Cynocephaly, Basilique Sainte-Marie-Madeleine de Vézelay

Cynocephaly and the mythological dog-headed human

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The characteristic of Cynocephaly describes the head of a dog upon a human body. This trait is a theme upon which there are several variations, with representations showing up in several cultures and legends. Tales of human forms with a dog-like head have been told from ancient Egypt, to ancient Greek, medieval, and Christian stories. These tales, eliciting both fear and fascination, are like an ancient form of a monster tale, often invoking the idea that cynocephaly is not just a myth or legend, but an actual race of creatures living here on Earth. The appearance of cynocephaly in stories throughout the ages illustrates the ubiquitous nature of the creatures, and the flexibility of an image that continuously reoccurs with a similar appearance, but varying stories.

The most basic description of cynocephaly is that it is the image of a human figure that has the head of a dog, or, in some instances, a jackal.  This is not to be confused with images of werewolves. Werewolves are a creature where the human forms transforms into a dog-like head and body.  Some believe that werewolves and cynocephalic creatures are somehow related, but they are more likely two separate types of creatures that happen to share some dog-like traits. The name cynocephaly sounds much more like an actual disease than a depiction of an image or a human with a dog head shown in prehistoric drawings and renderings. The name is derived from the Greek language, in which cyno- means dog and –cephaly means a disease or condition of the head. Put together, cynocephaly is a disease or condition where the head is in the form of a dog.

Man with a dog head. Nuremberg Chronical (Schedel'sche Weltchronik), page XIIr, 1493 AD.

Man with a dog head. Nuremberg Chronical (Schedel'sche Weltchronik), page XIIr, 1493 AD. ( Wikimedia Commons )

Images depicting cynocephaly date as far back as ancient Egyptian times. Ancient Egyptian gods Hapi and Anubis were both depicted in the cynocephaly form, with a human body and a dog head, or in the case of Anubis, a jackal. These images were depicted standing and wearing clothing, giving the appearance that in spite of the dog head, these gods are, in essence, humans. It is unknown why these figures are depicted with the head of a dog, but their presence in Egyptian drawings certainly spread to later cultures that followed. 

Marble statue of Anubis, Vatican Museum

Marble statue of Anubis, Vatican Museum ( Wikimedia Commons )

Greek physician Ctesias wrote of a dog-headed figure called Indici in India in the 5 th century BC. Later, the Greek Megasthenes returned from travels to India with tales of a race of cynocephaly living in the mountains of India. This dog-headed race of people would hunt in the mountains while wearing animal skins, and would communicate through barking sounds. Such stories of sub-human creatures would likely invoke many emotions, including fear, fascination, intrigue, and terror.

Cynocephaly continued far beyond ancient Egyptian and Greek times, also appearing in some works of medieval literature. Their existence and origin were questioned in City of God, Book XVI, Chapter 8, written by Augustine of Hippo. The Christians had the story of the "Abominable" who had the face of a dog and lived in a city of cannibals. Once baptized, the doglike features disappeared. The Eastern Orthodox Church viewed Saint Christopher as having the head of a dog, which may have been the result of a misinterpretation of the word Cananeus to say canineus, or canine. Later, German bishop and poet Walter of Speyer wrote of Saint Christopher as a large cynocephalic figure from the Chananeans that barked and consumed human flesh. When the cynocephalic Christopher met Christ, he chose to be baptized, at which point he shed his doglike appearance and began a life devoted to God.  This idea that the figure with a doglike appearance would become fully human upon being baptized and accepting god is a story that repeats, illustrating that to the Christians, the doglike appearance was a negative feature, a punishment of sorts that could only be eliminated by choosing to follow a certain set of religious beliefs.

Saint Christopher with the head of a dog

Saint Christopher with the head of a dog ( Wikimedia Commons )

Images of cynocephaly continued through medieval culture in a book called Historia gentis Langobardorum, written by Paul the Deacon. Again, the doglike appearance was considered un-Christian as it was applied to the Norse at the court of Charlemagne. The Nowell Codex, which is the script that contains the story of Beowulf, also contained references to the cynocephalic, with portions referring to "healfhundingas" or "half-dogs." The idea spread into Anglo-Saxon England, where outlaws were referred to as wulfes heafod (“wolf’s head”), again giving the impression that the image of a human body with a dog’s head is an inherently negative trait, meant to refer to an outcast of society. Even the tales of King Arthur refer to cynophaly, as King Arthur’s men fight hundreds of the cynophalic creatures, and the stories morph into tales including werewolves.

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