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.”