Tuesday, September 1, 2009


Version at BMCR home site
Catherine Johns, Dogs: History, Myth, Art. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008. Pp. 208. ISBN 9780674030930. $35.00.
Reviewed by Evrydiki Tasopoulou, Bryn Mawr College


[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

Catherine Johns' Dogs: History, Myth, Art is an examination of the long-lasting relationship between humans and dogs as reflected in the history, myth, and material records of various cultural and social groups around the world. Through an extensive array of impressively illustrated works of art and artifacts that depict dogs, dating from prehistoric to modern times and drawn from the collections of the British Museum, Johns explores the manifold ways in which dogs were and continue to be used, perceived, and depicted in human society. Other related animals, such as wolves, jackals, and foxes are also considered in this cross-cultural and diachronic examination of dogs, which encourages a refined understanding of the multivalent roles of canine animals in human life, and, as such, qualifies as a valuable starting point for advanced studies.

The book is divided into two parts. The first part, "Dogs and People," is a brief summary of the relationship between dogs and human beings from prehistory to the present. In this introductory essay, Johns discusses two specific aspects that, according to her, have defined this relationship: the domestication of dogs, and the multiple roles that dogs and their wild relatives, wolves, jackals, and foxes, have played in human society. The discussion of the process of canine domestication is helpful and interesting. Johns characterizes this process as a "two-way social contract" (9) and along with the traditional anthropocentric approach to it, she entertains the possibility of a "cynocentric" view (11), that is, of dogs initially domesticating humans, as a constituent part of domestication. She also draws attention to the physical and behavioral changes that both domestication and human intervention through controlled breeding have imposed upon dogs, and to the subsequent establishment of distinct canine groups, commonly known as "breeds." Johns is clearly cautious in using the word "breed," and rightly stays away from the prevailing tendency to establish a direct line of descent between modern canine breeds and similarly looking dogs depicted in the visual records of past societies (14).

Regarding the roles of dogs in human society from prehistoric to modern times, she begins by noting the contribution of dogs to practical matters, such as hunting, guarding and protection, fighting, herding, transport, entertainment, and also to more current tasks, such as assistance in law enforcement, search, and rescue, as well as dogs' crucial roles in guiding persons with special needs, serving as friends and companions, and also as potential diagnosticians, given their olfactory ability to detect cancerous growths. Her discussion of fighting dogs addresses the issue of 'war-dogs' in ancient times, more precisely, the existence of "a strong [modern] popular belief that large dogs were used as organizing fighting troops in some ancient armies." Her focus is on Latin literature, which, according to her, provides "some allusions...to fighting dogs in foreign armies" that can be, in turn, interpreted as "colorful tales of the exotic customs of distant lands, rather than factual first-hand reporting." She also maintains that "we know enough about the Roman army itself from extensive written, visual and material evidence, to be certain that there were no regular Roman 'canine soldiers'" (20). While she is correct at pointing out the need for distinguishing between the potential roles of dogs as fighters and assistants (e.g. carriers of supplies) in ancient war zones (20-21), worth mentioning here is the existence of ancient Greek literary accounts, which date mostly to the Roman era and suggest the lively presence of dogs in both Greek and foreign warlike contexts in the sixth and fifth centuries BC.1

Having presented the numerous ways in which dogs are able to help and work with humans, Johns devotes, next, a brief and succinct section to the exploitation of dogs in contemporary societies, more specifically, their use as food and as experimental subjects in scientific research. She then proceeds to examine the prominent featuring of dogs in three distinct spheres around the world: religion, myth, and symbolism. By borrowing examples from various cultures and religions, including ancient Egypt, Greece, the Aztec world, Hinduism, Norse legend, and Welsh myth, Johns documents the widespread perception of dogs as mediators between the worlds of the living and the dead. Further, her discussion of dogs as healing agents focuses on the ancient Mesopotamian healing goddess Gula and her Greek counterpart, Asclepius, both of whom were accompanied by dogs. Additionally, her references to the dog-star Sirius, and to legendary hounds, such as Orthros, Laelaps, and the hounds of Actaeon, provide a useful insight into the prominence of dogs in ancient Egyptian and Graeco-Roman thought, while the association of dogs with thirteenth-century Christian saints, as evidenced by the stories of French saints, Roch and Guinefort, indicate an equally prominent place for dogs in medieval thought. Johns concludes her essay by referring to dog-like monsters, such as the ancient Greek Scylla, and the noble Chinese Dogs of Fo, the latter designated as "monsters" due to the blending of canine and leonine elements in their iconography. She also highlights the important roles that wolves, coyotes, jackals, and foxes have played and continue to play in various cultural traditions around the world. The text of this introductory essay is accompanied by illustrations of real dogs and their wild cousins, as well as by depictions of dogs in painting, drawing, engraving, ceramics, amulets, and figurines, all deriving from a wide range of cultural and chronological contexts (e.g., ancient Egyptian faience figure of a dog dated to around 2000-1700 BC [11]; Peruvian ceramic vessel in the shape of a dog, representative of the Nasca Culture [200 BC-AD 600, 23]; a pair of porcelain dogs coming from eighteenth-century A.D. China [30]; and a drawing by nineteenth-century artist and children's books' illustrator, Randolph Caldecott depicting four different dogs--a mongrel, a poodle, a pug, and a German spitz [15]).

The second part, "Dogs Depicted," is an ensemble of representations of dogs and other canine animals in works of art and decorative and functional objects made of various materials, deriving from diverse cultures, dating from prehistoric to modern times, and belonging, in great majority, to the collections of the British Museum. The discussion contains ten sections, each of which provides visual documentation of a specific role, practical and/or symbolic, that dogs and their wild counterparts played in human societies around the world: Hunting Dogs, Working Dogs, Dogs and Gods, Myths and Monsters, Jackals, Wolves, Foxes, Types and Breeds, Arts and Artifacts, Friends and Companions. Within each section, images are described, placed within their cultural contexts, and, at the same time, juxtaposed, an approach that invites the reader to draw (or read) comparisons among the similar and, simultaneously, different ways in which various cultures perceived and depicted canine animals. The section, for example, on hunting dogs presents an intriguing juxtaposition of the theme of the huntsman and his hound as depicted on a Neo-Assyrian (645-635 BC) stone wall-relief from the palace of Ashurbanipal at Nineveh, and by a late seventeenth-century AD white stoneware figure, a representative example of Fulham pottery (34-35). The figure, which depicts an English gentleman returning from the hunt with a dead hare on his shoulder and a small hound on his side, seems "somewhat frivolous," Johns notes, (35) when compared to the Neo-Assyrian handler of a large and powerful dog, both of whom complement a larger lion-hunt scene. Despite their differences, these two works of art, Johns maintains, are united by common elements; "the social implications of hunting, and the equally ancient and central role played in that pastime by hounds" (35). An extensive number of such juxtapositions and/or combinations of objects that represent dogs, but also wolves, jackals, and foxes characterizes the remainder of the second, and last, part of the book. This arrangement is additionally successful because it enables the reader to see the influence, in terms of medium and style, of earlier and culturally different pieces on later ones, as in the case, for example, of an early Roman (first century BC) cameo-cut agate gemstone depicting a resting dog (171), a fifteenth-century AD Italian gold finger-ring with sardonyx cameo setting, depicting a recumbent watchdog (172), and an eighteenth-century German/English gold finger-ring, set with a hessonite garnet intaglio that represents the head of the dog-star Sirius (173). The book concludes with a page of suggestions for further reading--consciously limited to a small number (8) of classic publications, since the bibliography on the subject is immense, as Johns states (201)--a list of illustration references, and an index. The balanced quantity of both Eastern and Western works of art and decorative and functional objects pictured in this study, in combination with the exquisite quality of their images, which, according to the author, are reproduced at varying scales (6), allow for an informative visual synthesis that cuts across many cultures, places, and times in order to convey the antiquity of the symbiotic and complex relationship between humans and dogs. The overall production of the book is good and the publisher is to be congratulated. A minor quibble: The caption of the image of a set of four Egyptian faience amulets depicting the sons of Horus, on page 89, carries the erroneous identification of the early Third Intermediate period in ancient Egyptian history as ranging chronologically from 1979 to 800 BC The earliest date is, most likely, a typographical error, since the Third Intermediate period (dynasties 21-25) ranges from around 1080/1070 to 712 BC.2 In sum, the photographic emphasis of the book should appeal to both general and specialist audiences concerned with canine representations as useful guides to discerning past and current human perceptions and treatments of a very special animal species.


1.   An early Greek reference to dogs in warlike contexts appears in the Histories of Herodotus (7.187), who records that when Xerxes invaded Greece in the early fifth century BC, his army included vast numbers of "Indian" dogs. Specific literary evidence for the use of dogs in warfare comes from Polyaenus, a second-century AD author, who refers to a sixth-century BC battle between Alyattes, the king of Lydia, and the Cimmerians: "When the monstrous and the bestial Cimmerians made an expedition against him, Alyattes brought out for battle his strongest dogs along with the rest of his force. The dogs set upon the barbarians as if they were wild animals, killed many and forced the rest to flee shamefully" (Strategems 7.2.1-7.2.6); translation: P. Krentz and E. L. Wheeler, eds., tr., Polyaenus. Strategems of War II (Chicago, 1994) 625. Polyaenus mentions a second incident of warlike character in which dogs are featured. Referring to the Persian invasion of Egypt (525 BC) by Cambyses, he says: "Cambyses was besieging Pelusium. The Egyptians stoutly resisted by blocking the entries to Egypt, and bringing up many batteries of artillery they shot quick-firing catapult bolts, stones, and fire. Cambyses drew up in front of his army as many animals as the Egyptians worshipped--dogs, sheep, cats, ibexes. The Egyptians stopped shooting for fear of striking one of the holy animals. Thus Cambyses captured Pelusium and entered Egypt (Strategems 7.9.1-7.9.9); translation Krentz and Wheeler, Polyaenus. Strategems 639. Evidence that places dogs in a warlike environment in the Classical period, derives from Aelian, who mentions that a dog had served in the battle of Marathon (490 BC): "An Athenian took with him a Dog as fellow-soldier to the battle of Marathon, and both are figured in a painting in the Stoa Poecile, nor was the Dog denied honor but received the reward of the danger it had undergone in being seen among the companions of Cynegirus, Epizelus, and Callimachus. They and the dog were painted by Micon, though some say it was not his work but that of Polygnotus of Thasos" (De Natura Animalium 7.38); translation: A. F. Scholfield, ed., tr., Aelian. On the Characteristics of Animals II (London and Cambridge, Mass., 1959) 151. Pausanias's account of this picture (1.15.3) does not mention this detail. For a comprehensive discussion of the use of animals, including dogs, in ancient warfare, see A. Mayor, Greek Fire, Poison Arrows, and Scorpion Bombs: Biological and Chemical Warfare in the Ancient World (Woodstock, 2003).
2.   For the chronological range of the Third Intermediate Period as 1080-712 BC, see A. B. Knapp, The History and Culture of Ancient Western Asia and Egypt (Belmont, 1988) v; for 1070-712 BC, G. Robins, The Art of Ancient Egypt (Cambridge, Mass., 2000) 9-10, who cites (8) J. Barnes and J. Málek, Atlas of Ancient Egypt (Oxford, 1980) 36-37 as his source, and explains that the dates before 664 BC are approximate; also the online time line of ancient Egyptian history offered by the British museum.

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