How on earth did anybody in the Middle Ages come to believe that Saint Christopher was a doghead? A creature that was half human and half dog. Not exactly your traditional image of Saint Christopher, patron saint of travellers.
The phenomenon, for those of you who like fancy words, is called cynocephaly – that is the presence of a canine head on a human body. To be distinguished from the better known lycanthropy – which is a wolf-man. And of course you know all about them thanks to umpteen werewolf horror movies and the character Wolverine.
Humans who take on the characteristics and even appearance of animals has a long historical pedigree – pardon the canine pun. And people who were half-human and half-animal were often thought to live in those lands beyond European knowledge – normally Africa and later the Americas.
I have a page from a 16th century book here in my archive showing half-human/half-animals allegedly discovered in Goa, India by the Portuguese. All I can say is that the long voyage and heat must have addled their minds!
What was a “doghead”?
Dogheads were nothing new in the history of mythology. The ancient Egyptians had, after all, worshiped a dog headed god Anubis – god of the dead. As with many Egyptian religious beliefs, this had been transmitted to the rest of Europe via the Greeks.
The Chinese also revered dogs with stories about how a sacred canine had descended from the heavens and saved humanity from starvation. In Hunan, sacrifices were made every year to a holy dog.
During the Middle Ages in Europe, baptism was being held up as a cure for any babies looking as if they might be dogheads. A trip to the church font was enough to transform these hybrid creatures into 100% human.
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Christopher transformed from doghead to human
The German bishop Walther von Speyer (967 to 1027) is widely credited with being the first person to write that Saint Christopher was a giant doghead. There are various theories as to why he made this fantastic claim. One is that the good bishop mistranslated some Latin text confusing Canaan with canine. I find that a bit of a stretch to believe, to be honest.
The canine nature of Saint Christopher might explain his strength when he carried the child Jesus across the stream but found himself enduring an enormous weight – the weight of the world and its sins of course. That assuming the saint was more of a Doberman than a poodle of course!
Once Jesus had revealed his true identity to Christopher and he had repented of all his sins, he was baptised and became a human. Though he is still depicted in some icons with a dog’s head – particularly in the eastern Orthodox church.
Pope Paul VI – architect of the Vatican II reforms in the 1960s – removed Saint Christopher from the list of saints believing he (or it) probably never existed.