1. The Origin of the Dog


2.The dog's evolution


3.The Origin of the Dog Revisited
1. The Odyssey of the Word "Molossus"

2. The Evolution of brachycephalic molossoid dogs

1. Man's relationship with animals

2. Dog and Human societe

3. The dog shows in Europe

1.The Vision in dogs

2. The hearing of the dog

3. The sense of smell in dog

Λογότυποσ κυνοπαιδεία
back to articles
research studies
copyright 2006-Cynopedia.com

Content on this page requires a newer version of Adobe Flash Player.

Get Adobe Flash player

Content on this page requires a newer version of Adobe Flash Player.

Get Adobe Flash player

Content on this page requires a newer version of Adobe Flash Player.

Get Adobe Flash player

the odyssey of the word "molossus"
Any attempt to talk about the origin of the name ‘Molossus’, even in a roundabout way, inevitably draws one into a maze of different opinions about dogs that have perhaps become known only as a result of the strong feelings and passions of the people who have voiced them, passions that have very often boiled over and seemed inexcusable to those who are ignorant of the subject. Providing an accurate definition of the term ‘Molossus’ has never been merely a question of knowing dry and unimportant facts but is closely bound up with numerous attempts to revive a wide variety of canine species.
Thus any discussion of this subject means entering a minefield in the form of an old dispute that has split dog-lovers into violently opposed factions. One can understand why those who are ignorant of the Greek language or Greek history should attempt to interpret the word or construct a myth about it, but for Greeks to do so is unacceptable. The only way to shed light on the subject is to understand its current complexity and find out the truth through etymological rules and biological principles, as well as actual historical facts.

Μολοσσός (Molossus): a compound word consisting of the prefix Μολ-, Μολο-, Μολι-, Μαλ-, etc., which in ancient Greek denoted excess. In particular, it was used to express someone or something big, strong, noisy, tall or ferocious, and by extension upper parts of the body (e.g. head), elevated concepts (e.g. thoughts) and superior forces. Here are a few examples:

Μόλος: (Molus), a mythical Homeric hero, famous for his very tough helmet and having his head struck off. The custom of processing with a headless body still existed on Crete until quite recently.
Μολλίων:(Mollion) ‘he that walks on high’, i.e. a superior being.
Μολίονες(Molliones): Very good fighters or ferocious individuals.
Μολόβρια(Molovria): The cubs of wild animals.
Μολοβρός(Molovros): Someone with insatiable hunger, i.e. a glutton.
Μάλλον ή ήττον: ‘more or less’.
The second component –σσος (Doric dialect) or –ττος(Attic dialect) is still in use today in the names of mountains, e.g. Παρνασσός (Parnassus), Υμηττός(Hymettus), Οσσα (Ossa), Λυττός (Lyttus), and denotes someone or something from a MOUNTAINOUS area. 
Consequently, the word Μολοσσός, as defined by the Liddell-Scott Greek Dictionary, means a large mountain-dwelling person or creature. The dictionary goes on to define ΜΟΛΟΣΣΟΣ or ΜΟΛΟΤΤΟΣ as an inhabitant of ΜΟΛΟΣΣΙΑ or ΜΟΛΟΤΤΙΑ (Molossia or Molottia), someone who comes from ΜΟΛΟΣΣΙΑ (female gender ΜΟΛΟΣΣΙΣ-ΜΟΛΟΤΤΙΣ), and, by extension, ΜΟΛΟΣΣΙΚΟΣ or ΜΟΛΟΤΤΙΚΟΣ as ‘Molossian’ (of the Molossian people).
Thus we have what is essentially a GEOGRAPHICAL DEFINITION referring to an area in Epirus consisting of very mountainous terrain (the Pindus), an area which in antiquity was bounded by Chaonia (Chaonian dogs) to the north and Bοττιαία ή Bοττία (Bhotea or Bhotia) to the east. (ancient Macedonia),.
Thus there was once an area in Epirus called Molossia, named after Molossus, the mythical founder of the Molossians, a Greek race who lived there, and son of Neoptolemus (son of the mythical Achilles) and Deidameia (or, according to others, Andromache, wife of Hector).
Descendants of the mythical Molossus boasted that they belonged to the royal dynasty of Epirus, e.g. OLYMPIAS, mother of Alexander the Great. This is why ALEXANDER THE GREAT claimed that he was descended from the mythical race founded by Achilles, for his mother was of Molossian stock. 
Therefore the Greek word ΜΟΛΟΣΣΟΙ (Molossians) refers to a Greek race of PEOPLE and not to a breed of dog. The ancient Greeks called the dogs that were associated with the Molossians or Molossia or the ‘Molossian plains’ (Aeschylus, Prometheus Bound, l. 829) ΜΟΛΟΣΣΙΚΟI (molossikoi), ΜΟΛΛΟΤΙΚΟΙ (molottikoi), ΜΟΛΟΤΤΙΔΑΙ (molottides) or ΜΟΛΟΣΣΙΔΑΙ (molossides), as in Aristophanes’ Thesmophoriazusae (l. 416):«και προσέτι Μολοττικούς τρέφουσι μορμολυκεία τοις μυχοίς κύνας.» ‘Molossian dogs [are] kept to frighten off the adulterers’. 
The suffix –ΙΔΗΣ/ΙΔΕΣ in Greek denotes members of the same family, e.g. Ατρείδες (the Atreids = the sons of Atreus, i.e. Agamemnon and Menelaus). This practice is still in use to denote Greeks originating from the Pontus (e.g. Triantaphyllides, Konstantinides).
Thus to call these wonderful animals ‘Epirus Molossuses’ is wrong for two reasons: firstly because the name contains a double reference to the same geographical area (since Molossia = Epirus), and secondly because the word ‘Molossus’ defines people and not dogs.
Even in the modern language Greeks never say ‘Attic Athenian’, ‘Boetian Theban’ or ‘Peloponnesian Spartan’; therefore, the expression ‘Epirus Molossian/Molossus’ should not be used. One would expect such terms to be used only by people who lack a basic knowledge of the Greek language or Greek history.


The first historical information we have about brachycephalic dogs comes from Mesopotamia, where the Sumerian, Babylonian and Assyrian civilizations began to flourish in about the middle of the third millenium BC. These were the first civilizations to develop veterinary science and therefore the art of breeding. The Sumerians called vets ‘preservers of life’, while in Hammurabi’s day (18th century BC) the Babylonians called them ‘Mounai Sou’. From this time various figurines, statues and relief representations of brachycephalic dogs have survived, which are now in the British Museum, the Louvre, and Persepolis. 
These dogs became known in Europe (Greece) through the trading relations that existed with these peoples and also the ‘travels’ of Herodotus, who describes these dogs (which he calls ‘Indian dogs’) as being fearsome in both appearance and size. The Greeks believed that these dogs were of Greek origin. An ancient Greek myth describes them as being descended from the bronze dog made by Hephaestus, just as it claims Molossian dogs were.
Hephaestus gave the bronze dog a soul and presented it to Zeus, who in turn gave it to Europa in order to win her favour. Also, Nicander of Colophon (2nd cent. BC) believed that Indian dogs were descended from the dogs of Actaeon, which left Greece for India after being cured of their madness. From the same period we also have the myths about the travels of Dionysus and Hercules’ expedition to the east. Later, when Indian dogs were classified by the Greeks, they were referred to as ‘Elymaean dogs’ from Elymaea or Elam, ‘Carmanian dogs’ from Carmania, ‘Hyrcanian dogs’ or ‘dog-lion hybrids’ (leontomygeis) from Hyrcania, and were believed to be crosses between dogs and lions. In addition, the Latin author Grattius mentions another breed by the name ‘Seres’, of Tibetan origin. In describing Indian dogs, Xenophon says that they were capable of defending themselves against tigers and lions and that the inhabitants of the regions they came from regarded them as ‘a cross between the tiger and the dog, not the first cross, but a cross in the third generation’. This is why he recommends the use of Indian dogs for hunting deer and wild boar.
In the sixth century BC Herodotus wrote his history of the Persian Wars, in which he mentions that Xerxes had a large number of Indian dogs with him on his campaign in Greece. It is worth noting that after the destruction of the Persians, there is no record or evidence that any Indian dogs were left behind in Greece that might have been used for breeding purposes.

At about this time Greek civilization, which laid the basis of Western civilization, was beginning to flourish. The Greeks, as a people who interpreted human existence only through nature itself, could not fail to take the role of animals into account, and so they hold an important place in their myths, their theology and their sciences, which they were the first to develop. It is completely natural, then, that they should have concerned themselves with the canine branch of the mammalian tree. They gave them a name (which is a perfect expression for this miracle of nature, as the editorial mentions), provided what was at the time the best description of them (Xenophon) and the fullest biological analysis (Aristotle), and even gave them a place in the heavens (the constellations of Canis).
As for Molossian dogs, two of the numerous myths about them are the most characteristic. According to the first of these, Hercules, after capturing Cerberus, the guard-dog of Hades, took him to Eurystheus, from whom he was stolen by Molossus, the grandson of Achilles, who kept him confined in a mountain cave and managed to produce offspring from him. In this myth the animal is directly identified by his owner name (ΜΟΛΟΣΣΟΣ-MOLOSSUS).
The second myth, which is mentioned in Hesiod’s Theogony, relates how Zeus changed Callisto into a bear in order to pay amorous attentions to her. Callisto was the daughter of Lycaon, whom Zeus turned into a wolf. This myth provides a connection between the wolf and the bear, as well as an indirect reference to the evolution of the wolf. 
The most detailed description and record of Molossian and Indian dogs, as related breeds, is provided by Xenophon (434-355 BC) in his work Cynegeticus (On Hunting). This relation was firmly established by Aristotle (384-322 BC) as the founder of the sciences of zoology and biology: in his Historia Animalium,he classified Molossides dogs (this is the term he uses) and Indian dogs as brachycephalic dogs. Up until this time there had been no mention of the word Molossus in connection with dogs, which comes as no surprise since the ancient Greeks knew their language very well.
The main representations that have come down to us from that time are as follows:

A statue from the 4th cent. BC from the Ceramicus district in Athens 
In none of these cases is an Indian dog depicted but a relatively smaller animal which looks amazingly like the modern Rottweiler, the Cane Cortos, i.e. Cane Corso, and its variants, such as the Bucciriscu Calabrese or Branchiero Siciliano, which come from areas which at that time formed part of Magna Graecia. It was in this climate that the greatest of the Greeks, Alexander the Great, grew up. And it is the very allure of Alexander’s unique personality and everything associated with him that lies at the heart of the problem. The plain fact about Alexander is that none of the histories we have of him was written by a contemporary author. Diodorus Siculus, Plutarch and Arrian are considered to be the most reliable biographical sources, yet all of them lived later than Alexander and based their works on Callisthenes and Ptolemy Lagus, contemporaries of Alexander, whose texts remain undiscovered. From these reliable sources we have the following information about Alexander:

a) he loved animals, which is not surprising as he was a pupil of Aristotle’s;
b) when he went to Asia he instituted laws protecting animals;
c) he himself had two dogs during the course of his life: a female while he was in Macedonia, which was given to him by Triachus, King of Paeonia, and a male, Perittas, which he bought for a large sum of money while he was in Asia and whose name he gave to a town in what is now Afghanistan. And this is what those who have come up with Alexander’s ‘Macedonian’ dogs will find annoying: Perittas was an INDIAN DOG and not a
Molossian or Macedonian one.
All the other information we have about Alexander’s dogs and breeding practices comes mainly from Pliny, who based his work on very dubious sources, which historians have codified under the name ‘Pseudo-Callisthenes’.
Developments in dog-breeding, particularly in respect of the short-headed varieties, essentially occurred later under Alexander’s successors (the ‘Epigonoi’). During this period it was mainly Molossian dogs that were taken from Greece to Asia; only rarely were Indian dogs brought to Europe from Asia. This is clearly shown by three different websites, which perhaps provide the best record available:
The first site presents a breed of dog called the Bhotia.
The second shows a 1904 photograph of a Tibetan dog called the Bhotean, and 
the third a breed of dog called the Cypro Kukur.
The areas referred to in these three examples are ancient Sogdia and Bactria, what are today northern Pakistan, Afghanistan and southern Tibet. These regions are still inhabited by descendants of the ancient Macedonians, the Kalas. It was natural that at that time the Macedonians should have used names from their native country – Macedonia, i.e. ancient Bottiaea or Bottia (the h in Latin denotes a long e, e.g. Ελλάς = Hellas) – to describe things. As for the origin of the term Cypro Kukur, it derives from Stasanor, a successor of Alexander from Cyprus who founded a Cypriot dynasty (Diodotus I, Menander) that ruled this area and part of India for three hundred years. In any event, it is worth noting that the dogs of present-day Afghanistan bear an amazing resemblance to the Molossian dogs of Greece.
The Hellenistic kingdoms gradually declined and were almost all taken over by the Romans, who adopted ancient Greek practices and names. One of these was the word Μολοσσός (Molossus). However, the main name they used for these dogs was the Latin word Mastino  (mansio = house,  tuere=guard, or mas=house and tuin=guard).
The etymology of this word shows that the Romans used Molossian dogs, or a cross-breed produced by crossing Molossian with Indian dogs, mainly as guard-dogs. Thus they used these dogs in various parts of their empire: in their country resorts of Pompeii and Herculaneum, now the city of Naples (Mastino Napolitano); in ancient Burdigala, now Bordeaux (the Dogue de Bordeaux); passes in the Alps (the St. Bernard dog) or the Pyrenees (Mastino Español or Pyrenean Mastiff), and even took the animal to Britain (English Mastiff). Of course, they preserved the lighter variety, which resembles today’s Swiss Mountain dogs,the Cane Corso, mainly for hunting. In effect, it was the Romans who laid the basis for all the modern Molossoid breeds. When the Roman Empire collapsed and was succeeded by the Middle Ages, the main force that held society together was religion. Yet Christianity, and a little later Islam, as branches of the monotheistic Jewish religion, were based on an anthropocentric theology and not on nature. Thus research into the natural world and many other matters, such as the breeding of animals, for reasons other than the need to secure food, was abandoned. The survival of brachycephalic dogs came to depend on their pastoral use. It was during this period that the basis was laid for most of the modern pastoral breeds. Of course, terms like ‘Mastino’ and ‘Molossus’ were forgotten and replaced by the terms ‘Doguin’, ‘Dogge’ and words used in the languages of various Germanic races. Very few brachycephalic dogs survived as they were used as guard dogs by monks in remote monasteries. In some cases their role was recognized and so they were preserved. Very often the names that were
used by the monks were ancient ones as the secret monastic libraries were repositories of ancient knowledge. In the ensuing Renaissance period,
some attempts were made to revive the breeds, though they probably went about it in the wrong way, as the statue in the Galeria degli Uffici in
Florence shows. Gradually the feudal system gave way to new nation-states, new economic and social conditions, changes brought about by the French Revolution. At the same time, however, there was a wave of nationalistic fervour that had an impact on all social activities. ‘National symbols’ were sought after, even in the emerging field of zootechnics. The name ‘Molossus’ was dug up and mixed with a dash of Alexander and a pinch of Pheidias. It was then associated with a modern ruler, e.g. Bismarck, and in this way the ‘real Molossian dog’ was produced. Thus the German nationalism of the age used the theory of Indo-European (Indo-Germanic) migration to acquire its own Arian hound, which of course had to be lion-like. In the crude dog shows of the time all large dogs were presented under the common name LEONBERG. German nationalist claims were matched by similar ones by the French: in his work Histoire Naturelle, for example, Buffon wrote that the Danish climate favoured the development of the best specimens (Great Dane). Meanwhile, Linnaeus claimed that the ancient Molossus had survived in the form of the Grand Dogue!!! A little later, the Italians – who wanted to turn the Adriatic into the Italian Sea – rewrote the ‘historical account’ of Alexander’s dogs by ‘discovering’ their ‘Albanian’ origins and turning Poros (the Indian king) into Pyrrhus, who gave Alexander some ‘Albanian’ dogs!!! Of course, the British were not to be outdone, claiming that their own breed of molosser had been taken there by the ancient Phoenicians. How on earth the Phoenicians managed to keep feeding these massive dogs on their ships for a journey that must have lasted whole months or years only the Victorian mind could have explained! Fortunately, amidst the chaos of vain nationalistic hysteria there were men like M. Siber, Theoder Studer and Albert Heim who placed the whole matter on a scientific footing. Together with contemporary artists like Landseer and Francisco Goya, they laid the foundations of what was later to become the Fédération Cynologique Internationale (F.C.I.). Today the question of the true name and identity of the Molossian dog has come down to us encumbered with all of the complications produced by the practices of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In any event, official organizations do not accept the term ‘Molossus’ and simply define this group of dogs as ‘Molossoid Breeds’.
The most tragic thing about the whole affair is that in the country where the word ‘Molossus’ was originally born the association that has been set up to revive the breed has forgotten Xenophon’s description of it as ‘a hunting or shepherd dog’ and has given it only half of its proper name by calling it the ‘Greek shepherd dog’, thus leaving the way open for people to contrive such vain names as ‘the Alexander Molossus’ (Skylos tou Alexandrou), ‘the Pyrrhus Molossus’ (Skylos tou Pyrrou) and finally the ‘Epirus Molossus’ (Molossos tis Epirou). CONCLUSION

Quite a few readers of this text will wonder whether there is any point in determining the correct etymology of a word or whether carrying out so much research for the sake of providing the precise definition of a term is worth the trouble. The answer is an unreserved ‘YES’. For through etymology we can discover concepts and uses that shed light on our past. 
In this particular case, the research that has been carried out on the Molossus concerns not only the animal itself but ourselves as well, for in researching this creature we have also studied the different stages of our own civilization. Thus in this case, we have a dog that is defined by two terms: Molossian and brachycephalic. The first defines the GEOGRAPHICAL area in which it evolved and how it survived in its own particular conditions. The second defines the morphological and biological characteristics that it needed in order to evolve and survive – Aristotle’s concept of aitiaton (the product or effect of a particular cause). 
As far as its evolution is concerned, we have an animal that evolved differently in two different parts of the world: a ‘gigantic’ breed that lived in the Middle East, as far east as India, and a smaller breed that lived in central and southern Europe. Why this happened may be explained by the fact that in the first case there were no bears in these parts of Asia concerned, while in the second case, in Europe, bears were widespread. Besides, this is what happened in the case of the bear itself: it evolved into numerous varieties, one of which, which is now extinct, was the giant short-faced bear. Now, with regard to the name, one cannot expect a Norwegian or a Pakistani to know the Greek language. One can expect a Greek to, however. On the one hand, it is a great honour to know that the Greek term μολοσσοειδές (Molossoid) stands for a category of dogs. On the other, I cannot accept the violation of my language or the distortion of my country’s history. As a researcher, however, I know that no dog ever signed an agreement defining the national boundaries of a country and in this sense there is no such thing as a national breed of dog. Finally, then, which breed represents the real Molossian dog? The answer is no particular breed, for all breeds possess ‘Molossian’ features that have been preserved in the animal’s attempt to survive in a world that is constantly changing.
Sumerian - Babylonian - Assyrian 
Xenophon -- Aristotle -- Altar of Zeus at Pergamum -- wall-painting on Philip’s Tomb at Vergina  --Rottweiller -- Cane Corso -- the Bucciriscu Calabrese -- Branchiero Siciliano -- Alexander the Great -- very dubious sources --  Bhotia --   Cypro Kukur 
Swiss Mountain dogs -- M. Siber -- Albert Heim -- official organizations
giant short-faced

The Greek journal To Vlemma
A History of Greek Veterinary Medicine by Dr. A. Tsaknakis (in Greek)
The Greek journal Corpus, no. 36.
The Greek journal Istorika Themata, no. 3.
Philip II by the archaeologist Antoinetta Kallegia
Aristotle, Peri Zoon Istoriai (Greek edition by Georgiadis)
VERGINA: The Royal Tombs by Manolis Andronikos (in English)
RASSE HUNDE by Hans Raber (in German)