Names of Dogs in Ancient Greece

Adrienne Mayor (Wonders & Marvels Contributor)

Imagine you live in ancient Greece. You are about to choose a new puppy. What should you call it?  There was a science to choosing and naming a dog in classical antiquity.

Which is the finest puppy in a litter? Like moderns, the ancients looked for an adventurous and friendly nature, but one test for selecting the pick of the litter seems rather heartless today. Let the mother choose for you, advises Nemesianus, a Roman expert on hunting dogs. Take away her puppies, surround them with an oil-soaked string and set it on fire. The mother will jump over the ring of flames and rescue each puppy, one by one, in order of their merit. Other signs of an excellent hound are large, soft ears, instead of small and stiff. Upright ears are fine, but the best ears flop over just a bit. A long, supple neck adapts well to a collar. The chest should be broad, shoulder blades wide apart, and hind legs slightly longer than the front, for chasing rabbits uphill. The dog’s coat, whether long or short, can be any color, but the fur ought to be shiny, dense, and soft.

Training a young dog begins at 20 months, but a puppy needs a good name right away. Xenophon, a Greek historian who wrote about hounds in the fourth century BC, maintained that the best names are short, one or two syllables, so they can be called easily. No Greek hounds were saddled with monikers like Thrasybulus or Thucydides! The meaning of the name was also important for the morale of both master and dog: names that express speed, courage, strength, appearance, and other qualities  were favored. Xenophon named his favorite dog Horme (Eager).

Atalanta, the famous huntress of Greek myth, called her dog Aura (Breeze). An ancient Greek vase painting of 560 BC shows Atalanta and other heroes and their hounds killing the great Calydonian Boar. Seven dogs’ names are inscribed on the vase (some violate Xenophon’s brevity rule): Hormenos (Impulse), Methepon (Pursuer), Egertes (Vigilant), Korax (Raven), Marpsas, Labros (Fierce), and Eubolous (Shooter).

The Roman poet Ovid gives the Greek names of the 36 dogs that belonged to Actaeon, the unlucky hunter of Greek myth who was torn apart by his pack: among them were Tigris, Laelaps (Storm), Aello (Whirlwind), and Arcas (Bear). Pollux lists 15 dog names; another list is found in Columella. The longest list of suitable names for ancient Greek dogs—46 in all—was compiled by the dog whisperer Xenophon. Popular names for dogs in antiquity, translated from Greek, include Lurcher, Whitey, Blackie, Tawny, Blue, Blossom, Keeper, Fencer, Butcher, Spoiler, Hasty, Hurry, Stubborn, Yelp, Tracker, Dash, Happy, Jolly, Trooper, Rockdove, Growler, Fury, Riot, Lance, Pell-Mell, Plucky, Killer, Crafty, Swift, and Dagger.

Alexander the Great honored his faithful dog, Peritas (January), by naming a city after him. Greek and Roman writers remind their readers to praise their canine companions. Arrian, the biographer of Alexander the Great who also wrote a treatise on hunting, says one should pat one’s dog, caress its head, pulling gently on the ears, and speak its name along with a hearty word or two—“Well done!” “Good girl!”—by way of encouragement. After all,  remarks Arrian, “dogs enjoy being praised, just as noble men do.”

  • Tracy Barrett

    Our pets are always named for classical characters–we’ve had dogs named Athena, Psyche (a homely Jack Russell–didn’t really fit),  Penny; cats named Jason and Purrsephone (my daughter was only 8 or so; forgive her) and now Ajax. Wish I’d known about some of these! Although I have a hard time picturing myself standing on the back porch calling, “Here, Eubolous! Come, Horme!”

    • http://www.holly-tucker.com Holly Tucker

      I love it: Purrsephone! You’ve had quite the Greco-Roman zoo there, Tracy.
      Holly

  • Henry_barth

    My cat even as a kitten acts a bit odd at times so we named her Mary Todd Lincoln.

  • Tina in Florence, Ma

    The was a radio lab episode about colors -and whether blue was perceived in Ancient Greece.  i wonder what kind of blue was used for a dog’s name – a lapis blue?  Or Sky blue?  

    • http://www.holly-tucker.com Holly Tucker

      Do you happen to have a link to the Radio Lab piece? Sounds great.

      A little bit off topic, but this BBC Future piece on color perception is really interesting too: http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20120427-when-is-a-colour-not-a-colour

    • http://www.facebook.com/mithradates Mithradates Eupator

      Tina– the name would be “Glauke” for “gray-blue”

  • Dimitri

    My English Staffordshire Terrier was one of four in the litter.
    So i named her DELTA.

  • Jad

    Eubolos means good shooter

  • u

    Im naming my pitbull puppy Cerberus

  • Ann

    We have two Timber Wolfe hybrids, aptly named “Timber” and “Wolfe”… living in the mountainous regions of WA, I’m sure our distant neighbors wonder why they hear “Timber!…Wolfe!” when we call our dogs home.

  • DIENEKES2

    My second dog named himself. As a pup he ignored everything I called him. Finally, one day, I called him Wolf just once. His ears pricked up and he swung his head around to stare directly at me. The rest is history.

  • kla6sdog

    No mention of Argos, the most faithful?

    • Mithradates Eupator

      kla6sdog is right! how could Argos be omitted! Argos deserves an essay of his own here!