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The Metaphysics of Dogs From Tobit, to Dominic, to Dante Part I by Carlos Perona Calvete

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The Metaphysics of Dogs
From Tobit, to Dominic, to Dante: Part I

Detail from "Tobias and the Angel," workshop of Andrea del Verrocchi.

We propose to trace the spiritual symbolism of dogs in the Christian tradition, beginning in Part I with the Biblical Book of Tobit, and focusing on the prominence of this symbol in the Dominican order, before moving on, in Part II, to an exploration of Dante’s prophecy of the Greyhound and the integration of the Biblical dog into a Christian Romanitas

The Angelic Companion 

Although dogs are most often mentioned as lowly creatures in the Bible, in the Book of Tobit we encounter a dog faithfully accompanying its master on his journey (Tobit 6:1-2), being mentioned once more during that master’s homecoming (11:4). This dog, who some scholars consider to have been inspired by Argos in Homer’s Odyssey, is an emblem of loyalty a source of protection, a herald of the master’s return. 

When Tobias and his angelic companion Raphael set off, immediately after the first reference to the dog, a fish leaps out at them. Tobias is instructed to grab it and extract certain organs which will serve as medicine. Doing this, he discards the guts and cooks the flesh. The sea and fish are identified with idolatrous nations in the Bible (e.g. Ezekiel 47:9-11 and Revelation 17:15, or the Gospel figure of the fisherman as missionary to the nations). The Book of Tobit is therefore presenting a typology of discernment vis the nations (or “the worldly”): extract what is nourishing (meat), save what is salvific (medicinal organs), and discard the rest (guts). 

“Tobias and the Angel” (between ca. 1470 and ca. 1475), a 83.6 x 66 cm egg tempera on poplar wood by workshop of Andrea del Verrocchio (1435–1488).

During Tobias’ homecoming, the dog is once more mentioned in the same passage as the organs of the fish when Raphael reminds him of these, for they must be given to father Tobit in order to heal him of his blindness.

The restoration of the depleted father is a perennial theme: Tobias is like Jacob, who wandered for a time before returning home, and his father, Tobit, is like the blind, elderly Isaac. We may think of the grail knight restoring the maimed King Anfortas in the Holy Grail stories, where Anfortas is precisely  described as “the fisher king.”  The wandering of Jacob or Tobias also anticipates Christ’s fast in the wilderness, leading to His redeeming humanity’s father, Adam, from the fall.

The cure is in the outside, (the chaotic waters; idolatrous nations; the passion of Christ preceding his descent to Hades where, according to tradition, he finds Adam). By extracting the cure from chaos, chaos is defeated, transformed, abolished. 

As for the dog, its presence implies that the redemptive operation includes a domestication of animality, of the wilderness, that which is outside the human circle. The dog illustrates animal nature integrated into the human sphere. Man’s best friend embodies nature transformed by, brought into the service of, that which is higher than it. The agent of redemption (Tobias, Christ) will do his work in the company of loyal ministers (the “dogs of the Lord,” Domini Canes). This is also how the Venerable Bede interprets Tobias’ dog: the church, its teachers, its admonishers against sin.

The dog—as a symbol for the transformation of wild nature into domestic nature—also appears in the story of the dog-headed saint, Christopher. Legend has it that Christopher started off as a brute, wanting to serve whatever lord  happened to be strongest. This imperative led him to the court of Lucifer, for the devil was feared by kings and men of renown. Eventually, however, he discovered that there was one even Satan feared, by the name of Christ. So the future saint went searching for him, eventually finding a monastery whose denizens claimed to know this fearful Lord Jesus. He began working for them, helping travellers to cross a nearby river, until one day, a small child came to him. He obliged the lad and ferried him across the waters, whereupon he found that the boy was inexplicably heavy. The young traveller revealed that it was because he carried the sins of the world. He then promptly disappeared. 

St. Christopher’s tale parallels the story of Elijah crossing a river in animal skins, and even that of Jacob, who wore a hairy covering to impersonate his brother when approaching the blind Isaac. In all these cases, animality is being subjugated, “worn” by the human, and so integrated and redeemed.

We may also think of the Canaanite woman Jesus encounters. In this story, the woman compares herself to a hungry dog seeking nourishment from the master: “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the Master’s table.” Her status as “dog,” which is at first demeaning, turns out to be a sign of humility and so, she is exalted (Matthew 15:21-28): “Woman, you have great faith!” Here, to be as a dog is to be exalted through loyalty and humility, and is therefore the mark of discipleship. By participating in the work of redemption, like the dog who accompanies Tobias, the faithful are said to exert an angelic function (even to replace the angels in their administration of the cosmos). This brings us to a curious fact about the Book of Tobit: Tobit prays for God to bring both his son Tobias and the angel Raphael (for he uses the plural of “you”) safely to their destination and back home. He specifically prays that God’s angel accompany them both (Tobit 5:17). The dog appears thereafter, being mentioned during the setting out and the returning back. 

According to this reading, then, the dog is an angel whose presence is an answer to Tobit’s prayer. The lesson here is that  1) loyalty in pursuing the redemptive mission (restoring Tobit’s eyesight, raising Adam from Hades), and 2) humility (embracing the lowly status of “dog”), lead to 3) exaltation, that is, the reception of an “angelic” status. 

Hounds against Heresy

“The world is full of devouring wolves, and you, unfaithful dog, know not how to bark.” 

These are the words that have come down to us concerning the chastisement of one Blessed Alan de la Roche. Living during the 15th century, Alan was a Dominican priest from Bretagne, Douai, near the English Channel. According to tradition, the Virgin Mary appeared to him, having previously been responsible for his conversion from a dissolute life, and charged the priest with the task of reviving the practice of praying the holy Rosary. 

Reluctant, whether disbelieving in the visions or fearful in some way, and perhaps on account of some excessive attachment to his studies and the works that had previously occupied him, Alan did not, at first, begin preaching. 

As a consequence, the Holy Mother returned to him, and with her the exalted spirit of the founder of his order, St. Dominic himself, to urge his spiritual son to take up that righteous commission that heaven had entrusted to him. And with these, the Lord—Christ himself—was seen by Alan, and from humanity’s saviour, he heard the words: “The world is full of devouring wolves, and you, unfaithful dog, know not how to bark.” 

Understandably, the Blessed Dominican now began to strive in the path set out before him. Indeed, dog he was. By way of Latin word play, the Dominicans are called “Domini canes,” the Lord’s dogs, hounds of heaven. 

“Vision of Blessed Joanna,” stained glass window from St. Dominic’s Church in Washington, D.C.

Photo: Fr. Lawrence Lew, O.P.

When the Dominican’s founder’s mother, Blessed Juana de Aza, was pregnant with the future saint, she dreamt that she would give birth to a dog, and that it would carry a torch in its mouth, with which it would inflame the world. The missionary meaning of this dream would come to be known during the labours of St. Domingo de Guzmán (1170-1221) and the members of the order he founded.

The torch as lampstand, burning with sacred oil, and its place in the hound’s mouth, as though fire and light were a bark, like a trumpet call, reminds us of the function of trumpets in the Bible, announcing and calling forth to battle, as they were used in the Israelites’ war on Jericho and against the forces of the Dragon in the Apocalypse. Torches are sometimes accompanied by trumpets(Judges 7:16-20) and appear in connection to weapons of war (Proverbs 26:18), keeping faith (Matthew 25), and the divine presence (Apocalypse 4:5). We also find a scriptural connection with canines when Samson used torches attached to foxes to wage war on the Philistines (Judges 15:3), a conflict analogous to Dominican spiritual warfare.

Among St. Dominic’s works, probably the greatest is that of initiating the prayer of the Rosary, which was then simply called the Psalter of the Virgin. This came to pass after the Virgin appeared to Dominic and instructed him in that devotion. The history and function of that spiritual sword—the Rosary—however, is not the subject that occupies us. We are on the prowl for the paw tracks of canine symbolism. 

Biblically, the wolf is a beastly devourer, one poised to consume sheep who stray from the fold of the blessed flock. This is the sense in which the presence of wolves throughout the world was invoked in the words heard by Blessed Alan from the mouth of his Redeemer. 

The dog, however, is a sheep in that flock. Not a wolf in sheep’s clothing, but a sheep turned wolf, domestic wolf. Endowed with the predatory energies of that feral hunter, he places these at the service of the righteous assembly. Like St. Dominic, his lot is to warn, to bark, against heresy, to preach concerning the errors of the spiritual sickness of his era. 

Dominic himself was locked in combat against the Albigensian, or Cathar, creed: a dualistic system that seems to have posited the existence of two competing divinities, one of which, the creator of the material cosmos, had malevolently forged this world as an abode of abject slavery in which to entrap souls. The only hope for the latter is therefore to utterly reject and thereby escape this realm. A doctrine such as the resurrection of the body would therefore be quite anathemic to Catharism. Like the neo-Platonists and early Christians, Dominic’s generation was called to refute Gnosticism by expounding on materiality’s ultimate participation in higher metaphysical principles. 

This would be the first “bark” of the heavenly hounds.

It would not always be directed against wolves outside the shepherd’s pastures, however. The sheep are sent among the wolves, therefore the wolves are among the sheep—and so must the dogs be. 

Carlos Perona Calvete is a writer for The European Conservative. He has a background in International Relations and Organizational Behavior, has worked in the field of European project management, and is currently awaiting publication of a book in which he explores the metaphysics of political representation.