Dog: Man's best friend

Faithful companion.  Guardian.  Part of the family.  These are just some of the things that dogs are viewed as today.  The dogs’ relationship with humans is not a new thing.  Instead, it dates back to the earliest evidence of domestication in 12,000 BC.  Through the subsequent 14 millennia, man’s relationship with his canine friend has remained constant.  Historical evidence supports that saying that “dog is man’s best friend.”  The works in this exhibition illustrate how a number of ancient civilizations viewed dogs through their artwork.  What is most striking is not how their views differ from each other and from the present, but rather how they remain constant.  Ranging from Mesopotamia to Pre-Columbian Mexico to Japan and across centuries, most of these cultures would have had no contact with one another and yet the same themes are illustrated in their works.  These works show that dogs have been seen as faithful companions, hunters, guardians, and as part of the family for millennia and therefore support the saying that “dog is man’s best friend.”

In Mesopotamia, dogs were featured in art as hunters and companions. This pot, likely part of a burial ritual, depicts the goddess Ishtar and her faithful canine companions. Domesticated animals were also used to communicate ideas of fertility on Mesopotamian pottery because of how their shape created infinitely repetitive patterns.
Dogs were considered highly in Greek culture. They were viewed so highly that they were often the companions of the gods. This sculpture of a hunting dog is one from a pair that framed the doorway to the temple of Artemis, goddess of the hunt and wild animals, on the Acropolis and portrays one of the many hunting dogs that the goddess kept.
Dogs in Greek culture were often depicted as being extremely loyal to their masters. One example is from Homer’s Odyssey in which Argos loyally waits for the return of his master, Odyssey, and recognizes him despite Athena’s aid in disguising his identity. Unfortunately for Aktaion, his dogs were not as loyal as Argos as depicted on this mixing bowl. The story shown is of when Aktaion witnessed Artemis bathing and was punished by being turned into a stag so that he was torn apart by his own hunting dogs.
Dogs also featured prominently in Greek philosophy. In Plato’s Republic they are described as true philosophers because of their ability to distinguish friend from foe while humans are often deceived as to who their true friends are. Drinking vessels like this one were common in the Greek colonies in Italy during the 5th and 4th centuries BC. They were copied from the Middle Eastern style of horn shaped vessels terminating in the head of an animal.
The Romans viewed the dog in much the same way as the Greeks. Like the Greeks, the Romans valued dogs as hunters and guardians. In this statue, a Roman copy of a Greek original, the mythical hunter Meleager is depicted with his hunting dog. The statue shows signs of being restored in antiquity suggesting that it was highly valued.
The Romans kept a number of different animals as pets but the dog was considered their favorite pet. This Roman grave relief is decorated with a Maltese dog sitting in a small shrine. It was common for children to be depicted with a favorite pet on grave reliefs. Since no child is pictured, this grave could have been for the dog pictured but it is more likely for a non-high born child raised by a wealthy family due to the use of the term “foster daughter” (alumnus) in the engraving.
In Pre-Columbian Mexico, dogs primarily played two key roles in society. The first was as watchdogs who guarded the family from evil spirits and intruders. Even in death, the dog continued its job as guardian to the dead and accompanied the soul of the deceased on its journey into the underworld.
The dog's second role in Pre-Columbian Mexico was a food source. The dogs would be fattened up to be eaten or for ritual sacrifices. Dogs breed for consumption could escape this fate if they showed particular promise as a healer, which was highly valued in Mexican culture.
The Moche people of Peru (100-800 AD) were noted for their elaborate ceramics. This example of Moche ceramics depicts a spotted dog who was often shown with the Moche mythological hero, Ai Apaec (“the maker”, bringer of life). As illustrated by through their mythology, the Moche people viewed dogs to be faithful and loyal companions.
Made in the 5th or 6th century in Japan, this head from a haniwa dog would have been placed around the outside of tombs as part of a funeral ritual or to mark the boundary of the grave site. It was believed that the haniwa were places for the soul of the deceased to reside, making the dog a companion in life and in death.
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