I this excerpt from Homer’s The Odyssey, translated by Robert Fagles ©1996, Odysseus has returned home. He’s in disguise at the moment, but he couldn’t fool everyone:
Now, as they talked on, a dog that lay there
lifted up his muzzle, pricked his ears…
It was Argos, long-enduring Odysseus’ dog
he trained as a puppy once, but little joy he got
since all too soon he shipped to sacred Troy.
In the old days young hunters loved to set him
coursing after the wild goats and deer and hares.
But now with his master gone he lay there, castaway,
on piles of dung from mules and cattle, heaps collecting
out before the gates till Odysseus’ serving men
could cart if off to manure the king’s estates.
Infested with ticks, half-dead from neglect,
here lay the hound, old Argos.
But the moment he sensed Odysseus standing by
he thumped his tail, nuzzling low, and his ears dropped,
though he had no strength to drag himself an inch
toward his master. Odysseus glanced to the side
and flicked away a tear, hiding it from Eumaeus,
diverting his friend in a hasty, offhand way:
“Strange, Eumaeus, look, a dog like this,
lying here on a dung-hill…
what handsome lines! But I can’t say for sure
if he had the runnng speed to match his looks
or he was only the sort that gentry spoil at table,
show-dogs masters pamper for their points.”
You told the stranger, Eumaeus, loyal swineherd,
“Here– it’s all too true– here’s the dog of a man
who died in foreign parts. But if he had now
the form and flair he had in his glory days–
as Odysseus left him, sailing off to Troy–
you’d be amazed to see such speed, such strength.
No quarry he chased in the deepest, darkest woods
could ever slip this hound. A champion tracker too!
Ah, but he’s run out of luck now, poor fellow…
his master’s dead and gone, so far from home,
and the heartless women tend to him not at all. Slaves,
with their lords no longer there to crack the whip,
lose all zest to perform their duties well. Zeus,
the Old Thunderer, robs a man of half his virtue
the day the yoke clamps down around his neck.”
With that he entered the well-constructed palace,
strode through the halls and joined the proud suitors.
But the dark shadow of death closed down on Argos’ eyes
the instant he saw Odysseus, twenty years away.
Odysseus, in spite of his heroic god-like persona, really wasn’t a very nice person. He tried to put a nice polish on it, but at the core his job was killing people and taking all their stuff. But he did like dogs, so he had that going for him. (Of course, so did Hitler.)
But it is somehow comforting that even 2,800 years ago, when this story was first told, people loved their dogs. I do like that. It makes 800 B.C. seem not that long ago.