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Dogs in graves – a question of symbolism?

Dogs in graves – a question of symbolism?

By Anne-Sofie Gräslun

PECUS. Man and animal in antiquity. Proceedings of the conference at the Swedish Institute in Rome, September 9-12, 2002

Abstract: A 9th century female boat-grave is the starting point for a discussion about dogs in Scandinavian graves from c. 500-1100 AD. Some Scandinavian prehistoric material is presented: Mesolithic dog graves, Bronze Age rock carvings, canine bones from cremation graves and from sacrifi cial fi nds, from the Neolithic to Roman Iron Age. From c. 500-1100 AD there is a large corpus of dog bones from graves, cremations as well as inhumations. In the high status graves, the dog bones have been regarded as an element of aristocratic horseback hunting. In ordinary cremation graves dog bones occur frequently.

Turning to the history of religions it is quite clear that the dog is an important animal. In Old Iranian as well as in Celtic culture the dog had high status both mythically and in reality, in contrast to Semitic cultures, where the idea of the dog was more negative. Concerning Old Scandinavian mythology, evidence from Old Norse literature and also from Adam of Bremen, Thietmar of Merseburg and Ibn Fadlan clearly demonstrates the connection between dog and death. The mythical dog seems to be a medium on the border between the living and the dead, and in all likelihood the archaeological material refl ects this important symbolic-mythological meaning in the transformation from life to death.

Introduction: In one of the boat graves from Old Uppsala, Uppland, Sweden, excavated in 1974 and dated to the 9th century AD, a woman in a splendid dress and with very rich ornaments was buried together with two animals, a hen and a dog (Fig. 1a-b). The dog was placed outside the stern; the excavator commented this with the following words: “the dog seems to have been taken by its tail and been slipped down between the boat and the wall of the pit”. In my view, the plan gives a strong impression of the importance of the dog for the funeral ceremonies, as well as the hen in the stem, the latter probably as a symbol of rebirth. It is a well-known fact among Scandinavian archaeologists that dogs occur frequently in graves from the second half of the fi rst millennium, but does it also occur in earlier periods? What does it mean and how frequent are dogs in women’s graves? I will start with an overview of how dogs appear in the prehistoric-early medieval material from Scandinavia, give some examples as comparison from the Continent and from the Classical world and then fi nally discuss the meaning of the dog from a perspective of religion.

Click here to read this article from the Swedish Institute of Classical Studies

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