Greek philosopher Diogenes (412-323 B.C.) famously noted, “Dogs and philosophers do the greatest good and get the fewest rewards”. The inclusion of philosophers seems a little self-serving, but there may be a kernel of truth when it comes to our canine compatriots. Were we to combine the finest qualities of human philosophers with the relative saintliness of your average household hound, we might very well recreate an ancient monstrous race known as the Cynocephali, or more colloquially, the dog-headed men.
Werewolves, while a fascinating addition to our phantasmagoric bestiary, historically have very little in common with Cynocephali. Werewolves are generally characterized as solitary, mindless meat-eaters, filled with bloodlust and savage temperament by the light of the full moon. In contrast, the Cynocephali are traditionally regarded as a sociable and sophisticated race (although occasionally they breath fire) variously placed in Ethiopia, North Africa, India, or islands in the Indian Ocean. The Cynocephali can even claim an Eastern Orthodox Christian saint among their number, in the personage of St. Christopher, who is traditionally held to have come from an obscure North African Berber tribe called the Marmarite. Captured in battle by the Romans in 300 A.D., he was believed to be a Cynocephalus, accepted baptism, and apparently began to preach the gospel, ultimately getting himself sainted. Easter Orthodox iconology frequently depicts St. Christopher with a dog’s head.
The Cynocephali are an especially tricky monster to understand in the context of Western civilization (a robust Chinese mythology of dog-headed men also exists), as we have a complex and ambivalent attitude towards dogs. The association of dogs with humans is likely the earliest form of domestication, and the keeping of dogs is so commonplace throughout history that a review of the attitude of most monotheistic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) to dogs is frankly astonishing. The New Testament Book of Revelations offers a characteristic expression of theological stances on dogs when it says, “For without are dogs, and sorcerers, and whoremongers, and murderers, and idolaters, and whosoever loveth and maketh a lie “ (Revelations, 22:15) or the Talmudic saying “He who breeds a wild dog in his house keeps loving kindness away from his house.” The dog is liminal, that is to say not quite animal and not quite human, and thus as most liminal creatures are, is the source of some trepidation. “In symbolic terms, the domestic dog exists precariously in the no-man’s land between the human and non-human worlds. It is an interstitial creature, neither person nor beast, forever oscillating uncomfortably between the roles of high-status animal and low-status person. As a consequence, the dog is rarely accepted and appreciated purely for what it is: a uniquely varied, carnivorous mammal adapted to a huge range of mutualistic associations with people. Instead, it has become a creature of metaphor, simultaneously embodying or representing a strange mixture of admirable and despicable traits. As a beast that voluntarily allies itself to humans, the dog often seems to lose its right to be regarded as a true animal….Elsewhere, the dog’s ambiguous or intermediate status has endowed it with supernatural powers, and the ability to travel as a spiritual messenger or psychopomp between this world and the next” (Serpell, 1995, p.254). Tellingly, the only animal specifically called out by St. John in his Revelations for exclusion from Heaven is the dog.
Unsurprisingly, when historians, theologians, and world travelers need to identify an alien race, they find human-dog hybrids that manifest and amalgamate the civilized aspects of humanity with the bestial aspects of the dog, creating a truly fearsome monster with the savage predilections of the wild canine and the intellect of man. Wherever there were grey areas on the map, there tended to appear a race of dog men, our historical Cynocephali. This ambivelance, that is, the often positive descriptions applauding some of the more human aspects of the Cynocephali are consistent with the everyday attachment of most Western cultures to their dogs, in stark contrast to monotheism’s puzzling apprehension.
Our Western literary sources for the Cynocephali date back to Greek Antiquity, mentioned by no less important figures than Herodotus and Pliny the Elder, as well as detailed reports from Greek physician Ctesias of Cnidus (5th Century B.C.), and Greek ethnographer Megasthenes (350-290 B.C.). The ancient Greeks were no doubt familiar with and may have been influenced by the dog-headed Egyptian Gods Anubis (although he was actually jackal-headed, he certainly appears dog-like) and Hapi (actually baboon-headed, but the ancient Greeks thought it looked more like a dog). Ctesias, in fact, had quite a bit to say about the Cynocephali, keeping in mind that his descriptions of India are actually representative of what 5th Century B.C. Persians and Assyrians believed to be true about India.
On these mountains there live men with the head of a dog, whose clothing is the skin of wild beasts. They speak no language, but bark like dogs, and in this manner make themselves understood by each other. Their teeth are larger than those of dogs, their nails like those of these animals, but longer and rounder. They inhabit the mountains as far as the river Indus. Their complexion is swarthy. They are extremely just, like the rest of the Indians with whom they associate. They understand the Indian language but are unable to converse, only barking or making signs with their hands and fingers by way of reply, like the deaf and dumb. They are called by the Indians Calystrii, in Greek Cynocephali (“dog-headed “). [They live on raw meat.] They number about 120,000. Near the sources of this river1 grows a purple flower, from which is obtained a purple dye, as good in quality as the Greek and of an even more brilliant hue. In the same district there is an animal about the size of a beetle, red as cinnabar, with very long feet, and a body as soft as that of a worm. It breeds on the trees which produce amber, eats their fruit and kills them, as the woodlouse destroys the vines in Greece. The Indians crush these insects and use them for dyeing their robes and tunics and anything else they wish. The Cynocephali living on the mountains do not practice any trade but live by hunting. When they have killed an animal they roast it in the sun. They also rear numbers of sheep, goats, and asses, drinking the milk of the sheep and whey made from it. They eat the fruit of the Siptakhora, whence amber is procured, since it is sweet. They also dry it and keep it in baskets, as the Greeks keep their dried grapes. They make rafts which they load with this fruit together with well-cleaned purple flowers and 260 talents of amber, with the same quantity of the purple dye, and 1000 additional talents of amber, which they send annually to the king of India. They exchange the rest for bread, flour, and cotton stuffs with the Indians, from whom they also buy swords for hunting wild beasts, bows, and arrows, being very skillful in drawing the bow and hurling the spear. They cannot be defeated in war, since they inhabit lofty and inaccessible mountains. Every five years the king sends them a present of 300,000 bows, as many spears, 120,000 shields, and 50,000 swords. They do not live in houses, but in caves. They set out for the chase with bows and spears, and as they are very swift of foot, they pursue and soon overtake their quarry. The women have a bath once a month; the men do not have a bath at all, but only wash their hands. They anoint themselves three times a month with oil made from milk and wipe themselves with skins. The clothes of men and women alike are not skins with the hair on, but skins tanned and very fine. The richest wear linen clothes, but they are few in number. They have no beds, but sleep on leaves or grass. He who possesses the greatest number of sheep is considered the richest, and so in regard to their other possessions. All, both men and women, have tails above their hips, like dogs, but longer and more hairy. They are just, and live longer than any other men, 170, sometimes 200 years (Ctesias, “Indica”, from Photius I).
Megasthenes is thought to have been part of an embassy from the Seleucid Dynasty to Maurya Empire founder Emperor Chandragupta Maurya in Pataliputra, India, giving him slightly more “street cred” than the well-intentioned, but hearsay-recording Ctesias, when it comes to first-person identification of dog-human hybrids residing in the Indian Subcontinent.
According to Megasthenes, on a mountain called Nulo there live men whose feet are turned backward, and who have eight toes on each foot; while on many of the mountains there lives a race of men having heads like those of dogs, who are clothed with the skins of wild beasts, whose speech is barking, and who, being armed with claws, live by hunting and fowling (Pliny the Elder, Hist. Nat. VII. ii. 14-22., quoting Megasthenes’ Indica).
Philosopher, theologian, and later Saint, Augustine of Hippo (354-430 A.D.) devoted some serious thought as to whether the Cynocephali (1) existed at all, (2) were human, and most importantly to Augustine, (3) were descendants of Adam.
What shall I say of the Cynocephali, whose dog-like head and barking proclaim them beasts rather than men? But we are not bound to believe all we hear of these monstrosities. But whoever is anywhere born a man, that is, a rational, mortal animal, no matter what unusual appearance he presents in color, movement, sound, nor how peculiar he is in some power, part, or quality of his nature, no Christian can doubt that he springs from that one protoplast. We can distinguish the common human nature from that which is peculiar and therefore wonderful (Augustine of Hippo, City of God, Book XVI, Chapter 8).
Some experts argue that the depiction of Saint Christopher with a dog’s head in Byzantine Christianity resulted from a misinterpretation of the Latin term Cananeus (used to refer to people from the land of Canaan) as Canineus (Canine i.e. dog-like). Because there is a lot of comic appeal in a dog-headed saint running around converting folks, we’ll pretend we didn’t hear this, besides the fact that the Byzantine iconology related to Saint Christopher is fairly unambiguous in depicting his dog head.
The Benedictine monk and historian of the Lombards, Paulus Diaconus (720-799 A.D.) mentions the Cynocephali as a propaganda tool used by the Lombards to scare their enemies.
The Langobards moreover, when they beheld the great forces of their enemies, did not dare engage them on account of the smallness of their army, and while they were deciding what they ought to do, necessity at length hit upon a plan. They pretend that they have in their camps Cynocephali, that is, men with dogs’ heads. They spread the rumor among the enemy that these men wage war obstinately, drink human blood and quaff their own gore if they cannot reach the foe. And to give faith to this assertion, the Langobards spread their tents wide and kindle a great many fires in their camps. The enemy being made credulous when these things are heard and seen, dare not now attempt the war they threatened (Paulus Diaconus, “History of the Langobards”, Chapter XI).
The references, both literary and historical, to the Cynocephali abound from the court of Charlemagne, where the Norse were referred to as “dog-headed”, theologians such as Ratramnus (9th Century A.D.) debating their humanity and according them the capacity for reason, inclusion in Thomas of Cantimpré’s (1201-1272 A.D.) Liber de Monstruosis Hominibus Orientis (“Book of Monstrous men of the Orient”), old Welsh poetry, mentioned as enemies King Arthur’s knights fought in the mountains near Edinburgh, and discussion by 13th Century encyclopedist and Dominican friar Vincent of Beauvais who said the Cynocephalus was, “an animal with the head of the dog but with all other members of human appearance… Though he behaves like a man… and, when peaceful, he is tender like a man, when furious, he becomes cruel and retaliates on humankind” (Vincent of Beauvais, Speculum Naturale 31:126). Italian traveler and the first European to document the Mongol Empire, Giovanni da Pian del Carpini (1182-1252 A.D.) documented an encounter between the armies of Ogedei Khan and a dog-headed people near Lake Baikal.
From hence they proceeded towards the North against the people called Bastarci or Hungaria magna, and conquered them also. And so going on further North, they came unto the Parossitæ, who having little stomachs and small mouths, eat not anything at all, but seething flesh they stand or sit over the pot, and receiving the steam or smoke thereof, are therewith only nourished, and if they eat anything it is very little. From hence they came to the Samogetæ, who live only upon hunting, and use to dwell in tabernacles only, and to wear garments made of beasts’ skins. From thence they proceeded unto a country lying upon the Ocean sea, where they found certain monsters, who in all things resembled the shape of men, saving that their feet were like the feet of an ox, and they had in deed men’s heads but dogs faces. They spake, as it were, two words like men, but at the third they barked like dogs. From hence they retired into Comania, and there some of them remain unto this day (Carpini, “The Long and Wonderful Voyage of Friar John de Plano Carpini”, 1246)
Marco Polo similarly mentions a version of the Cynocephali in his Books of the Marvels of the World, in reference to an Bay of Bengal archipelago called the Adaman Islands (which he refers to as Angamanain).
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 (Marco Polo, Travels, 1477).
Sightings of Cynocephali persist in the modern era, and we would clearly be remiss if we failed to mention the Michigan Dogman, first spotted in 1887, as well as Wisconsin’s Beast of Bray Road, perhaps the lonely survivors of a once proud race of dog people, rumors of which have persisted for millennia.
The Cynocephali are ontologically liminal, that is they defy taxonomic classification, refusing to participate in the classificatory order of the universe. They signify the danger of the unknown land, the unknown culture, the margin of our known world. Who better to live on the edge of the map, than a creature that lives on the edge of civilization, neither man nor beast, a mythological danger to be regarded perhaps with contempt, perhaps with fear, but certainly with a degree of wariness, as its understanding, motives, goals, and desires are always unclear, since underneath the loving domestic partner, the guardian of civilization that barks away the dark, is the wolf in the forest, waiting for our attention to wander. John Steinbeck observed, “I’ve seen a look in dogs’ eyes, a quickly vanishing look of amazed contempt, and I am convinced that dogs think humans are nuts”. Maybe our canine friends know something we don’t.
Paul, the Deacon (Paulus Diaconus), ca. 720-799?. History of the Langobards,. New York: Longmans, Green & co., 1907.
Photius I, Saint, Patriarch of Constantinople, ca. 820-ca. 891. The Library of Photius. London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1920.
Serpell, J. “From Paragon to Pariah: Some reflections on Human Attitudes to Dogs”. In J. Serpell (Ed.), The Domestic Dog. Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1995.