A cynocephalus, as depicted on p. 22 of Monstrorum Historia (1642), written by Italian
naturalist Ulisse Androvandi (public domain)
In medieval times,
scholars firmly believed in the reality of all manner of extraordinary
semi-human entities, supposedly inhabiting exotic lands far beyond the
well-explored terrain of Europe. Prominent among these tribes of 'half-men'
were the cynocephali or dog-headed people, popularly referred to by travellers
and chroniclers. Their domain's precise locality, conversely, depended to a
large extent upon the opinion of the specific traveller or chronicler in
question, as few seemed to share the same view.
CYNOCEPHALI FROM FAR-DISTANT SHORES
Among the many legendary
feats romantically attributed to Alexander III of Macedon, better known as
Alexander the Great (356-323 BC), was his successful battle against a
40,000-strong army of cannibalistic cynocephali after he had invaded India,
sending them fleeing and howling in terror in his wake. Some, however, were not
swift enough and therefore fortunate enough to escape Alexander's merciless
wrath, and were duly captured by him, their dismal fate being to be walled up
alive beyond the mountain peaks at the furthest reach of the world.
Alexander the Great fighting cynocephali, painted by
an unknown Flemish artist and dating from the late 15th Century (public domain)
A century earlier, the
ancient Greek historian Herodotus (c.484-c.425 BC) had claimed that a race of
Ethiopian dog-heads termed the kynokephaloi not only barked instead of
speaking, but also could spew forth flames of fire from their mouths! Another
Greek historian from this same time period, Ctesias, claimed that cynocephali
existed in India.
According to the Roman naturalist
and scholar Pliny the Elder (23-79 AD), the mysterious country of Ethiopia,
which he mistakenly assumed was one and the same as India, was home both to the
cynocephali and to the similarly dog-headed cynamolgi. Numbering 120,000 in
total, the cynamolgi wore the skins of wild animals, conversed only via canine
barks and yelps, and obtained milk, of which they were very fond, not from cows
but by milking female dogs.
Cynocephali from the Andaman Islands, in a 15th-Century
Book of Wonders (public domain)
Later authors also often
stated that India and/or certain Asian island groups were populated by
cynocephali. The 13th-Century Venetian traveller Marco Polo, who
could never be accused of letting a good story slip by unpublicised, soberly
announced that the Andaman Islands off Burma (now Myanmar) were home to a race
of milk-drinking, fruit-eating (and occasionally human-devouring) dog-heads who
engaged in peaceful trade with India.
During the early 15th
Century,, a travelling Italian missionary monk named Friar Odoric of Pordenone,
writing in his Itinerarium (produced
c.1410-1412), relocated these entities
to the nearby Nicobar Islands. In the previous century, conversely, the
writings of Catalonian Dominican missionary/explorer Friar Jordanus had
deposited them rather unkindly in the ocean between Africa and India.
Cynocephali of the Nicobar Islands, in the Itinerarium of Odoric of Pordenone
Cynocephali living in
India itself were also reported by 17th-Century English theologian
and geographer Peter Heylyn. He travelled widely and write extensively during
the reign of Charles I, the Interregnum, and the Restoration of Charles II.
Nor should we forget Sir
John Mandeville, even though his (in)famous supposed journeys to incredible
faraway lands in Africa and Asia during the 14th Century owe
considerably more to imagination than to peregrination. In his tome Travels, he averred that a tribe of
hound-headed people inhabited a mysterious island of undetermined location
called Macumeran. Here, curiously, they venerated an ox, and were ruled by a
mighty but pious king, who was identified by a huge ruby around his neck and
also wore a string of 300 precious oriental pearls.
Cynocephalus in Mandeville's tome The Travels of Sir John Mandeville (public domain)
There are even reports
of cynocephali being seen, and shown, in Europe. For example, according to an
entry and picture in the Tractatus de
Signis, Prodigiis et Portentis Antiquis et Novis, Cod. 4417, folio 9v
(1503), which was an illustrated script dealing with signs and miracles
reported up to 1503, and produced by Austrian historian Jakob Mennel
(c.1460-c.1525), a living captured cynocephalus had been brought before Louis
the Pious (778-840 AD), King of the Franks and co-emperor with his father
In addition, the Kiev or
Spiridon Psalter, a very famous East Slavic illuminated manuscript produced in
1397 by Archdeacon Spiridon in Kiev, included among its more than 300 miniature
illustrations a very striking, brightly-coloured depiction on folio 28r of two
pairs of aggressive-looking cynocephali armed with spears and swords flanking
at the centre of the picture a haloed human figure (Jesus?). This illustration
can be seen at the end of the present ShukerNature blog article. Although
Spiridon definitely wrote the text of the Kiev Psalter, at least some of its
miniatures may have been added by others at later dates.
Louis the Pious witnessing the living cynocephalus
brought before him, as pictured in Jakob Mennel's Tractatus de Signis, Prodigiis et Portentis Antiquis et Novis (public domain)
CYNOCEPHALI OF THE CELTIC KIND
Less well known than the
above-mentioned examples is the fact that dog-headed entities also feature in
Celtic lore and mythology. As pointed out by Professor David Gordon White in
his definitive book, Myths of the Dog-Man
(1991), Irish legends tell of several cynocephalic people.
Perhaps the most notable
of these legends concerns a great invasion of Ireland from across the western
sea by a race of dog-headed marauders known as the Coinceann or Conchind, who
were ultimately vanquished by the demi-god warrior Cúchulainn. Moreover, a
tribe of dog-heads opposed King Arthur, and were duly fought by him (or by Sir
Kay in some versions of this tale).
the Dog-Man, by Prof. David Gordon White (© Prof. David Gordon White/University of
Chicago Press - reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis for educational/review purposes only)
Irish legends also claim
that St Christopher, a Canaanite who became the patron saint of travellers, was
originally a giant cynocephalus, standing 5 cubits (7.5 ft) tall, who could
only bark and howl, but prayed to God to grant him the power of speech so that
he could defend Christians and spread the Christian word. God answered his
prayer, and St Christopher later carried the infant Jesus safely across a
swiftly-flowing river, possibly his most famous deed.
Interestingly, certain Byzantine
iconography also depicts St Christopher as a cynocephalus. However, in his book
Medieval Art: A Topical Dictionary
(1996), Leslie Ross speculated that this perhaps resulted from confusion
between the Latin words 'cananeus' (meaning 'Canaanite') and 'canineus'
depiction of St Christopher as a cynocephalus, at Kermira
(Germir), in Cappadocia, Turkey (public domain)
Shetland folklore tells
of a supernatural entity known as the wulver, which has the body of a man but
is covered in short brown hair and has the head of a wolf. According to
tradition, this semi-human being lives in a cave dug out of a steep mound
halfway up a hill, and enjoys fishing in deep water. Despite its frightening
appearance, however, the wulver is harmless if left alone, and will sometimes
even leave a few fishes on the windowsill of poor folk. A similar wolf-man
entity is also said to exist in Exmoor's famous Valley of the Doones. Click here
for further information on ShukerNature concerning British dogmen.
DOG-HEADED DEITIES AND RULERS
Cynocephalic deities are
not infrequent in mythology, but the most familiar example must surely be Anubis
– ancient Egypt's traditionally jackal-headed god of the dead, but now needing
a taxonomic makeover, as the Egyptian jackal has lately been revealed to be a
species of wolf, not a jackal at all. Originally, Anubis was the much-dreaded
god of putrefaction, but in later tellings he became transformed into a
guardian deity, protecting the dead against robbers, and overseeing the
embalming process. His head's form was derived from the canine scavengers in
Egyptian burial graves during the far-distant age preceding the pyramids when
graves were shallow and hence readily opened.
Statue of Anubis (© Dr Karl Shuker)
The Furies or Erinnyes –
the terrifying trio of avenging goddesses from Greek mythology – were the three
hideous daughters of the Greek sky god Uranus and Gaia (Mother Earth), consisting
of Alecto, Megaera, and Tisiphone. Although they are more commonly depicted
wholly as women, in early traditions they were described as possessing canine
heads, as well as leathery bat-wings, fiery bloodshot eyes, foul breath, and
hair composed of living serpents (like the trio of gorgons). Their allotted
task was to harangue and punish evil-doers, especially parent-killers and
oath-breakers, but eventually they were transformed into the kinder Eumenides.
Another figure in Greek
mythology who underwent a canine transformation, although this time in reverse,
was Lycaon. This wicked, foolhardy king of Arcadia served up the roasted flesh
of his own son, Nyctimus, to Zeus, in order to test whether the supreme Greek
deity would recognise it. Needless to say, Zeus did, and as a punishment he
changed Lycaon into a wolf. Interestingly, however, Lycaon is often portrayed
not as a complete wolf, but rather as a wolf-headed man.
16th-Century engraving of Lycaon depicted
as a cynocephalus (public domain)
Zoologists seeking to
nominate real animals as the inspiration for the legends of cynocephali
generally offer two principal candidates. The first of these is the baboon, of
which there are several species. The heads of these large monkeys are certainly
Indeed, the yellow
baboon is actually known scientifically as Papio
cynocephalus. Moreover, the sacred baboon P. hamadryas is native to Ethiopia – source of the earliest
cynocephalus myths. An alternative name for a third species, the olive baboon, is
the anubis baboon, and it has the taxonomic name P. anubis.
A beautiful 19th-Century engraving
depicting the olive or anubis baboon (public domain)
The second candidate is
the indri Indri indri [once Indri brevicaudatus] – one of the largest
modern-day species of lemur, and indigenous to Madagascar. Measuring over 3 ft,
but only possessing a very short, inconspicuous tail (hence brevicaudatus), and often spied sitting
upright in trees, this highly distinctive creature does look remarkably like a
short dog-headed human.
The indri did not
formally become known to science until 1768, when French naturalist Pierre
Sonnerat arrived in Madagascar. Even so, when other, earlier travellers
visiting this exotic island returned home to Europe and regaled their listeners
with much-embellished accounts of their journeys, these may well have included
exaggerated tales about the indri.
Indri illustration by Pierre Sonnerat, in Johann von
Schreber's series of tomes Die Saugthiere
in Abbildungen nach der Natur mit Beschreibungen (1775-92) (public domain)
Certainly, it would not
take a sizeable stretch of the imagination to convert a dog-headed lemur into a
fully-fledged cynocephalus – thus breathing life into a being that never
existed in reality, yet which would be faithfully chronicled by a succession of
relatively uncritical scholars for many centuries.Of such, indeed, are
legends all too often born.
This ShukerNature blog article is expanded and updated from my book The Beasts That Hide From Man.
Cynocephali depicted in a miniature illustration on
folio 28r of the Kiev Psalter, a medieval illuminated manuscript dating from
1397 - in close-up on left, in situ on
right (public domain)