Dogs in ancient Egypt

Our newest exhibition ‘Breed: The British and their Dogs’ has just opened, and has given me cause to ponder the relationship between the ancient Egyptians and their dogs. The canine that features most prominently in iconography, and which is most associated with the pharaonic Egypt, is the god Anubis – represented either as a recumbent jackal or as a jackal-headed man. As a guardian of the cemetery, the origins of the jackal god are often associated with desert scavengers who preyed on recently interred burials.

Acc. no. 11498. A limestone statuette of Anubis, from the EES excavations at Saqqara. Late Period (c. 750-332 BC)

Anubis was the deity who oversaw the mummification process, and (like another jackal deity Wepwawet, ‘The Opener of the Ways’) helped conduct the deceased into the afterlife. Perhaps these divine attributes reflected the attentive aspect observed in dogs. Many hundreds of dogs were buried as animals sacred to Anubis – in the form of votive dog mummies – at the Anubieion at Saqqara. Domestic dogs might also receive individual burials, either along with their owners or in their own coffins.

One ancient Egyptian word for dog is iwiw, an onomatopoeic reference to its bark. From the Old Kingdom (c. 2686-2181 BC), dogs generally shared the same names as humans and are often shown in attendance on an elite tomb owner, captioned with their names in hieroglyphs. Some dogs carry names likely to reflect their qualities, such as ‘Brave One’ and ‘Good Herdsman’, and the abilities of dogs as hunting companions appears to have been particularly prized.

Scene from the tomb of the 26th Dynasty official Pabasa, showing his dog Hekenu under his chair. Photo by Ken Griffin.

Evidence of breeding is difficult to trace and is unlikely to coincide with modern practices of the type illustrated in the exhibition ‘Breed’. Yet, despite a strong association in the popular imagination with cats, ancient Egypt provides ample early evidence for man’s best friend.

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4 responses to “Dogs in ancient Egypt

  1. Pingback: Reblog: Dogs in ancient Egypt « The Egyptiana Emporium

  2. Yes, exact breeding is hard to determine, but it’s quite certain they had sight hounds (today’s sight hounds include greyhounds, Afghan hounds, salukis etc). In fact, sometimes I think that Anubis looks as much like a Pharaoh hound as it does a jackal (I know the Pharaoh hound itself isn’t an ancient breed – only a few hundred years – but breeds come and go over the centuries and it’s interesting to see the similarities).

    There are Bedouin still to this day that keep salukis to help them hunt deer as they’re fast enough and agile enough to outrun them. I used to have a lurcher who was half greyhound, and watching him run and dart about on the beach was absolutely incredible.

    • Campbell@Manchester

      Thanks Julia for this information!

      • Funny coincidence – just watching this week’s QI, and they mentioned Anubis and that referring to him as a jackal might be a misnomer – he could well be a wolf.

        I hadn’t heard this, but some genetic research was done on the Egyptian jackal a couple of years ago, and they were found to be members of the wolf family, not jackal. Maybe we should be referring to Anubis as the wolf-headed god… :-)

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