The Dog

Great Symbols Series @ Theosophy Trust


THE DOG


The unwearied -watch their listening leaders keep,
And crouching close repel invading sleep,
So faithful dogs their charge maintain . . .
They start, they gaze around, watch on every side,
and turn to every sound.

The Iliad, Homer

 Imagine, my little ones, the ancient Grandmother of the Earth. Since the beginning of time she has sat, huddled, on the rim of existence. Humming over and again to herself the most pristine harmony, she tirelessly weaves the great basket called the world. Slowly by day the woven pattern emerges while her dog patiently waits. His eyes never cease to follow her nimble hands, recording and remembering the pattern as it grows. Until she rests from her work at nightfall, he watches and waits and then begins to unravel every strand. The Old One sleeps and the dog unwinds the knotted strands of day. By morning, all has been undone and the patient weaver begins again. She never rises from her task to chase the dog away nor does she fail to feed him from her exhaustless store. Every day and night proceed like those that went before: so it has always been; so it shall always be. We of the Shawnee Tribe have never doubted this, and I have heard it said that others believe it too. Do not the Kato people say that 'when the First Mover was going around the world creating, he took his dog'?"

  Satisfied that she had thoroughly made her point, the old story-teller tucked the children in, herself a grandmother finishing up the day. Behind closed eyes the children's thoughts drifted along the rim of the world and explored the details of the tale They had heard. Had the ancient Grandmother existed before the dog? Did the dog exist before the world? Had there always been dogs waiting and watching? They wondered about these things and about the Creator, who took his dog with him when he created the world. The questions merged with dreams for the children, but asleep or awake, anyone might wonder if the dog may have been around forever. It seems to appear always, even in the oldest myths and in quaint scratches on the walls of caves. To the Egyptians and the Greeks the dog was esteemed as a companion of Hermes, who, as the good shepherd, is both messenger and presiding deity of the mind and goes about accompanied by his faithful dog, Sirius, the 'all-seeing vigilance'. For many people of the world, the dog itself has been a messenger: between the gods and man and between life and death. Revered as a fire-bringer and solar herald, seen by many as the Hound of Heaven, the dog inspires awe, whilst in its guise as harbinger of death it is dreaded and reviled.

 Plutarch felt that the dog symbolized the conservative and watchful principle of life and, like Plato, characterized it as a philosopher. This perhaps suggests a witness who, like the Shawnee Grandmother's dog, existed from the very beginning of things. Apuleius described the dog as "raising his rough neck, his face alternately black and golden, denoting the messenger going hence and thence between the higher and infernal powers". In the Shawnee myth the dog is the unraveller, but here the stress is upon his role as a weaver, coming and going between worlds. As companion of the dead on their crossing to the nether region, the dog is indeed weaving its way in the role of a guide to those who do not know the way. In Hindu myth Indra's dog, Sarama, mothered the Sarameyas, the four-eyed dogs of Yama who run between this world and the nether region, summoning men and women to the other side. Many an Eastern ritual calls for the participation of a dog at the time of death. The Parsees traditionally introduced one to the deathbed and it accompanied the funeral procession. The death of a woman in childbirth required two dogs in order to accommodate two souls. In old Tibet sacred dogs were kept in the monasteries to devour the remains of the dead before the influence of Buddhism encouraged the spread of cremation.

 If the dog is a guide to the realm of the dead, it is also a keeper of the boundary between the two worlds. Like the great mastiff of Charon, it guards the entrance way and none can pass without its acquiescence. But on the field of battle the dog throws himself into the fray. He is at once messenger, watcher, combatant and guard. He weaves his way back and forth from the living to the dead or wounded if trained to do so, or he becomes a Hound of Hell fighting along with the boldest soldier on the field. It is said that dogs larger than wolves accompanied the Celts when they attacked Delphi in 273 B.C. Terrifying the Greeks, they raised havoc like Hecate's own hounds of war, against whom regular soldiers had little effect. Often pictured with war-gods and heroes, the dog has been placed in the role of a witness of death as well as its guide. A companion in life, it continues to be such in death and so weaves the two together in a pattern of perpetual coming and going, a continual design of birth, death and rebirth. For this reason the dog is also associated with resurrection and fertility, leaving one to ponder whether Yudhishthira was not motivated by something in addition to compassion when he insisted that his faithful dog accompany him to heaven.

  As guide or witness or guardian, the dog seems to exemplify fidelity. Even as harbinger of war and death, it demonstrates a faithful execution of its master's desire. Its faithfulness includes and goes beyond death, and so it is said to be a fidelity surviving death, to be reborn again and again. It was this perception of the death-defying power of faith that caused the Greeks to recognize in the dog the companion of healers like Aesclepius, whose temples were frequented by canines of all sorts. The sick who came to these places for cures believed the dog to have a healing tongue. They thought that if the animals licked their wounds while they observed an 'incubation' period (sleeping at the temple), or if the dogs appeared to them in dreams, a cure was heralded and would soon come into effect. Thus, through the transference of the power inherent in the faithfulness of the dog, death was surmounted and life recommenced. Such beliefs demonstrate on a simple thaumaturgic level a profound metaphysical conception of faith and a deep insight into the essential inner qualities of familiar creatures. Northern Buddhists identify this virtue in the lion-dog guardian who is the defender of the Law. Watching, motionless and in complete obedience, the guardian-dog has subjugated all passions through the Law. No bright rag or tasty morsel can divert its attention from the faithful performance of its appointed task.

  The diversity of dogs in the world bears witness to the great antiquity of their domestication. Perhaps this is why some people have assumed the animal has been around forever, and it might as well be asserted that in the Beginning even God had one. The physical ancestor of the dog was also parent to the bear and made its contribution to evolving forms forty million years ago. The line from which the Canidae arose flowed through a Pliocene type known as Cynodictus, from which developed Cynodesmus and Temnocyon. From these two archaic animals the Tomarctus and the wild hunting dogs of India and Africa respectively arose. The Tomarctus was a wolf-like ancestor of the genus Canis, which includes wolves, coyotes, foxes, dingoes, jackals and the modern dog (Canis familiaris). As to which of these was the direct ancestor of the modern dog there is much dispute. Some feel the dingo is the oldest and closest type, but many believe that the wolf is more directly ancestral, acknowledging that some dogs are much more wolf-like than others. In his interesting meanderings on the subject of dogs, Konrad Lorenz argues that whilst some breeds are descended from the wolf (like samoyeds, huskies and chow chows), most are jackal-blooded, treating their masters as parents rather than pack leaders, as the wolf-blooded dogs do. But the disagreement flourishes with claims variously supported among zoologists, including the interesting assertion that the domesticated canine derives from the pariah-dog of India and southwest Asia, whose present condition exists in stark contrast to that of the pet and work-dogs of other parts of the world.

 The word 'dog' comes from the Old English docga, the etymological origin of which is unknown. But canis comes from the Greek kyon (κυων), the name Homer and others after him used to identify the Dog Star, the brightest star in heaven. This brilliant orb is known otherwise as Sirius (Σιριον), 'the Scorcher', which some believe derives from the Sanskrit Surya, 'the Shining One'. The naming of this star by the ancients in what came to be known as the constellation of Canis Major suggests a notion of the dog which is quite different from that delineated by biological evolution. The word κυων is etymologically related to κυω, which means 'to conceive', pointing to the aspect of symbolism attached to the dog having to do with fertility and rebirth. In The Secret Doctrine, H.P. Blavatsky writes that Sirius is the star of Mercury-Budha (Hermes), the greatest instructor of mankind before other Buddhas. She also quotes Isis as saying: "I am the Queen of these regions ... I was the first to reveal to mortals the mysteries of wheat and corn. . . . I am she who rises in the constellation of the dog." This places the idea of fertility and rebirth on an archetypal level wherein one might link the shining face of Surya to its dissemination through the agency of Mercury-Budha, or the Dog Star. Translated into concrete expression, this creative, intelligent force is manifested on multitudinous levels right down to the scorching heat associated with the hottest part of the summer, during the heliacal rising of Sirius. This finds an analogue in the bitch going into heat. It is the time when conception takes place and restraints tend to melt away. The old Greeks explained: "Our ancestors believed that when the Dog Star is in conjunction with the sun, the sea boils, wine ferments and dogs go mad." These are the 'dog days', when the brain can cease to work as it dissolves into a oneness with Nature. One imagines "mad dogs and Englishmen" during the British Raj in India wandering about in the torpor of pre-monsoon heat, the latter obstinately attempting to maintain a sense of control while everything about them was falling back into a primordial bake-oven of imminent re-creation.

  The idea of 'going to the dogs' reflects the negative side of the abandonment of coolness and control. It links up with the pervasive association of the scavenging, lurking and lolling about identified with street dogs who soak up the sun and do not even bother to retire to their own burrow for the purpose of procreation. The Bible is replete with evidence of the low opinion in which the dog was held by Jews and Christians. Muslims too believed the animal unclean, and because of its public sexual displays it became the symbol of promiscuity, and adulterers and sodomites were called 'dogs'. Even in India the mark of the dog's foot was often the symbol of lasciviousness, and stories tell of those who were branded and forced to bear the mark so all could see. Such condemnation of dogs has been accompanied by the rise of the scavenging pariah-dog who ekes out its miserable life in many an ancient city street. It announces, and doubtless contributes to, a debased condition which inverts the lofty proclamation of Isis and bears little resemblance to the reverence felt for other mother-goddesses of old who were often depicted as whelping bitches.

 People's feelings about dogs run the gamut of these extremes because the dog has been close to man for such a long time. It is impossible to consider the condition of dogs, symbolically or physically, without acknowledging that they have been dramatically affected by man. When he despises or abuses or reveres them, it says more about the human condition than about that of the animal. As Professor Lorenz puts it: "There is no domesticated animal which has so radically altered its whole way of living, indeed its whole sphere of interests, that has become domestic in so true a sense as the dog." Many thousands of years ago dogs probably had a loose connection with human groups, being tolerated for their ability to warn and track game. But there is distinct evidence that for well over forty thousand years there has grown a profound symbiotic relationship between man and dog which, from the beginning, involved deep emotional impulses. The excavation of a Cro-Magnon burial revealed the remains of a young girl with the heads of four dogs pointing outward and arranged about her, and dog tooth pendants were widely worn from Aurignacian times. By Neolithic times the link was firmly cemented, and settled communities were breeding dogs possessing specialized characteristics unique to that place and people. Inbreeding within settlements favoured the hereditary transmission of domestic characteristics and the development of distinctive breeds.

  Some cultures protected their canine friend. The religious laws of the ancient Iranians decreed that a punishment of five hundred to a thousand stripes with a scourge was to be meted out to the killer of a dog, or fifty to two hundred for giving it bad food. Early English law, however, stated that "It is not fit that a person should die for a dog", causing them to consider the crime of stealing one as less than larcenous (unlike the theft of a falcon, a horse or a cow). Some breeds in the British Isles were bred to hunt, and others, responding to the desires of an oppressed peasantry, became expert poachers. Dogs like the lurcher could silently steal the king's game and, if ever caught, would even disclaim acquaintance with its master, whose very life was on the line if charged. Many an illicit main dish has been enjoyed by the owners of such cunning canines. Among nomadic people the dog has been keenly valued as a guard and hunter and was frequently highly trained by its masters. Before the arrival of the horse, Plains Indians used their dogs as beasts of burden, yoking them to small travois packed with camp goods which had to be transported each time they moved. When not engaged in this work, they watched the camp, guarded the night herds, warned of enemy attack and oversaw the safety of children. The Eskimo peoples of Siberia and the New World always counted their wealth in dogs and depended upon them so completely that part of the education of every child involved a thorough understanding and mastery of the animal. Years of training produced huskies capable of bucking any weather and faithfully working for their master even for days without adequate food. To kill such an animal was, to the Eskimo, tantamount to the murder of a human being – for did not dogs, like humans, have individual souls?

 Because of their closeness to man, dogs vary in ability and appearance more than any other species. Selective breeding by humans, together with natural adaptation to vastly different environments all over the globe, have produced astonishingly different breeds: everything from the mouse-like Chihuahua to the great British mastiffs exported by the Romans under Caesar for use as fighters in the Coliseum. With the Imperial Pekingese, the Great Dane (who was bred by Germans), the Afghan and Saluki hounds, one has examples of very deliberately bred dogs whose present form (at least in the case of the latter two) can be traced back several thousand years. Critics of modern breeding for show say that it has involved an overestimation of beauty or style at the expense of intelligence. Breeding to strict standards of physical characteristics is incompatible with breeding for mental capabilities. In the whole of biological evolution on earth, one can see continual evidence that hyper-specialized forms are not destined to be the vehicle for intelligence. When dog breeds become 'fashionable' in the eyes of men, they are in danger of becoming highly over-specialized and frozen in terms of developing their greatest canine potential. Just so does man ideologically freeze and delimit the realization of his own broader potential. Surely it is because of a severely externalized and diminished evaluation of himself that man has dedicated so much time and energy to the production of less intelligent, more neurotic and often unhappy dogs for the sake of perpetuating certain physical characteristics.

 But if man has enormously affected the dog, so too the dog has affected man. A recognition of this prompted a Seneca chief to remark, "It is true that whenever a person loves a dog, he derives great power from it." The 'chemistry' between a dog and man can produce a remarkably high level of mutual feeling, and when it is mismatched, the dog may even suffer a psychosomatic illness, as in some cases where seeing-eye dogs have been paired with masters with whom they could experience no rapport. The fidelity of a faithful dog creates the basis for a deep bond which imposes upon the object of this faithfulness a profound responsibility. In man there are levels of love experienced and expressed, but only in rare cases does one find the depth of pure, disinterested love shown by a dog for his beloved master. When it is given, this love seeks no recompense but flows in a 'dogged' faithfulness towards even the least affectionate or worthy of men. Like the pure and universal love held as an ideal by Diotima in Plato's Symposium, the dog's love of his chosen master has the power to uplift both lover and beloved and deeply move the hearts of other human beings. One may think back to the dog stories borrowed from the local library when one was a child and recall the tear-stained pages that marked the spot where an act of canine love and nobility ended in the animal's death. But people of all ages and times have felt that, somehow, in the dog's noble fidelity and love, their own highest potential was being echoed, and they have wondered and wept to see its unsullied manifestation in a creature humbler than themselves.

 Alexander Pope must have deeply felt this when he wrote these poignant lines describing the homecoming of Ulysses to Ithaca:

When wise Ulysses . . .
Arrived at last, poor, old, disguised, alone,
To ail his friends and even his Queen unknown;. . .
The faithful dog alone his rightful master knew! . . .
Him when he saw – he rose and crawled to meet,
(Twas all he could) and fawned and licked his feet,
Seized with dumb joy – then falling by his side,
Owned his returning Lord, looked up, and died!

 In his love of an animal a man increases his humanity. If one studies deeply the history of the human race, one will come to the conclusion that becoming truly familiar with animal behaviour enables one to appreciate "the unique and exalted position held by man in the world of living creatures". There is an especially great value in attempting to understand the dog. Bearing so faithfully the mental and physical impress of man, the dog reflects back to the sensitive observer a great deal about his own inner being as well as animal nature. At a more fundamental level, one can learn that, although dogs do have distinct personalities, their dependence on and loyalty to a master originates in their tie to their mother, which, in the domestic dog, is simply transferred to the master. In wolf-blooded dogs this juvenile behaviour is replaced with an inherent loyalty to the pack leader, which it also transfers to its master. Thus the relationship between a man and his wolf-blooded dog is based more upon a proud 'man-to-man' loyalty than upon the child-parent relationship which persists between masters and dogs of other breeds. But both of these inherent traits suggest the biological and instinctual roots for faithfulness and love in a dog.

Some show that nice sagacity of smell,
And read with such discernment in the port
And figure of the man, his secret aim
That oft we owe our safety to a skill
We could not teach and must despair to learn.

William Cowper

  The inherited characteristics of different breeds are well known. Sheep dogs without sheep will shepherd children, terriers are aggressive, spaniels are retrievers on command, and hounds are self-hunters. All these are expected instinctual traits of the breed, but it is not instinct that prompts a dog to show its feelings through subtle changes of facial expression or lay its head on its master's knee. These are actions more closely akin to human language than to what wild animals 'say' to each other through miming, A dog's expression of feeling may be channelled through a learned behaviour (like giving its paw), but the subtle aptness and timing of its response suggests a capacity to read what lies within human feelings as well as understanding gestures and words or tone of voice. One champion of the animal kingdom observed that "Man is endowed with reason, the infant with instinct; and the young animal shows more of both than the child." With the awakening of the Manasic thinking principle within the growing child, human beings leave lesser creatures far behind. But both man and animals are endowed with a soul and intelligence. An extremely intelligent animal like the dog thinks and seems to know that it thinks "perhaps all the more keenly because it cannot speak". The intelligence in a dog is the same in essence as that of man, if not equal in development or in its level of awareness. Questions concerning intellect, intuition and individuality arise in a serious consideration of dogs. They have learnt to live happily with men and to do useful things which have clearly caused them to feel that they belong with people. They seem to know they are part of human life and, as St. Paul movingly put it, they are "hoping for, and living in the expectation of the same deliverance from the bonds of corruption" as man.

  A blind individual who wishes to gain the freedom that can be provided by a seeing-eye dog must have the moral and physical courage to trust completely his dog's independent judgement. These remarkable animals are carefully trained to adhere to all sorts of complex rules in order to usher their masters safely around crowded cities. There are volumes of testimony confirming the intelligence and dependability of these dogs. In their training there comes a point when they must be able to do more than intelligently apply their instinctual powers or adherence to learned patterns. To become a successful guide-dog they must be able to take responsibility in an altered or suddenly dangerous situation, even if this means breaking rules. In Montreal during a bank robbery, when the robbers were attempting to make a getaway, a blind man and his dog were crossing the street at the crosswalk leading to the bank when shots rang out. The dog froze and, blocking her master's path, took a firm lead and jaywalked as fast as she could through the cars to an opposite corner and into a doorway. At the spot where the dog had forced her master's retreat, a policeman was shot and killed only a moment after she broke a whole series of rules in guiding her charge to safety. The independent judgement of such dogs is not possessed by all trainees, and those who may excel in learning all the rules may fail in their ability to go beyond them.

 Slow and painstaking observation of generations of carefully bred guide-dogs has revealed that there are critical periods in a dog's life when higher avenues of intelligence can begin to open up. Up to six weeks of age a puppy needs canine socialization. Its later ability to exercise independent judgement is linked up closely with the next period in the puppy's life, where human contact plays an increasingly dominant role. Individual attention during this time establishes the dog's sense of being an individual. It learns to be a co-worker with a human being and takes on many elements of discrimination which exceed the abilities demonstrated in learning by associational memory related to the senses.

 In The Secret Doctrine, a reference to a work by Haeckel includes a description of a double drawing depicting the six-week-old embryo of a human being and of a dog. Except for a slight difference in the larger head of the human embryo, the two are indistinguishable. Passing through the piscine, reptile and mammal phases of evolution, at around six to eight weeks the human embryo most closely takes on the canine form. They share in common five fingers and toes that develop initially in the same way. Their rudimentary links are the same. Even at eight weeks the human embryo with its tail and otherwise animal appearance looks like an embryo dog. At this point of closest resemblance man and dog meet, only to separate with the further and more complex embryonic development of the human. Just as this occurs prior to birth, so when the dog has entered six weeks into life after birth, it is analogously and peculiarly open to the influence of man. If a strong and loving involvement takes place at this time, the natural fidelity, courage and intelligence of the dog can take wings so that the animal can begin to exercise judgement and exhibit higher powers of insight normally ascribed to human beings.

 When this happens, the faith inherent within the dog's nature becomes such an intelligent force that humans fortunate enough to have a long-term relationship with such an animal are steadily suffused with a greater degree of this paramount virtue themselves. The faith that is manifest in the dog is the same faith by which men can move mountains. Its power is limitless; only the objects upon which it is fixed enforce any sort of limitation. William Q. Judge once advised a student of Theosophy, "Formulate to yourself certain things to be true that you feel to be true, and then increase your faith in them." The exercise is calculated to bring into conscious focus that which always lies within, for the embodied soul is gifted with faith and each man is of the same nature as that ideal on which his faith is fixed. Men are blinded to true faith (without an object) by the results of false faith, which, based on selfish ideals, provides the very limitations one will have to deal with in lives to come. The dog's faith has as its object his master. He is driven to heights of fidelity by pure and selfless love of that uncrowned king in his life. Like the faithful hound of Ulysses, he lives to demonstrate that love and so seal his life with meaning before his death. For man too, "faith is a series of lessons in love" involving the cultivation of confidence in self, together with an unwavering love of one's Master and trust in Karma.

Shall damned oblivion ever quench that flame?
No! that viewless essence shall outlive the world,
Immortal as the soul of man it served.

Alexander Pope

  The faith that is cleansed of false hopes and objects is the gateway to higher intuition. The instinct of a dog can be described as the "direct perception of what is right within its own realm", whilst intuition is the direct cognition of the truth in all things, the memory of the knowledge of one's past existing in one's real nature. The instinct of the dog is universal in Nature and endowed by the Spirit of Deity, a divine spark entering conscious development in the higher animals. This can be guided by the intelligence within or by influences from without. As the dog's instinct is modified by exposure to a sensitive human being, the animal learns to rely increasingly on the "intuitive prompting from within", thus becoming a channel for pure reflected Buddhi. It cannot be said that the dog possesses the faculty of reason, nor does it recall its past lives, but through the inherent power of its uplifting nature it can become an acting template for its master's own yet to be consciously understood intuitions. A faithful dog can know, long before the event, of danger threatening the object of his love. A human being who knows of this potential will adjust his approach to the dog so that love, justice, honour and truth will be reflected through their daily relationship. These are qualities of the soul which can spring to life through contact with the soul in man. As a perceptive Lt.-Colonel in charge of British war-dogs during the First World War put it, "AH the dog knows about God must come to him through us." One might add to this that man, not fully merged with the Master within, can learn from the dog's yearning love and faithful assimilation of his own master's qualities.

  Faith, like the light of Sirius, flows through the world. It exists in the flower, the monkey and the stone, but it is strongly exemplified in the nature of the dog. It is a fiery force which, when flaunted without discrimination or when wrongly focussed, can scorch or drive to madness. But nurtured in its proper season and trained with loving care, it is the fertile key that gives birth to a higher level of insight into the heart of things unseen by the personal man. The homing instinct, so wonderfully manifested in the dog and so much a part of his love and faith in his Master, becomes in man the guide through the intangible realms leading to his spiritual home. Not by sight or smell or hearing but by intense love for a beloved master, the dog is guided home. Man has come on a very long journey, taking him a long way from his spiritual abode. On the way he, like the gods, has been accompanied by the dog. It is fitting, nay poignantly just, that the dog should follow him and sometimes guide him on the long journey home. Weaving back and forth across the boundaries of life and death, guided by a faith that overcomes any uncertainty between the two, the dog unravels the complexities of conditioned existence and pierces to the deathless source of love.

Hail Sirius, faithful hound of heaven,
It is along thy blazing leash I would enter
Into communion with the invisible
Master I have sensed but never seen.
O faithful watcher, Hermes' own,
You teach me how to see the strand
Of light that courses through the dark
And shows the way back home.