Dogs in Ancient Egypt

What animal do you often associate with ancient Egypt? Cats, Crocodiles or even Cobras? I bet that it isn’t dogs. But the ancient Egyptians were also dog lovers. As it was recently International Dog day it seemed like it was time I covered our four legged friends. One of the words used for dog in the ancient Egyptian language is the onomatopoeic ‘iwiw’, a reference to the dog’s bark[1].

Dogs have been represented in Egyptian art work from the Pre-Dynastic Period onwards either as companions, out hunting, or in afterlife vignettes[2].  

Since the jackal and dog were not well separated on the eyes of the ancient Egyptian, they were both regarded as sacred animals connected to Anubis. Sometime being buried as sacred animals of the Anubieion catacombs at Saqqara [3]. Before the rise of Osiris as the major funerary deities Anubis was the most important funerary deity. Originally Anubis appears to have been connected primarily to the burial and afterlife of the King but later extended to all dead. The god’s association with the dead likely came from the habit of desert canines, such as jackals, scavenging in the shallow graves of early cemeteries[4].

Figure 1: Dog breeds in Ancient Egypt. http://www.touregypt.net/featurestories/dogs.html

Breeds 

The identification of specific breeds from representations is difficult since modern breed definitions are not particularly flexible. However, breeds closely related to these ancient dogs would be; Greyhounds, Suluki, Basenji, Pharoah, Whippet and Molossian[5](Figure 1). I won’t go through the breeds in exhaustive details but just pick out a few facts about them

The Greyhounds origins are contested with evidence for the breed being found in Mesopotamia dating back to the Ubaid Period c.5000 BCE and in Egypt c.4250[6]. Greyhounds were used in open-areas to hunt large game but could also be kept as pets and guards’ dogs. (Figure 2) The next breed for a quick run through is the Ibizan.  probably the dog most often represented in Egyptian art. This is in part due the dog’s Egyptian origin but was brought from Egypt to the island of Ibiza by Phoenician traders sometime in the 7th century BCE.[7]   

Figure 2: Hounds, probably greyhounds from Nubia the tomb of Rehkmire. https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/544612?searchField=All&sortBy=Relevance&where=Egypt&ft=Dog&offset=0&rpp=80&pos=46

The Pharaoh is a breed that has been claimed to have originated much later, in the 17th century CE on Malta, but its ancestors are thought to have been kept by the ancient Egyptians[8]. So, although the name would suggest a very strong Egyptian connection it may not be as strong as first thought. Most likely it was an Egyptian breed brought to Malta by Phoenician traders. Whippets were the dogs of the Pharaoh and most likely it originated through the breeding of greyhound with pariah dogs resulting in a smaller hunting dog[9].  The Molossian which was bred in Greece in the region of Epirus, these dogs came to Egypt through trade. They take their name from the king of Epirus, Molossus, said to be the grandson of Achilles[10]. The most well attested dog from ancient Egypt is none of the breeds I have mentioned so far. The prize instead goes to the Basenji (Figure 3). This breed came from Bubia where it appears to have been common and the name usual translates to the ‘dog of the villagers’ due to it being commonly associated with communities of people[11].

Hunting and other functions

Figure 3: Dogs from the tomb of tomb of Mereruka at Saqqara. https://www.nilemagazine.com.au/2015-august/national-dog-day

Dogs in ancient Egypt were kept for a variety of functions including hunting, battlefield companions police dogs and of course treasured pets.

Hunting dogs are regularly referred to as ‘tesem’, a term which has been attached to the ancestor of the Basenji. Although ‘tesem’ was not a term attached to a particular dog but rather referring to the dog being one used for hunting.

Alongside being used for hunting dogs like to day police dogs seemed to have existed in ancient Egypt. For most of the pharaonic period there is evidence for a variety of officials whose roles roughly fit to aspects of modern policing[12]. Broadly speaking these groups of men can be divided into two categories; those performing a quasi-military role of guarding a

patrolling and secondly this enforcing justice and punishments[13]. The dogs appeared to have formed part of groups referred to as “nww’. Which were groups of men who are described to patrol the desert with rain dongs in order to guard against Bedouin incursion[14].

On the battlefield the Molossus alongside the grey hounds were the pair of breeds that would later become best known as the fighting and war dogs of ancient Rome but seem to have become quite popular in Egypt and were most likely introduced by the Hyksos in the Second Intermediate Period (c. 1782-c.1570 BCE)[15]. The victory Stela of Ramesses II celebrating his triumph of the Hittites at Kadesh seems to show greyhounds play a role in battle as well as a painted chest belonging to King Tutankhamun (Figure 4).

Figure 4: Figure 4:Painted chest of King Tutankhamun riding into battle alongside his dogs. Garrett, K. and Hawass, Z., 2005. Tutankhamun and the golden age of the pharaohs. Washington, DC: National Geographic. Page 175
Figure 5: Stele of the Nubian soldier Nenu with his family and two dogs https://collections.mfa.org/objects/130332 Museum of Fine Art Boston Accession Number 03.1848

Companions for Life and the Death

The ancient Egyptians frequently chose to depict their dogs with the rest of their family in funerary stela some even contain the dogs names[16] (Figure 5). Pet dogs might also receive special burials either alongside her owners – a practice known from the early dynasties -or given their own coffins[17]. In the Great Pyramid built by Khufu at Giza an inscription referring to the King’s dog who was buried with the king lays out the king wishes for his canine. The inscription reads: “The dog which was the guard of His Majesty. Abuwtiyuw was his name. His Majesty ordered that he be given a coffin from the royal treasury, fine linen in great quantity, and incense. His Majesty also gave perfumed ointment, and ordered that a tomb be built for him by the gangs of masons. His Majesty did this for him in order that he (the dog) might be honoured before the great god, Anubis”[18]

Alongside inscriptions, sacred animal mummies and stela there are a few more objects connected to dogs in ancient Egypt that are more familiar to dog owners both ancient and modern. This would be a dog’s collar. Dogs, unlike cats, were always named and inscribed on to the collars. Some examples of ancient Egyptian dogs’ names include; Brave One, Northwind, Reliable, and even ’Useless’[19]. Alongside naming a dog with a collar it also meant something from a legal point of view. Under ordinary circumstance the killing of a dog carried severe penalties and if the dog was collard and clearly had an owner its murder was considered a capital crime[20]. But rather than ending on that note I will instead show you an intricate dog collar from ancient Egypt to marvel at (Fig 6). This pair od dog collars come from the Tomb of Maiherpri (KV36) a noble man who was a child of the royal wet nurse and royal fan bearer whose tomb was discovered by Victor Loret in 1899[21]. Fond amongst his possession are these dyed pink dog collars. One collar was ornately decorate with images of lotus flowers, horses and further decorated with brass studs whilst the of collar shows dogs hunting ibex and gazelle[22]. The second collar also includes the name of the dog for whom it was made for Tantanuit, suggesting this dog was female as “Tantanuit” was a woman’s name.

I hope you have enjoyed this week’s blog all about our four-legged friends. What shall I write about next?


[1] Shaw, I. and Nicholson, P., 2008. The British Museum Dictionary Of Ancient Egypt. London: British Museum Press. Page 99

[2] https://www.worldhistory.org/article/1031/dogs-in-ancient-egypt/

[3] Shaw, I. and Nicholson, P., 2008. The British Museum Dictionary Of Ancient Egypt. London: British Museum Press. Page 99

[4] Wilkinson, R., 2007. The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt. London: Thames & Hudson. Page 187

[5] https://www.worldhistory.org/article/1031/dogs-in-ancient-egypt/

[6] https://www.worldhistory.org/article/1031/dogs-in-ancient-egypt/

[7] https://www.worldhistory.org/article/1031/dogs-in-ancient-egypt/

[8] https://www.worldhistory.org/article/1031/dogs-in-ancient-egypt/

[9] https://www.worldhistory.org/article/1031/dogs-in-ancient-egypt/

[10] https://www.worldhistory.org/article/1031/dogs-in-ancient-egypt/

[11] https://www.worldhistory.org/article/1031/dogs-in-ancient-egypt/

[12] Shaw, I. and Nicholson, P., 2008. The British Museum Dictionary Of Ancient Egypt. London: British Museum Press. Page 251

[13] Shaw, I. and Nicholson, P., 2008. The British Museum Dictionary Of Ancient Egypt. London: British Museum Press. page 251

[14] Shaw, I. and Nicholson, P., 2008. The British Museum Dictionary Of Ancient Egypt. London: British Museum Press. Page 251

[15] https://www.worldhistory.org/article/1031/dogs-in-ancient-egypt/

[16]https://www.academia.edu/45374265/Mans_Best_Friend_A_History_Of_Love_Between_Dogs_And_Men_In_The_Ancient_World_And_In_The_Middle_Ages   

[17] Shaw, I. and Nicholson, P., 2008. The British Museum Dictionary Of Ancient Egypt. London: British Museum Press. Page 99

[18] Hobgood-Oster, L., 2017. A Dog’s History of the World: Canines and the Domestication of Humans. Baylor University Press. Page 54

[19] https://www.worldhistory.org/article/1031/dogs-in-ancient-egypt/

[20] https://www.worldhistory.org/article/1031/dogs-in-ancient-egypt/

[21] Reeves, N. and Wilkinson, R., 2008. The Complete Valley of the Kings: Tombs and Treasures of Egypt’s Greatest Pharaohs. Thames and Hudson Ltd, Page 170

[22] https://www.worldhistory.org/article/1031/dogs-in-ancient-egypt/

3 thoughts on “Dogs in Ancient Egypt”

  1. I came across your blog while at the gym browsing WordPress as I exercised. Appropriately enough, my headphones were playing The Bangles old song “Walk Like An Egyptian.” I couldn’t help but wonder if these pups did indeed walk like Egyptian dogs whatever that might be. Anyway, just wanted to say I enjoyed the post. My dog now wants precious oils, gold jewelry and his own casket.

    Liked by 1 person

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