DOGS by Paul Shepard

IN CONTRAST to the fox, the dog brings its ambivalent qualities much closer to home and is therefore the object of an immense history of anathema. It is a borderline animal in so many ways that its marginality has mythic proportions, especially in connection with the geography of chaos. To understand this in an era of kennel clubs and beloved pets, we must realize that throughout most of its history of at least ten thousand years, dogs have seldom fared as well as they do now. Although they have been cherished for their good qualities--hunter, guard, herder, friend, worker--the inverse dog is the spoiler of human graves and eater of corpses, the keeper of hell's gates, the carrier of rabies, the mad dog of August heat, the black death as "hellhound," and the half-wild howlers like the winter wind.

"Dog" is from the Indo-European root word knon, from which we also get "cynicism," with its snarling doubt of people's motives, and "cynosure," which refers to the dog star, or guide star, probably a mariner's adaptation of the tracking hound. The antitype of the dependable servant at the doorstep is the untamed, bastardized outsider, all those hangdogs who have circled human settlements for millennia, wolfing scraps, harassing livestock, and scavenging from the battlefields, prototypes of antigods at the fringes of the known world. In the sky the celestial dogs guard paths and orbits. On earth they are guides to the underworld, travelers between the dead and living, wild and tame, the messengers who became the Egyptian jackal-headed Anubis (who, combined with Hermes, the Greek dog-headed guide to the underworld, became Hermanubis). Atrum, Egypt's dog-headed demon, was said to devour the souls of the dead. The legend of the Nestorian Saint Christopher--a giant third-century dog's head--tells of his conversion and martyrdom in the context of early missionaries to Persia and refers to the Far East, where Asian myths depicted people with dog's heads who had descended from human-wolf and human-dog matings. In India the outcast "dog-eaters" and "dog-milkers" were also associated with stories of miscegenation. A "divine bitch" accompanied the Meruts, Hindu gods of the winds, whose principal lord was Rudra, a great hunter and "howler." One of the six Indian seasons, lasting sixty-one days, the period of the dog's gestation, was celebrated by rites of dog sacrifice and scapegoating. For Indian Brahmans, dog saliva was an extreme form of pollution. Although the dog myths of India are not unequivocal, the predominant anathema toward the dog is, in balance, undeniable. Its mixture is an entail of history, with traces of old, Vedic, pastoral, masculinist hound fancying, later diluted almost to invisibility by the indigenous Hindu contempt for the loathsome village mongrel.

The natural basis for dog-heads, or cynocephali, is baboons, especially the hamadryas, which appear to combine a humanlike body with the dog's head. Reports and perhaps skins of these animals, carried out of Africa, undoubtedly lent credibility to the idea of such people at the frontiers of the world. The Greeks celebrated a festival, the "massacre of dogs," as a sacrifice to Apollo's son Linos who was eaten by dogs. It corresponded to a similar legend of Saint Mercurius, the great saint of the Coptic Church, who was said to have been accompanied by two cynocephali who ate his grandfather and then relented and were converted, and to a Roman celebration in which russet dogs were sacrificed to the goddess Furina, the bitch who hounded animals' souls. The same day,July 25, became Saint Christopher's day in Roman Christainity

In the Classical world the underworld rulers, Erinyes, Ceres, Hades, and Hecate, were either dogs or dog-headed--derived not only from Africa but from Central Asia, where the dead were said to be herded by pairs of demon dogs in myths that spread across Europe from Indo-European roots, generating appeasement rites in burial ceremonies as far west as Ireland. As in India the roaring winter solstice winds were "child-eaters," hounds of the gods of the dead, Saturn and Woden.

Their travel and death connections, their feral terror in winter packs, their arrival with "dog-headed cannibals" invading from Central Asia, mark the nadir of the dog in the Western World, everywhere the most liminal of animals because of the tension between its civilized associations and its degraded state in the wild. The dog was "the archetypal social pariah whose wildness is as much a result of his exile as his exile of his wildness." On the one hand the dog is "man's best friend," valorized as the companion of wandering ascetics, redeemable, welcomer of the dawn, mediator to the other world, a Neolithic deity, just as the wilderness itself was a place of refuge and contemplation. On the other hand the dog is the alien monster and hypocrite, fallen and hateful, the most corrupt of animals. This negative side undoubtedly has its own natural history. Wild animals, after all, are not "pretenders" to civilized status. Consider how the dog may offend human standards: their howling heralds strangers, winter, and death at the town's edge; they run as a dangerous pack, like berserk warriors, randomly biting when diseased, snapping as ill-natured bitches or the tangled bluster of males around the female in heat; they scavenge and dig up human dead and carry skulls and other bones about, congregating on battlefields and places of contagion and epidemic, even eating each other's bodies; they lick their genitals and anus, urinate, defecate, and mate without shame, and attempt to mount people; they kill sheep, cats, and other domestic animals; and they display a tyrannical social system, becoming wild and deadly in the dog days of August.

Dogs seems to go over from ambiguity to duality, their gross bestiality representing all that is opposed to humanity and civilization. In modern affluent societies, dogs fare well; but in times and places that far outnumber prosperity, they have been the most hated of animals. It is far worse to be called a "dog" in this world than a "pig" or a "skunk." As the first of the domesticated animals, perhaps the dog initially represented one side of a divided universe among the early farming peoples, whose hunter/gatherer ancestors had seen the world less in terms of opposition than complementarity. But with sedentism the known world became smaller, bringing the outside closer. This "presence of an absence" of chaos became an obsession to be confronted by a victory. There is evidence that duality and the problem of evil became more important in the cosmologies of agricultural and village life, as opposed to that of nomadic peoples.

No tract on animals should omit the obligatory thousand words about Wonderful Dogs. As a dog owner I know the pleasures of canine companionship--the intelligence of the helper, the hedge against loneliness, the loyalty of the guide, the courage of the guardian, the child's friend and king's only honest subject, the medical sacrifice, even the piece de resistance at feasts around the world.

But the dark side has been there all along and has not escaped attention in the past. It is not simply the flea and worm carrier, the mad dog, the biter of pedestrians and killer of infants, the vicious pack killing sheep, the consumer of canned kangaroo and old horses, or the nuisance on the carpet, but the black dog of hell. It is Hecate as the Black Bitch, Sarameyas, the Vedic death-dog, Odin's Geri and Freki, Cerberus, all the skulking corpse-eaters that ever haunted village streets in times of war, pestilence, and famine, the feral demons, D-O-G, the opposite of G-O-D. Centuries of perceiving human evil and sickness as canine incarnations of the devil and chaos released on earth, their mangling of dying soldiers, the auguries from their entrails and omens of their howls--all are shadows of the sinister underside.

Our nearest animal friend is also the most uncanny. Dogs have long been regarded as having special powers. The howling dog was widely thought to be an omen of impending death, associated in witchcraft with the full moon. There are many rites of aversion by which animals are given the group's burden of problems and then driven away. These are "scapegoats," but goats may have been a second choice. Moreover, the gallbladders, blood, teeth, urine, and genitals of dogs have been used in healing practices--as evil against evil. The ancient Greeks, for instance, pressed a puppy to the diseased part, in the hope of transferring the disease to it, then killed it. The Japanese sacrificed dogs for rain and read auguries in their viscera.

As has been pointed out in Chapter 4, anthropologists have been addressing for years the ambiguity of the dog: the loathing of it in some societies and affection for it in others. This is generally explained on the basis of its liminality: both household occupant and outsider, protector and assailant, noble and incestuous, resolute in its loyalty and filthy in its habits, intelligent and yet four-legged. These ambiguities lend a double edge to the dog which may be bent either way to suit the culture's needs. The ancient Middle Easterners rejected the dog as vile and polluting, although their Neolithic forebears had depended on it for herding livestock. When the Zoroastrians came to power they capitalized on the dog's prominence but reversed its valence. Instead of emphasizing its disgusting habit of digging up and eating the dead it was incorporated into mortuary rites. They likened the dog to fire, both protective and destructive. The hound, they said, penetrates and links this world and that, reaching across the edge of life into death. It hears and smells what man cannot, aware of those presences invisible to humans. In the Zoroastrian ceremony of the com-i-swa the dog was given consecrated food as an act of endearment, making it a sacred vehicle to nourish the soul of the dead. Something of this appears among the Hindus with a negative emphasis in which ritual foods are offered to Yama's four-eyed dogs of death as a kind of hedge against their hunger.

With the coming of Islam, Persian customs reversed once again, making the dog an abomination according to Shiite orthodoxy. If touched it requires a purificatory ritual. Islam expanded theJudaic tradition from Leviticus in which the dog is unclean, although all right to touch. The satanic place of the dog continues in Islam--witness a 1985 newspaper article in Tehran saying that television cartoons of dogs were a Zionist conspiracy to corrupt Muslim children, just as the Zionists had corrupted the Christians by teaching them the love of the dog.

But the Arabs loved their hunting hounds so much that these breeds became an exception among the dogs: still ambivalent but central to their religious imagery of the holy conqueror. The hound and horse were companions in the myth of a messiah who vanishes into a mountain "in anticipation of a future epiphany," a royal hunter who lives beyond death and will rescue everyone. That myth tells of a quadrupedal steersman to the realms of life and death--the mortal king with his divine connections, the hunter who ensures life while dealing death, the hound who guides and protects the hunter's passage between worlds, and the horse who is the mount of both god and death. It is the final irony of the metaphysics of the hunt as a holy quest of assimilation in the cycle of existence that it should devolve into a myth of "chasing after a form of survival that no longer depends on death, hunting game not for sustenance or entertainment but for immortality itself," and therefore denying the cycle of life.

The messianic zeal for a divine savior who is also king has been a Middle Eastern obsession for five thousand years. Some familiar, others little known, historical and mythic heroes were thus portrayed as mounted hunters&emdash;from the Assyrian kings to Mithras and Herakles, the Twelfth Imam, Frederick II, Frederick Barbarossa, Siegfried, and so on to every statue of every general in every plaza from Kazakhstan to Lima. How are we to understand our loyalty and love for these freaks and travesties of the wild forms? And why idealize these ecological wrecks as the best of them all?