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Animals were essential to the ancient Greeks. On a practical level, they were crucial to farm work and food production; they served their masters at war or carried them from place to place. They assisted them in the hunt or played a crucial role in ostentatious public sacrifices and in prophecy. Finally, they were companions and mentors. Such a close relationship left abundant traces in the literature and archaeological monuments of archaic, classical and Hellenistic Greece. Ancient myths, fables, epic poems, histories, and funerary monuments record the bond between animals (ranging from dogs to elephants) and their owners. But what names did the ancient Greeks select for their four-legged companions?
Cattle husbandry was a cornerstone of ancient Greek society. The epic poet Hesiod listed ox as one of the three essentials for anyone (the other two being a house and a wife). The heroes of Homer ate lots of beef and used the leather for their armor and shields. The average person, of course, would not have been able to consume so much meat, but oxen provided draft and sacrificial animals. This intimate relationship is reflected in the tendency to name the cows and the bulls. It was a tradition that originated in Minoan Crete, since the tablets of Knossos record the names of cattle: Black, Red, Dapple, Red-rump, Dusky, etc. The bucolic poet Theocritus in the 3rd century BCE recorded the efforts of a herdsman to gather his wayward cows, Lepargos (“whitecoat”) and Kymaitha (“chubby”).
What a man will do for his horses
Horses were another valuable and beloved possession, especially among the aristocrats. They provided essential service in battle and bequeathed eternal glory to their owners with their victories at equestrian competitions (especially at the Olympic Games). Cimon “Coalemos” (6th century BCE) was the proud owner of mares which won the Olympic chariot race three times. He had been banned from Athens for political reasons, but when he dedicated his second victory to the tyrant Peisistratus he was allowed to return. Four years later he won his third victory, only this time the sons of Peisistratus became envious of him and murdered him. His mares were buried in a tomb opposite his own, perhaps as part of the funerary rites.
We do not know the names of Cimon’s mares, but those of other famous ancient Greek horses have been recorded. Homer informs us that Achilles had three horses called Xanthus (“blonde”), Balius (“dappled”), and Pedasos (“jumper” or “captive”); the first two were divine, while Pedasos was mortal. Alexander the Great managed to impress his father and the Macedonian court by taming Bucephalus (“ox-head”), an imposing black animal who was named after a branding mark on his haunch depicting a bull’s head. The horse was said to have died in Punjab at the age of thirty. Alexander mourned his death and celebrated his life by founding the city of Alexandria Bucephalous in his memory.
The desire to commemorate a faithful and beloved horse was not restricted to the powerful. Even private citizens felt the need to erect a memorial or compose an epigram. This was the case with the wind-footed Aethyia (“seagull”), a mare who was as fast as a bird; during her illustrious career as a racing horse, she as far as a ship. Less fortunate was Aetos (“eagle”); in his youth, he had “outshone all fleet-footed horses” at the Panhellenic Games but when he grew old he was fettered by a collar and grinded corn by turning a rough stone.
Dogs played a significant role in ancient Greek society. There were hunting dogs, guard dogs, sheepdogs, performing dogs, and pet dogs. In Homer’s Odyssey, the noble hound Argos lies on a pile of cow manure. He is infested with fleas and can no longer assist his owner with his tracking skills. And yet, Argos is the first living creature to recognize Odysseus when the latter finally returns to Ithaca after twenty years overseas. When his master entered the hut of the swineherd Eumaeus, Argos was seized by “the darkness of death”.
Many centuries later (2nd century CE), Anaxeos from Mytilene bade a last farewell to Parthenope (“maiden-voiced”), his beloved and kind dog with whom he used to play throughout her life. Another man from Pergamon lamented the loss of his dog in the 3rd century BCE; Philokynegos (“chasseur”) was swift-footed and had spent his life chasing after ferocious beasts. Other canine names include Lampourgos (“fire tail”) for a sheepdog and Taurus (“bull”) for a swift-footed Maltese dog, who once guarded his master Eumelos, but is now prevented from barking by the silent streets of the eternal night. Anyte of Tegea commemorated the loss of Maira, a female hound that loved to make lots of noise; unfortunately, she was bitten by a spotted-throated viper near her home at Locri and perished.
King Antiochus III the Great was a big fan of elephants and made a point of receiving as many of these beasts as possible as a gift from Sophagasenus, a minor king who ruled the lands around Kabul. Antiochus was particularly fond of two of these elephants, to which he had given the names of famous ancient Greek heroes. During a campaign, though, the first of these elephants (Ajax) refused to enter a stream, while the other (Patroclus) made the attempt and was rewarded with silver pendants. Ajax felt degraded and refused to eat, preferring “death to ignominy”.