Deities and Dogs—Their Sacred Rites

By Lawrence E. Stager

Sidebar to: Why Were Hundreds of Dogs Buried at Ashkelon?

In the ancient Near East, dogs are often associated with particular deities and the powers they wield. We cannot yet be sure with which deity the dogs in the cemetery at Ashkelon were associated. There are several possibilities, in several cultural guises, often interrelated as one deity merges into another.

But in the end, a common theme emerges—deities with healing powers are often associated with dogs.

According to a Phoenician legend, the leading deity of the city of Tyre, Herakles-Melkart, was credited with the discovery of purple. Actually, however, it was his dog who discovered the product for which the Phoenicians were world-renowned—purple dye, extracted from a gland in a Murex mollusk: Herakles was strolling along the beach with his dog and with a beautiful nymph named Tyrus. His hound discovered a Murex and bit into it. The dye from the snail stained the dog’s lips a bright purple, a color the nymph greatly admired. Herakles collected enough mollusks to dye a robe purple and presented this fine gift to the nymph. This discovery was celebrated on coins from Tyre, depicting a dog sniffing a Murex snail.11

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