Early Greyhound History

 


Ancient Egypt

In Egypt, the ancestors of modern greyhounds were used in hunting and kept as companions. Many Egyptians considered the birth of a such a hound second in importance only to the birth of a son. When the pet hound died, the entire family would go into mourning.

The favorite hounds of the upper class were mummified and buried with their owners. The walls of Egyptian tombs often were decorated with images of their hounds. An Egyptian tomb painting from 2200 BC portrays dogs that looks very much like the modern greyhound (for a picture of this mural, see The Complete Book of Greyhounds,, p. 8). Among pharaohs known to own greyhound-type dogs are Tutankhamen, Amenhotep II, Thutmose III, Queen Hatshepsut, and Cleopatra VII (of Antony and Cleopatra fame).Image: Anubis

The Egyptian god Anubis, either a jackal or a hound-type dog, is frequently displayed on murals in the tombs of the Pharaohs (right). Some depictions of it look much like the modern Pharaoh Hound, a close relation of the greyhound.

 

 


The Bible

The only breed of dog mentioned by name in the Bible is the greyhound (Proverbs 30:29-31, King James Version):


There be three things which do well, yea,
Which are comely in going;
A lion, which is strongest among beasts and
Turneth not away from any;
A greyhound;
A he-goat also.

The Hebrew phrase translated as "greyhound" literally means "girt in the loins." This probably was considered by translators the most appropriate English term to describe the ancestor of the greyhound. It also didn't hurt that greyhound coursing was popular with the sixteenth century court of King James (see below).

In the Jewish and Christian scriptures, dogs are generally considered ill- tempered scavengers which are tolerated but not trusted; certainly not admired and loved. In several passages, it's clear that dogs were thought of as scavengers: "Any one belonging to Jeroboam who dies in the city the dogs shall eat. . . " (1 Kings 14:11). A pack of dogs might threaten one's safety: "Yea, dogs are round about me; a company of evildoers encircle me. . ." (Psalm 22:16). One might well have to beat them off for protection: "And the Philistine said to David, 'Am I a dog, that you come to me with sticks?'" (1 Samuel 17:43). A strange dog might quickly become vicious if riled: "He who meddles in a quarrel not his own is like one who takes a passing dog by the ears" (Proverbs 26:17). Jesus refers to their role as scavengers when he says, "It is not fair to take the children's bread and throw it to the dogs" (Matthew 15:26).


Ancient Greece and Rome

The Greeks probably bought some of these hounds from Egyptian merchants, some time before 1000 BC. The first breed of dog named in western literature was the ancestor of the greyhound. In The Odyssey, written by Homer in 800 BC, the hero Odysseus is away from home for 20 years fighting the Trojans and trying to get home against the opposition of the god Poseidon. When he finally returns home, he disguises himself. The only one to recognize him was his hound Argus, who is described in terms that marks him clearly as a sighthound (read an excerpt). Art and coins from Greece depict short-haired hounds virtually identical to modern greyhounds, making it fairly certain that the greyhound breed has changed very little since 500 BC. A reason for the lack of change in 2,500 years is that, until very recently, the function of the greyhound has remained the same: to thrill humans with its agility, speed, and intelligence as it chased the wild hare.

Around 325 BC, a hound named Peritas reportedly accompanied the Macedonian monarch Alexander the Great on his military campaigns.

Image: The Death of Actaeon The Greek gods were often portrayed with greyhounds. A hound often accompanies Hecate, the goddess of wealth. The protector of the hunt, the god Pollux, also is depicted with hounds. One myth tells of how a human named Actaeon came upon the goddess Artemis taking a bath in a river. She punishes his impropriety by turning him into a stag. He is then hunted down by his own hounds (depicted on a vase, right). Depictions of this scene occur many times in Greek and Roman art. In his work, Metamorphosis, the Roman writer Ovid in the late first century BC retold this story (read an excerpt).

The Romans obtained their greyhounds from either the Greeks or the Celts. Roman authors like Ovid and Arrian refer to them as Celt Hounds. Some of their deities were accompanied by hounds. Image: Artemis, Patron of Animals Diana (the Roman version of Artemis) hunted with hounds. She was considered a patron deity of animals, as depicted in this relief sculpture. In a popular Roman story, Diana gives a greyhound named Lelaps to her good friend Procris. Procris takes him hunting, and before long Procris spots a hare and pursues it. Unfortunately for Lelaps, the gods didn't want the hare to be caught and turned both Lelaps and the hare into stone. This scene is a common one in Roman art. Ovid also wrote about Procris and Lelaps (read an excerpt).

 

The Romans used hounds for coursing. In coursing, the speed and agility of sighthounds are tested against their prey, the hare. Dogs apparently did not compete against one another, as in modern coursing. Ovid describes coursing in the early first century AD: the impatient greyhound is held back to give the hare a fair start (read an excerpt). The Roman Flavius Arrianus (Arrian) wrote "On Hunting Hares" in 124 AD. He tells his readers that the purpose of coursing is not to catch the hare, but to enjoy the chase itself: "The true sportsman does not take out his dogs to destroy the hares, but for the sake of the course and the contest between the dogs and the hares, and is glad if the hares escape." Concerned about proper sportsmanship, he adds, "Whoever courses with greyhounds should neither slip them near the hare, nor more than a brace (2) at a time." Arrian also describes coursing among the Celts of Gaul (France):

The more opulent Celts, who live in luxury, course in the following manner. They send out hare finders early in the morning to look over such places as are likely to afford hares in form; and a messenger brings word if they have found any, and what number. They then go out themselves, and having started the hare, slip the dogs after her, and follow on horseback.

When they conquered Britain, the Romans brought with them European hares--more suitable for coursing than the local wild hares.

 


Arab Tradition

The Arab peoples have kept greyhound-type dogs for several thousand years. The Saluki, which almost certainly shares with the greyhound a common ancestor, is still used as a hunting dog by some Arabs today. Arabian Bedouin for centuries have been devout Muslims, and so follow ritual restrictions against contact with dogs. But they don't consider their Salukis to be dogs and so don't believe that contact with them is unclean. The Quran permits the eating of game killed by hawks or Salukis (but not by other dogs). The Pashtun tribes in Afghanistan make the same distinction between Saluki and dog, so this probably goes back long before the birth of Islam in the seventh century. Bedouin so admired the physical attributes and speed of the Saluki that it was the only dog permitted to share their tents and ride atop their camels. In early Arabic culture, the birth of a Saluki ranked in importance just behind the birth of a son. The Bedouin use Salukis to hunt gazelle, hare, bustard (a type of bird), jackal, fox, and wild ass. They consider Salukis the Gift of Allah to his children. `

 


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