Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Deities of the Canine Kind

(Image: Traditional eastern depiction of a dog-headed St. Christopher: an icon from the Byzantine Museum, Athens).

Goddesses have been connected to ancient board games from the earliest times. For instance, the Shar-i Sokhtah game board, a twenty squares game board made of wood whose playing spaces are formed by the bodies of two intertwined serpents (c. 2400 BCE), reflects the serpent connection to several ancient goddesses; twenty squares game boards excavated at Ur and other places have certain squares marked with an eight-pointed square or "rosette" - a symbol of Inanna.

Dogs have also been companions of ancient goddesses since time immemorial, some as hunting companions but, more often, connected to a goddess' role as arbiter of birth/death/rebirth. Dogs and other canines (as well as birds - another story) were carion eaters, fulfilling a necessary role in the never-ending cycle of life. (Vultures also fulfilled this role in Upper Egypt, and were so revered in that culture that one of the protectoresses of Pharaoh was the Vulture Goddess Nekhbet, who formed part of the Double Crown along with Uadjet, the Serpent Goddess).

In several ancient board games the playing pieces were either fashioned after dogs or other canines (such as jackals), or were called "dogs." This may reflect ancient "hunt/race" iconography in the board games of which we have surviving examples (in earliest times dogs were trained as game hunters and personal body guards), or it may be a reflection of the canine companions of one or more unnamed goddesses who were so familiar to the players of those games and so intimately connected to those games that it was commonly accepted and everyone knew who the goddesses were, and there was no necessity for more overt references.

Here is some information about canine deities, reflecting the obvious importance of canines to early mankind - so important, they were deified.

From the ShukerNature blog Sunday, 8 February 2009

Probably the most famous canine deity of all is Anubis - the jackal-headed son of Osiris, god of the underworld, and Nebthet, a funeral goddess. Sometimes represented as a coal-black, bushy-tailed jackal or pointed-eared dog in a crouched or lying down position, Anubis was worshipped in Egypt from c.2700 BC to the close of ancient Egyptian history in c.400 AD, and was venerated extensively at the necropolis in Memphis.

He originated as a god of putrefaction, but eventually emerged with a more specific (and less unappetising) role - as the mortuary god who presided over embalming. Indeed, Egyptian priests supervising official embalmers wore jackal-headed masks to signify the presence of Anubis during these preparations. Moreover, according to traditional Egyptian lore, Anubis invented funeral rites, presiding over the funeral and mummification of his own father, Osiris. [As far as I am aware, Osiris only fathered one son -- Horus.  Horus, was conceived by Isis after she was partially successful in reconstructing the body of Osiris from the 12 -- or 13 -- pieces scattered all around the land after he had been abducted, killed, cut up and scattered all over by his brother, Seth or Set.  Isis collected the pieces of the body of Osiris and put them all back together, but his penis was missing, and so she used a twig or branch from a tree to represent that part -- thus her ancient connection to being a bird (a kite or swift) was echoed in the ancient tradition.  She was able to partially ressurect Osiris from the dead by having intercourse with his "aroused" corpse, having sex with a part of a tree, essentially, and Horus, the Falcon-god, was conceived and born.  This myth probably represents the merging of separate religious traditions from one or more cities into what became the eventual Egyptian pantheon. The ancient Egyptians were very successful as glossing over inconsistencies in various regional religious traditions and myths, merging them all into a more or less harmonious whole.]

Once mummification of a dead person is complete, it is Anubis who leads the dead into the presence of his father, Osiris, in the underworld, to be judged by him. Anubis also weighs the dead person's heart, in the Hall of the Two Truths, to determine its ultimate fate.

Another, less familiar canine-headed deity of Egyptian mythology is Upuaut. Originally a warrior god, Upuaut is variously represented as a dog-headed, jackal-headed, or even wolf-headed man who leads the funeral cortege at the festivals of Osiris. He also steers the boat of the sun as it journeys through the dark realm of the night between dusk and dawn.

Interestingly, in the later glosses of traditional beliefs (particularly after the Greek Ptolemy dynasty was established), Isis is not directly associated with the canine deities of death.  In her earliest forms, however, the dogs of death walked closely next to her as she performed her various functions as Virgin, Mother, and Crone. 


After the Greeks and Romans took over Egypt, the cult of Anubis became assimilated with that of the Greek messenger god, Hermes, and a new, combined deity was created - Hermanubis. Just like Anubis, Hermanubis was represented as a canine-headed man, but his functions changed. Instead of being strongly associated with funeral rituals and embalming, emphasis was placed upon his role as a guide, leading the souls of the dead through the underworld. Moreover, just like Hermes, Hermanubis came to be portrayed with winged sandals, and held a staff or caduceus, with two snakes entwined around it, in his hand. Nevertheless, as with the priests of Anubis, those of Hermanubis wore canine masks - a tradition leading scholar Hugh Trotti in 1990 to propose a most intriguing theory.

By the first century AD, worship of Hermanubis had spread beyond Rome-ruled Egypt, reaching Rome itself - where Germanic troops recruited into the Roman armies would have seen statues of this canine god, as well as his dog-headed priests. Such sights would no doubt have been remembered and spoken of by the Germanic people after the Roman Empire's fall - and Trotti has speculated that distorted accounts of these may ultimately have inspired legends of werewolves, i.e. humans who could transform themselves into wolves.


Another notable canine deity is Xolotl, one of the principal gods of Aztec mythology in ancient Mexico, who created mankind by leading them up from the spirit world and bestowing upon them the gift of fire. [In other words and traditions, the Goddess of the Dead lead the deceased souls toward life and resurrected them by instilling the "fire" of the Holy Spirit into their "souls."] 

Due to his magical ability to assume any shape, Xolotl has been depicted in many forms, but is most commonly represented as an oddly-formed dog, with rear-running feet, and ears that can point backwards or forwards. Xolotl is the twin of the sky god Quetzalcoatl, and represents the evening star, Venus, hauling the sun downwards each evening into the gloomy vault of night. A deity with varied associations, he is also the god of twins (as a twin himself) and ball games, as well as a deity of the underworld, corresponding to the Pek or lightning dog of Maya mythology.

Today, Xolotl's name is still linked to dogs in zoological nomenclature, though only very indirectly - sharing it with the axolotl, a form of aquatic Mexican salamander, whose larval form is reminiscent of a dog and hence is sometimes referred to as a water-dog.


In Hindu lore, Bhairava, a door guardian, is a fearsome canine deity. One of the forms assumed by the god Siva, he is often portrayed either as a huge black dog, or as a human riding a black dog. Terrifying to behold, Bhairava has many arms, three eyes, long matted hair, and sometimes has a serpent entwined around his body, with a collar of skulls around his neck.

Food sellers plying their ware outside Indian temples dedicated to Siva sell tiny dogs carved out of sugar, which can then be presented as an offering to Bhairava. In northern India, a canine deity was formerly worshipped by certain Dravidians. So too were dogs in Nepalese villages, during a special festival called Khicha Puja, in which a garland of flowers was deferentially placed around the neck of every dog in each village.


Down through the ages, many saints have been accredited with miraculous powers, or have led unusual lives, but one of the most remarkable histories on record must surely be that of St Guinefort, who may well be the only canonised greyhound!

It was in c.1250 AD when a Dominican priest called Stephen of Bourbon first learnt of the tomb of St Guinefort, located in a sacred grove within the remote Dombes region north of Lyons, France. [Note: I believe this is one of the areas of France that is a former "hot bed" of Goddess worship, later became a hot bed area for the worship of the Virgin Mary, her substitute upon the ascendence of so-called Christianity in the region.] Upon further enquiry, he was amazed to discover that this saint had actually been a greyhound, which had been wrongly blamed for the death of a local lord's infant. Only after it had been slain by the enraged lord was the discovery made that in reality the dog had been protecting the baby from a snake. [How ironic -- one symbol of death protecting the infant from another symbol of death according to "Christian" tradition.]

Stricken with guilt and remorse for his rash action, the lord erected a tomb, in which the dog's bones were placed. Soon, stories began to emerge of miracles occurring at the site of this tomb, featuring the inexplicable restoration to good health of sick children brought here by their parents, and the dog duly became known as St Guinefort.

Stephen of Bourbon, however, was horrified by what he deemed to be this unholy, sacrilegious activity, and swiftly instigated the destruction of the tomb and its grove. Yet the cult of St Guinefort survived in secret long after Stephen of Bourbon's own demise, with a chapel dedicated to the slightly re-named Saint-Guy le Fort existing in the 17th Century on the site of the original tomb, and with the greyhound saint's name restored to its original form by the 1800s.

Even today, St Guinefort's story is well known in the Dombes region, and researchers have revealed possible links between this history and the famous Welsh legend of Gelert - another noble dog that died a martyr. They do say that every dog has its day - but in St Guinefort's case, it has lasted several centuries!
Posted by CFZ: Cryptozoology Online at 12:41

I'm going to be visiting this blog now that I've discovered it! It's creator is Dr. Karl Shuker, a cryptozoologist and author.

It was in a comment at ShukerNature that I read about a dog-headed image of St. Christopher and did a quick Google search to come up with the image above (different than the image mentioned in the comment)! Never knew that - or about the dog-saint, St. Guinefort! What an amazing world we live in! Of course, St. Guinefort the dog was in France - that bastion of goddess worship - Black Madonnas and Marian cathedrals thick across the breadth and height of the country. The dog-saint was buried in a sacred grove (code for ancient goddess worship; I wouldn't be at all surprised if there were also local legends about a sacred spring in or quite near the sacred grove in ancient times). This Guinefort legend, it's absolutely fascinating.

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