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COPTIC DOG: A FOLK ART FIGURE FROM EARLY CHRISTIAN ERA IN EGYPT

August 5, 2012

Coptic Dog, folk art from the 1st/2nd century AD, Egypt.

I thought I would share this little beauty with you – Coptic dog. It is a late Roman Coptic terra cotta figure of a dog from the c. 1st – 2nd century AD. The dog is standing at attention with perked up ears and tightly curled tail. It has a collar with pendant at front.  It is 3.5 x 5 x 2 inches wide, and is one of a pair.

It has been put on sale at $850 by Edgar L. Owen Ltd., which is a premier gallery of antiquities, ancient coins and world art.[1]

Unlike in Arab culture, the dog was never regarded as defiled or defiling by Ancient Egyptians or Copts, but was loved and adored. There is no evidence in Coptic culture that the word “dog” has ever been used as an insult, as is common in Islamic societies.

Update (5 August 2012):

A friend has asked me if I could identify the breed of the above dog. I am not an expert in this field, but I have tried to find about dog breeds in Ancient Egypt. I cam across this passage in Egyptian Household Animals by Rosalind and Jack Janssen (1989); p. 9:

During Egyptian history several breeds developed although the diversity was not nearly so great as in modern times. Some forms were clearly products of selective breeding, especially the greyhound type of the Old Kingdom, which is similar to the modern basenji from Central Africa, with its erect pointed ears and curly tail. This is the ideal specimen which occurs frequently in representations, though it may be doubted whether dogs of this breed were very common. The skeletal evidence mainly points to a smaller type, more like a whippet. A second breed, portrayed in Middle and New Kingdom tomb scenes, displays a shorter muzzle, drooping ears and a long, hanging, or sometimes cocked, tail. It is usually termed a ‘slughi’ and resembles the modern saluki from Somalia. However, apart from these two, many indistinct types appear, resembling, for example, mastiffs or dachshunds.

Our Coptic Dog does not seem to be similar to any of the breeds mentioned by Janssen. And I cannot understand why they have not mentioned the Sothic dog of Isis which was connected with the dog star Sirius. Readers knowledgeable of the Egyptian and Coptic calendar will know that the heliacal rising of Sirius marks the beginning of inundation and the year. The Sothic dog is short, long-haired and prickly-eared.

I think our Coptic Dog is a Sothic dog. One finds figures of this breed common in the first two centuries of our Christian era in the Roman world, particularly Egypt.


[1] The figure is given the number 7377 by the gallery.

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8 Comments leave one →
  1. August 5, 2012 8:43 pm

    Dear Mr Boles
    I have been following your blog for a while now and I appreciate your provoking, not to say provocative, ideas. I’m an Egyptian too, and though not born Christian, share most of your views. I believe Egyptian Christians are being horribly and unfairly treated. However I take issue with your method of somehow presenting Egyptian Christians as more “Egyptian” than the Muslim ones, however misguided they are by the Saudi-financed Islamist nonsense ideologies. Surely aren’t you playing into the hands of the loonies on both sides? Why don’t we work together to get Christian and Muslim Copts (yes, I believe all Egyptians are Copts, just that some are Christian and some are Muslim) to see that they share far more together as Egyptians than Muslim Copts may share with their misguided Wahhabi financiers?
    Even if born Muslim, I am as Egyptian as you or any Christian Copt and the genetic tests show time and time again that Both Christian and Muslim Copts are genetically the same, and both contain equally small amounts of foreign genetic markers. Please stop appealing to loony right wing evangelist Americans who couldn’t care less about your status as a Copt. They don’t love you, they just hate your oppressors even more than you do. You have your loonies and I have mine. Let’s unite against them.
    You’re a very bright man from all I read by you. If you wish to contact me to continue this conversation, please el free to contact me on my email.
    JKL

  2. August 5, 2012 9:16 pm

    Dear Mr Boles
    Thank you for your comment. I have read that post in the past and admired its tone, but here and there in your posts there are comments that can be easily be misconstrued by the ignorant as if somehow Christian and Muslim Copts are different peoples. You have started a great debate and it will carry with it great responsibilities. In my humble capacity, I would like to avert this breakup of Egypt and I would like to do that with like-minded Egyptians like you. If I fail, then I will be the first to give up with Arab Republic of Egypt passport and apply for nationality of the new Coptic state. After all, my ancestors were Christians once too.
    My offer of cooperation stands whenever you wish to take it up. Keep up the good work!

    • Dioscorus Boles permalink
      August 5, 2012 11:37 pm

      Thanks again. I want to be honest with you: more and more Copts are starting to see themselves as a separate nation since the majority has failed, over the last two hundred years or so, in making Copts feel equal partners in the state. Egypt is in fact not a ‘nation-state’ despite all the appearances – this is what many have realised: Arab Muslims rule the state and Copts stay subjects with minimal rights and only restricted freedoms. No one should blame the Copts for increasingly seeing themselves as different – they have been hoping modernity will gradually change attitudes and cultures, and that Egypt would become a modern state, but they found that their hopes were deliberately dashed. And while we acknowledge that not all Muslim Egyptians are the same, and that there are many moderate Muslims who feel exactly like we do, and with whom we identify, the majority seems to be driven by a frame of mind dominated by political Islam and/or Arabism, and, consequently, through discriminatory and hostile actions that emanate from that same frame of mind, alienates the Copts and makes them feel separate. Unless the Islamists and Arabists – and I don’t make a great distinction between them on their damaging effect on the Copts and Egypt – are curbed, and Muslim Egyptians start seeing themselves as Egyptian first, the situation will just go from bad to worse.

      In all that I don’t blame you personally or accuse you of being part. You sound a very decent person, and most probably yu see yourself as Egyptian first, and don’t regard yourself as Arab, or believe in political Islam. But we have to take those who are different from you into account – and it seems that they are now, as yesterday, in the majority.

  3. August 6, 2012 5:07 am

    Dear Mr Boles
    I agree with you. We cannot turn back the clock and make the Arab invasion of AD641 go away. Arabism was a failed ideology opportunistically used by Nasser to lead an “Arab” world, whatever that means, and now it has been replaced by Islamism where Egyptian identity will be further eroded.
    I cannot stop you from holding your separatist ideas because I can understand your pain. However I believe that Egyptian dalliance with Islamism is both a huge threat but also an opportunity. These charlatans have always taken comfort from being a downtrodden opposition because they never had policies. Now they are in power, Egyptians can watch them fail. This time both Muslims and Christians will pay a price, but Muslims will I hope pay a heavier price for their careless stewardship of Egypt having ruled it for so long only to give us Morsi & co. I too want an Egypt where Christians and Muslims are equal, where there are no restrictions on church building and where we are all Egyptians and not Arabs. I believe for the first time we have a chance because we have real disruption of the status quo, but first Egyptians, both of the cross and crescent, must pay a heavy price. Do you have an email address?
    Sincerely
    JKL

  4. November 4, 2013 10:24 am

    This is beautiful, I love this figurine.

    I think that this is a Melitan miniature dog, a small spitz-type dog popular with children in the Roman period. The dog was often white in colour, very fluffy, with a pointed fox-like nose and pointed triangular ears. The nose is not hairy, but the dog has a thick fur around its neck and body. Its fluffy tail often curls over its back.

    There are several paintings of this type of dog on Attic chous vases, including this one: http://www.penn.museum/sites/greek_world/pottery_big-25.html

    And this chous too, shows a child playing with a small white fluffy dog: http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/image?img=Perseus:image:1991.01.0957

    This Greek rhyton is very carefully formed in the shape of the Melitan’s head. Note the fox-like nose, the triangular ears, and the puppy-like expression. The vase appears to have been painted white: http://images.metmuseum.org/CRDImages/gr/web-large/DP225166.jpg

    In the Roman period there is a great abundance of terracotta figurines of this dog all over the empire. One of the most detailed ones is this one from 1st century BC – 1st century AD Campania, Italy: http://www.britishmuseum.org/collectionimages/AN00408/AN00408076_001_l.jpg

    The Melitan miniature dog was often associated with children and childs-play. Here’s a child’s rattle made in the shape of the dog in 4th-1st century BC Greece: http://archaeologicalmuseum.jhu.edu/the-collection/object-stories/archaeology-of-daily-life/childhood/terracotta-dog-rattle/

    But as you already said, it seems that in Egypt this dog was sometimes associated with Sothis. In the Vatican collections there is a bronze figurine of a goddess riding a dog of this type and raising her right hand in a gesture (of blessing?), and the dog raises its right front paw with the same gesture. http://www.flickr.com/photos/dandiffendale/7761396242/

    • Dioscorus Boles permalink*
      November 4, 2013 12:00 pm

      Thank you Carla for an excellent entry from which I have learned. Enjoyable.

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