Friday, January 9, 2009

Dogs in Myth and Legend: The Faithful Hound

This post was written for Deborah Parkhill Mullis at Metrolina Dog Reporter.

Dogs have been the faithful companions of mankind for well over 12,000-years and in that time have amassed their own unique body of legend and lore. Myths about dogs often revolve around one or more of the animal’s well known traits such as their skills as guardians or hunters. However above all it is a dog’s unwavering loyalty which has earned them a place in the annals of myth and folklore.

The “Faithful Hound” motif, one of the major folkloric archetypes, can be found around the world beginning in ancient Greece with Homer’s epic the Odyssey in which it is Odysseus’ faithful dog Argos who is the only one who recognizes the hero upon his return home; Odysseus had aged twenty-years and was disguised as a beggar when he reappeared.

One of the best known folktales to involve a “Faithful Hound” is the 18th-Century Welsh legend of the deerhound Gelert whose master, Prince Llewellyn, left his hound in charge of his infant son while he went out hunting. When the prince returned he found the room destroyed and his son’s cradle overturned, the baby nowhere in sight. It was then that Gelert appeared, his muzzle coated in blood. Horrified the prince assumed the worst, that his once beloved dog had slain his only heir. Drawing his sword the prince slew Gelert. It was only after the fact that the prince began to hear the baby’s muffled cries and proceeded to search the room where he discovered not only his son – alive and well beneath the overturned cradle – but the body of a dead wolf. It was then that the prince realized his horrible mistake.


Today Gelert’s grave, which is located in the village of Beddgelert, serves as a major tourist attraction. According to local folklore even the village’s name, Beddgelert, is believed to mean “Gelert’s Grave,” though this theory is largely dismissed by historians.

Gelert’s story may be based on that of another famous dog; the 13th-Century French greyhound Guinefort. Guinefort’s tale is almost identical to that of Gelert’s; Guinefort’s master, a knight from a castle near the city of Lyon, leaves the hound in charge of his infant child while he goes out. When he returns the room is in shambles and the child is missing, but there’s Guinefort mouth wet with blood. The knight slays the dog only to discover moments after that his child is alive, having been saved by the faithful dog from a deadly viper whose dead body lay nearby.

What makes Guinefort’s story unique from Gelert’s however, is what happens next. Distraught over the slaying of his faithful hound the knight buries the dog and erects a small shrine over the grave. As word spread concerning the events which lead to Guinefort’s death, local villagers began to regard the greyhound as something of a martyr. A local cult quickly began to form around the dog, now called Saint Guinefort, and mothers with ill or sickly children would bring them to Guinefort’s grave in hope of a miracle. The Catholic Church was none to happy about this however and quickly labeled the cult of St. Guinefort as a heresy inspired by the devil. The Inquisition was sent to deal with the cult but despite their best efforts was unable to stamp out the veneration of the dog which (according to some reports) lasted well into the 1940s!

Other examples of the “Faithful Hound” motif can be found in several contemporary near-legendary tales. One of these is the story of Greyfriars Bobby, a Skye terrier whose owner, John Grey, died in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1858 when Bobby was two-years-old. Grey was buried in Greyfriars Kirkyard and Bobby attended the funeral. After the funeral Bobby refused to leave his master’s grave except for meals which he received at a local restaurant.

Tales of Bobby’s fidelity quickly spread across Scotland and then overseas transforming the steadfast pooch into a living legend. In order to make sure that Bobby was protected the children of Edinburgh donated their pocket money towards buying him a collar and the Lord Provost of Edinburgh, Sir William Chambers, paid for the renewal of Bobby’s license making him the responsibility of the city council. Bobby was eventually awarded the Freedom of the City of Edinburgh; he is the only dog to ever receive this prestigious honor.

After fourteen years of faithfully waiting by his master’s graveside Bobby died on January 14th 1872. He was buried just inside the gate of Greyfriars Kirkyard, as close to his master’s grave as could be allowed. In 1981 The Dog Aid Society of Scotland erected a red granite tombstone over Bobby’s grave. In addition to this a statue of Greyfriars Bobby can be seen atop a fountain in Edinburgh’s Candlemaker Row in front of the Greyfriars Bobby pub.

A similar story to that of Greyfriars Bobby is that of Hachikō, an Akita from the city of Odate, Akita Prefecture, Japan. Hachikō’s owner was Dr. Ueno of Tokyo’s Imperial University. Everyday Dr. Ueno would board the train at Tokyo’s Shibuya Railway Station to go to work. When he returned in the evening Hachikō would be waiting. Then one evening in 1925 Dr. Ueno didn’t return home, he had died of a heart attack while at work earlier that day. Nevertheless Hachikō continued to show up every evening at the Shibuya Railway Station for the next ten years even after it became difficult for him to walk due to arthritis. When Hachikō died on March 8th 1935 at the age of twelve a National Day of Mourning was declared.

The year before, a bronze statue of Hachikō had been erected at Shibuya Railway Station. Unfortunately the statue was demolished during World War II so that the metal could be used for the war effort. After the war The Society for Recreating the Hachikō Statue had a second statue erected in August of 1948, it still stands at the Shibuya Railway Station today.

Sources: DK Eyewitness Books: Dogs (2004) by Juliet Clutton-Brock, The Hidden Powers of Animals: Uncovering the Secrets of Nature (2001) by Dr. Karl P.N. Shuker, and Curious Myths of the Middle Ages (2005) by Sabine Baring-Gould.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

All very awesome stories. Another good pair of mythic dogs are Bummer and Lazarus of San Francisco fame.

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