Thursday, October 27, 2016

The Symbology Of The Dog In Ancient Europe

Out-with any mythological context dogs are a key component of human survival. The domestication of wolves has given us the myriad of breeds existing in the world today. Our canine compadres were probably lured into symbiotic union with humans during the Palaeolithic era, but our earliest glimpses, as documentary evidence,  comes in the form of rock carvings from an archaeological site in Turkey. 

Close to the troubled Syrian border, Göbekli Tepe is thought to have been an ancient sanctuary of considerable size and importance. The architects and builders of this structure erected some two-hundred 6ft, 20 ton, t-shaped posts in series of circles. Some of these pillars are decorated with animals - with the function to guard the dead interred within. Evidence of ritual use has dated the site as having periods of use between  10,000 - 8,000 BC. Amongst the carvings of the animals are some that could be dogs. 

Göbekli Tepe
Dog carving from Göbekli Tepe

Suffice to say dogs have enjoyed a long history as companions of us humans. They turn up in many myths and legends across the globe (The dog-headed Egyptian God Anubis and Cerberus). However I’m concentrating on the European myths and the symbology attached (though surprisingly there is a link with the examples I quoted). 

Göbekli Tepe
Göbekli Tepe

Dog bones were being interred within burial graves as long as five-thousand years ago in the  British Isles alone. Human bodies were often left to the elements, later the remaining flesh was stripped off (excarnation), the bones cleaned, collected and stored in burial chambers. Dog bones were sometimes mixed amongst the human, sometimes there are other animal bones present. A couple of thousand years later at Flag Fen near Peterborough, dog bones were found at the base of a mysterious wooden walkway - a Bronze-Age religious site consisting of thousands of wooden posts driven into the marsh, linking a sacred burial isle to the mainland. Were the bones placed there to guard the site? Or were they offerings to the deities worshipped there? Dog bones also turn up in ancient Scandinavian burials too.

Later still: ritual wells have yielded remains of dogs that were buried in pairs, hinting at latent, dualistic symbolism and funerary associations. Later still; and into the Romano-Celtic Iron age, there is evidence to suggest that dogs were tied-in with the healing  god Nodens. One theory is that - like the temple to Aesculapius at Epidaurus - dogs of the sanctuary would be allowed to lick the affected area of the worshipper. Given that dog slavers contain the enzyme lysozyme, which help defend wounds from certain bacteria, this might have worked on occasion.  Other healing deities were associated with dogs, such a Coventina, Nodens, and dogs appear at many Gaulish healing shrines. 

stone mad crafts
Simple Celtic dog carved by the author

Symbolically dogs are naturally associated with loyalty and bravery (like in the epic tale of Gelert the Hound). But, to the Celts, dogs encompassed a triad of significance: hunting, healing and death. In the Welsh tradition the Cŵn Annwn were huge white wolfhounds with blood-red ears - these were the Hounds of Annwn, the Hades of the Celts. These spectral hounds hunted the mountain of Cadair Idris and their howling foretold the death of those that heard them (In Welsh folklore the Cŵn Annwn  are also associated with migratory geese - see last week's post!)  Still within the otherworld aspect of the dog, Romano-Celtic statues of the hammer god, Sucellus, are occasionally accompanied by a triple headed-hound. 

With regards to the canines hunting prowess dogs feature prominently in this respect and were often depicted in scenery that may mirror the idea of 'the divine hunt'. Dogs are sometimes featured alongside hunting gods and  appear with the Goddess Diana at Cirencester and London.

stone mad crafts celtic dog
Another one of my dogs

Like the wolf, dogs were sometimes associated with battle for warriors in both Celtic and Germanic lands. There is reference made to the Lombards having cynocephali in their army; dog-headed warriors. There were also the Heodeningas or Hiadnings: dog warriors who would fight every day until the end of the world (these warriors are almost indistinguishable from the einheriar  (See Odin and the Wolf post). 

In conclusion then, dogs cover a range of ideas, the main being that of death and the Underworld, healing and the hunt. 


Göbekli Tepe -

Reference used:

1: Symbol And Image In Celtic Religious Art - Miranda Mreen
2: Pagan Religions Of The Ancient British Isles - Ronald Hutton
3: Ancient Germanic Warriors - Michael P. Speidel
4: An Archaeology Of Images - Miranda Green


  1. There is certainly guide built to the particular Lombards possessing cynocephali inside their affiliate marketer; dog-headed enthusiast.

  2. Ah the Lombards! Great stuff. They being of Germanic it doesn't surprise me that they retained some Cynocephali in their ranks. (they actually migrated down from Scandinavia hundreds of years before they reached into Italy)