Cynocephali in the Ancient Christian Tradition

A little-discussed fact of Orthodox Christian history is that both St. Christopher, described as ‘terrifying in countenance’ and St. Andrew, the Gospel brother of St. Peter, are regularly depicted in ancient artwork with dog-heads. An ancient Gospel fragment narrates that St. Andrew was born in a town called Cynocephali in Kokar Kilise, Cappadocia, Turkey, one of the centres of the dog-headed race of people called the Cynocephali (Gk; Kunokephaloi) and first described by Herodotus, a highly regarded Greek historian (c. 484-430 BCE; The Histories, Book 4, p. 191, 1592 Paris edition, trans. by A. D. Godley, 1921). St. Augustine (d. 430), one of the most influential early Christian fathers who lived some 800 years after Herodotus, confirmed the existence of the Cynocephali and other peculiar races, claiming that he personally preached them the Gospel (De Civitate Dei (The City of God), Augustine, Book xvi (of xxii), Section 8, p. 315). The cynocephali are just one of numerous mythological (or crypto-zoological) creatures that the Orthodox Church Fathers wrote about and believed in as actually existing. These mythological creatures are also incorporated in Orthodox Hagiography and Hymnography. Modern interpreters, in an attempt to defend these God-inspired writings, now claim that these were “allegorical” or “metaphorical” incidences.

Traditional eastern depiction of a dog-headed Saint Christopher
Traditional eastern depiction of a dog-headed Saint Christopher


Ratramnus (died circa 868) was a theological controversialist of the second half of the 9th century. He wrote an odd Letter on the Dog-headed Creatures, dissenting from the commonly held belief that the mythical cynocephali were animals. It is a very curious piece, addressed to the presbyter Rimbert who had answered his queries in regard to the cynocephali, and had asked in return for an opinion respecting their position in the scale of being.

Ratramnus replied that from what he knew about them he considered them degenerated descendants of Adam, although the Church generally classed them with beasts. They may even receive baptism by being rained upon

(Epistola de cynocephalis, Migne, CXXI. col. 1153-1156):

This is the same Ratramnus who defended Western theology and practice in his Against the Objections of the Greeks who Slandered the Roman Church, a treatise largely occupied with proving the filioque, although the final section of the work deals with other disagreements, such as the monastic tonsure and priestly celibacy.

The tradition of the dog-headed men (cynocephali), dates from very early times, and is common in Asia, Africa and Europe. Two cynocephali devoured the grandfather of St. Mercurius, and were preparing to eat his father when an angel appeared and surrounded them with a ring of fire. They repented and became companions of the father, and later accompanied Mercurius into battle.

There is also St. Andrew of Cynocephali, in Kokar Kilise in Cappadocia, Turkey.


The Apostle Andrew

The Apostle Andrew’s biography states that after Ephesus, he went to Antioch, then to Nicea where he stayed for some time. From there he went to Pontus again, and to Georgia. From Georgia, several traditions say that he passed down to Parthia (Persia) through Kurdistan, and then further to the Cynocefaloi in the desert of Gedrozia (now Balochistan) near the coast and the present Pakistan-Iranian border.

The Cynocefaloi are mentioned in many early texts. Cynocefaloi translates literally as “the dog-head people.” They are also spoken of in the Life of Saint Makarios, which locates the tribe in a desert far beyond Syria. Tzetzis, a Byzantine historical commentator, refers to them as inhabitants of India, of which modern Pakistan would have been a part. In the Greek Life of St. Christopher (who some speculate came from this area), it is said that that he came to the Roman world passing through the Persian desert, and Marco Polo mentions them as inhabitants of the Indian Ocean. So they could be the same primitive tribes that Alexander the Greek found on his way to the sea coast of the Gedrosian Desert (modern Makran in Pakistan).

Our main source for the Cynocefaloi is Ktesias (5th century B.C.), a well- known ancient geographer, pharmacist and historian from Knidos, whose writings were taken seriously by Byzantine Church fathers, for example by Patriarch Photius the Great (see his Myriobiblos). In Ktesias’ book “Indica,” which St. Photius himself used, there is a whole text dedicated to the Cynocefaloi, “an Indian tribe.” These ancient folk tales (Ethiopian, Slavic, Persian, Arabic, Armenian, Greek, etc.) all refer to the dramatic contact of Alexander the Great and the Cynocefaloi.

The Orthodox icon of St. Christopher as a warrior cynocephalus from Lycea.
The Orthodox icon of St. Christopher as a warrior cynocephalus from Lycea.

St. Christopher

A Christian 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.

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. This Byzantine depiction of St. Christopher as dog-headed resulted from their misinterpretation of the Latin term Cananeus to read canineus, that is, “canine.”

17th century icon of St-Stephen and St-Christopher
17th century icon of St-Stephen and St-Christopher

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.

There are some rare icons that depict this martyr with the head of a dog. Such images may carry echoes of the Egyptian dog-headed god, Anubis; and Christopher pictured with a dog’s head is not generally supported by the Orthodox Church.

Palais de Chaillot, Vézelay Cynocephali
Palais de Chaillot, Vézelay Cynocephali

In the West

The cynocephali offered such an evocative image of the magic and brutality deemed characteristic of bizarre people of distant places that they kept returning in medieval literature. Augustine of Hippo mentioned the cynocephali in City of God, Book XVI, Chapter 8 (, in the context of discussing whether such beings were descendants of Adam; he considered the possibility that they might not exist at all, or might not be human (which Augustine defines as being a mortal and rational animal: homo, id est animal rationale mortale), but insisted that if they were human they were indeed descendants of Adam.

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.”

At the court of Charlemagne the Norse were given this attribution, implying un-Christian and less-than-human qualities: “I am greatly saddened” said the King of the Franks, in Notker‘s Life, “that I have not been thought worthy to let my Christian hand sport with these dog-heads.”

Cynocephali illustrated in the Kievan psalter, 1397
Cynocephali illustrated in the Kievan psalter, 1397

NOTE: The Talmud states that at the time before the Messiah, the “face of the generation will have the face of a dog.” Talmud, Sotah 49b,Talmud, Sanhedrin 97a (This is widely understood to be metaphorical.)

SOURCES: (Myths of the Dog-Man by David Gordon White)

16th century illustration
16th century illustration


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