Canines in Greek and Roman Mythology

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Essay discussing various canines from the Odyssey, the Aeneid, and other Greek and Roman myths.

Canines of various types occur in virtually all world mythologies. This should not be surprising considering how long dogs have been living with humans. This study will look at a sampling of canines from Greek and Roman mythologies. Firstly, it will review Argos, the dog of Odysseus, left behind when the hero fought in the Trojan War, and waiting for his return. Secondly, it will examine Cerberus, the three-headed guard dog of Hades, and his appearance in the myths of Heracles, Orpheus, and Aeneas. Finally, it will explore the symbolism of the she-wolf that suckles Remus and Romulus in one of Rome's foundational stories, and how the attributes that the wolf symbolizes affect the relationship between this myth and that of Aeneas, Rome's other foundational story.
On the surface, these occurrences would appear to share little. Cerberus is a mystical creature of the first order, the she-wolf might be divinely directed, and Argos is more or less a normal dog. Argos and Cerberus act in roles that we traditionally associate with canines in our daily lives, and filled the same roles in the lives of the Greeks and Romans. The she-wolf takes on the role of surrogate mother. The instances in this study do share a common bond, however. It will be argued that they all act as mediators or transitional symbols between two states.
According to archaeological evidence, it is thought that "the relationship between wolf and man might have been established around 40 000 yr (sic) BP [Before Present]" (Zedda 319). This relationship stemmed first from competition for game, which "gave rise to a kind of co-operation between these two species" (Zedda 319). Zedda, et al., point out that this relationship began "long before the biological and cultural traits of modern man were in place" (319). Thus, it seems reasonable to conclude that the relationship of man to canine is at least as old, if not older, than any myths to which we have access.
The wolf gradually evolved into the dog "due to both primitive selection and evolutionary adaptations to the human environment" (Zedda 319). These changes picked up speed as humans settled into communities, 10,000 to 15,000 years Before Present (Zedda 319). Though evidence exists of various common dog types being bred in Ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Greece, "it is commonly accepted that the Romans were the first in Europe to develop modern forms of selection" (Zedda 319). Romans even classified dogs by function in a way that more or less mirrors modern classifications: Canes Villatici (guard dogs), Canes Pastorales (shepherds), and Canes Venatici (sporting or hunting dogs) (Zedda 319-320).
Argos, the faithful hunting dog of Odysseus, fits into the third category. In Book 17 of the Odyssey, we learn that Odysseus himself had bred Argos, and that "[t]here was no beast that could flee from him in the deep places of the wood, when he was in pursuit" (Homer 246). This greatness, even in his dog, fits well with the idea of Odysseus as a great hero, as does the very fact that Argos is still alive, having waited despondently for his master to return for twenty years.
Argos is the first to recognize his master upon Odysseus' return. "There lay the dog Argos, full of vermin. Yet even now when he was ware of Odysseus standing by, he wagged his tail and dropped both his ears, but nearer to his master he had not now the strength to draw" (Homer 246). Being the first to recognize his master, Argos also symbolizes the moment of Odysseus' true homecoming, and his transition from wanderer to ruler. Odysseus does not acknowledge his pet, however, so as to maintain his cover as a beggar, but is saddened by the sorry state to which his once proud animal has fallen. "But Odysseus looked aside and wiped away a tear that he easily hid from Eumaeus ..." (Homer 246). The loyalty of Argos and Odysseus' reaction to seeing his dog suggests that the ancient Greek relationship to their dogs was not all that dissimilar to our own.
Bernhard Frank writes that this scene is used by Homer to heighten the reader's awareness of Odysseus' heroic personality. "Homer clearly prefers to elicit admiration for his hero's stoicism, rather than offer his audience wish-fulfillment. In fact, both the depth of the dog's misery and the height of its loyalty reflect back on Odysseus and magnify his self-control" (202). While it could be argued that Frank is projecting modern preferences onto the Homeric audience, Odysseus' sadness supports his idea. Had Odysseus not been emotionally attached to his dog, but instead, for instance, angered at yet another display of disrespect to his household in his absence, a clenched jaw or other reaction would be more fitting. Since Homer decided to make Odysseus, who had been through so much hardship, tear up at seeing Argos, it seems reasonable to assume that this would be designed to pull on the same heartstrings in its contemporary audience as it does in a modern one.
Frank continues his analysis to a psychological interpretation of this scene as well. He sees Argos as a reflection of Odysseus. "In his encounter with Argos, Odysseus finds himself looking in the mirror. ... Should he drop his guard, for even a moment, self-pity might overwhelm him and weaken his resolve" (202). Thus, to acknowledge Argos in the animal's current state would be to fully acknowledge his own state. Odysseus avoids this and "upon Argos came the fate of black death even in the hour that he beheld Odysseus again, in the twentieth year" (Homer 246).
To continue on the path started by Frank, this scene may even be interpreted as a rejection or circumvention of the Hegelian idea of the creation of the self. Hegel writes that the creation of self-consciousness involves the conflict between and mediation of two selves: a master self that exists for itself, and a servant self that exists for the master (13). Through this process of mediation, however, the tables are turned, "for, just where the master has effectively achieved rule, he really finds that something has come about quite different from an independent consciousness. It is not an independent, but rather a dependent consciousness that he has achieved" (Hegel 14). The servant self, then, becomes the independent consciousness by virtue of it being the more essential self. Odysseus, of course, will not allow this. If we consider Argos to not only be a reflection of the hero, but a reflection of his consciousness of himself as servant, we see the danger presented by acknowledging Argos. Through a simple act, Odysseus' heroic master self might have inadvertently lost himself entirely and become the servant he pretends to be.
Perhaps the most famous of all Greco-Roman canines is Cerberus. Ambrose Bierce's definition in The Devil's Dictionary captures some of the difficulty one finds in trying to study Cerberus:
Cerberus, n. The watchdog of Hades, whose duty it was to guard the entrance—against whom or what does not clearly appear; everybody, sooner or later, had to go there, and nobody wanted to carry off the entrance. Cerberus is known to have had three heads, and some of the poets have credited him with as many as a hundred. Professor Glaybill, whose clerky erudition and profound knowledge of Greek give his opinion great weight, has averaged all the estimates, and makes the number twenty-seven. ... (37-38)
Besides his three heads, Cerberus is commonly depicted as having snakes' heads on his back as a mane (Apollodorus 233). Tellings vary with regard to the nature of his tail. During his encounter with Heracles, Apollodorus states that "the dragon in [Cerberus'] tail bit him", while Graves describes a "barbed tail" (Apollodorus 237, Graves 470). The tail is either a traditional pointed, dragon's tail, or, like the snakes that crest his back, a wholly animate dragon in its own right, with a head and will of its own.
Cerberus comes by these traits through heredity, as he is the offspring of Typhaon (Typhon, Typhoeus), and Echidna. The father of Cerberus is described by Hesiod: "From his shoulders grew an hundred heads of a snake, a fearful dragon, with dark, flickering tongues, and from under the brows of his eyes in his marvellous (sic) heads flashed fire, and fire burned from his heads as he glared" (27).
His mother is no less fearsome. "Echidna ... is half a nymph with glancing eyes and fair cheeks, and half again a huge snake, great and awful, ... eating raw flesh beneath the secret parts of the holy earth" (Hesiod 10). The offspring of this pair is a parade of famous monsters. Besides Cerberus, Echidna bore "the Chimaera, the many-headed dog Orthus, the hundred-headed dragon who guarded the apples of Hesperidies, the Colchian dragon, the Sphinx, ... Scylla, Gorgon, the Lernaean Hydra, the Nemean lion, and the Eagle that fed on the liver of Prometheus" (Leeming 111).
For all his fearsome attributes, Cerberus acts in a very familiar canine role, and is generally referred to as a dog or hound despite certain reptilian characteristics. He is essentially a guard dog, a Canes Villatici, keeping the dead in and the living out of the Underworld. He also behaves much like dogs today, rushing out to bark at strangers, and eagerly eating any bits tossed to him. Like Argos, he is trustworthy and loyal, continuing to stand on guard even as Roman culture supplanted Greek culture.
Upon initial review, however, he does not appear to be a very good guard dog. Heroes such as Heracles, Orpheus, and Aeneas all overcome him. In fact, he seems to only appear in myths where he is failing at his job. On closer examination, though, we see that the heroes that get past him represent some of the most important in Greco-Roman mythology, and that their acts are made all the greater by Cerberus' appearance in their stories. Indeed, in some cases, the conquering of Cerberus precedes the apotheosis of the hero, suggesting that Cerberus acts not only as a gatekeeper between the living and dead, but as a gatekeeper between the mortal and immortal.
Cerberus has the interesting characteristic of never being harmed during the major myths in which he appears. Heracles famously had to bring Cerberus to the surface world to complete his twelfth labor, but Hades consented to let Heracles take his guard only if he did not use any of the weapons in his possession. By comparing this treatment of Cerberus to that of his siblings, we begin to see the unique place of Cerberus. During his labors, Heracles, in fact, kills the Nemean lion, the Hydra, the eagle tormenting Prometheus, and the dragon guarding the golden apples, Ladon (Rosenberg 101-104, Graves 463). Heracles takes Hades' hound around the neck (below the three heads) and chokes him "till it yielded" (Apollodorus 237). Frazer translates this last line from the Greek as "[l]iterally, 'till he persuaded (it)' " (Apollodorus 237). Though this is certainly arguable, it could be conjectured that Heracles not only had to get the permission of Hades, but the permission of Cerberus himself, before he could take the frightening guard to the surface world.
Graves also notes that the order of Heracles' labors varies in different sources, with some having the retrieval of Cerberus happening earlier (472-473). This variation has important implications for the place of Cerberus if we assume that the last labor is to be considered the most difficult. The bringing of Hades' guard to the surface as the most difficult does have powerful support, however. Apollodorus places it last in "the most complete version of Heracles's labors" (Rosenberg 100). In the Odyssey, we ostensibly learn Homer's opinion on the matter when Odysseus travels to the Underworld and meets the "phantom" of the hero, though the true Heracles now resides on Olympus (Homer 167). The ghostly figure tells Odysseus, "[H]e enjoined me on hard adventures, yea, and on a time he sent me hither to bring back the hound of hell; for he devised no harder task for me than this" (Homer 168). It seems, then, that bringing Cerberus to the surface was intended to be more difficult even than retrieving the apples of the Hersperides guarded by the dragon, though, in fairness, perhaps Ladon should be considered an even fiercer creature than Cerberus, since Heracles had to shoot him with an arrow before even Atlas, a Titan, would go into the garden (Graves 463).
The scene of the Odyssey showing Heracles warrants some further exploration. If, after conquering Cerberus and completing his labors, Heracles was later apotheosized, why do we find a version of him still residing in the Underworld? Vayos Liapis argues that Homer's, and later, Sophocles', view of Heracles was ambivalent regarding his apotheosis, and his violence, and that "the prevailing mood is one of disparagement or of pathos" (48). He notes that even in ancient times, scholars marked the lines stating that Heracles himself was in Olympus as a later addition (55). Liapis argues that, even if these lines were added later as "perhaps an attempt at reconciling two conflicting traditions about Heracles, or the Homeric version with later religious beliefs," the text provides further evidence of ambivalence towards Heracles with the expression of "the narrator's utter horror at the brutality of [Heracles' baldric's] decoration" (55). This controversy aside, though, the common version of the fate of Heracles is that he was lifted from his pyre to the heavens, without experiencing death (e.g., Rosenberg 105).
Orpheus also gets past Cerberus on his quest to restore Eurydice to life, but he soothed the savage beast, and the entire Underworld, with his music. Unlike Heracles, Orpheus was not the son of a god or the conqueror of fierce monsters, but he did share a divine lineage. He was the son of the King of Thrace, and the Muse, Calliope. He was the greatest human musician, given a lyre by Apollo and taught by the Muses (Graves 112).
After Eurydice, his new wife, is bitten by a snake while fleeing a rapist and dies, Orpheus descends into the Underworld, hoping to retrieve her. He "not only charmed the ferryman Charon, the Dog Cerberus, and the three Judges of the Dead with his plaintive music, but temporarily suspended the tortures of the damned" (Graves 112). Virgil describes the scene:
On him astonish'd Death and Tartarus gazed,
Their viper hair the wond'ring Furies raised :
Grim Cerberus stood his triple jaws half closed,
fix'd in air Ixion's wheel reposed. (Virgil, Georgics 164)
Though Orpheus gets by Cerberus, and convinces Hades to allow Eurydice to return to life, ultimately, Orpheus fails in his quest. Looking back at his love at the last moment, he breaks the one condition set for her return, that he not look back at her on the ascent. Beverly Zabriskie interprets this failure as almost inevitable. "Only the dead would know the rules of death. With the other-worldly knowledge of those who had no exit, ... they would know that a living man could not obey their order, that Orpheus ... would not remember their condition once out of their gloom" (432). If this is the case, then Orpheus never had any true chance of success. Hades knew the nature of Orpheus, and the living in general. Though he seems to be moved by the music of Orpheus, Hades might even be interpreted as crueler than usually thought for allowing the mortal to descend on a hopeless mission and lose his love twice. Thus, even though Cerberus fails to keep Orpheus out, the overall division between life and death is maintained, and is not actually in any danger.
Orpheus does not become immortal after his subduing of Cerberus, but in this particular case, his mortal death, and his second and permanent trip to the Underworld, may be viewed as a kind of mercy. Zabriskie notes that "having been among the dead, Orpheus had never fully returned. His lingering in on-going grief kept both lovers suspended between life and death" (435). After Orpheus is torn apart by crazed women whose advances he had thwarted, Ovid shows us, in an exceptionally moving verse that, having failed to bring Eurydice back to the living, Orpheus finds the next best thing in his death:
His ghost flies downward to the Stygian shore,
And knows the places it had seen before:
Among the shadows of the pious train,
He finds Eurydice and loves again;
With pleasure views the beauteous phantom's charms,
And clasps her in his unsubstantial arms:
There side by side they unmolested walk,
Or pass their blissful hours in pleasing talk;
Aft or before the bard securely goes,
And without danger can review his spouse. (28)
Though Orpheus may not be a hero in the vein of Heracles, Zabriskie makes a strong argument for the importance of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice for the inner struggle of the artist.
If myth is the psyche's description of itself and its epiphanal moments, the myth of Eurydice and Orpheus, whose soothing music tamed wild beasts amidst his own tension and turmoil, is a powerful expression of the paradoxical nature of the psyche. Orpheus-Eurydice are the charged, excited intensified points in the constant process of making psyche. They configure an individual's suffered responses to the different, demanding dimensions of experience and creation. (444)
In this context, then, perhaps Cerberus, along with the rest of the cast of the Underworld, represents the psychic forces that at once fuel creativity and hamper it, and, occasionally, are even placated by it. One might include fear, anxiety, or self-doubt among these forces.
Many Roman myths are simply adopted Greek myths (Rosenberg 257). Cerberus makes the transition largely unchanged, even to new Roman myths. In the Aeneid, when Aeneas descends to the underworld to see his father and learn of his destiny, he must still pass the guard. Accompanied by the priestess Sibyl, Aeneas approaches the far side of the river Styx:
No sooner landed, in his den they found
The triple porter of the Stygian sound,
Grim Cerberus, who soon began to rear
His crested snakes, and arm'd his bristling hair. (225)
Unlike the brutish and violent Heracles, the Roman hero "represent[s] the forces of order, self-discipline, rational thinking, and constructive behavior" (Rosenberg 259). Rather than overcome Cerberus with strength, Sibyl, a priestess of Apollo, subdues him with "a cake soaked with sweet honey and sleep-inducing drugs" (Rosenberg 280). Virgil gives us a sense of the size of Cerberus, as well. "Long draughts of sleep his monstrous limbs enslave; / He reels, and, falling, fills the spacious cave" (225).
So another hero slips past the fearsome guard. Like Heracles, though, Aeneas comes from a divine lineage as the son of Venus. He also shares a similar end to his mortal life. Instead of dying and entering the Underworld a second time, he undergoes an apotheosis. After a battle, Venus entreats Jove to raise Aeneas up to a god (Ovid 148). Jove agrees, and Aeneas becomes Indiges, a new god in the Roman pantheon (Ovid 149).
Cerberus, then, is not simply another monstrous creature to be killed by great heroes at their convenience like so many of his siblings. He instead acts as a symbol of the line between life and death, and of mortality and immortality. Though in a few rare cases, death could be overcome, the presence of Cerberus keeps the order of the world. Mortals who die cannot return to the living because, in part, Cerberus is there to keep the two realms separate. When Heracles and Aeneas break this separation, whether by wrestling or outsmarting Cerberus, this foreshadows their eventual deifications.
The Aeneid also shares an important historical relationship with the next myth this study will consider, the tale of Remus and Romulus. Romulus was the founder of Rome, "according to the Latin tradition" (Rosenberg 257). King Amulius, having stolen the throne from his brother, orders his niece, Rhea Silva, to become a Vestal Virgin, "ostensibly to do her honour, but actually by condemning her to perpetual virginity to preclude the possibility of issue" (Livy 34). The story goes that she was raped by Mars, and became pregnant with twin boys. They were ordered drowned in the Tiber, but were placed next to it instead. There, exposed and vulnerable, they were discovered by a she-wolf. "She offered them her teats to suck and treated them with such gentleness that Faustulus, the king's herdsman, found her licking them with her tongue" (Livy 35). Faustulus rescues the twins and they are nursed by his wife Larentia. Even Livy, though, points out that the episode with the wolf may be unnecessary, writing, "Some think that the origin of this fable was the fact that Larentia was a common whore and was called Wolf by the shepherds" (35).
If, even in ancient times, the story of the she-wolf was suspect, why has it endured even until today? Perhaps the story fit the Roman self-conception during their rise to power. Since wolves are sacred animals to Mars, it makes sense that Mars might intervene in this way to protect his children (Leonard 161). Boria Sax writes, "More than any other animal, the wolf has been closely associated with martial qualities" (267). One certainly does not need to look too hard to find evidence of the importance of war to Roman society. As soon as Faustus tells Remus and Romulus of their true identity, they help the rightful king Numitor to regain his throne by killing his brother Amulius. Romulus and Remus then famously quarrel, and Remus is killed. The story of Rome proceeds in much the same way after its founding. Rome enters into war during the reign of Romulus with the surrounding communities of Caenina, Crustumium, Antemnae, the Sabines, and the Etruschans (Livy 42-48).
Interestingly, Sax conjectures that, in the original tellings, the she-wolf was not only the nurse of Remus and Romulus, but also their mother (267). He further posits that they might have even been werewolves, able to transform themselves into the form of a wolf (267). These details may have stretched the credulity of later listeners, and so, fallen out of favor as time went on, but the appearence of the she-wolf remained intact.
In yet another occurrence of apotheosis in near proximity to canines in a myth, Romulus is also said to have been raised up to heaven. Livy describes the scene:
One day while he was reviewing his troops on the Campus Martius near the marsh of Capra, a storm burst, with violent thunder. A cloud enveloped him, so thick that it hid him from the eyes of everyone present; and from that moment he was never seen again upon earth.
... Then a few voices began to proclaim Romulus's divinity; the cry was taken up, and at last every man present hailed him as a god and son of a god ... (49)
Like Heracles and Aeneas, Romulus becomes a god. Though it would not be prudent to assign causation from correlation, canines do repeatedly appear in myths that result in the deification of the hero. In the case of Cerberus, he seems more closely tied to the eventual apotheoses. In the case of Romulus, however, the link is more tenuous. Being the son of Mars, he is aided by the wolf as an infant, but his deification comes from more realistic deeds than those of Heracles or Aeneas.
Like Argos and Cerberus, the she-wolf stands at a transitional moment in its story. Had she not come along, or been sent by Mars, the entire history of Rome may not have happened. She becomes a symbol of the destiny of the Roman people, and with her rescue of the twins, turns the tide of history in their favor. She also symbolizes the method by which they will achieve this greatness, military prowess.
The myth of Remus and Romulus, and the telling of an earlier founding in the Aeneid, share an interesting historical relationship that can advise our interpretations of the social function of these myths. While the story of the twins comes from the Latin tradition, the story of Aeneas was deliberately adopted by the Romans from the Etruscan and Greek traditions (Rosenberg 257). As we learn from Livy, a contemporary of Virgil, though, the two traditions were somewhat consolidated already. Though Romulus is credited with the founding of Rome itself, Aeneas is the beginning of the story, and Remus and Romulus are direct descendants of the Trojan (33-34).
Augustus, however, wanted to stress a foundation based on "a strong sense of justice, self-control, and piety; and loyalty both to family and country" (Rosenberg 257). He also wanted to bring together the various groups living in the new empire under one identity (Orlin 74). "The construction of a unified sense of cultural identity comprising both Romans and Italians ... must rank as one of the signal accomplishments of the Augustan regime" (Orlin 75). This accomplishment owes some of its success to Virgil and his Aeneid.
Eric Orlin writes that for most of its history up to that point, religious practice in Rome had largely been tied to place. "This conception is narrow in the sense that Roman religion can only be performed at Rome; it specifically denies the possibility that the same rites could be performed at Veii and still be called Roman ..." (80). This localization can be readily seen in the myth of Remus and Romulus. In one telling of the myth, Romulus kills Remus for leaping the wall Romulus was building around the new settlement, saying "So perish whoever else shall overleap my battlements" (Livy 37). Following this, he started local religous sacrifices, only adopting a single foreign practice, a rite of Hercules to show "even then, his respect for that immortality which is the prize of valour" (Livy 39).
Virgil and Augustus sought to open Roman identification to the surrounding community. "Augustus's efforts were not directed at erasing Roman identity but at reshaping it, and that identity remained recognizably Roman even as it became more accessible to those living outside the city of Rome itself" (Orlin 88). Likewise, Virgil does not create a "new" foundation story for Rome, but essentially changes the emphasis from Romulus to Aeneas. Aeneas lays the foundation for this modified religion in "a time when Rome as a city did not yet exist" (Orlin 80).
This desire to move away from localized identities may also help explain why the apotheosis of Aeneas does not appear in the Aeneid, though it does appear in Ovid's Metamorphoses and is referenced by Livy, rough contemporaries of Virgil. He does not say that it did not happen, however. The Aeneid simply ends before that point. The new name of Aeneas may have simply been too problematic for Virgil, if we follow Orlin's analysis of his intentions: "Jupiter Indiges—the local Jove" (Livy 33).
This all is not to suggest that Virgil or Augustus sought to lessen the story of Romulus explicitly because of the wolf. However, the wolf does represent both Mars and martial thinking. In this way, Remus and Romulus may be considered to have been suckled by War itself. After many civil wars on the Italian peninsula, Augustus wanted to unite people (Orlin 74). Metaphorically, this required a new focus, without the influence of Mars and the she-wolf.
In viewing this sampling of canines from Greek and Roman mythology, we begin to see the depth of man's relationship with dogs, and even wolves. Nearly three thousand years ago, Homer showed us a dog that is easily recognizable today. The tradition of Cerberus persists across even greater expanses of time, predating Homer and surviving as long as the Greco-Roman religion. The she-wolf of Remus and Romulus suggests both gentleness and ferocity, also easily recognizable to anyone who has been around a mother dog and her litter.
Dogs were not an addition to modern humanity, but were there already when humans became "modern", regardless of whether that is defined mythologically or anthropologically. Because of this long-standing history, it only seems natural, then, that canines would appear in some of the most famous and beloved myths of the Greek and Roman traditions. Furthermore, modern readers have little difficulty identifying with these creatures and understanding them as dogs, even if they occassionally have twenty-seven heads.
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Submitted: May 28, 2010

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