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.
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 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.
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 Charlemagne.
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).
Myths of 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' (meaning 'canine').
17th-Century 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.
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.
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 dog-like.
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.
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.
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)