Man’s Best Friend: A reflection on Argos the Dog
Homer’s Odyssey is a masterpiece of literature, rich with vivid characters and mythological wonder; there is adventure, suffering, joy, hospitality, love, loss and the imminence of death around every corner. From Circe the Witch who transforms men into swine, to Cyclops who gobble up men only to fall asleep content, to a wife weeping for the loss of her husband, it has something for everyone.
Yet the story that touches me the most is one of a dog named Argos. He only appears briefly in this epic. He is most pitiable, wretched and near death. He is a victim of clear neglect and abuse, and one weeps when the hero, Odysseus, sees the dog for the first time after some twenty years. You see, this is Odysseus’ dog, now dumped outside the palace and sitting upon dung. He was the dog of a King, a hero, a hunter’s dog with skill and grace and strength. As we learn:
While (Odysseus) spoke
An old hound, lying near, pricked up his ears
And lifted his muzzle. This was Argos,
Trained as a puppy by Odysseus,
But never taken on a hunt before
His master sailed for Troy. The young men, afterward,
Hunted wild goats with him, and hare, and deer,
But he had grown old in his master’s absence.
Treated as rubbish now, he lay at last,
Upon a mass of dung before the gates –
Abandoned there, and half destroyed with flies,
Old Argos lay.
The image is descriptive, haunting and brutal. Homer dedicates a number of lines to tell the reader of the suffering of this once majestic creature. He is abandoned, with his master gone for so long, treated as rubbish by the parasites now flocking to the palace to steal Odysseus’ wealth. Argos is in anguish, clearly, with no one to care for him. Once used for hunting expeditions, he is cast away in his old age. His master is no longer there to protect him. Yet, note that when he hears Odysseus’ voice, he pricks up his ears, he lifts his muzzle. With effort, no doubt, with all the strength he has left in his poor, broken body. But he hears the voice of his master as he clings on to life. But why is he clinging on to life?
The next passage further elaborates on Argos’ transformation upon hearing Odysseus’ voice:
But when he knew he heard
Odysseus’ voice nearby, he did his best
To wag his tail, nose down, with flattened ears,
Having no strength to move nearer his master.
And the man looked away,
Wiping a salt tear from his cheek; but he
Hid this from Eumaios.
Homer wants the listener to know that Argos did his best to wag his tail, to acknowledge that he recognised his master, to show a semblance of happiness and joy despite his current anguish. Homer doesn’t miss any of the details we associate with canine behaviour: Argos’ tail wagged, his nose was down, his ears were flattened. Yet, with so little strength, he could not move nearer to his master. He wanted to, we are led to believe. He wanted to run up and embrace Odysseus with the love and devotion only a dog knows.
Odysseus is moved by what he sees; by the sufferings of his Argos. And he weeps.
But, as he is disguised as a beggar, he questions his friend Eumaios about why the dog is in such a neglected state. Eumaios answers:
“I marvel that they leave this hound to lie
Here on the dung pile;
He would have been a fine dog, from the look of him,
Though I can’t say as to his power and speed
When he was young...”
And you replied, Eumaios:
“A hunter owned him-but the man is dead
In some far place. If this old hound could show
The form he had when Lord Odysseus left him,
He never shrank from any savage thing
He’d brought to bay in the deep woods; on the scent
No other dog kept up with him. Now misery
Has him in leash. His owner died abroad,
And here the women slaves will take no care of him.”
With Odysseus’ absence came a string of suitors from nearby kingdoms to claim Ithaka as theirs, and to likewise claim Penelope, the wife of Odysseus. They feast continuously, gorge themselves on the fat of the land (of another), appear to be indifferent to the suffering of Penelope and the son of Odysseus – Telemachus. They are straight out and out thugs, parasites and ungrateful. It is they who have relegated Argos to the dung heap. It is they who have discarded him once he was of no use. It is because of these men that Argos is now bound by the leash of misery. Day after day, week after week. Dying a slow death when once he was the beloved of a King.
But it continues:
Eumaios crossed the court and went straight forward
Into the megaron among the suitors;
But death and darkness in that instant closed
The eyes of Argos, who had seen his master,
Odysseus, after twenty years.
(Book XVII – Lines 375-422)
Ah, what pathos, what beauty! I asked – why is Argos clinging on to life? And this probes me further, to reflect on that mystical connection between humans and dogs. To ask, do dogs know? Do they know of the mysteries of life, of the supernatural? Do they know when their master has died? Do they know when they themselves will die? Do they know that their master will return, so they must cling on until they – these faithful servants – lay their eyes upon them for one last time?
You have been faithful with a few things, Christ uttered in one of his parables.
Argos had been faithful in many things. He had clung to life, riddled with flies, starving. Tied up, not able to move, treated scornfully and with indifference where once he was treated with love and devotion. But he did not give up. This faithful servant knew Odysseus would come back. For upon seeing Odysseus, Argos’s eyes closed – those eyes that had just seen his master. Death and darkness enveloped him, he who had been surrounded by death and darkness in the world of the living. He clung onto hope, the hope that he would see his master.
Job once asked:
Where then is my hope— who can see any hope for me?
He too had been relegated to life on a dung heap; scorned and ridiculed by men. He who once lived a kingly life. And when God revealed to Job the wonders of his creation, Job realised he was insignificant in the scheme of things. But he never gave up hope that God was with him.
So too Argos; he never gave up hope. He clung with all his strength. He closed his eyes and although death and darkness enveloped him, he had seen his master as if risen from the dead.
Homer wants us to care for Argos and his plight. He wants us to see a connection between Argos and Odysseus, a spiritual connection, a connection that reflects that mystical bond between humans and dogs that is eternal. Which will always be eternal.
Dedicated to Angel, a beautiful Rhodesian Ridgeback cross who never got a chance at a second life.