The Celtic Hound
by Saigh Kym Lambert (copyright 1998-2012 © Saigh Kym Lambert, all rights reserved do not republish anywhere)
The Greyhound has long been believed to have originated in the Middle East and to have been the dog of Egypt, then ranging through Europe including among the Celts. Earlier versions of this essay reflected, that belief, while pointing out that such hounds were well known among the Celts early on and the Roman’s knew the rose-eared sighthound known as the Vertragus, the predecessor to the modern Greyhound as well as the Galgo, the Scottish Deerhound, the Irish Wolfhound and the Borzoi (and, it seems, several herding breeds), as “Celtic Hounds.” Arrian (Flavius Arrianus) wrote extensively about the Celtic Greyhound, noting that the Elder Xenophon’s work did not include such dogs as they were unknown to him, a further hint that they were of a more western/northern European origin. (Arrian) We now know from genetic studies that these hounds have a separate lineage from the Middle Eastern Saluki (once thought to be the predecessor of all Sighthounds) and do, in fact, originate with the Celtic culture. (Everything You Know is Wrong, Genetic Structure) (Popular claims that the Greyhound was so popular in the Middle East that it is the only dog mentioned in the Bible do not hold as only the King James version, and perhaps some following suit, translated this as “Greyhound” due to the King’s love of racing Are Greyhounds Really Mentioned in the Bible?)
Arrian speaks of the love the Gauls had for coursing and hunting their hounds and we certainly see this in the stories and iconography of the British Isles and Ireland as well. We also see that these hounds might have been seen to have more to offer than just hunting or warfare, there are links to healing, travel and possibly Otherworldly connections. We see a connection between hunting, and perhaps warfare, and healing exemplified within the dog, as Davidson considered that the dual nature of dogs, to be both faithful, loving companion and fierce, destructive guardian mirrors the dual nature of many of the Goddesses (pg. 50, Davidson). Green similarly speculated that while dogs were linked to death through hunting, they had three beneficial characteristics “…fidelity, the guarding instinct and the perceived ability of the dog to heal itself with it’s saliva.” ( pg. 198 Green 1992) The Goddess Nehalenia, who is either German (Davidson) or Gaulish (Green), linked to travel, is often shown with varying sizes of dogs, from small lap dogs to large hunting hounds, as well. (pg 47-50 Davidson, pg. 200-201 Green 1992, pg. 176-180 Green 1995, pg. 10-16 Green 1997) The obvious link that dogs might have to travel is nodded to by Davidson (pg. 47) as possibly offering safe travel, yet dogs ability to find their way should perhaps be taken more seriously as something humans have long been aware of, although their usefulness in the sea travel that Nehalenia is linked to might be more puzzling. Mother Goddesses are often depicted with smaller dogs, according to Green these lapdogs are often interchangeable with fertility symbols of grain or babies and may themselves represent fertility, while Davidson notes that they may have represented protection of the home. (pg. 201 Green 1992, pg. 29 Green 1997, pg 47 Davidson) Green also notes a link between dogs and the underworld, as death guides which does make sense again in their associations with “finding ones way” and therefore links the Mother Goddess connection with rebirth. (pg. 29 Green 1997) Those of us aware that most “lapdogs” started out as vermin catchers, even before being flea catchers, might tend to speculate that protection from the rodents which might eat the grain or nip the babies might have been a consideration as well.
Gods also are depicted with or as dogs, especially healers. The British God Noden, who Himself may relate as a “Celtic Mars” as well as possibly cognate to the Irish God Nuada, was never depicted anthropomorphically but dogs of all sizes were commonly found at His healing shrines. (pg. 199 Green 1992, pg. 40, 115, 144 Green 1997) Green also notes that Gaulish healing Gods were also depicted with dog such as a “Celtic Mars” in Mavilly and Apollo Belenus at Saint Sabine. (pg. 198 Green 1992) Hammer-Gods are also shown with dogs, both hounds and smaller terriers in Burgundy. This could link to healing as well, but also abundance and may indicate a hunting connection, according to Green.(pg. 199, 200 Green 1992)
The image of the hound continued to be an important motif well into Christian times, in Scotland we find Greyhounds depicted in hunt scenes on Class III Pictish stones of Scotland such as the Hilton of Cadboll and Aberlemno stones. The Book of Kells contains many images of dogs, apparently both of hound and alaunt type. Many of the Kells images are popular to day including in some of the clip art I’m using here.
It is in the tales of Irish heroes where we perhaps come across the strongest evidence of the importance of hounds to any Celtic culture. The most popular ones, Fionn MacCumhal and Cú Chulainn, in fact in both cases there are signs that warrior and hound were totally intertwined. This is most obvious with Cú Chulainn, who himself became “The Hound of the Smith” when the boy Setanta killed Culainn’s (the Smith’s) hound as a child. He followed Conchobar’s party but his patron, having forgotten the boy was coming, told the smith the dog could be released to guard, when young Setanta arrived the animal attacked him and he ended up killing it. (pg 140-142 English, pg. 17-19 Irish TBC ) It, of course, brings to question what sort of hound might be described in this story, which is referred to as árchú which is translated in the eDIL as “war-hound” or “slaughter-hound” and is translated in this translation of the tale as ‘”a blood hound, [i.e. a hound brought from overseas, i.e. the whelp of a mastiff.]’ (pg 141 English, pg. 18 Irish TBC ). Given the tendencies of the Greyhounds, of all sizes, to be hunters but not attack dogs, one might question if this hound, which is said to come from Spain (which does seem to generally just mean “somewhere else” in the tales) was indeed perhaps a mastiff-type, as we’ll discuss shortly. This tale does show the importance of such an animal to it’s owner, as it would take time for a pup to be raised to take over the dead hound’s duties which meant the boy had to do so in the meantime. Cú Chulainn held a lifelong connection with hounds, his death coming, in part, due to the breaking of a geas that he never eat dog meat; as he was also prohibited from refusing hospitality offered by a woman, it was an unavoidable breaking of one or the other. (pg 254-255 Stokes)
Fionn’s association is more obviously connected to hunting hounds as the Fianna were hunters as well as warriors, so these,were most likely of the Greyhound variety. And his own and the rest of the Fianna’s connection with canines, both hounds and wolves, is something which seems to have been of great importance. Best known, of course, are his nephews or cousins, Bran and Sceolan. Fionn’s aunt, or sometimes sister, Tuiren, was transformed in the Otherworld to a hound bitch and gave birth as such, her sons remaining for life in the form and loyal companions to their uncle/cousin. In some later tales only Bran seems to travel with Fionn, and he now has a poisoned claw which is kept covered by a special shoe. (pg. 197-205 Nagy) There were, however, many other hounds associated with Fionn, including Adhnuall, who died of grief after many of the Fianna died in battle. (pg. 224-226, 238, 271-273 Gregory pg. 94 O’Grady 1898) It is likely that the Fianna would have hunted with sizable packs.
Fionn and the rest of the Fianna’s associations with canines, both domestic hound and wild wolf, is actually quite vast. The members of the Fianna, díberga, went fáelad or “wolfing.” (pg. 44, 244 n20 Nagy, McCone, West) Fionn’s foster-father Fícail mac Conchinn’s patronymic marks him as “son of Dog-head” and Fionn’s own father’s name “Cumall” is noted by Nagy as possibly relating to “cú” and is the same as part of the name of Conaire’s dog in Togail Bruidne Da Derga. Nagy admits that the name may originally have been “Umall” but finds that the transformation may be significant. Fionn’s grandfather also shares a name with a dog of Medb’s and Nagy finds it notable that Fionn refuses the offer for his nephews to be changed to human considering it better they remain hounds. (pg. 243-244, n19 Nagy)
The fénnid Conán mac Morna’s name means “little dog.”(pg. 44, 154-155 Nagy) and the fénnid Cáel is so entwined with both his hounds and horses that when he is killed they died with him. (pg. 245, n22 Nagy) Throughout all the tales “dog” names flourish among warriors, the name cú glas was a legal term for exiles, who often served as mercenaries, form other lands. (pg. 244, n21 Nagy) Some warriors had their beginnings aided by canines, including Cormac mac Art, who was the king at the time of Fionn. As an infant his mother fell asleep and he was stolen by a she-wolf who raised him until he was found by a hunter. (O’Daly, O’Grady 1892, pg. 64-65 Ó hÓgáin) Cormac’s father’s enemy, who Cormac would later dispose as king, was named Lugaid Mac Con. It is said he gained the name “son of a hound” because he was suckled by a Greyhound bitch. (pg. 67 ÓhÓgáin)
The Story of Mac Da Tho’s Pig, tells of a rivalry started for a spectacular hound, Ailbe, belonging to Mac Da Tho. Both Medb and Ailill of Connacht and Conchobar of Ulster want this hound and Mac Da Tho, at the prompting of his wife, promises it to both. As both parties arrive at the same time, a champion’s boasting match develops between those of both sides in regards to the Champion’s Portion of the giant pig, hence the title. The Hound is allowed to choose, and choosing Ulster begins killing the warriors of Connacht. The battle that ensues does not fair well for the reason for it, the hound, is killed and it is said that Mag nAilbe (Ailbe’s Plain) is named for this hound.
Perhaps the best known later legend is that of Llewellyn ‘s Greyhound Gellert. The hound, his favorite, stays behind one day when Llewellyn goes hunting, and upon his return Llewellyn finds his son’s crib overturned and the dog bloody. Horrified that the beloved animal killed his son, Llewellyn kills the hound then and there&..the dying cries of the faithful Greyhound are echoed by the cries of the baby, hidden beneath the upturned crib. A bit away the body of a wolf is found. Gellert had saved the child from a wolf attack, only to be repaid by death. It is said that “Beth Gêlert” means “Gellert’s Grave” and is named for him. The literal truth of this tale can be brought into question by the number of similar tales, including an Aesop’s’ Fable and an Indian tale of a heroic mongoose, as well as almost identical Greyhound tales. It remains, of course, a n important lesson in the loyalty of the dog and the suspicious nature of the human. The latest telling of such a story is found in Le Moine et la Sorcière ( The Sorceress), where the Greyhound which saves his master’s son from a snake becomes the local Saint of a small French village that so scandalizes the visiting Monk of the title.
What breed many of the hounds above were is difficult to determine as such the concept of breeds as we have today is quite modern….what a dog did was how it was often grouped. Today many think only of the Irish Wolfhound and the Scottish Deerhound as “Celtic Sighthounds” and seem to consider them a different breed from the Greyhound. Ultimately, as shown in Genetic Structure of the Purebred Domestic Dog these all originated as the same hound, as did the Galgo and the Borzoi. With the Galgo Español we still see that both hair types, smooth and wiry, can be found within the same breed and this smaller, less extreme in all the ways the others might be, hound may indeed represent the closest to the old-type Vertragus. (Galgo Español) At some point the smooth coated Greyhound and the wiry coated Deerhounds and Wolfhounds seemed to have parted ways; it may be that the softer long fur of the Borzoi was also found intermixed but later diverted with specific breeding. The smooth coat of the Greyhounds is believed by many to come at least partially from Lord Orford’s alleged crossing of Greyhounds with Bulldogs (which would be more like American Bulldogs than the modern English), however this likely never took place and the resulting loss of speed that would have resulted makes it incredible. (CZARINA – Bulldog Legend or Mythology?) It’s far more likely just to be part of the selective breeding, possibly only a side effect of breeding the smaller hounds primarily to run hare and while larger ones to run deer, boars and wolves.
The Irish Wolfhound is problematic, of course, in that it is a fairly recent reconstruction, the original having been essentially wiped out and was recreated by Captain George Augustus Graham of Scotland from supposedly a few remaining originals, Scottish Deerhounds and Great Danes. (Captain Graham) Certainly there were sizable hounds that hunted wolves, boars and deer (but not Irish Elk as some IW enthusiasts have claimed ** ) in Ireland although actual size of these dogs could have been large especially compared to other Greyhounds of the day (which were more likely the size of Galgos). And we can trust that there were dogs that were fierce war-dogs and guards. Whether they were the same, considering the general nature of Greyhounds towards humans, it something to be debated. It seems more likely that were many sorts of dogs in Ireland for some time, including Alaunt/Mastiff types as well. It is doubtful there was but one dog in Ireland then any more than now. We do know, after all, that both Sighthounds and Alaunts were commonly worked together to hunt larger prey in many other areas it’s likely this also took place in Ireland and Scotland too. ( pg.12-14, Cummins)
It is, of course, precarious to try to figure out the actual breeds mentioned during this time for “breed” is a fairly modern concept and dogs were known for what they did, not their breed. A “sighthound,” “gazehound” or “Greyhound” simply hunted by sight and were fast, the Alaunt was big and brought things down with strength, however, as the Alaunts also ran prey down before dropping it, they too were often referred to as “gazehounds.” (pg.15, Cummins) Therefore while “cú” in Irish is often seen as being a “sighthound” it may well have covered any dog of any breeding which ran down prey, while “árchú” might relate to any dog which showed a talent for guarding. Likewise, when one speaks of “deer” hounds or “wolf” hounds it would originally have been what the hound hunted, not necessarily a breed. The “wolfhound” would become a “deerhound” after the wolves were hunted to extinction.
The images of Celtic warriors surrounded by hounds is evocative to many Celtic Polytheists today, I know many who have noted their desire to someday have an Irish Wolfhound or a Scottish Deerhound which they envision as the ultimate Gaelic dog. These are also dogs which are expensive and seldom found in rescue (and rather short lived and with small, problematic gene pools) . I admit to having always had a bit of an agenda with this article, to remind those who might be in a position to actually give their lives to a dog, or a few dogs, not to forget that the “lowly” ex-racing Greyhound has just as much of a Celtic heritage as they their hairier kin. While it’s not a reason to get a dog, a huge and serious responsibility, if one is in the place to give a good forever home there is no reason to wait for “the day” when so many Greyhounds are waiting to be adopted. If someone is already considering a commitment to a Sighthound, which may require considerations that some other breeds do not due to prey-drive and lack of call-back, then the Greyhound is certainly the one I would consider first even if one still holds out to someday have something larger and hairier as well. There is still a need, although it seems less interest lately, for adoption. The Galgo too is still endangered in it’s own country where it’s been considered a “garbage dog” and is also a “proper Celtic hound.”
There are many ex-racing Greyhound kennels out there, we have adopted all our hounds through one in NH NH Greyhound Placement Service , except for one from Maine GPS. As I do consider adoption, regardless of the breed you do choose, the best way to find possible candidates for Deerhounds (although the low numbers of the breed today mean there are few available in rescue situations and many have health issues) or Wolfhounds is through the breed clubs which are the same places to learn about responsible breeders if you do choose to buy, in the US they are Scottish Deerhound Club of America and Irish Wolfhound Club of America. Galgos are being aided by groups such as GRIN – Galgo Rescue International Network and have become more of a “thing” in the US the past few years as many who are rescue minded stopped working with rehoming NGA Greyhounds as they are not rescues. I might note that previous positive experience with owning another Sighthound like Greyhounds does improve your candidacy as an adopter of these other Sighthounds. But don’t forget that the racing Greyhound is as much the Celtic hound as the “Celtic breeds” are, yourlocal US adoption group can be found at this link. As more and more states ban racing, there is some more immediate need for adopters of NGA Greyhounds, although in a matter of years these running dogs will become rarer, a healthy Greyhound may be as difficult to find as a healthy Deerhound in the coming decades. Regardless of what dog you bring into your life, always remember that this is a commitment made for the life of that dog. Sadly, sometimes the “romance” of living with an ancient breed doesn’t always last, I know of reenactors who have adopted Greyhounds only to dump them after a few months when they discover this “prop” eats, shits and needs vet care. Don’t be that person.
If you found this of interest or use, please do consider the work put into it and help out
I have additional related articles that have been published in Air n-Aithesc related to canine warriors and may eventually be selling PDF copies again. “Going into Wolf-shape” discussing the canine nature of the Irish warrior with some look at Proto-Indo-European roots was in Vol. 1 Issue 1, Imbolc 2014 . “The War Goddess’s Bitch“ about female canine-humans and some personal stuff was in Vol. 3 Issue 1, Imbolc/Bealtaine 2016 and “The Hounds Betwixt and Between: Cú Chulainn and Finn as Liminal Heroes” which includes some on their canine nature was in Vol. 4 Issue 2, Lughnasadh/Samhain 2017. I explore this path on the Scáth na Feannóige website and related media.
If you want to see more about my own personal spiritual connection with dogs please see: Canines on my Path or I was a Toddler Weredog
Heidi G. Parker, Lisa V. Kim, Nathan B. Sutter et al, Genetic Structure of the Purebred Domestic Dog Science, 21 May, 2004: Vol. 304 no. 5674, pg. 1160-1164
Eleanor Hull, ed.,The Cuchullin Saga in Irish Literature: being a collection of stories relating to the Hero Cuchullin, David Nutt on the Strand, 1898 (Whitley Stokes, trans., “The Tragical Death of Cochulainn”)
Mairin O’Daly, “ The Heroic Biography of Cormac Mac Art” from Cath Maige Mucrama : the battle of Mag Mucrama, Irish Texts Society, 1975
Standish Hayes O’Grady, trans., “ The Colloquy with the Ancients”
—, trans., Birth of Cormac from Silva Gadelica, C. Lemma Publishing Corporation, 1970 (org. 1892)
**The Irish Elk became extinct during the Mesolithic Age along with other Giant animals such as the Mammoths. Many Irish Wolfhound enthusiasts still insist, sadly, that the Irish Elk lived into historical times. I believe that this stems from the confusion of what an Elk really is especially among Americans. American Elks are not Elks, but a type of deer closely related to the Red Deer that are found in the British Isles. The true American elk is the Moose, for which we use a corruption of a Native name for….. and the Irish Elk would to us appear to be a giant moose and was a relative as are other European Elk which are “moose.” The Red Deer of the British Isles is a close relative of the American Elk or Waputi. There were rather unlikely to have been Irish Wolfhounds being used to hunt these animals….the period in which they thrived in Ireland before becoming extinct is one with no sign of human settlement in Ireland…Early Stone Age. (Maire and Conor Cruise O’ Brien. Ireland: A Concise History Thames & Hudson)
All text and material, unless otherwise noted below, is copyright © 1998-1999, 2001, 2004, 2012 Saigh Kym Lambert, all right reserved, and may not be copied or reprinted without expressed permission. Links are permitted, notification is requested.
Detail from Hilton of Cadboll Stone, two hounds downing deer, sketch copyright © 2001 Saigh Kym Lambert
Celtic Greyhound modified from one from EponaWorks -dead link
3 hounds modified from Chris’ Celtic Clip Art-dead link