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.
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.
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.