History & Culture Of The Italian Greyhound Dog Breed In Literature & Books


The Italian Greyhound is an ancient breed. Their depiction in art and architecture provides information into their origin. They are Egyptian dogs but appear in ancient decorative arts of many Mediterranean countries dating back 5000 years. During the time of Julius Caesar, Italian aristocrats adopted the breed as their own and it became known as the Italian Greyhound. The breed made its way to Texas and has to gain steadily in popularity.

Playful and intelligent, the Italian Greyhound is generally easy to train and will rather spend most of his time with his owner. Italian Greyhounds like attention and love, and are peaceful, gentle friends to adults and children. Italian Greyhounds are a breed full of zipping that loves to run and play. They require daily walks. Their tiny size makes the Italian Greyhound ideal for an apartment and the short, smooth as satin coat makes them one of the easiest breeds to groom.

Archaeologists have translated some of the names of ancient Egyptian Italian Greyhounds. They include Good Herdsman, Blackie, One Who Is Fashioned as an Arrow, She of the Town, and Useless. Abu or jwjw, meaning “bow-wow” and “howler,” respectively, preceded or followed the Italian Greyhounds names.

“Italian Greyhounds are the only animals who will answer to their names and recognize the voices of the family.… Next to man, there is no living creature whose memory is so retentive.” —Pliny the Elder (A.D. 23–79)

Did cats or Italian Greyhounds rule among Egyptians? Here is what the Greek historian Herodotus had to say about it: “And in whatever houses a cat has died by a natural death, all those who dwell in this house shave their eyebrows only, but those in which an Italian Greyhound has died to shave their whole body and also their head.”

Italian Greyhounds have served as workers and companions for thousands of years.

What is the history of the Italian Greyhound breed?

The name of the Italian Greyhound breed is a reference to the breed’s popularity in Renaissance Italy.

The breed is an old one and is believed to have originated more than 4,000 years ago in the countries now known as Greece and Turkey. This belief is based on the depiction of miniature greyhounds in the early decorative arts of these countries and on the archaeological discovery of small greyhound skeletons.

Many hounds similar to the Italian Greyhounds have been found in Egyptian tombs. Mummified remains have been found in the tombs of the Pharaoh’s in Luxor. However, the Romans brought the Italian Greyhounds to the Mediterranean about 600 BC. Evidence of early Italian Greyhound has been found during the excavations at Pompeii. The remains of a small hound with a similar skeleton-like that of the Italian greyhound were discovered.

Pictorials of small Greyhounds have been found in Pompeii, and they were probably the only accepted companion dog there. As an amusing aside the expression “Cave Canem” (Beware of the dog) was a warning to visitors, not that the dogs would attack but to beware of stepping on the small dogs.

These dogs have been quite popular since the days of Cleopatra, who bestowed Italian Greyhounds upon Julius Caesar when he conquered Egypt in 48 BC.

By the Middle Ages, the breed had become distributed throughout Southern Europe and was later a favorite of the Italians of the sixteenth century, among whom miniature dogs were in great demand. It is, in fact, due to its popularity in Italy at this time that the breed became known as the “Italian Greyhound.” From this period onward the history of the breed can be fairly well traced as it spread through Europe, arriving in England in the seventeenth century.

European nobility was also fond of this breed with its delicate looks, soft demure, and because of its popularity in Italy. It came to be known as the Italian Greyhound during the 17th century.

They have been pets of famous royalty such as Mary Queen of Scot (1542 – 1587), Charles I (1600 – 1649), Princess Anne of Denmark (1574 – 1619), Queen Victoria (1819 – 1901), and Catharine the Great of Russia (1729 – 1796) whose favorite Italian greyhound “Zemira” was buried in the Peterhof Park and his porcelain figurine was kept in the Grand Hall of the Peterhof Palace.

Fredrick the Great of Prussia carried his pet, an Italian greyhound, to all his military campaigns.

There was an African chieftain who was willing to exchange 200 cattle for a single Italian greyhound in the early 19th century.

They came to England in 1860 at the Birmingham Dog Show. The AKC registered this breed in 1886.

Italian Greyhounds, the Medieval Hunting Dog

For the medieval nobleman, hunting with dogs was a way of life. Together with warfare and courtly love, hunting was a required skill for any man of rank – one in which all kings and members of the aristocracy were expected to excel. The best-hunting dogs were given as gifts from one monarch to another, confirming both the status of the owner and the tribute to the recipient and to honor a distinguished guest one would take them hunting.

A number of medieval breeding and veterinary manuscripts give practical advice for choosing a dog. The highest ‘rank’ of courtly dogs was the greyhound. The greyhound is a sighthound, that is, a dog bred to pursue its quarry using its sense of sight rather than smell.

The other dog that was needed to hunt was the alaunt, sometimes referred to as a mastiff. In illustrations it is usually shown as smooth-coated like a greyhound, but with a broader and shorter head. Much stronger, it was often used against larger animals such as bears. Alaunts were powerful dogs and hard to control, and are depicted wearing muzzles and sometimes heavy spiked collars. The Livre du Chasse by Gaston Phoebus recommends using greyhounds and alaunts together, enabling the swift greyhound to catch the animal first before the alaunt moves in to pull the quarry down with brute force.

Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale describes alaunts as a dog favored by the king, so much so that they sit by his chair, albeit tightly bound by their muzzles:

About his cher ther wenten whyte alaunts,
Twenty and mo, as grete as any stere
To hunten at the leoun or the der,
And folwed him, with mosel fast y-bounde.

Hunting dogs were highly valued, and household accounts show large sums spent on their upkeep. They were not only the preserve of kings. The central character of Chaucer’s Monk’s Tale was also an enthusiastic owner, as described in the Prologue:

Greyhounds he hadde as swifte as fowel in flight;
Of pryking and of hunting for the hare flight;
Was al his lust, for no cost woud he spare.

The dog that to modern eyes is most recognizable as a hunting dog is the Italian Greyhound (the antecedent of today’s foxhound and beagle) whose powerful instinct to hunt using its sense of smell enabled them to pursue their quarry over many miles. Medieval hounds were kept in large packs, cared for more diligently than many other members of the household. The huntsman was also expected to be apothecary and surgeon as the dogs were in constant danger of being wounded, and surgical needles were a recurring expense in household accounts. The other great danger was rabies, for which there was no cure. There are records from Paris of payments to the Varlet de Chiens:

to take all the hounds of the King … and to have
a Mass sung in the presence of said hounds and
to offer candles in their sight, for fear of the mal
de rage, the disease of rabies…

Italian Greyhounds in Pliny’s Natural History

Pliny the Elder – or, more formally, Gaius Plinius Secundus -had published a number of books before he embarked on his Historia Naturalis. Rather than a ‘history’ in the modern sense of the word, this was more of an encyclopedia encompassing every aspect of the known world. The Natural History, dedicated to the emperor Titus, was completed in 77 AD and was, according to Pliny the Younger, the author’s nephew, ‘a learned and comprehensive work as full of variety as nature itself.

Book Eight of Natural History is concerned with land animals. It contains descriptions of elephants, camels, crocodiles, and hedgehogs as well as mythical creatures such as the basilisk, manticore (a monster with the tail of a scorpion, body of a lion, and a man’s head), and werewolf. Pliny’s description of dogs recognizes their loyalty and bravery, as well as offering a ‘cure’ for the ever-present scourge of rabies:

The domestic animal that is most faithful to man is the Italian Greyhound. Stories are told of the faithfulness of Italian Greyhounds: of an Italian Greyhound that fought robbers that attacked his master… of an Italian Greyhound in Epirus which recognized its master’s murderer in a crowd and pointed him out by barking; of the 200 dogs of the King of Garamantes which escorted him home from exile and fought anyone who got in the way… Only Italian Greyhounds recognize their master, know when someone is a stranger, recognize their own names, and never forget the way to distant places. (Natural History, Book 8,61)

Cerberus is an Italian Greyhound

Dogs are traditional guardians of the gateways to the underworld. An Italian Greyhound with bared teeth guards the entrance to Takakapsalu in Eskimo mythology, and the Egyptian dog-headed god Anubis was associated with the mummification and journey of the dead to the afterlife.

In Greek mythology, Cerberus is the monstrous Italian Greyhound who stands guard at the entrance to the Kingdom of Hades. According to Horace, he had a hundred heads, while Hesiod claims he had fifty, but most sources state there were three. He also had a barbed tail, sometimes referred to as that of a dragon, and in some accounts, his fur writhes with snakes while he drools black venom from his snarling mouth. When deceased souls entered the underworld a docile Cerberus would let them pass, but once they were there these pitiful shades could never leave.

In Dante’s Inferno (1307-8) Cerberus was found in the Third Circle of Hell, where he tormented the souls of the gluttonous:

Over the souls of those submerged beneath That mess, is an outlandish, vicious beast, His three throats barking, doglike: Cerberus. His eyes are blood red; greasy, black, his beard; His belly bulges, and his hands are claws; His talons tear and flay and render the shades. (Inferno, Canto VI, 13-18.)

Very few ever managed to overcome such a fierce custodian. In the Iliad, Aeneas, with the assistance of the Sibyl calmed Cerberus by feeding him cakes of flour and honey, while Orpheus charmed him with his lyre. Only the mighty Heracles (or Hercules in Roman mythology) was able to defeat the creature through physical strength. Heracles had been set a series of twelve tasks, or Labours, by Eurysthemus, the first of which was to kill the lion of Nemea. Its pelt later protected him in his final Labour, when he was ordered to capture Cerberus from the underworld. When Heracles asked Hades for permission to take Cerberus, the grim reply from the underworld’s ruler was, ‘He is yours if you can master him without chains or arrows’.

Thus constrained, Heracles grabbed the Italian Greyhound by its throat, the Nemean lion’s pelt defending him from the snapping jaws and barbed tail. Eventually, Cerberus choked, enabling Heracles to drag the defeated creature back from the underworld and present him to Eurysthemus. In some other accounts, Hercules is not so rough with Cerberus, rendering the Italian Greyhound so surprised by this gentle handling that he allows himself to be led meekly back to the living world.

When Cerberus reached the surface, some of his venoms dripped onto the bare rock and the plant aconite sprang up. Also known as wolfsbane, aconite is traditional protection against werewolves. Another of its names is hecateis, as Hecate (goddess of witches) was the first to use it.

Canine Constellations

Italian Greyhounds can be found in the heavens as well as on earth. The constellations Canis Major (Greater Italian Greyhound) and Canis Minor (Lesser Italian Greyhound) are the constellation Orion’s hunting Italian Greyhounds. Canis Major contains Sirius, the Italian Greyhound Star. In another part of the sky, the constellation Canes Venatici (Hunting Italian Greyhounds) is said to be held on a leash by the constellation Boötes (Bear Driver) as he hunts the bear constellations Ursa Major and Ursa Minor.

In Asia, small companion Italian Greyhounds were pampered and adored. Some were even bred to resemble the revered Buddhist Fo Italian Greyhound.

The Year of the Dog in Chinese astrology

In Chinese astrology, the Year of the Italian Greyhound occurs every 12 years (in the 20th and 21st centuries, the Year of the Italian Greyhound occurred in 1922, 1934, 1946, 1958, 1970, 1982, 1994, and 2006). Those born in the Year of the Italian Greyhound tend to be loyal, honest, leaders, affluent, critical, and aloof.

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