During the time of Hammurabi’s reign (1792-1750 BCE), dog figurines were regularly cast in clay or bronze and placed under thresholds as protective entities. The scholar E. A. Wallis Budge, writing on discoveries at the city of Kish, notes how “in one room two clay figures of Papsukhal, messenger of the gods, and three figures of dogs were found: the names of two of the dogs are inscribed on them, viz., ‘Biter of his enemy’ and ‘Consumer of his life'” (209). After a ceremony ‘awakening’ their spirit, these dogs were positioned in buildings to defend against supernatural forces. Joan Lines describes the purpose of these figures further:

Such figurines, made of clay or bronze, were symbols of the Gula-Ninkarrak, goddess of healing and defender of homes. They were buried beneath the floor, usually under the doorstep, to scare away evil spirits and demons and an incantation called “Fierce Dogs” was recited during the ceremony. Many of the dog effigies had their names inscribed on them. (242-243)

These dog statuettes are significant in understanding the Mesopotamian concept of magic and magical protection. The Mesopotamians believed that people were co-workers with the gods to maintain order against the forces of chaos. They took care of the tasks the gods had no time for. In return, the gods gave them all they needed in life. There were many gods in the Mesopotamian pantheon, however, and even though one might mean a person only the best, another could have been offended by one’s thoughts or actions. Further, there were ghosts, evil spirits, and demons to be considered. The Mesopotamians, therefore, developed charms, amulets, spells, and rituals for protection, and among these were the dog statuettes.

These counterparts of real mastiffs were buried to guard a property from devils and demons. Ritual instructions for making and inscribing them survive on clay tablets. This pack was found beneath a palace doorway at Nineveh. Each is named after a quality required in guard dogs: 

Loud is his bark! (black dog). 
Bitter of his foe! (blue dog). 
Don’t think, bite! (white dog). 
Catcher of the enemy! (red dog). 
Expeller of evil! (white dog with red spots). 

From the North Palace (Room S, door D) at Nineveh, Northern Mesopotamia, Iraq. Neo-Assyrian Peridod, circa 645 BCE. (The British Museum, London)

The Mesopotamians believed that their actions, however small, were recognized and rewarded or punished by the gods and what they did on earth mattered in the heavens. The creation of the dog statuettes drew on the protective power of the spirit of the dog as an eternal and powerful entity, and, through rituals observed in their creation, the figures were imbued with this power. Scholar Carolyn Nakamura comments on this:

Through this production of figurines, Neo-Assyrian apotropaic [evil-averting] rituals trace out complex, and even disorienting, relations between humans, deities, and various supernatural beings in space and time…the creation of powerful supernatural beings in diminutive clay form mimes the divine creation of being from primordial clay. (33)

Just as the gods had created humanity, humans could now create their own helpers. Once created, the dogs performed their important function of protection in concert with other magical artifacts. At Nimrud, Mallowan discovered magical boxes in the rooms of houses which also served to protect the inhabitants. The boxes would be placed in the four corners of a room and often at the four points where a bed would have rested, and were carved with charms to protect against evil spirits and demons. The dogs, buried beneath the entranceways to the home, were the first line of defense against supernatural dangers and the amuletic boxes inside the house provided an added degree of comfort and security.

The Nimrud Dogs

The rituals surrounding dog figurines are exemplified by the location of a set of five such figures discovered by Layard in the 19th century CE at Nineveh. These were all found under a doorway of the North Palace, and this is in keeping with the practice described above. To ensure maximum protection, it was recommended that one bury two sets of five such figures on either side of a door or beneath the doorway.

At Nimrud, Mallowan found the dog statuettes in a well in the corner of a room of the Northwest Palace. The discovery is described by scholar Ruth A. Horry:

Mallowan’s team came across a deep well in the corner of Room NN which was filled with sludge that Mallowan described as being “the consitency of plaster of Paris”. No electric pumps were available to dig out the well so the workmen had to scoop out the water and sludge by hand, aided only by the heavy-duty winching equipment borrowed from the Iraq Petroleum Company. It was difficult and dangerous work as the well bottom repeatedly filled up with water…[however] the sludge had provided ideal conditions for preserving materials that would otherwise have decayed, such as fragments of Assyrian rope and wooden well equipment that had accidentally fallen in. (1-2)

Among these other objects were those which had been purposefully thrown into the well during the sack of the city, and included in these were the ivories and the dog statuary. Mallowan interpreted these pieces as being discarded during the destruction of Nimrud – rather than simply thrown in the well by their owners – based on other articles, such as foreign horse harnesses, found with them.

Five of the dog figures were clearly canine and some had their names inscribed on them (just as the ones found at Nineveh did), but the sixth had no name and, further, looked more like a cat. The cat was never considered a protective entity in Mesopotamia, however, and cats are not represented by any amulets or statuary. Horry writes:

Omens portray [cats] as wild animals, at best untameable ones, that wandered in and out of houses at will. Humans and cats lived around each other but did not engage directly…in other words, the inhabitants of Kalhu, even the king in his palace, could not rely on cats to guard a building, whether from mice or more supernatural forces. (2-3)

Mallowan had difficulty in interpreting the piece for this reason: although it looked like a cat, there was no precedent for cat figures or for cats represented in amuletic imagery at all. In his initial reports, he cites the discovery of five dog figurines and one other which was “feline in character” (Horry, 5). The preponderance of evidence, however, argued against interpreting the figure as a cat, and Mallowan later seems to have believed that it was a dog with a “feline appearance” (Horry, 5). Mallowan delivered his finds to the Iraqi authorities, and in keeping with his contract, some went to the Iraqi Museum and some to other institutions. The ‘cat’ figure was reinterpreted by the British scholars at Cambridge as a cat and remained so until 2013 CE when the figurines were studied as a group and it was recognized that the cat figure was another dog.

The Dogs Today and Their Significance

The dog figures found at Nineveh are in the British Museum today while the Nimrud Dogs can be found in museums at Baghdad, Iraq; Cambridge, England; New York, America, and Melbourne, Australia. The figures from the Iraq Museum were left untouched in the looting of 2003 CE and remain a part the permanent collection.

Visitors to these museums quite rightly marvel at exhibits of Mesopotamian art such as the famous Nimrud Ivories but often overlook the dog figurines. Even in those exhibits where their history is told, the focus is largely on their discovery with only brief mention of what they meant to the people who created them. Often, it seems, the small dogs are interpreted by visitors as representations of ancient pets. The dog statuettes did not represent beloved pets, however, but divine protection. They were created to keep safe the people one cared for. Centuries ago, people crafted the dog figures, gave them life through ritual, and buried them beneath their doorway for peace of mind.

In the same way, an individual living today might install a security system in the home, make sure doors and locks are secure, perhaps even hang a religious symbol or totemic talisman near the door. The Nimrud Dogs are significant artifacts because they are so personal. Nakamura comments on their creation and use, noting how “an idiom of protection arises in material enactment of memory” (33). The “enactment of memory” in the past had to do with the awakening of the spirit of the dog in the figurine. Today, however, the Nimrud Dogs evoke the spirit of the past and the memory of those who created the figures to protect themselves and those they loved from harm.

Originally published by the Ancient History Encyclopedia under a Creative Commons: Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license.