The ancient Egyptians were well acquainted with several species of carnivorous animals belonging to the family Canidae: the Cape hunting dog (Lycaon pictus); the domestic dog (Canis familiaris), called ṯsm and iwiw or iw (probably onomatopoetic, “howler”); the common or golden jackal (Canis aureus subsp. lupaster), wnš and sʒb; the striped hyena (Hyaena hyaena), ḥṯt; and the red fox (Vulpes vulpes subsp. aegyptiaca), wʒs and wsr. There is an abundance of pictorial, textual, and zooarcheological evidence indicating that some of these beasts were accorded important roles in sacred and secular life during pharaonic times. In spite of repeated assertions to the contrary, however, there is a dearth of firm proof that the ancient Egyptians were familiar with the common wolf (Canis lupus), since it apparently never lived in their country. This error can be traced back to the Greeks, who mistakenly identified Wepwawet—the local canine god of the town of Asyut (also known as Lykopolis)—as a wolf. Therefore, most references to “wolves” in literature on ancient and modern Egypt are actually to jackals.
Cape hunting dogs are prominently represented as heraldic figures in the carved decoration on a small number of ceremonial or votive schist palettes dating from the Late Predynastic period (Naqada III). Here they are depicted surrounding their prey, just as these pack-hunting wild dogs do in nature. This species does not appear in the faunal repertory of artisans during the dynastic period, and it had probably become locally extinct or rare quite soon after the rise of the first dynasty. Nowadays, the Cape hunting dog lives mostly on the sub-Saharan savannas.
The progenitor of the domestic dog, and ancestor of every breed, was the common wolf, whose domestication is thought to have begun at least twelve thousand years ago in western Asia. As much the faithful companion in antiquity as today, the dog was always regarded by the ancient Egyptians as the pet par excellence, the subject of special attention and heartfelt affection. There are innumerable images of this household animal in Egyptian iconography. Dogs are featured in the company of monarchs, aristocrats, and humble laborers alike, as both pets and workers. The oldest securely dated appearance of the dog from Egypt occurs on a ceramic bowl from the Amratian period (Naqada I), now in the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow. Its white-on-red painted design illustrates a bowman holding four dogs on leashes that are clearly a type of greyhound. This sleek and sinewy hunting hound, possessing pointed ears and a short curled tail, becomes the most commonly portrayed “breed” of dog throughout the Old Kingdom. Scholars have seen a strong resemblance between this type and the modern Sudanese Basenji. Other varieties of the dog already existed during the Predynastic period: one was a robust mastiff hound, with drooping ears and a comparatively straight tail. Beginning in the Middle Kingdom, more “breeds” become recognizable. From osteological and pictorial evidence, we know that a small, short-legged dog with erect ears, somewhat resembling the Dachshund, had developed by that time. Another was a robust, Boxer-like hound with pricked ears. With the coming of the eighteenth dynasty, the renowned Saluki makes its appearance in Egyptian art, regularly portrayed at the side of royalty and well-to-do citizens. Foreign dogs, too, were highly prized in ancient Egypt; they were imported from Libya, Nubia, Punt, and possibly the Near East and western Asia. Antef II of the eleventh dynasty was so proud of his pack of five exotic dogs that he had them recorded near his feet on the lower part of a funerary stela from his Theban tomb-chapel, now in the Egyptian Museum, Cairo; these Libyan dogs are named “Oryx,” “Hound,” “Black One,” “Khenfet-kettle,” and “Tekenru.”
From its earliest appearances in Egypt, the domestic dog was utilized primarily for the hunt, originally a means of obtaining essential food but later a sport for kings and aristocrats. It is in this capacity that dogs are ubiquitously encountered in scenes on tomb-chapel walls and elsewhere, running down and dispatching desert game for their owners. However, the dog filled many other roles in ancient Egypt. They were almost certainly trained to aid herders and farmers in guarding flocks and crops from marauding wild animals. When not at their masters' sides viewing activities on the estates, venturing out on hunting expeditions, accompanying the sovereign into battle or war, assisting in the policing of the deserts, and serving as trusted watchdogs, dogs are routinely pictured in compositions as favored pets, wearing collars and sitting, ever alert, under their owners' chairs. These dogs are sometimes named in hieroglyphic captions, a sign of their special status; examples include “Brave One,” “Lively One,” “Exultation,” “The Tail is as a Lion's,” “Good Watcher,” “He is a Shepherd,” and “Reliable One.” Otherwise, animals in pharaonic Egypt were rarely given names. A pair of wide leather dog collars (now in the Egyptian Museum, Cairo) were included in the eighteenth dynasty tomb of the courtier Maiherperi in the Valley of the Kings (tomb 36); one bears the name “She of the Town [Thebes].”
Some beloved dogs were honored with a fine burial in wooden coffins of their own. One royal watchdog so pleased a pharaoh of the fifth or sixth dynasty that it was rewarded with the construction of a tomb at Giza (tomb 2188). The death of other dogs was hastened so they could follow and serve humans in the beyond. This was particularly true during the Predynastic and Early Dynastic periods, although some later instances are known. Dogs were mummified by the hundreds of thousands, especially in the Late and Greco-Roman periods, and were interred in cemeteries at Saqqara, Asyut, Abydos, and other locations around the country as creatures sacred to the canine funerary gods Anubis, Wepwawet, and Khentamenti. Classical writers, such as Herodotus (II, 67) and Strabo (XVII, 1, 40), also mention the interment of dogs in Egypt at this time.
The first representation of a jackal in Egyptian iconography is a fine figure executed in schist, found at el-Ahaiwa and dating from the Gerzean period (Naqada II), and now in the Phoebe Hearst Museum of Anthropology, Berkeley, California. This portrait is also thought to be one of the earliest images of an Egyptian deity in animal form. Jackals are a customary member of the community of fauna portrayed in desert hunting scenes. Especially during the Old Kingdom, they are occasionally displayed being savagely attacked by packs of domestic hounds as they flee. Which animal(s) served as the prototype for the gracile black canine, sacred to Anubis, has been the subject of perennial disagreement among scholars (this same creature was linked with a number of other deities, too). Nevertheless, there can be little doubt that the beast was principally fashioned after the common or golden jackal, but its form seems to have been influenced by other species as well, notably by the long, bushy tail of a fox. Always depicted entirely black, a color of resurrection and rebirth, Anubis was responsible for embalming the dead and protected burials in his role as lord and sentinel of the necropolis. The most deftly executed and famous likeness of the Anubis jackal to have come down to us from ancient Egypt is the recumbent statue on top of a gilded shrine from the tomb of Tutankhamun in the Valley of the Kings, now in the Egyptian Museum, Cairo. The animal cemeteries associated with the cult centers where Anubis and the other canine funerary gods were worshipped usually contain only dog mummies. This may suggest that the Egyptians did not always clearly distinguish between dog and jackal, but it is more likely that domestic dogs were more readily obtainable and easier to propagate in captivity for sale to pious pilgrims as votive offerings.
The striped hyena was likewise a stock item in Egyptian desert hunting compositions from an early age. Hyenas are routinely portrayed in these scenes bloodied by the tomb-owners' arrows, at bay, or fleeing from packs of hounds in hot pursuit, or even captured alive, slung on a pole and carried by huntsmen. Hyena meat seems to have been highly regarded in ancient Egypt, especially under the Old Kingdom. This beast was a standard feature of the traditional file of desert game presented to the deceased in the decoration of tomb-chapels, intended as food for eternity, where it is often labeled “young hyena.” A handful of images from the fifth and sixth dynasties illustrate striped hyenas being forcibly fed, fattening them up prior to slaughter. These were not domestic animals, but captured from the wild and kept until needed. Certainly the most unusual instance of hyena hunting comes from a wall painting in the eighteenth dynasty Theban tomb of Amenemhab (tomb 85), which depicts the deceased doing battle with a giant, menacing female striped hyena. That the Egyptians knew the scavenging and opportunist feeding behavior of this carnivore is revealed by the fact that, at the close of the twentieth dynasty, when the Egyptian countryside was in the grip of a terrible famine, one year was appropriately dubbed “the year of the hyenas.”
Last, the red fox can sporadically be recognized amid the diverse wildlife in scenes of the desert chase, beginning in the early fourth dynasty. It has been argued that a standard hieroglyph having the phonetic value ms (Gardiner F 31) is comprised of three foxes' skins tied together. Foxes also make a humorous appearance on “satirical” papyri and figured ostraca during the nineteenth and twentieth dynasties, where these legendary enemies of the farmyard are rendered feeding and shepherding their usual prey. Like the hyena, this species apparently had little religious significance for the ancient Egyptians.
- Baines, John. “Symbolic Roles of Canine Figures on Early Monuments.” Archéo-Nil: Bulletin de la société pour l'étude des cultures prépharaoniques de la vallée du Nil 3 (1993), 57–73. Offers an interesting discussion of the possible symbolic significance of certain canine figures on Egyptian monuments of the Late Predynastic period (Naqada III); contains a useful bibliography.
- Boessneck, Joachim. Die Tierwelt des alten Ägypten: Untersucht anhand kulturgeschichtlicher und zoologischer Quellen. Munich, 1988. An authoritative discussion of canines in ancient Egypt, including zooarcheological findings.
- Helck, Wolfgang, Eberhard Otto, and Wolfhart Westendorf, eds. Lexikon der Ägyptologie. 7 vols. Wiesbaden, 1975–1992. Massive reference work containing articles in English, French, and German on virtually every topic relating to ancient Egypt; with important entries on all aspects of canines in pharaonic life and religion.
- Houlihan, Patrick F. The Animal World of the Pharaohs. London and New York, 1996. A handsomely illustrated book for a general audience devotes considerable space to surveying the various canines in ancient Egypt; extensive bibliography.
- Osborn, Dale J., and Ibrahim Helmy. The Contemporary Land Mammals of Egypt (Including Sinai). Fieldiana Zoology, new series, 5. Chicago, 1980. The standard work on the land mammals of modern Egypt, but now out of print.
- Osborn, Dale J. with Jana Osbornová. The Mammals of Ancient Egypt. Warminster, 1998. Provides a good survey of the canines recognizable in Egyptian iconography.
- Paton, David. Animals of Ancient Egypt. Princeton and London, 1925. Contains some useful information on canines, but is largely out of date.
- Tooley, Angela M. J. “Coffin of a Dog from Beni Hasan.” Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 74 (1988), 207–211. Good survey of the evidence for the burial of pet dogs in ancient Egypt through the Middle Kingdom.
Patrick F. Houlihan