Did Martin Waldseemüller’s Carta marina (1516) portray Mongols as dog-headed Cynocephali?

Keywords: Cynocephali, Monstrous Races, Mongols, Primitiveness, Otherness

The post-Columbus period marked a shift from representing the monstrous races as more abstract ‘wonders’ or ‘marvels’ from its medieval tradition to being representations of the knowable foreign ‘Other.’ On Martin Waldseemüller’s Carta marina (1516), the cynocephali are located between northern India and the territory labelled ‘Mongal’ and ‘Tartaria.’ Waldseemüller’s source for the cynocephali was primarily derived from Franciscan missionary, John of Plano Carpini (c.1182-1252), who stayed with Mongols in 1247. Carpini claimed to have been told of the dog-headed neighbours by Russian clerics, therefore entrenching the association between the monstrous race with Mongols.[i]

Martin Waldseemüller, Carta marina navigatoria portugallen [siorum] navigationes atque totius cogniti orbis terre marisque formam naturamque situs et terminos nostri[s] temporibus recognitos et ab antiquorum traditione differentes eciam quorum vetusti non meminuerunt autores, hec generaliter indicat, 1516, Strasbourg, produced by Johann Schott,
Woodcut, 128 x 233cm, 12 panels, each sheet measures 45.5 x 62 cm,
Library of Congress, Washington DC, Jay I. Kislak Collection.

To early modern Europeans, Mongols were a true monstrous race to be feared. Representations of Mongols was shaped by fear of their reputation as ferocious warriors and prejudiced as barbaric for their nomadic lifestyle.[ii] As monstrous races were commonly portrayed against a landscape, and therefore outside the civilising realm of a city, so too were Mongols who did not build a lasting city, often thought of as the cornerstone of civilisation.[iii] It is for these reasons that Waldseemüller likely focused on Carpini’s account of cynocephali and thus associated them with a known foe. The association between the Plinian monstrous races with Mongols would have imbued both with notions of barbarous and exotic otherness. Waldseemüller’s act of contextualising the cynocephali with Europe’s historical enemy not only conflates their shared notion of otherness but also exoticises and exacerbates fear of Eastern races, creating a binary opposition to the West.

On Waldseemüller’s map, cynocephali were shown in tattered garments made from crude animal skins that have jagged and uneven edges. Animal skins along with feather wearing and loincloths were associated with notions of primitiveness and a closeness to nature, and thus the animal kingdom. The animal pelts, however, illustrates that Waldseemüller separated them from the other animals portrayed on the map but continued to maintain their separation from civility and humanity, thereby reinforcing their human-animal hybridity. The pair of conversing cynocephali wearing animal skins sport tattered garb with jagged necklines and large tears exposing their human legs. The text describes them as wearing sheep’s skin, which was not considered a luxury item during its day.[iv]

Waldseemüller’s cynocephali are unique in that they are rendered with a mop of hair on their head, which covered their canine ears. The cynocephalus on the right almost appears to be wearing a hat that resembles traditional Mongolian fur-lined caps. Mongolian clothing was made from animal hides and sheep’s wool from the herds of livestock they would raise.[v] Since these cynocephali were inspired by Carpini and are located just south of the region labelled ‘Mongal,’ the Mongols and the cynocephali could have been conflated.[vi] Such transmission had previously occurred with Marco Polo’s description of Indians, which was later combined with cynocephali in Odoric de Pordenone’s account.[vii] Therefore, it is possible that they represented Mongols who were known for their close relationship with animals. This, in turn, simplified the process of portraying Mongols with canine features.

The perceived ‘primitive’ communication of the dog-headed cynocephali also emphasised and reiterated their duality by blurring the lines between man and beast. A cynocephalus depicted in Waldseemüller’s Carta marina differs from traditional representations of cynocephali with its hooved feet. The accompanying text to the hooved cynocephalus notes that it has a human head, the face of a dog, and speaks two words then barks the third.[viii] This description is directly taken from John of Plano Carpini’s History of Mongols (1247).[ix] Carpini could have originally been inspired by the Romance of Alexander (c.300 A.D.), which stated ‘their voices were partly human and partly canine.’[x] These characterisations of the cynocephali’s speech are reminiscent of interlanguage or ‘broken language’ as a way to bridge the language gap where there is contact between two groups who do not share a common language.[xi] Nonetheless, the description and illustration of the figure stress its duality of both man and beast. The canine hybrid is not altogether wholly human but not wholly animal either as if not belonging to either category.

Walseemüller distinguished this cynocephalus with two cynocephali mentioned above, portrayed further down the map where text beside them notes they rely exclusively on barking to communicate.[xii] They are further described as having the heads of dogs, instead of just the face of a dog. These descriptions demonstrate that levels of canine behaviour and appearance were believed to have existed, and as such, animality. The description suggests that they had more canine qualities, and yet, they were not rendered with more commonly found canine features. The main discernible canine characteristic is their long protruding tongue, thus reflecting the established motif of their canine ‘language.’ This is emphasised with the cynocephalus on the right with his hands raised in an apparent frustrated attempt to communicate, symbolising a lack of sophisticated verbal language. The inability to communicate with articulate speech reflects how explorers and colonisers would have regarded the undecipherable speech of foreigners. The above emphasises that one of the main dividing lines between human and animal was human speech and those with unrecognisable dialects were therefore considered sub-human.

By placing cynocephali in the region of Mongolia could be partly attributed to the perception of Mongols violent savagery witnessed during the Mongol conquests on the fringes of Western Europe. Whole cities were massacred indiscriminately, culminating in the cannibalism of their victims.[xiii] Mongols’ representation as dog-heads could have also been the result of the belief that they ate dogs.[xiv] Dogs and even wolves that Mongols were said to eat by Carpini and John Mandeville were regarded as ‘unclean’ animals for human consumption by Europeans. Consuming scavenging and carnivorous animals was thought to spread disease.[xv] As written in a letter by Ivo of Narbonne to the archbishop of Bordeaux in 1243:

The men are human and bestial, they can be said to be monsters rather than men, they thirst for blood and drink it, they tear to pieces and devour flesh of dogs and of men […] they drink for their delight blood which they draw from their sheep.[xvi]

This characterisation also compares Mongols to the idea of Gog and Magog of Alexanders Romance who were similarly accused of eating dogs and cannibalising people.[xvii] A dividing line along a mountainous ridge on the map reads: ‘The area that is outside of this line and enclosed by the sea is under the dominion of the great emperor Gog Khan,’ thus associating the monstrous races and Mongols with the apocalyptic enemy of Gog.[xviii]

Mongols were also unfamiliar with processed food such as bread and wine, a symbol of Western civilisation and agriculture. Instead, they consumed raw meat, water or milk, which was also characteristic of cynocephali.[xix] Europeans believed that civilised humans ate refined, cooked food, and therefore those who did not were likened to animals.[xx] This was because food that took time to cultivate, process, and refine through human invention was associated with culture and raw food was associated with nature.[xxi] The cultural view of processed food, especially bread and wine, was related to civility and cultural identity dating to ancient Greece and Rome.[xxii] The association between primitive peoples consuming natural food and being sub-human has been illustrated in an early-fifteenth-century travel tale by Johannes Witte de Hesse who reported: ‘Pygmies […] they have no houses but live in grottoes in the mountains, and in caves […] nor do they have bread, but rather [eat] sorts of lactiferous plants, just like beasts.’[xxiii]

Consuming raw meat was also often a characteristic of monsters as evidenced by Mandeville’s description of giant cyclops and a type of hairy ‘wild men.’[xxiv] Making fire was also linked to civilisation, where Ctesias described cynocephali as only able to broil meat in the hot sun.[xxv] Therefore, acts of cannibalism, consuming raw meat, and non-refined foods reduced people to monstrous beasts. Another idea drawn from antiquity was that milk was a symbol of barbarism and primitive peoples as it was designed for infants, not man, as well as a product of nature.[xxvi] Additionally, the fact that the Other was often stated as not consuming bread and wine is recalling the symbolism surrounding the consumption of the Eucharist. To Catholics, the Eucharist was the embodiment of the flesh and blood of Christ, where its lack of consumption separated the foreign Other from European Christendom.[xxvii]


[i] Chet Van Duzer, ‘A Northern Refuge of the Monstrous Races: Asia on Waldseemüller’s 1516 “Carta Marina,”’ Imago Mundi, 62.2, 2010, p. 224; John of Plano Carpini, ‘History of the Mongols (1247),’ in Christopher Dawson(ed.), Mission to Asia, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1980, pp. 23, 31.

[ii] Kim M. Phillips, Before Orientalism: Asian Peoples and Cultures in European Travel Writing, 1245-1510, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014, p. 7.

[iii] Peter Jackson, The Mongols and the West: 1221-1410, New York: Routledge, 2005, p. 139; Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, Civilizations: Culture, Ambition, and the Transformation of Nature, New York: The Free Press, 2001, p. 28.

[iv]‘Sunt hic monstra Canina habent capita quibus vestis est pellis pecudum et vox latratus caninum’ (‘There are monsters here who have dogs’ heads; their clothes are made of the skins of sheep, and their voice is a dog’s bark’) Translation and transcription from Duzer, 2010, p. 228; Robert Reinhold Ergang, The Renaissance, Princeton: Van Nostrand, 1967, p. 65.

[v] Beverly Chico, Hats and Headwear around the World: A Cultural Encyclopedia, Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2013, p. 26.

[vi] Carpini, 1980, pp. 23, 31.

[vii] Rudolf Wittkower, ‘Marco Polo and the Pictorial Tradition of the Marvels of the East,’ in Joan-Paul Rubiés (ed.), Medieval Ethnographies: European Perceptions of the World Beyond, Farnham: Ashgate, 2009, p. 160.

[viii]Hic prope oceanum reperiuntur homines sive monstra habentes pedes bovinos caput humanum faciem caninam due verba loquuntur tercium latrant.’ (‘here near the ocean are found men or monsters who have the feet of cattle, a human head, but the face of dogs, and who speak two words, but bark the third.’) Translation and transcription from Duzer, 2010, p. 227.

[ix] Carpini, 1980, p. 31.

[x] Pseudo-Callisthenes, The Greek Alexander Romance, trans. Richard Stoneman, London: Penguin, 1991, p. 178.

[xi] Viveka Velupillai, Pidgins, Creoles and Mixed Languages: An Introduction, Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company, 2015, p. 16.

[xii] Duzer, 2010, p. 228.

[xiii] Daniel Baraz, Medieval Cruelty: Changing Perceptions, Late Antiquity to the Early Modern Period, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2003, p. 93.

[xiv] Jackson, 2005, p. 149; Phillips, 2014, p. 178.

[xv] Carpini, 1980, p. 16; John Mandeville, The Book of John Mandeville with Related Texts, ed. trans. Iain Macleod Higgins, Indianapolis: Hackett, 2011, p. 80; Jackson, 2005, p. 140; David Grumett and Rachel Muers, Theology on the Menu: Asceticism, Meat and Christian Diet, London: Routledge, 2010, p. 80.

[xvi] Quoted in Matthew Paris, Chronica Majora 4.76-7 cited in Daniel Baraz, Medieval Cruelty: Changing Perceptions, Late Antiquity to the Early Modern Period, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2003, p. 98.

[xvii] Pseudo-Callisthenes, The Greek Alexander Romance, trans. Richard Stoneman, London: Penguin, 1991, p. 187.

[xviii] Duzer, 2010, p. 224, note 16. ‘Quod extra ambitur hac linea et mari clauditur hoc maximi inperateris God Chaam ditioni subiatur.’ Andrew Gow, ‘Gog and Magog on mappaemundi and early printed world maps: orientalising ethnography in the Apocalyptic tradition,’ Journal of Early Modern History, 2.1, 1998, p. 84. Juan de la Costa’s 1500 chart of the world also associated cynocephali with gog where a cynocephuls is portrayed boarded by a semi-circle with the words R Got.

[xix] Carpini, 1980, p. 16; Baraz, 2003, p. 103; Jackson, 2005, p. 139; John Watson McCrindle, Ancient India as Described by Ktesias the Knidian, London: Trübner, 1882, p. 23.

[xx] Joyce E. Salisbury, The Beast Within: Animals in the Middle Ages, New York: Routledge, 1994, p. 170.

[xxi] Gustav Jahoda, Images of Savages: Ancient Roots of Modern Prejudice in Western Culture, Hove, East Sussex: Routledge, 1999, p. 17.

[xxii] Massimo Montanari, Medieval Tastes: Food, Cooking, and the Table, trans. Beth Archer Brombert, New York: Columbia University Press, 2015, p. 131.

[xxiii] Scott D. Western, Broader Horizons: A Study of Johannes Witte Hese’s Itinerarius and Medieval Travel Narratives, Cambridge, Mass.: Medieval Academy of America, 2001, p. 210.

[xxiv] Mandeville, 2011, pp. 124, 169, 176.

[xxv] McCrindle, 1882, p. 23.

[xxvi] Montanari, 2015, p. 80.

[xxvii] Montanari, 2015, p. 132.

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