The Dog Gellert
Source: Curious Myths Of The Middle Ages
Having demolished William Tell, I proceed to the destruction of
another article of popular belief.
Who that has visited Snowdon has not seen the grave of Llewellyn's
faithful hound Gellert, and been told by the guide the touching story
of the death of the noble animal? How can we doubt the facts, seeing
that the place, Beth-Gellert, is named after the dog, and that the
grave is still visible? But unfortunately for the truth of the legend,
its pedigree can be traced with the utmost precision.
The story is as follows:--
The Welsh Prince Llewellyn had a noble deerhound, Gellert, whom he
trusted to watch the cradle of his baby son whilst he himself was
One day, on his return, to his intense horror, he beheld the cradle
empty and upset, the clothes dabbled with blood, and Gellert's mouth
dripping with gore. Concluding hastily that the hound had proved
unfaithful, had fallen on the child and devoured it,--in a paroxysm of
rage the prince drew his sword and slew the dog. Next instant the cry
of the babe from behind the cradle showed him that the child was
uninjured; and, on looking farther, Llewellyn discovered the body of a
huge wolf, which had entered the house to seize and devour the child,
but which had been kept off and killed by the brave dog Gellert.
In his self-reproach and grief, the prince erected a stately monument
to Gellert, and called the place where he was buried after the poor
Now, I find in Russia precisely the same story told, with just the
same appearance of truth, of a Czar Piras. In Germany it appears with
considerable variations. A man determines on slaying his old dog
Sultan, and consults with his wife how this is to be effected. Sultan
overhears the conversation, and complains bitterly to the wolf, who
suggests an ingenious plan by which the master may be induced to spare
his dog. Next day, when the man is going to his work, the wolf
undertakes to carry off the child from its cradle. Sultan is to attack
him and rescue the infant. The plan succeeds admirably, and the dog
spends his remaining years in comfort. (Grimm, K. M. 48.)
But there is a story in closer conformity to that of Gellert among the
French collections of fabliaux made by Le Grand d'Aussy and EdA(C)lA(C)stand
du MA(C)ril. It became popular through the "Gesta Romanorum," a
collection of tales made by the monks for harmless reading, in the
In the "Gesta" the tale is told as follows:--
"Folliculus, a knight, was fond of hunting and tournaments. He had an
only son, for whom three nurses were provided. Next to this child, he
loved his falcon and his greyhound. It happened one day that he was
called to a tournament, whither his wife and domestics went also,
leaving the child in the cradle, the greyhound lying by him, and the
falcon on his perch. A serpent that inhabited a hole near the castle,
taking advantage of the profound silence that reigned, crept from his
habitation, and advanced towards the cradle to devour the child. The
falcon, perceiving the danger, fluttered with his wings till he awoke
the dog, who instantly attacked the invader, and after a fierce
conflict, in which he was sorely wounded, killed him. He then lay down
on the ground to lick and heal his wounds. When the nurses returned,
they found the cradle overturned, the child thrown out, and the ground
covered with blood, as was also the dog, who they immediately
concluded had killed the child.
"Terrified at the idea of meeting the anger of the parents, they
determined to escape; but in their flight fell in with their mistress,
to whom they were compelled to relate the supposed murder of the child
by the greyhound. The knight soon arrived to hear the sad story, and,
maddened with fury, rushed forward to the spot. The poor wounded and
faithful animal made an effort to rise and welcome his master with his
accustomed fondness; but the enraged knight received him on the point
of his sword, and he fell lifeless to the ground. On examination of
the cradle, the infant was found alive and unhurt, with the dead
serpent lying by him. The knight now perceived what had happened,
lamented bitterly over his faithful dog, and blamed himself for having
too hastily depended on the words of his wife. Abandoning the
profession of arms, he broke his lance in pieces, and vowed a
pilgrimage to the Holy Land, where he spent the rest of his days in
The monkish hit at the wife is amusing, and might have been supposed
to have originated with those determined misogynists, as the gallant
Welshmen lay all the blame on the man. But the good compilers of the
"Gesta" wrote little of their own, except moral applications of the
tales they relate, and the story of Folliculus and his dog, like many
others in their collection, is drawn from a foreign source.
It occurs in the Seven Wise Masters, and in the "Calumnia Novercalis"
as well, so that it must have been popular throughout mediAval Europe.
Now, the tales of the Seven Wise Masters are translations from a
Hebrew work, the Kalilah and Dimnah of Rabbi Joel, composed about
A. D. 1250, or from Simeon Seth's Greek Kylile and Dimne, written in
1080. These Greek and Hebrew works were derived from kindred sources.
That of Rabbi Joel was a translation from an Arabic version made by
Nasr-Allah in the twelfth century, whilst Simeon Seth's was a
translation of the Persian Kalilah and Dimnah. But the Persian
Kalilah and Dimnah was not either an original work; it was in turn a
translation from the Sanskrit Pantschatantra, made about A. D. 540.
In this ancient Indian book the story runs as follows:--
A Brahmin named Devasaman had a wife, who gave birth to a son, and
also to an ichneumon. She loved both her children dearly, giving them
alike the breast, and anointing them alike with salves. But she feared
the ichneumon might not love his brother.
One day, having laid her boy in bed, she took up the water jar, and
said to her husband, "Hear me, master! I am going to the tank to fetch
water. Whilst I am absent, watch the boy, lest he gets injured by the
ichneumon." After she had left the house, the Brahmin went forth
begging, leaving the house empty. In crept a black snake, and
attempted to bite the child; but the ichneumon rushed at it, and tore
it in pieces. Then, proud of its achievement, it sallied forth, all
bloody, to meet its mother. She, seeing the creature stained with
blood, concluded, with feminine precipitance, that it had fallen on
the baby and killed it, and she flung her water jar at it and slew it.
Only on her return home did she ascertain her mistake.
The same story is also told in the Hitopadesa (iv. 13), but the animal
is an otter, not an ichneumon. In the Arabic version a weasel takes
the place of the ichneumon.
The Buddhist missionaries carried the story into Mongolia, and in the
Mongolian Uligerun, which is a translation of the Tibetian Dsanghen,
the story reappears with the pole-cat as the brave and suffering
defender of the child.
Stanislaus Julien, the great Chinese scholar, has discovered the same
tale in the Chinese work entitled "The Forest of Pearls from the
Garden of the Law." This work dates from 668; and in it the creature
is an ichneumon.
In the Persian Sindibad-nAcmeh is the same tale, but the faithful
animal is a cat. In Sandabar and Syntipas it has become a dog. Through
the influence of Sandabar on the Hebrew translation of the Kalilah and
Dimnah, the ichneumon is also replaced by a dog.
Such is the history of the Gellert legend; it is an introduction into
Europe from India, every step of its transmission being clearly
demonstrable. From the Gesta Romanorum it passed into a popular tale
throughout Europe, and in different countries it was, like the Tell
myth, localized and individualized. Many a Welsh story, such as those
contained in the Mabinogion, are as easily traced to an Eastern
But every story has its root. The root of the Gellert tale is this: A
man forms an alliance of friendship with a beast or bird. The dumb
animal renders him a signal service. He misunderstands the act, and
kills his preserver.
We have tracked this myth under the Gellert form from India to Wales;
but under another form it is the property of the whole Aryan family,
and forms a portion of the traditional lore of all nations sprung from
Thence arose the classic fable of the peasant, who, as he slept, was
bitten by a fly. He awoke, and in a rage killed the insect. When too
late, he observed that the little creature had aroused him that he
might avoid a snake which lay coiled up near his pillow.
In the Anvar-i-Suhaili is the following kindred tale. A king had a
falcon. One day, whilst hunting, he filled a goblet with water
dropping from a rock. As he put the vessel to his lips, his falcon
dashed upon it, and upset it with its wings. The king, in a fury, slew
the bird, and then discovered that the water dripped from the jaws of
a serpent of the most poisonous description.
This story, with some variations, occurs in Aâ€ sop, Aâ€ lian, and
Apthonius. In the Greek fable, a peasant liberates an eagle from the
clutches of a dragon. The dragon spirts poison into the water which
the peasant is about to drink, without observing what the monster had
done. The grateful eagle upsets the goblet with his wings.
The story appears in Egypt under a whimsical form. A Wali once smashed
a pot full of herbs which a cook had prepared. The exasperated cook
thrashed the well-intentioned but unfortunate Wali within an inch of
his life, and when he returned, exhausted with his efforts at
belaboring the man, to examine the broken pot, he discovered amongst
the herbs a poisonous snake.
How many brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, and cousins of all degrees
a little story has! And how few of the tales we listen to can lay any
claim to originality! There is scarcely a story which I hear which I
cannot connect with some family of myths, and whose pedigree I cannot
ascertain with more or less precision. Shakespeare drew the plots of
his plays from Boccaccio or Straparola; but these Italians did not
invent the tales they lent to the English dramatist. King Lear does
not originate with Geofry of Monmouth, but comes from early Indian
stores of fable, whence also are derived the Merchant of Venice and
the pound of flesh, ay, and the very incident of the three caskets.
But who would credit it, were it not proved by conclusive facts, that
Johnny Sands is the inheritance of the whole Aryan family of nations,
and that Peeping Tom of Coventry peeped in India and on the Tartar
steppes ages before Lady Godiva was born?
If you listen to Traviata at the opera, you have set before you a tale
which has lasted for centuries, and which was perhaps born in India.
If you read in classic fable of Orpheus charming woods and meadows,
beasts and birds, with his magic lyre, you remember to have seen the
same fable related in the Kalewala of the Finnish Wainomainen, and in
the Kaleopoeg of the Esthonian Kalewa.
If you take up English history, and read of William the Conqueror
slipping as he landed on British soil, and kissing the earth, saying
he had come to greet and claim his own, you remember that the same
story is told of Napoleon in Egypt, of King Olaf Harold's son in
Norway, and in classic history of Junius Brutus on his return from the
A little while ago I cut out of a Sussex newspaper a story purporting
to be the relation of a fact which had taken place at a fixed date in
Lewes. This was the story. A tyrannical husband locked the door
against his wife, who was out having tea with a neighbor, gossiping
and scandal-mongering; when she applied for admittance, he pretended
not to know her. She threatened to jump into the well unless he opened
The man, not supposing that she would carry her threat into execution,
declined, alleging that he was in bed, and the night was chilly;
besides which he entirely disclaimed all acquaintance with the lady
who claimed admittance.
The wife then flung a log into a well, and secreted herself behind the
door. The man, hearing the splash, fancied that his good lady was
really in the deeps, and forth he darted in his nocturnal costume,
which was of the lightest, to ascertain whether his deliverance was
complete. At once the lady darted into the house, locked the door,
and, on the husband pleading for admittance, she declared most
solemnly from the window that she did not know him.
Now, this story, I can positively assert, unless the events of this
world move in a circle, did not happen in Lewes, or any other Sussex
It was told in the Gesta Romanorum six hundred years ago, and it was
told, may be, as many hundred years before in India, for it is still
to be found in Sanskrit collections of tales.
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