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Christopher Doghead

Updated on November 24, 2017
Icons from the 13th century onward sometimes show Saint Christopher as a very large an carrying Christ on his shoulder
Icons from the 13th century onward sometimes show Saint Christopher as a very large an carrying Christ on his shoulder

Christopher Cynocephalus

Various Christian traditions have included mention of Saints with unusual or fantastical attributes and garbled or incomplete stories behind them. One of these is Christopher Cynocephalus, or "Dog-Headed" Christopher. This saint is most often found in medieval manuscripts in Celtic countries, and in later Russian and Greek stories. (In Russia the icons tend to make the saint look more horse-like.) He is described as coming from a race of pagan dog-headed people unable to use verbal langauge. Some stories claim that after being converted Christopher was given the power of speech.

Icons

Visual evidence of this Saint is most often found in icons painted within the tradition of the Eastern Orthodox church. Depictions of the saint as dog-headed are not longer created within the church, but still occasionally occur in fine art.

"...his face was like unto the face of a great dog, and his eyes were like unto lamps of fire which burnt brightly, and his teeth were like unto the tusks of a wild boar, or the teeth of a lion,"
"...his face was like unto the face of a great dog, and his eyes were like unto lamps of fire which burnt brightly, and his teeth were like unto the tusks of a wild boar, or the teeth of a lion," | Source

Saint Christopher

Some consider Christopher Doghead to be a variant of the well known Saint of the same name who was a martyr dating from the 3rd century. His depiction in this strange part-animal manner may derive from a mis-translation of the land of Canaan into "canine" meaning dog. Specifically a man from Canaan would be described as "Cananeus" and a man who was dog-like a "canineus". Two words that would be easy to confuse.

Other Origins

Other suggest the Doghead icons may be the remnants of a different Saint also going by the name Christopher or "Christ-bearer". Some accounts of Christopher Doghead are that he was a soldier. Others draw connection to an early saint that was a greyhound called Guinefort.

Some of the stories of Christopher Doghead specifically reference his appearance and so if they refer to the conventional Saint they must have been created after any mistranslations and misapprehensions already occurred. For example one says that Christopher did not want to be subject to the desire of others and asked to be made so that no one would desire him. he woke to find God had given him the head of a dog.

It has also been suggested that Christopher Doghead is a Christian remnant of the ancient Egyptian jackal god Anubis.

Doghead Icon Locations

  • The Frankish Gate, Naupila (Greece).

Cynocephaly

There were a number if historical accounts of dog headed people or entire races. That might have lead what was originally and misunderstanding or mistranslation to have seemed plausible to ancient artists--this creating the tradition of icons depicting a dog-headed saint.

Some of these stories probably originate with stories of baboons who were sometimes described as dog-headed.

There are also a number of 5th century Greek account fo dog-headed people living in India.

Stories of dog-headed races endured into the medieval period and up until the time these icons were painted.

Modern Depictions

Because of the visual appeal of a dog-headed saint, depictions of him still occur in modern art.

Examples:

Sources

  • Dale-Green, P. (1964). The Healing Lick and Rabid Bite: A study in the symbolism of the dog. British HomÅ“opathic Journal, 53(1), 51-59.
  • Doyle, M. (2008). A Tale of Two Saints: Some Perceptions of Identity in Early Medieval Europe. The Association of Young Irish Archaeologists, 47.
  • Duquesne, T. (2013). Anubis. The Encyclopedia of Ancient History.
  • Hirschbichler, M. (2005). The Crusader Paintings in the Frankish Gate at Nauplia, Greece: A Historical Construct in the Latin Principality of Morea. Gesta, 13-30.
  • Viljoen, L. (2003). The Beowulf manuscript reconsidered: Reading Beowulf in late Anglo-Saxon England. Literator: Journal of Literary Criticism, Comparative Linguistics and Literary Studies, 24(2), 39-57.

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    • Sgt Prepper profile image

      Gunny Cracker 21 months ago from Elkhorn, WI

      Very interesting. In Erich Von Daniken's "Eyes of the Sphinx" he notes that after the discovery of DNA science the mummy of Pharaoh's wife who died in child-birth(?) was slightly unwrapped as was that of her baby. That "baby" turned out to be a chimpanzee with the head of a dog.