Canine deities have been worshiped since the dawn of civilization. For thousands of years, our species has prayed to their species — and/or lived in mortal fear of divine canine wrath. When you look at it that way, who’s really wearing the collar and leash?
Usually depicted with the lithe brown body of a man and the pointy-eared, narrow-muzzled head of a jackal — but sometimes as a full jackal, from nose to tail — Anubis was the ancient Egyptian god of mummification and of the dead, whom he protected en route to the afterlife.
Scholars suggest that Anubis is a jackal because wild jackals tended to lurk around ancient Egyptian graveyards; also because the embalming process, with all its attendant scents and stinks, brings that keen canine sense of smell to mind.
This Sumerian goddess of fertility and healing, patron deity of the ancient Babylonian city of Lagash, is often depicted with the head of a dog.
A hymn to Bau, originally written in cuneiform, proclaims: “The lady of the city am I, when I utter the word / When with rich fullness I, as the deity of irrigation, utter the word.” Scholars say Bau’s name is derived from the sound of barking, that it’s the first half of “bow wow.”
In Old Norse mythology, Fenrir is a monstrous wolf, a son of the god Loki, determined to kill the god Odin.
A 13th-century poem details this dreaded encounter with the lines: “Sorrow / When Odin goes / To fight the wolf.” Desperate to protect Odin, other gods chained Fenrir to a rock a mile underground, a sword propped between his jaws to keep him from biting. But the myths say that come Ragnarok — that is, the end of the world — Fenrir will escape, eat Odin, and die.
In ancient Greek mythology, Kerberos is a huge, three-headed hound who guards the entrance to Hades, where he prevents ghosts from sneaking out and rejoining the world of the living.
In ancient Rome, this fearsome watchdog was known as Cerberus. Ovid’s Metamorphosis describes “the hell-hound Cerberus, fast on a chain…. His three throats filled the air with triple barking, barks of frenzied rage, and spattered the green meadows with white spume.”
In Shinto tradition, kitsune are otherworldly foxes with supernatural powers. Able to grow as many as nine tails, kitsune come in two forms: beneficent (zenko) and malevolent (yako).
The former are linked with the rice-god Inari and enjoy eating rice-stuffed tofu pouches; the latter like to seduce men. The opposite of humanoid deities who can take canine form, kitsune are foxes that can take human form. Inari temples throughout Japan feature perky-eared stone statues of these keenly alert canines.
In Irish mythology, the Morrigan is a goddess of war and conflict.
A shapeshifter who enjoyed taking the form of a wolf, she is known for her battle with the hero Cuchulain. The ancient epic Táin Bó Cúlange recounts: “The Morrigan next came in the form of a rough, grey-red bitch-wolf with wide open jaws, and she bit Cuchulain in the arm…, and Cuchulain made a cast of his little javelin at her, strongly, vehemently, so that it shattered one eye in her head.”
Said to have slain his own brother, the god Osiris, Set is yet another ancient Egyptian canine deity, usually depicted as a broad-shouldered man with an animal’s head.
But unlike Anubis and Wepwawet, Set — whose divine dominions include storms, deserts, darkness, foreigners, and chaos — is not based on any specific canine species such as the jackal or the wolf. His long tail, curved snout, and tall, erect ears evoke an amalgam of fox, jackal, aardvark, and donkey.
An ancient Egyptian war and funerary god whose name means “opener of the roads,” Wepwawet is depicted as a canine creature that scholars say is a jackal, a wolf (many depictions include a shorter, straighter, less jackal-like muzzle than those of Anubis and Set), or an ordinary dog.
His associations with war and the newly dead — whom, like Anubis, he accompanies on their journeys to the underworld — might be due to canines’ well-earned reputation as fierce fighters and savvy scouts.
Often depicted as a man with the head of a raggedy-eared dog, but sometimes as a skeleton or as a backwards-footed freak, Xolotl was the Aztec god of lightning and fire.
Often paired with that more famous Aztec deity, Quetzalcoatl, Xolotl was hailed as the Lord of the West and as the evening star, tasked with overseeing sunsets and guarding the sun on its nightly transit through the underworld. His name inspired that of the real-life species known in Mexico as Xoloitzcuintli and elsewhere as the Mexican Hairless.
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