The Dog

From "Life in Iran" by Ardeshir Mohassess,
Copyright © Mage Publishers

The Dog

By Mahmoud and Teresa P. Omidsalar
Encyclopaedia Iranica

In a study of the beginning of animal and plant domestication in southern Persia, Frank Hole and his colleagues concluded from osteological evidence that the dog had probably been domesticated in Khuzestan in 5500 B.C.E. Remains of domesticated dogs have also been found at the site of Haji Firuz in Azerbaijan (radiocarbon dated to 5500-5000 B.C.E.).

Aside from Zoroastrian funerary rites, pre-Islamic Persians used the dog not only for hunting and herding but also in war. Persians, Greeks, Assyrians, and Babylonians used large mastiffs as shock troops; one Athenian dog so distinguished itself against the Persians at the Battle of Marathon (490 B.C.E.) that its likeness was supposedly placed on Greek victory monuments.

Indian dogs were highly prized among the Persian aristocracy; Xerxes I (489-65 B.C.E.) reportedly took a large number of them with his army when he marched against Greece. One of the Persian satraps of Babylon assigned the revenues derived from four large villages in that province to the care of his Indian hounds. A dog belonging to Darius III (336-30 B.C.E.) supposedly refused to leave his corpse after he had been struck down by Bessus.

Dogfights must have been common in ancient Persia. The Persian phrase sag-e karzari (war dog) may refer either to canine warriors or merely to dogs trained for dogfights.


Pre-Islamic myths: According to the Bundahishn, all animals were created from the purified semen of the primordial bull. Ten varieties of dog are mentioned, of which only the guard dog, the sheep dog, and the hunting dog can properly be considered dogs. The dog is said to have been created to protest man's possessions against wolves; in its opposition to evil it cooperates with the cock and is able to repel evil by its mere gaze.

In ancient Persian folk etymology the word sag (dog) was derived from seh-yak (one third) because one third of its essence is human.

Islamic myths: Three distinct myths of the creation of the dog can be reconstructed from Islamic texts. According to a tradition related on the authority of Ali b. Abi Taleb, when Adam and Eve were cast out of paradise, Satan came to the beasts of the earth and encouraged them with violent cries to attack and devour the couple; his spittle flew out of his mouth, and God fashioned a male and a female dog from it. The male was sent to guard Adam and the female to protect Eve. The enmity between the dog and wild animals was thus initiated.

In a second version, God created the dog from the clay left over from His creation of Adam, which may lie behind the assertion in some sources that dog bones and tissue may be grafted to the human body.

The third myth may be deduced from a tradition about the taboo on eating the dog's flesh because the animal is "metamorphosed"; the implication is that human sinners are transformed into dogs and that eating the flesh would be a form of cannibalism.

A tradition about the domestication of the dog was related on the authority of Ebn Abbas: When Adam was cast out of heaven and attacked by Satan, God reassured him and sent Moses' staff as a means of defense; Adam struck a dog with it, but God commanded him to pat the animal on the head. The animal thus being domesticated, befriending Adam and his seed.

In epic and legend

Accounts of feral children raised by various animals are widely attested, but it can be verified that human children have been nursed by dogs. Several heroes, gods, and legendary figures of antiquity were supposed to have been nursed by dogs.

Herodotus reported a legend according to which Cyrus the Great had been suckled by a bitch. Similarly the author of Mojmal attributed the violent nature of "the father of Soqlab" to his having been nursed by a dog. In the Bahman-nama violent men are repeatedly likened to those who have been nursed by dogs.

In some oral versions of the Shah-nama, Afrasiab is said to have owed his violent temper to his having been suckled by a bitch; the wicked king Zahhak is said to have been nursed by a she-wolf. Another ruthless epic character, Bokhtonnasr (Nebuchadnezzar), was supposedly so hideous that his parents had no choice but to expose him, but he survived, thanks to a bitch who came to nurse him three times a day.

According to a contemporary Boir Ahmadi story, the messianic ruler Kaykhosrow is hidden with his horse and hunting dog in a cave in the province of Fars. Aside from the expected association of kings with hunting dogs in epic literature, dogs fulfill other roles in Persian tales.

According to a famous tale in the Shah-nama and other sources, Bahram was awakened to the oppression of his tyrannical vezier as a result of witnessing a shepherd's treatment of his treacherous sheep dog, which, having grown enamored of a shewolf, was allowing the latter to ravage his master's flocks.

In mystical literature

Because of the dog's humble position in Persian life, it became a symbol of humility in mystical literature. According to some Muslim sources, Jesus scolded his apostles for criticizing the stench of a dog's carcass; rather than appreciating the whiteness of its teeth.

Noah (Nuh, in popular etymology derived from from an Arabic root associated with mourning) is said to have received his name because God scolded him for expressing disgust at a dog, which inspired him to bitter lamentation for his deed.

The mystic Ma'shuq Tusi once struck a dog with a stone, and immediately a divine horseman appeared and whipped him, exclaiming that in the eyes of God the ascetic is essentially no better than the creature that he mistreats. Many mystics proclaimed that dogs had first taught them humility.

In magic

The association of the dog with the devil may have motivated several attempts at eradicating the animal. The Prophet Mohammad (and later Yusof b. Hajjaj) was said to have ordered all dogs to be put to death but to have modified his order to only apply to black dogs, especially those with two spots (noqtatayn) over their eyes.

The black dog figures prominently in magic. Its satanic connections mean that harming it may bring injury or misfortune to the perpetrator. In Khorassan, it is believed that he who kills a dog will lose a child or seven years of bad luck. Such beliefs may at least partly reflect pre-Islamic taboos against harming dogs, reinterpreted to conform to the Islamic association of the animal with evil.

For example, by the 9th century, Zoroastrian concern for the welfare of dogs had already come to be viewed as an attempt to avert the evil eye. Nevertheless, according to one tradition, Imam Husayn was seen eating in front of a dog, to which he gave a piece of bread for each piece that he ate himself.

In fable and folktale

Many fables about dogs in the Aesopian corpus are also found in Persian folklore and literature. Perhaps the most famous is a about a dog that drops meat (or a bone) for its reflection in the water. Others have been classified by Ulrich Marzolph, who has also provided a convenient list of tale types about dogs in Persian folk narrative.

Tales of the dog's fidelity are particularly well represented in oral and written sources. In one version a dog (or sometimes a mongoose) saves a child from a serpent by biting the latter to death; the child's father sees the dog's bloody mouth and, thinking that it has eaten the child, kills the animal, then finds out the truth.


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