The History of Greyhounds Through the Ages
Do you know the history of greyhounds?
Did you know greyhounds can be traced back over 8,000 years ago? Making them the oldest pure-bred dog breed. They are depicted in many forms of art and literature through the ages.
Evidence of greyhounds dates back to the time of the Pharaohs in Egypt, and they were only allowed to be owned by royalty. They are depicted on an Egyptian tomb dating back to 3000 BC, the images highlight their long legs and deep chests. All sighthounds (who hunt by sight, not scent) descend from these ancient greyhounds.
The Egyptian God, Anubis, whose likeness often appears in the tombs of Pharaohs, closely resembles a jackal or hound-like dog. Later examples are likened to the Pharaoh Hound, which is related to the greyhound.
Greyhound owners included some of the most famous pharaohs – including Cleopatra and Tutankhamun, who kept them as companions. When a greyhound died, it was mummified and laid to rest with its owners. Such was the high regard held for these fantastic dogs.
No wonder our greys regard us, at times, as beneath them. They are the equivalent of doggy royalty!
Greyhounds and the Bible
Greyhounds are the only dog breed mentioned in the Bible:
Proverbs 30:29-31 (King James version):
There be three things which go well, yea,
four are comely in going;
A lion, which is strongest among beasts and turneth not away from any;
A he-goat also. And a king, against whom there is no rising up.
Ancient Greece and the History of Greyhounds
The Ancient Greeks introduced greyhounds to Europe when they travelled to the Middle East and returned with the hounds they discovered there. In Greek mythology, gods and goddesses are often seen with greyhounds.
They limited their ownership to noblemen who used them to chase hares and rabbits, which were classed as vermin. Coursing, the sport of hunting with a pair of sighthounds, originated from these times.
Later, the Romans brought greyhounds to Great Britain and Ireland for hunting and coursing. As the sport grew in popularity, greys were breeding improved temperament, speed and hunting skills. This selective breeding became the blueprint for the modern-day greyhound.
The breed nearly faced extinction in the Middle Ages during the harsh famine. It was only through the efforts of clergymen, who safeguarded them and bred them for nobility, we have them today. In the tenth century, King Howel of Wales made killing a greyhound punishable by death – protecting the breed further.
Greyhounds and Royalty
The Forest laws of 1014 were passed by King Canute of England. They reserved extensive areas of the country for hunting by the nobility. Under these laws, only people of stature and wealth were allowed to own greyhounds. In fact, any commoner owning one was severely punished, and the dog’s toes were mutilated, which prevented it from hunting. Art and tapestries dating back to these times depict hunting scenes with greyhounds.
Coursing was still gaining in popularity and led to Queen Elizabeth 1 establishing a set of rules for the sport. The rules stated the prey’s head start, and the judging of their speed, agility, and performance. Winning the hare did not always ensure winning the competition. People wagered on the dogs which became an ancient form of racing.
King James 1 loved coursing so much that he built a hunting lodge in Newmarket. Here he kept an entire pack of greyhounds to hunt local hares. In 1619, he released 100 hares and 100 partridges which became a yearly tradition. His followers raced their horses against each other, which later led to today’s horse racing at Newmarket.
Queen Victoria presented her husband, Albert, with a portrait of his beloved grey Eos, painted by Sir Edwin Landseer. Eos was a handsome black and white female greyhound. The day before Prince Albert arrived in the UK for his wedding to Queen Victoria in 1840, Eos arrived in London, ahead of his master. The happy couple even took the Prince’s favourite hound on honeymoon at Windsor Castle.
Greyhounds and The United States
European immigrants, travelling with their pets, introduced greys to the United States. One of the most famous American greyhound owners was General George Custer. The General had coursed his pack of fourteen greyhounds the night before he died at the Battle of Little Big Horn in 1876.
Such was his love for his greyhound, Tuck, in his letter to his wife Libbie on July 19, 1873 Custer wrote:
‘Regarding the dogs, I find myself more warmly attached to Tuck than to any other I have ever owned… She comes to me almost every evening when I am siting in my large camp-chair…. First she lays her head on my knee, as if to ask if I am too much engaged to notice her. A pat of encouragement and her fore-feet are thrown lightly across my lap; a few moments in this posture and she lifts her hind-feet from the ground, and, great, overgrown dog that she is, quietly and gently disposes of herself on my lap, and at times will cuddle down and sleep there for an hour at a time until I become so tired of my charge that I am compelled to transfer her to mother earth; and even then she resembles a well-cared for and half-spoiled child, who can never be induced to retire until it has been fondled to sleep in its mother’s arms…. Tuck will sleep so soundly in my lap that I can transfer her gently to the ground and she will continue her slumber…. As I write she is lying at my feet. She makes up with no other person.’
Lots of different nations were instrumental in the history of greyhounds around the world.
The global large-scale adoption of retired racing greyhounds has seen a huge surge in the popularity of greyhounds as pets.
Many greyhound charities work tirelessly to save as many of these amazing creatures as possible every year.
For more on the history of greyhounds, see our other post here
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