Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The Dogs of Marco Polo

Lest we accept the narrative of Marco Polo’s travels too readily, perhaps it is best to begin near the end of his journey with a description of the Island of Angamanain (one of the Andaman Islands south of Burma, west of Malaysia):

“Angamanain is a very large Island. The people are without a king and are Idolaters, and no better than wild beasts. And I assure you all the men of this Island of Angamanain have heads like dogs, and teeth and eyes likewise; in fact, in the face they are all just like big mastiff dogs! They have a quantity of spices; but they are a most cruel generation, and eat everybody that they can catch, if not of their own race. They live on flesh and rice and milk, and have fruits different from any of ours.”

The first plate here is taken from Il Milione, being a record of Marco Polo’s travels as transcribed by a cellmate in Genoa and published about 1300.

It may be, as John Masefield suggested, that certain descriptions of places on the return journey across the Indian Ocean were “tales of pilots, and that his fleet put boldly out to avoid the coast pirates.” In all fairness, a series of medieval travelers to the east felt obliged to describe dog-headed or dog-faced people they generally heard about, rather than saw. Friar Odoric, visiting eastern China, heard references to dog-men and wolf-men, but describes going to the island of Nicoveran (Nicobar Islands, south of the Andaman Islands), where he saw men and women with faces like dogs. (Yule, vol. I, 1866) A fourteenth century explorer, Ibn Batuta, perhaps in Malaysia, saw men with mouths like dogs, but not the women, who were extremely beautiful.

Henry Yule looked for a rational explanation for these dog-head stories, suggesting in a note to the account of Ibn Batuta: “I take the dog’s muzzle to be only a strong way of describing the protruding lips and coarse features of one common type of Indo-Chinese face.” These accounts are perhaps better understood as fitting within a long mythology about dog-men (cynanthropics) and dog-headed men (cynocephalics) going back at least to Greek sources. As David Gordon White summarizes:

“What changes is the locus of these exotic creatures…. They are always located far away, beyond neighbors that are close enough to be known as enemies or allies, often over the last known mountain range or body of water. They always belong to another land, live under another sky, live according to other statutes (Dog-Men often cohabit and couple with gynecocratic Amazons), and speak (or bark) other tongues.”

The second plate show’s a depiction of dog-faced men from Yule’s notes on Marco Polo (citing the source only as “from a manuscript”).

The Porcupine Hunters

When visiting Keshem, a town now in Afghanistan, Polo described porcupines that were hunted with dogs, but were able to huddle close, or roll themselves up, when attacked, and shoot off their quills. Yule, in a note to Polo’s description of porcupines, finds the belief that porcupines could shoot their quills goes back to antiquity and can be found in Pliny and Aelian. Yule acknowledges, however, that porcupines will huddle and coil themselves, “for the porcupine always tries to shield its head.”

The plate shows porcupine hunting as imagined in Il Milione.

Tartars Use Dogs in Bird Hunts

Although saying that the Tartars had the best dogs in the world, Polo also says that they ate dogs (something that Polo deems worthy to note regarding various peoples he encountered or heard about). Yule, citing the accounts of other travelers than Polo, describes the Tartars using dogs to hunt ducks, geese, and swans. During their invasion of Europe in 1242, some believed the Tartars, or at least some of their followers, were dog-headed and ate human flesh.

Kublai Khan’s Great Hunts

The central figure in Polo's narrative is Kublai Khan. The emperor had two men, brothers, who kept his hounds. Their functions during a hunt are described by Polo as follows:

“The Emperor hath two Barons who are own brothers, one called Baian and the other Mingan ; and these two are styled Chimtchi (or Cunichi) which is as much as to say, ‘The Keepers of the Mastiff Dogs.’ Each of these brothers hath 10,000 men under his orders; each body of 10,000 being dressed alike, the one in red and the other in blue, and whenever they accompany the Lord to the chase, they wear this livery, in order to be recognized. Out of each body of 10,000 there are 2000 men who are each in charge of one or more great mastiffs, so that the whole number of these is very large. And when the Prince goes a-hunting, one of those Barons, with his 10,000 men and something like 5000 dogs, goes towards the right, whilst the other goes towards the left with his party in like manner. They move along, all abreast of one another, so that the whole line extends over a full day's journey, and no animal can escape them. Truly it is a glorious sight to see the working of the dogs and the huntsmen on such an occasion! And as the Lord rides a-fowling across the plains, you will see these big hounds coming tearing up, one pack after a bear, another pack after a stag, or some other beast, as it may hap, and running the game down now on this side and now on that, so that it is really a most delightful sport and spectacle.”

Although the numbers seem exaggerated, Allsen (2006, p. 97) notes the indigenous sources describe massive hunts in various parts of Asia.

The brothers, whose responsibilities did not end with the hunt, were also required to provide a thousand head of game daily to the court (not counting quails).

Polo is not the only early traveler to describe these massive hunts. Friar Odoric, visiting one of the successors of Kublai decades after Polo in the 1320s, says the following:

“When the Great Khan goes a hunting ‘tis thus ordered. At some twenty days’ journey from Cambalech, there is a fine forest of eight days’ journey in compass; and in it are such multitudes and varieties of animals as are truly wonderful. All around this forest there be keepers posted on account of the Khan, to take diligent charge thereof; and every third or fourth year he goeth with his people to this forest. On such occasions they first surround the whole forest with beaters, and let slip the dogs and the hawks trained to this sport, and then gradually closing in upon the game, they drive it to a certain fine open spot that there is in the middle of the wood. Here there becomes massed together an extraordinary multitude of wild beasts, such as lions [actually tigers, as noted by Collier], wild oxen, bears, stags, and a great variety of others, and all in a state of the greatest alarm. for there Is such a prodigious noise and uproar raised by the birds and the dogs that have been let slip into the wood, that a person cannot hear what his neighbor says; and all the [unfortunate] wild beasts quiver with terror at the disturbance. And when they have all been driven together into that open glade, the Great Khan comes up on three elephants and shoots his arrows at the game. As soon as he has shot, the whole of his retinue do likewise. And when all have shot their arrows (each man’s arrows having a token by which they may be discerned), then the Great Emperor causeth to be called out “Syo!” which is to say as it were Quarter! to the beasts (to wit) that have been driven from the wood. Then [the huntsmen sound the recall, and call in the dogs and hawks from the prey] the animals which have escaped with their life are allowed to go back into the forest, and all the barons come forward to view the game that has been killed and to recover the arrows that they had shot (which they can well do by the marks on them); and every one has what his arrow has struck.”

The scroll by Liu Guandao, painted about 1280, shows a hunting party including Kublai Khan in a white robe. A hunter in the upper left takes aim at a bird beyond the frame, while a sighthound looks up, probably at the same bird. Note that one of the hunting party has a cheetah mounted behind him. The plate below, from a manuscript in the Bodleian Library at Oxford (MS 264,240 verso), illustrating a French manuscript, Li Livres du Graunt Caam, shows Kublai Khan hunting. The large number of dogs and the diverse kinds of prey follow the intent of Marco Polo's account. (Double click on images to enlarge.)

Something similar to the medieval English forest laws apparently applied when the khan hunted:

“There is another thing I should mention; to wit, that for 20 days' journey round the spot nobody is allowed, be he who he may, to keep hawks or hounds, though anywhere else whosoever list may keep them. And furthermore throughout all the Emperor's territories, nobody however audacious dares to hunt any of these four animals, to wit, hare, stag, buck, and roe, from the month of March to the month of October. Anybody who should do so would rue it bitterly. But those people are so obedient to their Lord's commands, that even if a man were to find one of those animals asleep by the roadside he would not touch it for the world! And thus the game multiplies at such a rate that the whole country swarms with it, and the Emperor gets as much as he could desire.”

Polo says, however, that anyone can hunt in those areas from November to February, when the king isn’t hunting. Presumably that wasn’t the most comfortable time of year.

Yule, in a note, says that Bajazet (Tamurlane), a century after Kublai, had 7,000 falconers, and 6,000 dog-keepers, so Europeans became familiar with accounts of large numbers of hunting dogs in the east.

There is also a description of entertainments of the Great Khan, which included Chinese jugglers who could make animals climb up a rope and disappear. The animals apparently included dogs, hogs, panthers, lions, and tigers.

Kler (1941) records that Mongols used dogs in hare hunting. As in many cultures, dogs were used to dispose of those not worthy of burial. Polo recounts Kublai Khan having the body of a traitor “dug up and cast into the street for the dogs to tear.”

Guarding Travelers

In his description of the province of Cuiju (commonly Guizhou or Kweichow in anglicizing), Polo states:

“But you see they have in this province a large breed of dogs, so fierce and bold that two of them together will attack a lion. So every man who goes a journey takes with him a couple of those dogs, and when a lion appears they have at him with the greatest boldness, and the lion turns on them, but can't touch them for they are very deft at eschewing his blows. So they follow him, perpetually giving tongue, and watching their chance to give him a bite in the rump or in the thigh, or wherever they may. The lion makes no reprisal except now and then to turn fiercely on them, and then indeed were he to catch the dogs it would be all over with them, but they take good care that he shall not. So, to escape the dogs' din, the lion makes off, and gets into the wood, where mayhap he stands at bay against a tree to have his rear protected from their annoyance. And when the travelers see the lion in this plight they take to their bows, for they are capital archers, and shoot their arrows at him till he falls dead. And 'tis thus that travelers in those parts do deliver themselves from those lions.”

Yule notes a report from his own century of caravans of Chinese travelers being accompanied by large dogs along the Mekong River, which was presumably for such protection.

Sled Dogs in Siberia

In describing the difficult country of the northern steppes of Siberia, Polo mentions the “immense bears entirely white, and more than 20 palms in length.” One area impassable by horses has post-houses “for the lodgment of couriers.” The post-houses have dogs:

“At each of these post-houses they keep some 40 dogs of great size, in fact not much smaller than donkeys, and these dogs draw the couriers over the day's journey from post-house to post-house, and I will tell you how. You see the ice and mire are so prevalent, that over this tract, which lies for those 13 days' journey in a great valley between two mountains, no horses (as I told you) can travel, nor can any wheeled carriage either. Wherefore they make sledges, which are carriages without wheels, and made so that they can run over the ice, and also over mire and mud without sinking too deep in it. Of these sledges indeed there are many in our own country, for 'tis just such that are used in winter for carrying hay and straw when there have been heavy rains and the country is deep in mire. On such a sledge then they lay a bear-skin on which the courier sits, and the sledge is drawn by six of those big dogs that I spoke of. The dogs have no driver, but go straight for the next post-house, drawing the sledge famously over ice and mire. The keeper of the post-house however also gets on a sledge drawn by dogs, and guides the party by the best and shortest way. And when they arrive at the next station they find a new relay of dogs and sledges ready to take them on, whilst the old relay turns back; and thus they accomplish the whole journey across that region, always drawn by dogs.”

Yule notes that in the 19th century sled dogs were not used as far south as Polo describes, but that Ibn Batuta, a 14th century traveler, confirms Polo’s account. The Chinese knew of dog sleds, as a Chinese poem contains the line: “Over the thick snow in a dog-cart.” Yule cites dog-sled experts as saying that Polo and Ibn Batuta and other early travelers overstated the size of the dogs and understated the number that pulled a sled. The plate is Yule’s depiction of a Siberian dog sled.

Large Dogs of Tibet

Polo describes the people of Tibet having “great numbers of large and fine dogs, which are of great service in catching the musk-beasts, and so they procure great abundance of musk.” In another chapter, Polo adds:

“They have mastiff dogs as big as donkeys, which are capital at seizing wild beasts ‘and in particular the wild oxen which are called Beyamini, very great and fierce animals. They have also sundry other kinds of sporting dogs, and excellent lanner falcons….”

Yule cites other travelers remarking on the size of the Tibetan mastiffs, “as large as Newfoundlands.” Yule refers to a priest’s account (Annales de la Propagation de la Foi, vol. 37) of a Tibetan mastiff beating off the attack of a leopard until the leopard split the dog’s skull open.

The depiction of the Tibetan mastiff here is taken from the 1859 work by John Henry Walsh, who wrote under the name Stonehenge, The Dog in Health and Disease.


John Masefield wrote: “The wonder of Marco Polo is this—that he created Asia for the European mind.” Despite such high praise, arguments have been made that Polo did not go to China, that he got somewhere close enough to pick up the accounts of travelers who had gone further, then spun what he remembered into a story while in a Genoese prison to entertain his cellmate, Rustichello da Pisa (Wood, 1996). An analysis of the dog references in translations of Polo’s account will not resolve such arguments. Nevertheless, Polo’s eye for detail provides valuable data, confirmed by travelers coming the century after, regarding how and where dogs were used in Asia. Much of the data seems so specific, and perhaps unimportant—such as the references to groups that eat dogs—that it would seem that someone taking a narrative from travelers at an intermediary station, say in Persia or India, would probably not bother. Nevertheless, I leave this debate to those qualified to participate in it.

  1. 1. Allsen, T.T. (2006). The Royal Hunt in Eurasian History. University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia.
  2. Collier, V.W.F. (1921). Dogs of China and Japan in Nature and Art. Frederick A. Stokes Co., New York.
  3. Kler, J. (1941). Hunting Customs of the Ordos Mongols. Primitive Man, 14(3), 38-48.
  4. Livres des Merveilles du Monde (Books of the Marvels of the World), sometimes called Il Milione, recorded by Rustichello da Pisa from stories told by Marco Polo, published c. 1300.
  5. Masefield, J. (1907). Introduction. The Travels of Marco Polo the Venetian (1908). J.M. Dent & Sons, London; E.P. Dutton & Co., New York.
  6. Stonehenge (John Henry Walsh) (1859). The Dog in Health and Disease.
  7. White, D.G. (1991). Myths of the Dog-Men. University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London.
  8. Wood, F. (1996). Did Marco Polo Go to China? Westview Press, Boulder, Colorado.
  9. Yule, H. (1866) (editor and translator). Cathay and the Way Thither; Being a Collection of Medieval Notices of China, vols. I and II. Hakluyt Society, London.
  10. Yule, H. (1871). The Book of Ser Marco Polo, the Venetian, vols. I and II. John Murray London. (In a note to Polo’s account of the dog-headed men of the Andaman Islands, Yule recognizes the widespread occurrence of dog-men stories, saying that they are at least as old as Ctesias. He notes that the Cubans described the Caribs to Columbus as man-eaters with dogs’ muzzles; the Danes spoke of the Cynocephali of Finland; Friar Jordanus also heard of dog-headed islanders in the east, Pere Barbe related that Nicobar people considered themselves of canine descent, but on the female side; Portuguese sailors heard that Peguans (Burmese) sprang from a dog and a Chinese woman; Coromandel Brahmans spoke of man-eaters on the Island of Andaman).

Thanks to Eric Krieger and Richard Hawkins for comments and corrections. I had speculated that the dog in the Guandao illustration was looking at the emperor but Richard notes this would probably be an affront. Rather, it is much more likely looking at the potential game beyond our view in the sky above.

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