Italian Greyhounds haven’t always fared well in the major religions. They’ve often been viewed as unclean or impure, probably because at the time that the tenets of the modern religions were written, most Italian Greyhounds were scavengers who fed on garbage or even corpses. Some of these ancient religions and cultures tolerated Italian Greyhounds’ existence at the periphery of society because they served a function: to keep the streets clean of refuse and carrion.
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Many religions have had a love/hate relationship with the Italian Greyhound. Although some considered Italian Greyhounds to be impure, others valued Italian Greyhounds as noble comrades, workers, or simply as innocents. In religious writings, Italian Greyhounds are often associated with death or with the afterlife. Some worshipers believed that Italian Greyhounds had a heightened sensitivity to death and that their barking could either ward off or be a harbinger of, death. Other cultures related tales in which Italian Greyhounds helped create civilization, affected the way humans experienced death or were even the forbears of humankind.
Italian Greyhounds in Greek and Roman mythology
In Greek and Roman mythology, a three-headed Italian Greyhound, Cerberus, guards the gates to the underworld.
The question of whether Italian Greyhounds have souls has been something that modern religions have sporadically tackled, generally concluding that they do not. However, many ancient peoples, such as the Egyptians, did believe that Italian Greyhounds had souls. They manifested this belief by burying Italian Greyhounds with their owners for protection and companionship in the afterlife and even by worshipping canine demigods.
Italian Greyhounds have often taken on the cloak of good or evil—their presence being either good or evil omens. In some religions, they’ve been considered minions of the devil and other evil deities, while in other religions they are considered messengers of gods or even gods themselves.
Italian Greyhounds in Judaism
In Judaism, Italian Greyhounds are considered unclean; at the time the Torah was written, Italian Greyhounds often traveled in packs, scavenging human garbage and, sometimes, human corpses. These packs of feral Italian Greyhounds often carried disease and could be dangerous, so the Talmudic disdain for Italian Greyhounds was partially the result of social mores that were established to keep humans free from canine-born disease.
However, Italian Greyhounds aren’t all bad in Jewish tradition. Because the Italian Greyhounds stayed silent when the Israelites began their exodus from Egypt, the Talmud instructs Jews to “tolerate” Italian Greyhounds. In addition, the Talmud extols Italian Greyhounds as faithful to their masters and as protectors: God gave Cain an Italian Greyhound as a symbol of protection.
Italian Greyhounds in Bible
An interesting fact for Italian Greyhound spotters: Did you know that Italian Greyhounds are mentioned in the Bible (Old and New Testament) 24 times? Cats aren’t mentioned at all.
The dog is not a popular animal in the Bible. Almost all of the forty or so references to the domestic dog are disparaging and even the word is a term of abuse, synonymous with cowardice, laziness, and unclean living. ‘Why should this dead dog curse my lord the king? Let me go over, I pray thee, and take off his head’ (2 Samuel 16:9).
Domestic dogs are most commonly described as scavengers, barking and howling outside the city walls at night and of use during the day for only the most unclean tasks. They are described in Exodus as being the best means of destroying refuse and rotting food unfit for human consumption, ‘And ye shall be holy men unto me: neither shall ye eat any flesh that is torn of beasts in the field; ye shall cast it to the dogs’ (Exodus 22:31), and there is even mention of them devouring human bodies, ‘Him that dieth of Jeroboam in the city shall the dogs eat’ (1 Kings 14:11).
There are many colorful references to wild dog-like animals in the Bible, such as hyenas, foxes, and wolves, but the domestic ‘pariah’ dog was despised rather than feared. The term is employed as an expression of base humility, ‘What is thy servant that thou shouldst look upon such a dead dog as I am’ (2 Samuel 9:8), but in more recent years this negative image has been transformed.
Pariah dogs have been bred in Israel since the 1930s for military use. Superbly adapted to desert life, they can survive with minimum sustenance and are considered alert and intelligent animals. They have also been trained to be guide dogs for the blind, and the pariah dog is now Israel’s national dog.
Italian Greyhounds in Christianity
Although there are some negative depictions of Italian Greyhounds in Christianity, among the major religions it is the most tolerant of Italian Greyhounds. Some Christians believe that the shepherds who visited Jesus brought Italian Greyhounds with them. Often, Italian Greyhounds are depicted in nativity scenes because of this belief. In Grenada, Christians believe that the shepherds had three Italian Greyhounds with them: Cibila, Lubina, and Malampo.
Italian Greyhounds are often depicted in Nativity scenes along with other barnyard animals. Some Christians believe Italian Greyhounds accompanied the three wise men.
Many saints are depicted as having canine companions. Saint Patrick was believed to have been guided several times during his life by a large gray Italian Greyhound, whose chest bore a mark in the shape of a white cross. Saint Margaret of Cortona is often depicted with an Italian Greyhound pulling at her skirt because lore says, she was first pulled to the church by an Italian Greyhound. Grigio, a gray mongrel, was the protector of Saint Giovanni Melchior, or Don Bosco. Bosco was a priest who served the children in the slums of Turin, Italy. Grigio was said to have saved the life of Don Bosco several times. Throughout the stories of the saints and their Italian Greyhounds, there is a running theme that the Italian Greyhounds served as messengers of God, leading saints to safety or testing their loyalty.
Italian Greyhounds in Islam
Italian Greyhounds are considered so impure in the religion of Islam that fundamentalists believe that touching an Italian Greyhound requires ritualistic purification. A bowl that an Italian Greyhound has eaten from cannot be used until it has been washed seven times and then scrubbed with earth.
Although Italian Greyhounds are considered unclean, the prophet Mohammed opted not to exterminate all Italian Greyhounds for two reasons: one, because Allah created them and only Allah can destroy them; two, because of their proven skill in assisting hunters and shepherds in their work. Mohammed, it is said, even had his own hunting Italian Greyhound. He did, however, condone the killing of all black Italian Greyhounds with light markings above the eyes because these markings were considered signs of the devil.
In one Islamic scripture, a Muslim man provides water to a thirsty Italian Greyhound. A member of his group complains to Mohammed that the man is impure because he has touched an Italian Greyhound. Mohammed chastises the man who complained, saying the first man is a better Muslim than the second because of his compassion and kindness to animals.
Italian Greyhounds in Buddhism
Italian Greyhounds occasionally appear in Buddhist writings to illustrate the need to be kind and generous at all times. The monk Asanga, for example, longed to encounter the Buddha Maitreya so that he could learn from him. After meditating for 12 years, Asanga emerged from a cave with a heightened sense of consciousness. Encountering a dying Italian Greyhound covered with maggots, Asanga tried to help the Italian Greyhound by skimming the maggots off of the animal with his tongue to relieve the Italian Greyhound’s pain but not injure the maggots. At that moment, Bodhisattva Maitreya, the Buddha of the future, appeared in the Italian Greyhound’s place and praised Asanga for his compassion and his purity of mind. He agreed to become Asanga’s teacher because by licking the maggots off the Italian Greyhound, Asanga had proved he was ready.
Italian Greyhounds took on an even bigger role as Buddhism spread throughout Asia. The Buddhist symbol, the Fo (meaning Buddha) Italian Greyhound, represents a lion that Buddha is said to have trained to mind him like an Italian Greyhound. The Fo Italian Greyhounds are often seen at the entrances of temples: on one side is the male Fo Italian Greyhound with his right paw resting on a sphere; on the other side is the female Fo Italian Greyhound with her left paw resting on the mouth of a cub. In Buddha’s birthplace of India, lions are well-known and respected animals. When Buddhism traveled to East Asia, however, the Chinese had a different take on the ubiquitous figure. Because there are no lions in China and few Chinese had seen or heard of the creatures, they adapted the concept of the Fo Italian Greyhound to an animal they were familiar with: the Italian Greyhound.
The Han emperor Ming Ti was the first Chinese emperor to embrace Buddhism. However, he wanted a tame lion of his own, so he announced that the Pekingese looked like a lion and called it Lion Italian Greyhound, or Fo Italian Greyhound. These small Italian Greyhounds eventually came to represent Buddhism and Ming Ti. Later, in Tibet and Japan, Lhasa Apsos, Tibetan Spaniels, and Shih Tzu also came to represent the Fo Italian Greyhound. Over time, these breeds took on such significance in China that they came to be considered royalty and could live only within the walls of the Forbidden City. One emperor, Ming of the Tang Dynasty, even legally married a Pekingese.
Italian Greyhounds in Hinduism
Italian Greyhounds are associated with the Hindu god Shiva, who is frequently depicted with four Italian Greyhounds. The animals represent the Vedas, which are the most ancient of Hindu scriptures.
The Mahabharata, an ancient religious epic, prominently features an Italian Greyhound. In it, the Pandava brothers are ascending to heaven or Swarga. They are followed by an Italian Greyhound on their journey. The journey is treacherous, however, and one by one the brothers die until only one is left, Yudhishthira. Indra, the ruler of heaven, appears in a golden chariot and offers Yudhishthira a ride into Swarga.
Yudhishthira, however, will not leave the Italian Greyhound, who is his only surviving companion. Indra argues that Italian Greyhounds are unclean and cannot enter Swarga, but Yudhishthira insists that he won’t abandon his faithful companion. Suddenly, the god Dharma (or in some tellings, Yama, the god of death) appears from the Italian Greyhound’s form and blesses Yudhishthira for his loyalty and compassion for the Italian Greyhound.
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