GULA: goddess of dogs

Dogs have been a part of the history of human beings since before the written word. The ancient temple of Gobekli-Tepe in Turkey, dated to at least 12,000 years BCE, has provided archaeologists with evidence of domesticated dogs in the Middle East corresponding to the earliest evidence of domestication, the Natufian Grave, (c. 12,000 BCE) discovered in Ein Mallaha, Israel, in which an old man was buried with a puppy. In many cultures throughout the ancient world, dogs figured prominently and, largely, were regarded in much the same way that they are today. Dogs were seen as faithful companions, hunters, guardians, and as a treasured part of the family.

In the oldest story from the Near East, The Epic of Gilgamesh from ancient Mesopotamia (dated to 2150-1400 BCE), dogs appear in an elevated role as the companions of one of the most popular goddesses of the region; the goddess Innana (Ishtar) travels with seven prized hunting dogs in collar and leash. Although Egypt is credited with the invention of the dog collar, it most likely developed in Sumer. It can be assumed the development of the dog collar was suggested shortly after dogs were domesticated which happened in Mesopotamia prior to Egypt. A golden pendant of a dog (clearly a Suluki) was found at the Sumerian city of Uruk dated to 3300 BCE and a cylinder seal from Nineveh (dated c. 3000 BCE) also features a Saluki. The dog pendant wears a wide collar; evidence of the dog collar in use at that time.

In the famous Descent of Innana (a story considered older than and not a part of Gilgamesh) in which the goddess goes down into the underworld, her husband, Dumuzi, keeps domesticated dogs as part of his royal retinue. Dogs featured prominently in the everyday life of the Mesopotamians. The historian Wolfram Von Soden notes this, writing:

The dog (Sumerian name, ur-gi; Semitic name, Kalbu) was one of the earliest domestic animals and served primarily to protect herds and dwellings against enemies. Despite the fact that dogs roamed freely in the cities, the dog in the ancient Orient was at all times generally bound to a single master and was cared for by him. Of course, the dog was also a carrion eater, and in the villages it provided the same service as hyenas and jackals. As far as we can tell, there were only two main breeds of dog: large greyhounds which were used primarily in hunting, and very strong dogs (on the order of Danes and mastiffs), which in the ancient Orient were more than a match for the generally smaller wolves and, for that reason, were especially suitable as herd dogs. The sources distinguish numerous sub-breeds, but we can only partially identify these. The dog was often the companion of gods of therapeutics. Although the expression `vicious dog' occurred, `dog' as a derogatory term was little used.

Dogs are depicted in Mesopotamian art as hunters but also as companions. Dogs were kept in the home and were treated in much the same way by caring families as they are today. Inscriptions and inlaid plaques depict dogs waiting for their masters and, according to the historian Bertman, even listening to their master play music: “The images on inlaid plaques, carved seal-stones, and sculpted reliefs transport us back…We watch a shepherd playing his flute as his dog sits and attentively listens” (294). Dogs protected the home and amuletic images of canines – such as the one mentioned above from Uruk – were carried for personal protection. The famous Nimrud Dogs, clay figurines of canines found at the city of Kalhu, were buried under or beside the threshold of buildings for their protective power. Five other dog statuettes were recovered from the ruins of Nineveh and inscriptions relate how these figurines were imbued with the power of the dog to protect against danger. Further, the “gods of therapeutics” Von Soden references above were the deities involved with health and healing and, most notably, the goddess Gula who was regularly depicted in the presence of her dog. Dog saliva was considered medicinal because it was noted that, when dogs licked their wounds, it promoted healing.

by Joshua J. Mark



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