Celtic Dog Tattoos

The Celtic dog or hound provides an interesting glimpse into the way the Christian interpretation of this animal symbol was changed after encountering the ancient Celtic interpretation. Numerous biblical references to dogs are unambiguous in their common disdain for the animal:

Of them the proverbs are true: “A dog returns to its vomit” … (2 Peter 2:22)

Watch out for those dogs, those men who do evil, those mutilators of the flesh. (Philippians 3:2)

Outside are the dogs, those who practice magic arts, the sexually immoral, the murderers, the idolators and everyone who loves and practices falsehood. (Revelation 22:14-16)

Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw pearls to pigs. (Matthew 7:6)

Celtic Dog Clip Art

Celtic Dog Clip Art

And yet, sprinkled throughout the illuminated manuscripts, the lavishly produced Biblical writings produced in Celtic monasteries, are images of dogs. However, to understand the high regard in which Celtic dogs were held is to understand their placement in these texts. The modern Irish Wolfhound (or Cú Faoil, the tallest of all dog breeds) is possibly a descendant of an ancient breed of Celtic dogs that were bred for war and also used to hunt wolves and herd stock. The story of how the legendary Irish hero Cuchulain received his name illustrates their exceedingly high value in Celtic society.

The “little lad” was accompanying his mother’s brother, King Conchobar, to a feast thrown for him by a smith called Culann. Conchobar arrived first and Culann inquired if any others might be arriving later.

“Hast thou, O king, appointed any to come after thee this night to this dûn?” “No, I appointed no one,” replied Conchobar, for he had forgotten the little lad whom he had charged to come after him. “Why so?” asked Conchobar. “An excellent bloodhound have I, that was brought from Spain. When his dog-chain is loosed from him, no one dares approach the same cantred with him to make a course or a circuit, and he knows no one but myself. The power of hundreds is in him for strength.”

However, when the little lad arrives, he dispatches the mighty hound with little effort, and the members of the feast rush out when they hear the yelp of the dog. When Culann sees that his “slaughter-hound” is dead, he feels his heart beating against his breast and says,

“‘Welcome thy coming, little lad,’ said Culann, ‘because of thy mother and father, but not welcome is thy coming for thine own sake. Yet would that I had not made a feast.’ ‘What hast thou against the lad?’ queried Conchobar. ‘Not luckily for me hast thou come to quaff my ale and to eat my food; for my substance is now a wealth gone to waste, and my livelihood is a livelihood lost now after my dog. Good was the friend thou hast robbed me of, even my dog, in that he tended my herder and flocks and stock for me.’”

For his part, the little lad promises to raise a new puppy for Culann and also to serve as his dog until the puppy is ready.

“Well hast thou given judgement, little lad,” said Conchobar. “In sooth, we ourselves could not give one that would be better,” said Cathba. “Why should it not be from this that thou shouldst take the name Cuchulain, (‘Wolfhound of Culann’)?”

Although Celtic dogs were an honored, almost sacred, part of that society, they apparently had not been illustrated much prior to the manuscripts, since their form is quite variable. Sometimes dogs or hounds are done in knotwork and others as more straightforward portraits, as in this example. Eventually the dog image came to be associated with exactly the qualities that one might expect from their history: obedience and faithfulness.


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