Cynocephali – The Dog-Headed Race: A Brief Introduction

The earliest sources of monstrous races, including the dog-headed cynocephali, derived from Greek geographers such as Megasthenes (c.350-290 B.C.), who travelled to India and reportedly witnessed monstrous races first hand.[i] The Greek explorer and ethnographer was sent as an ambassador to the court of Sandracottus in India around 303 B.C.[ii] However, he has further stated that he owed much of his knowledge of the monstrous races from the Brahmans, an esteemed class of philosophers.[iii] What has since been revealed, is that he likely confused Indian mythology with ethnography with Rudolf Wittkower linking the representation of monstrous races back to Indian epics themselves.[iv]

As exploration by Europeans increased, the cynocephali were pushed to lesser-known corners of the world. Cynocephali were later claimed to have lived on the islands of the Pacific Ocean in the Middle Ages. Explorer Marco Polo (1254-1324) claimed that the cannibals lived on Andaman Islands, while John Mandeville placed them on the Nicobar Islands. It was in the sixteenth-century that the cynocephali found themselves located in the New World with the publication of Uselegung der Mercarthen oder Carta Marina (‘Guide and Instructions for the Carta Marina’) (1525) by Lorenz Fries (1489-1550) (Fig. 1). Despite no empirical evidence of their existence, coupled with exploration of the East, the myth of monstrous races lived on. John Block Friedman in his study of monstrous races in the medieval period noted that there was a need to believe in the monstrous races, which included such factors as ‘fantasy, escapism, delight in the exercise of imagination, and…fear of the unknown’.[v]

Fig. 1. Unknown Artist, ‘Cannibals on the Caribbean Island’, in Lorenz Fries, Uslegung der Mercarthen oder Carta Marina, Strasbourg: Johannes Grüninger 1525, leaf XVI,
Woodcut, handcolouring, 10.5 x 14.4 cm,
Rhode Island, Archive of Early American Images, The John Carter Brown Library, Brown University.  ©John Carter Brown Library, Box 1894, Brown University, Providence, R.I. 02912.

Research from medieval sources have also shown that the representation of the Other with the heads of dogs was used in an explicitly pejorative way. Debra Higgs Strickland compellingly argued that dog-headed cynocephali were used to represent Muslim Ottoman Turks as well as Jews in her study of iconography in medieval illuminated manuscripts.[vi] Friedman also argued that the cynocephali depicted in scenes of the Pentecost (the gathering of nations in Jerusalem) were representative of Muslims.[vii] As Jews and Muslims considered dogs impure, they had long been characterised by the canine motif. Muslims who were often regarded in early Christian writing as ‘a race of dogs’. Eulogius of Cordoba (c. 810-859), for instance, linked dogs with the prophet Mohammad.[viii] Muslims also transformed into dogs in literature in the Middle Ages. Muslims in the French poem, The Song of Roman (c.1140-1170),yelped like dogs as well as the dog-headed Muslim army in Kyng Alisunder (c.1275). They were also described as enemies in the English version of Richard Cœr de Lion as ‘heathen hounds’.[ix] The Muslim ruler, Saladin (1138-1193), is depicted with the head of a dog in Alexander of Bremen’s (d. 1271) thirteenth-century illuminated Expositio in Apocalypsim (‘Exposition of the Apocalypse’) from Saxony.[x] In another image in the same source, Muhammad is represented as a dog standing on his hind legs next to the Devil (Fig. 2).[xi] Jews were also rendered with dog heads before Christ in the ninth-century illuminated manuscript, Chludov Psalter.[xii] The association between Jews and dogs was derived from the New Testament that used dogs as a metaphor for Jews in Matthew 15.26. In this way, the motif of the canine-headed men had a long tradition in portraying perceived heretical others.

Fig. 2. Expositio in Apocalypsim (MS Mm.5.31), Germany, 1249-1250,
Parchment, 2.48cm x 18.3cm,
Cambridge University Library,
Fig. 3. Michael Wolgemut (1434-1519) and Wilhelm Pleydenwurff (c.1420-1472), ‘Marvelous Races’, in Hartmann Schedel, Das Buch der Croniken und Geschichten. Translated by Georg Alt, Nuremberg : Anton Koberger, 1493,
fol. XIIv,
Woodcut, each frame approximately 5.7 x 5.7cm
Munich, Bayerische StaatsBibliothek

Different interpretations exist on how the monstrous races came into being, both during the early modern period and in contemporaneous literature. During the sixteenth century, monstrous races were interpreted as either animal, the descendants of Adam and therefore man, or the products of bestiality and therefore sin.[xiii] In contemporary literature, monstrous races have been considered to be the result of errors in perception or the difficulty in explaining different physical characteristics by early explorers.[xiv] Peter Burke argued that the monstrous races were originally formulated from stereotyped perceptions of people from Asia and Africa.[xv] For example, the practice of body modification that has endured in some African cultures today may have been past construed as a form of monstrosity. The use of disks to expand and modify the shape of the mouth or ears to stretch the skin may have served as inspiration for different races believed to have large lips or ears (Fig. 3).[xvi] Thus, Baboons or anthropoid apes were also mistaken for the dog-headed race, the cynocephali. This explanation was used as early as Albert the Great (c.1206-1280), who while describing apes noted, ‘they are those who are called dog-men in the mappamundi.’[xvii]

Fig. 4. Unknown Artist, ‘Von Den Wundermenschen’ in Konrad von Megenberg, Das Buch der Natur, Augsburg: Johann Bälmer, c.1475, fol. 284v,
Woodcut on paper, hand-coloured with gouache, 21.1 x 14.6cm (sheet)
Munich, Bayerische StaatsBibliothek

Late-fifteenth century representations of the dog-headed cynocephali in German prints were grouped alongside other monstrous races in encyclopedias and chronicles. They were depicted like ethnographic portraits, which focused on their wondrous figurations in a similar vein as nineteenth-century photographic portraits of people perceived as exotic or primitive.[xviii] Examples of early ethnographic portraits of monstrous races can be found in the final chapter ‘Von Den Wundermenschen’ (‘of the wondrous people’) (Fig. 4) in Konrad von Megenberg’s late fifteenth-century printed editions of Das Buch der Natur (‘Book of Nature’) and Hartmann Schedel’s chronicle more commonly known as The Nuremberg Chronicle (Fig. 3).[xix] They included brief descriptions of the individual monstrous races to differentiate through the representation of bodily difference, descriptions of diet, location, dwellings, or language that made the race unique. In this way, these early printed depictions of monstrous races appear to attempt to categorise and define these foreign Other.

Cynocephali were also portrayed in John Mandeville’s Travels, on maps, and university text books. For more seeGoing to the Dogs: The Foreign and Religious Other in German Renaissance Prints,’ Otherness: Studies and Essays (Special Issue on Animal Alterity), 5.2, 2016, pp. 111-151.

[i] David Williams, Deformed Discourse: The Function of the Monster in Mediaeval Thought and Literature, Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1996, p. 13.

[ii] Rudolf Wittkower, ‘Marvels of the East’, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, 5, 1942, p. 161.

[ii]John Block Friedman, The Monstrous Races in Medieval Art and Thought, Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1981, pp. 161-2.

[iii] Wittkower, 1942, p. 164.

[iv] Wittkower,1942.

[v] Friedman, 1981, p. 15.

[vi] See, Debra Higgs Strickland, Saracens, Demons, & Jews: Making Monsters in Medieval Art, Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2003; Debra Hassig, ‘The Iconography of Rejection: Jews and Other Monstrous Races,’ in Colum Hourihane (ed.), Image and Belief: Studies in Celebration of the Eightieth Anniversary of the Index of Christian Art, Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999b. Also see, Ruth Mellinkoff, Antisemitic Hate Signs in Hebrew Illuminated Manuscripts from Medieval Germany, Jerusalem:  The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 1999.

[vii] Friedman, 1981, pp. 62-9.

[viii] Strickland, 2003, pp.159-16.

[ix] Strickland, 2003, p.160.

[x] See for example, ‘The Beast and his image as Saladin and Muhammed’ (Alexander, Expositio in Apocalypsim, Saxony, c.1249-1250, Cambridge University Library, MS Mm. V. 31, fol. 185v), illustrated in Strickland, 2003, p. 223. University of Cambridge Digital Library accessed 23 May 2021.

[xi] See for example, ‘The Beast of the Earth, his image, and Henchmen’ (Alexander, Expositio in Apocalypsim. Saxony, c.1249-1250, University of Cambridge, MS Mm.V.31, fol. 85), illustrated in Strickland, 2003, p. 224. University of Cambridge Digital Library. accessed 23 May 2021.

[xii] See for example, Unknown Artist, Christ Surrounded by Dogs (c. 950, illuminated manuscript, Chludov Psalter, f.19v, Moscow, State Historical Museum), illustrated in Hassig, 1999, p. 43. Also see ‘Theodore’ Psalter (London, British Library MS Gr. Add. 19352, fol. 23r, eleventh century), illustrated in Friedman, 1981, p.  62.

[xiii] A woodcut of a cynocephalus in an encyclopaedia of herbs and beasts by Johannes de Cuba was categorised with animals, both natural and mythical. Johannes von Cuba, Gart de Gesundheit, Strasbourg, 1529, German edition Megenberg interpreted the monstrous races as descended from Adam, but some were deformed by body or mind because of the sins of Adam, while others were the creation of behavioural sin. Konrad von Megenberg, Das Buch der Natur: die erste Naturgeschichte in deutscher Sprache, ed. Hugo Schulz, Julius Abel: Greifswald, 1897, p. 420.

[xiv] See, Peter Burke, ‘Frontiers of the Monstrous: Perceiving National Characters in Early Modern Europe,’ in Laura Lunger Knoppers and Joan B. Landers (eds.), Monstrous Bodies/Political Monstrosities in Early Modern Europe, Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 2004, pp. 25-40; Friedman, 1981, p. 25; Seymour Phillips, ‘The Outer World in the European Middle Ages,’ in Joan-Paul Rubiés (ed.), Medieval Ethnographies: European Perceptions of the World Beyond, Farnham: Ashgate, 2009, p. 25.

[xv] Burke, 2004, pp.25-40.

[xvi] Anne Clark, Beasts and Bawdy, London: Dent, 1975, p. 74; Friedman, 1981, p. 24.

[xvii] Friedman, 1981, p. 24.

[xviii] Alison Devine Nordstrom, ‘Persistent Images: Photographic Archives in Ethnographic Collections,’ Continuum: The Australian Journal of Media & Culture, Vol. 6, No. 2, 1992, accessed 23 May 2021.

[xix] Konrad von Megenberg, Das Buch der Natur, Augsburg: Johann Bälmer, 1475.