BMCR 2005.08.17

Senza ritegno: Il cane e la donna nell’ immaginario della Grecia antica

, Senza ritegno : il cane e la donna nell'immaginario della Grecia antica. Antropologia del mondo antico ; 1. Bologna: Il mulino, 2003. 372 pages, 8 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations, facsimile ; 22 cm.. ISBN 8815094180. €24.00.

In this thought-provoking book, Cristiana Franco examines the long-standing association, in archaic and classical Greece, between woman and dog. She takes an anthropological approach, examining the place of both in human society, as subjected subjects, so to speak: woman and dog are both recognized as intelligent, autonomous subjects who exercise their own judgment, but they are subordinate in the social hierarchy to the relevant dominant male, usually the man of the house, to whom they are expected to be unfailingly loyal.

Franco begins, as one might expect, with Hesiod’s tale of the creation of Pandora. Regarding Pandora’s dog-like mind, kuneos noos, she asks, what exactly does this gift consist of? And what does Hesiod intend when he gives Pandora a dog-like mind and a thieving nature? The answers to these questions require a 300-page excursus through Greek myth, thought, and literature, considering — in both broad strokes and fine detail — the place of dogs in Greek society and thought. Ample evidence is found, in a broad spectrum of literary sources, though Homer and the tragedians bulk largest. This book focuses relatively little on woman, and rightly so, as the enormous scholarship in print on the Greek attitude toward woman leaves Franco free to focus on dogs.

And as it turns out, the subject of dogs is more complex, interesting, and important than one might have expected. As Franco notes, the adjective kuneos, of Pandora, is both “less generic and banal than a modern reader would think” (12); the kun -root operates frequently in insults, as do other words that describe behavior associated by the Greeks with dogs. Franco’s anthropological approach follows that of Lévi-Strauss, who studied dogs in France: the dog is implicated in the human sphere not in a merely metonymic fashion, but as an autonymous subject; it is a heterogeneous element absorbed into the ethical mechanisms of obligation and affection. Lévi-Strauss noted that dogs need individual names because they participate as subjects in human life, but that dog names are distinct from everyday human names, such as Jean-Pierre. Franco remarks on the same for modern Italian dog names, though she notes a changing pattern. Dog names everywhere appear to stand out a bit from human names: this program of differentiation may explain why, among my hundreds of canine acquaintances at various dog parks, I have known many a Max and Sadie, but nary a Mary or Gary.

Franco operates with the following overall analysis of the place of dogs in Greek society: the dog is the only animal that is actually integrated into the human community, so it is expected to adhere to commonly practiced ethics (an irrational but common expectation, one that has not yet vanished). The dog lives in the house, eats human food, must exercise independent judgment in order to practice its work (herding, hunting, guarding), cannot perform its work while leashed or caged, and demonstrates a strong personal bond to its owner ( philia). No other animal fits all these categories — indeed, no other animal is allowed to supervise other animals, and it is worth recalling here how important the livestock animals are to the farmer. Dog and man co-exist through a food pact by which the dog owes total loyalty to its master in exchange for the leftovers reserved for it, usually cooked food (again unlike other animals). There is no single unifying trait for dogs, as there is for other species (i.e., lions are courageous, foxes are sly, donkeys are stupid, etc.). In other words, the Greeks recognized individuality and multiple functions in dogs. Although the dog is exalted relative to other animals, it enters human society at the bottom of the totem pole, and there it remains. In addition, the Greeks were aware that dogs can betray them (on which subject, more shortly), especially if the dogs were brought into the household as adults rather than puppies. So the dog is always an ambiguous member of the household: human but not-human, subject but object, trusted but suspected. As Franco points out, the same basic description also applies to woman, particularly the wife, who is acquired as an adult. Franco eventually argues that the dog itself, regardless of biological sex, is seen as a female animal — in other words, not only does woman have a dog’s nature, but dog has a woman’s nature.

Franco reviews dog-insults, noting that Greeks did not generally view dogs with hostility. Certain types of canine behavior, however, were repugnant, chiefly antisocial eating habits, such as coprophagy and necrophagy. Franco considers the oddity here to be not the Greeks, but the moderns, who have “disneyfied” dogs to such a degree as to be shocked at this behavior. The Homeric poems show a great horror at the thought of the dead body’s being eaten by dogs, a subject that Franco discusses more than once: the horror, however, is not at the dog’s activity but at the body’s fate. Modern readers are more shocked at the thought of dogs eating humans than Greek readers would have been.

But dogs are not the only animals with non-human eating habits, as the Greeks well knew. To be eaten by animals is to become non-human; to be eaten by dogs is to become reject-food and to take a reversed position in the food pact by which humans are above dogs in hierarchy. (Dogs are also accused of sexual incontinence; but, as Franco points out, Plutarch himself demolished that complaint by noting that no animals go indoors to mate in beds, QR 111 [290a-c]). As Franco demonstrates, the Homeric poems show dogs as fully integrated into the human community, enough so that “hunting dogs and men” are an indissoluble combination. Dog insults, then, derive from the extraoardinary closeness and solidarity of dog toward man. In addition, insults perform an perlocutionary function: to shout “dog!” is to remind another person that he or she is subordinate to you, because the dog is the lowest level of human, and is supposed to be obedient.

Franco demonstrates that although the Greeks prized dogs for their loyalty, affection, and labor, they found dogs to be failing in certain qualities, notably in ethical and communal qualities. Dogs lack manly courage, andreia; they have thrasos,shameless daring, instead. They lack shame and restraint, demonstrating anaideia instead. They do not practice xenia, a crucial archaic Greek cultural value. One might pause to think that it is rather unfair to expect a guard dog to welcome strangers, as its very job is to keep strangers away, but here is precisely an example of the ambiguous status of the dog. One needs it to keep strangers out, but it cannot distinguish between strangers and unrecognized friends. The dog’s owner will apologize for the dog’s antisocial behavior but be secretly gleeful at its aggression (Franco cites Theocr. 25.78-83). The dog must control itself, but its self-control is (a) faulty and unreliable, and (b) eventually a sign of untrustworthiness, in strong contrast to its wild brother, the wolf, who does not trick humans into trust.

The negative side of the dog arises in its ability to fool man. Its behavior — like that of woman — is not always to be trusted. Franco reviews a series of “canine masks,” undesired behaviors in dogs, such as daring, lack of aidos, intrusiveness, irrational vendetta (especially of dogs who have recently given birth), treachery, madness. Her analyses of the Furies as dogs, and of Hecuba’s transformation into the Kynossema are especially fine, and I cannot do justice to them here. She finds greater depth, breadth, and complexity in the connection of Hecuba to dogs than I would have thought possible. I particularly recommend this discussion as an exemplary study of Greek mythic thought.

By the time Franco returns to the subject of woman, she has demonstrated that Hesiod’s kuneos noos derives not from a single misogynist poet but “must constitute a widely diffused and deeply rooted model of ancient Greek culture” (251). A good dog is like a good woman, and vice versa: loyal, a guardian of the house, loving and affectionate. A bad dog is like a bad woman, and vice versa: overly talkative, tricky, treacherous, full of seductive and flattering behavior, designated by the Greek word sainein, which is a behavior of dogs, women, and sycophants. The dog’s elaborate show of welcome to the returning master (“fare le feste,” in Italian) is a sign of both philia and, possibly, treacherous seduction. On this subject Franco has much to say, as one might imagine, regarding Clytemnestra in the Agamemnon. Both dog and woman are what could be called “intimate enemies.” They coax and flatter, they are food parasites, they are strangers integrated into the household, and their interests may not always match those of the master of that household. Dogs will betray a master for food; women will betray a master (whether father, husband, or actual owner) for sex. Woman is excluded from the world of manly courage, so her hostility and enmity are always covert and aimed against an unsuspecting male intimate. She and dog are domestic traitors, unless they can be proven true.

Franco’s final discussion concerns the gendering of animals. She demonstrates that the dog is basically gendered female for the Greeks, even though the word kuon itself is gender-neutral and requires an article or adjectives to mark the gender of the dog in question. As Franco shows, random talk of dogs genders them female too frequently to be an accident: there are points when hai kunes operates as something like a species designation, as can be seen in a variety of Greek proverbs. The Greeks, in other words, saw the dog as being like women just as much as they saw women as being like dogs. Thus the dog becomes a totemic animal for the race of women, an emblem of the good guardian wife, the totally devoted wife and loyal daughter, but above all the various types of dogness (my translation for Franco’s coinage “cagneria”) in such bad women as ungrateful daughters, cheating wives, and so forth. As an animal, the dog was highly esteemed; as a member of the human community, it was placed at the bottom of the scale, disparaged as part of the ethical system, and viewed as an emblem of shamelessness precisely because it was the only animal asked to feel shame. As Franco remarks, “The symbolic intersection between the figure of the dog and that of the woman reveals in sum an ideal training ground for the exercise of foundational ideological strategies of the subordination of women” (323). She ends by noting the closed conceptual circle: if woman has a doglike nature, the dog is a female animal.

Oddly, for such a comprehensive discussion of dogs in human life, there is no consideration of the phenomenon of the female dog in heat. This aspect of canine life seems ripe for comparison to the way Hesiod depicts woman’s effect on man: man finds her irresistible, much as male dogs are drawn uncontrollably to a female dog in heat. Perhaps I am in error here, but I presume that the ancient Greeks did not routinely neuter their dogs, particularly the females, so the sight of semi-deranged male dogs surrounding the location of a female in heat — which must have been a frequent phenomenon — seems likely to have suggested further analogies to the Greek mind between woman and dog. I was surprised not to see this issue raised even briefly.

There are many fascinating insights here, but I cannot do justice to most of them. This is not a book for dipping into, or for quick extractions (though the discussion of Hecuba [206-220] will be of interest to anybody concerned with her story): its contents are fully integrated, so that the separate parts will make relatively little sense on their own. At times there is unneeded repetition, and some of the philological evidence is slender. Dog-lovers will find this book particularly interesting. (As one of them myself, I periodically wondered how an ancient Greek man would appreciate the ironies inherent in the fact that one woman wrote this book, and another woman reviewed it for BMCR, working under the constant supervision of a geriatric but watchful border collie named something more fanciful than John.)

But Senza ritegno is well worth reading for anybody — not dog-lovers alone — interested in a searching, thoughtful, thorough examination of important issues for classicists (it has a surprising amount to say about Homer, in particular). Woman in ancient Greece is by now, I hope, self-evidently important. As it turns out, however, the study of dogs reveals a great deal both about how the dog functioned as an integrated part of Greek life and about how the Greeks thought not only of animals, but of themselves and their socio-cultural values as well. The dog offers a reflecting surface for an astonishing array of Greek ethics, ideals, concerns, and values: manliness, loyalty, courage, respect, retributive justice, sexual continence, devotion, honesty, trustworthiness, and more. By studying ancient Greek dogs, Franco has offered insight into Greek culture as a whole.