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Traditional Eastern depiction of a dog-headed Saint Christopher, an icon from the Byzantine and Christian Museum in Athens.

The condition of cynocephaly, having the head of a dog — or of a jackal — is a widely attested legendary phenomenon existing in many different forms and contexts. The word is taken from Latin cynocephalus "dog-head", which derives from Greek κῠνοκέφᾰλοι.

Ancient Greece and Egypt

Cynocephaly was familiar to the Ancient Greeks from representations of the Egyptian god Hapi, the son of Horus, and Anubis, the Egyptian god of the dead, always shown with the head of a jackal. The Greek word (κῠνοκέφᾰλοι) "dog-head" also identified a sacred Egyptian baboon with the face of a dog.[1]

Reports of dog-headed races can also be traced back to Greek antiquity. In the fifth century BCE, the Greek physician Ctesias wrote a detailed report on the existence of cynocephali in India.[2] Similarly, the Greek traveller Megasthenes claims to know about dog-headed people in India who live in the mountains, communicate through barking, wear the skins of wild animals and live by hunting.[3]

Medieval East

Cynocephali also figure in Christian world-views. A legend that placed St. Andrew and St. Bartholomew among the Parthians presented the case of "Abominable," the citizen of the "city of cannibals... whose face was like unto that of a dog." After receiving baptism, however, he was released from his doggish aspect.[4]

Saint Christopher

In the Eastern Orthodox Church, certain icons covertly identify Saint Christopher with the head of a dog. The background to the dog-headed Christopher is laid in the reign of the Emperor Diocletian, when a man named Reprebus, Rebrebus or Reprobus (the "reprobate" or "scoundrel") was captured in combat against tribes dwelling to the west of Egypt in Cyrenaica. To the unit of soldiers, according to the hagiographic narrative, was assigned the name numerus Marmaritarum or "Unit of the Marmaritae", which suggests an otherwise-unidentified "Marmaritae" (perhaps the same as the Marmaricae Berber tribe of Cyrenaica). He was reported to be of enormous size, with the head of a dog instead of a man, apparently a characteristic of the Marmaritae.

The German bishop and poet Walter of Speyer portrayed St. Christopher as a giant of a cynocephalic species in the land of the Chananeans (the "canines" of Canaan in the New Testament) who ate human flesh and barked. Eventually, Christopher met the Christ child, regretted his former behavior, and received baptism. He, too, was rewarded with a human appearance, whereupon he devoted his life to Christian service and became an athlete of God, one of the soldier-saints.[5]

Late Antiquity

The "cynocephali" offered such an evocative image of the magic and brutality deemed characteristic of bizarre people of distant places, that it kept returning in medieval literature. A number of late antique and medieval scholars reported on the Cynocephalae, sometimes with the aplomb of anthropologists:

Medieval West

Paul the Deacon mentions cynocephali in his Historia gentis Langobardorum: "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."[6] The ninth-century Frankish theologian Ratramnus wrote a letter, the Epistola de Cynocephalis, on whether the Cynocephali should be considered human.[7] Quoting St. Jerome, Thomas of Cantimpré corroborated the existence of Cynocephali in his Liber de Monstruosis Hominibus Orientis, xiv, ("Book of Monstrous men of the Orient"). The thirteenth-century encyclopedist Vincent of Beauvais acquainted his patron Saint Louis IX of France with "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" (Speculum naturale, 31:126). In Anglo-Saxon England, the Old English word wulfes heafod “wolf’s head” was a technical term for an outlaw, who could be killed as if he were a wolf. The so-called Leges Edwardi Confessoris, written around 1140, however, offered a somewhat literal interpretation: “[6.2a] For from the day of his outlawry he bears a wolf’s head, which is called wluesheued by the English. [6.2b] And this sentence is the same for all outlaws.”[8] Cynocephali appear in the Old Welsh poem Pa Gur? as cinbin (dogheads). Here they are enemies of King Arthur's retinue; Arthur's men fight them in the mountains of Eidyn (Edinburgh), and hundreds of them fall at the hand of Arthur's warrior Bedwyr (later known as Bedivere).[9] The next lines of the poem also mention a fight with a character named Garwlwyd (Rough-Gray); a Gwrgi Garwlwyd (Man-Dog Rough-Grey) appears in one of the Welsh Triads, where he is described in such a way that scholars have discussed him as a werewolf.[10][11]

High and late medieval travel literature

Medieval travellers Giovanni da Pian del Carpine and Marco Polo both mention cynocephali. Giovanni writes of the armies of Ogedei Khan who encounter a race of dogheads who live north of the Dalai-Nor (Northern Ocean), or Lake Baikal.[12] Polo's Travels mention the dog-headed barbarians on the island of Angamanain, or the Andaman Islands. For Polo, although these people grow spices, they are nonetheless cruel and "are all just like big mastiff dogs".[13]

According to Henri Cordier, the source of all the fables of the dog-headed barbarians, whether European, Arabic, or Chinese, can be found in the Alexander Romance.[14]


Additionally, in the Chinese record History of the Liang Dynasty (Liang Shu), the Buddhist missionary Hui-Sheng describes an island of dog-headed men to the east of Fusang, a nation he visited variously identified as Japan or the Americas. While the 'History of Northern Dynasties' of Li Yanshou, a T'Ang Dynasty historian, also mentions the 'dog kingdom'.

Modern appearances

The use of dog-headed, human-bodied characters is still very strong in modern literature. In the domain of comics publishing in North America and in Europe many works feature an "all-cynocephalic" cast or use the heads of dogs and other animals together for social comment or other purposes. For instance, in the Pulitzer Prize winning graphic novel Maus by Art Spiegelman, Jews have human bodies and the heads of mice while characters with their roots in the United States have human bodies and the heads of dogs, Germans have the heads of cats, and the French have the heads of frogs.

The hero of Baudolino, a novel by Umberto Eco, has to face dog-headed people at the end of his journey. Whereas at the beginning of A Dog's Head, a novel by Jean Dutourd, a woman gives birth to a child with a dog's head.

Dog-headed creatures based on the ancient accounts appear in many modern role-playing games, beginning with the Gnolls of Dungeons & Dragons.

Other dog-headed creatures in legend

  • The Chinese legend of Fu Xi included variations where he had a dogs head, or he and his sister Nu Wa had ugly faces.
  • In the USA there are tales of dog-headed creatures, including the Dogman of Michigan, and the wolf-like Beast of Bray Road of Wisconsin, which is said to have terrorised a neighbourhood in the early 1990s.
  • The Wulver of the Scottish Shetland Isles.
  • Psoglav in Serbian mythology.
  • The Nacumerians, in The Voyage and Travels of Sir John Mandeville.

Related phenomena


  1. The binomial name for the Yellow Baboon is Papio cynocephalus, while Cynocephalus has also been adopted as the genus name for an Asian arboreal gliding mammal also known as a Colugo.
  2. Ctesias, Indica §§ 37, 40-3
  3. Megasthenes, Indica, vis-a-vis Pliny the Elder, Historia Naturalis 7.2: 14-22; Fragments XXX. B. Solin. 52. 26-30.
  4. David Gordon White, Myths of the Dog-man (University of Chicago Press) 1991:32.
  5. Walter of Speyer, Vita et passio sancti Christopher martyris, 75.
  6. simulant se in castris suis habere cynocephalos, id est canini capitis homines. Divulgant apud hostes, hos pertinaciter bella gerere, humanum sanguinem bibere et, si hostem adsequi non possint, proprium potare cruorum. Paul the Deacon, Historia gentis Langobardorum Book 1, ch. 11.
  7. Patrologia Latina 121: 1153-56.
  8. lupinum enim caput geret a die utlagacionis sue, quod ab Anglis 'uuluesheued' [= Old English wulfes heafod 'wolf's head'] nominatur. Et haec sententia communis est de omnibus utlagis. Leges Edwardi Confessoris § 6.
  9. Green, p. 84-85.
  10. Bromwich, p. 73–74
  11. Bromwich p. 385
  12. John of Plano Carpini, The long and wonderful voyage of Frier Iohn de Plano Carpini, Chapters 11 and 15
  13. Yule, Henry and Cordier, Henri, The Travels of Marco Polo, Chapter 13, Vol II
  14. Henri Cordier's 'Notes and Addenda' in the Sir Henry Yule edition of The Travels of Marco Polo, Volume 2.


  • Bromwich, Rachel (2006). Trioedd Ynys Prydein: The Triads of the Island of Britain. University Of Wales Press. ISBN 0-7083-1386-8.
  • Ctesias, Indica, as excerpted by Photios in his Epitome, tr. J.H. Freese, available from
  • Green, Thomas (2007). Concepts of Arthur. Stroud, Gloucestershire: Tempus. ISBN 978-0-7524-4461-1.
  • Megasthenes, Indica, tr. J.W. McCrindle, Ancient India as Described by Megasthenes and Arrian. Calcutta and Bombay: Thacker, Spink, 1877. 30-174, available from Project South Asia
  • Paul the Deacon, Historia gentis Langobardorum ("History of the Lombards"), ed. L. Bethmann and G. Waitz, "Pauli historia Langobardorum." In MGH Scriptores rerum Langobardicarum et Italicarum 1 (saec. VI-IX), ed. G. Waitz. Hanover, 1878. 12-187; tr. Foulke, W.D. History of the Langobards. Univ. of Pennsylvania, 1907. Available from Northvegr.
  • Leges Edwardi Confessoris, ed. and tr. Bruce R. O'Brien, God's peace and king's peace: the laws of Edward the Confessor. Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 1999. ISBN 0-8122-3461-8.

External links

This page uses content from the English Wikipedia. The original article was at Cynocephaly. The list of authors can be seen in the page history.