Glimpses of Girton: 'Terracotta dog'

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Catalogue ref: LR.783: ‘DOG’

As soon as I saw this figurine, the words of a fable by La Fontaine came into my head. The fable is no. 2 in the first book of the Fables, and begins:

Maître corbeau, sur un arbre perché,

Tenait en son bec un fromage.

Maître renard, par l’odeur alléché,

Lui tint à peu près ce langage…

If you say the first two words to a French person they are likely to be able to continue, having been made to learn the poem at school. La Fontaine goes on to tell us how the fox, to obtain the cheese which the crow had in his beak, praised the bird’s beauty and suggested that if his voice was as handsome as his plumage, he would be the finest bird around. Eager to earn this accolade, the crow opened his beak to demonstrate his voice, and dropped the cheese. Job done.

 

However, the story was not invented by La Fontaine. He probably adapted his version from the 1st-century Roman poet Phaedrus, who surely based his version on a Greek source, such as one of the prose versions associated with the name Aesop.

 

So what are the chances that this figurine represents not a weird and inexplicable grouping of a dog with a round cake in his mouth and a bird on his back (as the catalogue puts it) but the moment at the end of the fable when the fox has obtained the cheese?

 

Our figurine comes from Boeotia, in central Greece, north of Attica. It has been dated to about 500–450 BCE. Although several accounts of Aesop’s life are plainly fictitious, serious scholars like Aristotle believed he was a real person, and that he was born in Thrace (in mainland Greece) and spent some time on Samos. He lived in the early sixth century, and may have died in 564 BCE. By the time Aristophanes (c. 446–386) was writing his comedies, the Aesopic material was obviously well known and appreciated, and Aristophanes often refers to it. It seems safe to assume that the potter who made our figurine could have come across the fable.

 

So is the figure a dog or a fox? I would argue that the pricked ears and the shape and angle of the tail are fox-like. I also think that the bird looks more like a bird of the crow family than anything else. Is there anything that goes against this identification? Possibly. There are traces of red colouring on the figurine (inside the pricked ears, round the nostrils, and on the bird’s beak). It would be nice if the fox’s whole body had been red, but the cataloguer tells it that it seems to have been painted with white slip, apart from those touches of red. Well, I have a collection of small animal figurines from Oaxaca in Mexico which are all bright green… Perhaps this Greek figure was part of an all-white collection, with a few coloured highlights?

 

How does the figurine compare with Aesopic texts? The online Thesaurus Linguae Graecae gives two versions of this fable, and in both of them the bird (korax, crow or raven) is holding not a cheese but a piece of meat (kreas). The object in the fox’s mouth does not look like meat (unless, of course, it is a hamburger patty…) but, though identified by the cataloguer as a cake, it could perfectly well be a small round cheese. Indeed, it is a cheese (caseus) in the first extant verse form of the fable, composed by the Roman poet Phaedrus, probably in the first half of the first century CE, so perhaps he knew a Greek version in which the object of desire was a cheese and not a piece of meat. And perhaps the Greek potter who made our figurine also knew such a version. We shall never know, but we can speculate.

 

Written by Dr Gillian Jondorf, Life Fellow.

 

Published: 25 May 2017