Bestiality and Human-Animal Hybrids: Inter-Faith Relations and the Corruption of the Christian Body

Keywords: Monstrous Births, Bestiality, Jews, Monstrous Races, Cynocephali

A tale spread across Europe during the sixteenth century of a monstrous birth that possessed the legs and a curled tale of a canine, and the upper body of a young boy. An illustrative woodcut of the ‘dog boy’ posed like an ethnographic portrait appeared in Konrad Lykosthenes’ book of wonders as well as a later chronicle by Johann Wolf (1537-1600) in 1600. Both sources cited earlier Italian sources: Raphael Volanteranus (c.1500s) and Gerolamo Cardano (1501-1576). In both Lykosthenes and Wolf’s account of this tale, a woman was impregnated by a dog that resulted in the birth of the hybrid and was sent to the pope to be exonerated for the sins of the mother. No further context was provided and therefore the story and accompanying print could have simply served as a warning against bestiality.

Unknown Artist, ‘Dog Boy’ illustrated in Johann Wolf, Lectionum memorabilium and reconditarum, Lauingen: Leonhardus Rheinmichel, 1600, fol. 911r,
Ghent University

Stories exist of monstrous births who became normal once baptised, but there was no account of this in the above texts (Jackson 2005, p. 172). However, the inclusion of the pope in this tale is suggestive. This monstrous birth functioned as a reminder of the sin it was conceived in. As stated in Leviticus 18.23: ‘A woman must not present herself to an animal to have sexual relations with it; that is a perversion.’ The depravity of mixing species was further indicated in Leviticus 19.19 that states: ‘Do not mate different kinds of animals. Do not plant your field with two kinds of seeds.’ This doctrine was used to highlight that animal were quantifiably different from humans by defining Christian sexuality within the strict hierarchical system of man and beast (Salisbury 1994, pp. 87-8). The blurring distinctions between animals and humans from the Middle Ages resulted in increased resistance by the Church, which legislated against and demonised bestiality (Salisbury 1994, p. 96). However, the fact that humans and animals were believed to produce offspring undermined this fundamental difference.

The idea behind prohibiting two different species also found its way into regulating marriage and sexual relations between different ethnicities and religions. The threat of intermarriage posed to the Christian faith was predominately derived from the Old Testament. For example, Ezra 9.2 stated: ‘They have taken some of their daughters as wives for themselves as their sons, and have mingled the holy race with the peoples around them. And the leaders and officials have led the way in this unfaithfulness.’ Intermarriage between Jews and Christians was condemned at the 538 Council of Orléans. In Renaissance Europe, sexual intercourse with Jews was equated with bestiality as they were regarded as a race of dogs (Stow 2006, pp. 18-9). As Jews (and Muslims) considered dogs impure, they had long been characterised by the canine motif. Jews were rendered with dog heads before Christ in the ninth-century illuminated manuscript, Chludov Psalter. The association between Jews and dogs was derived from the New Testament that used dogs as a metaphor for Jews in Matthew 15.26. Their humanity was questioned for rejecting Christ as it was thought this revealed their irrationality (Stow 2006, p. 9). As proclaimed by Peter the Venerable: ‘Surely I do not know whether a Jew, who does not submit to human reason nor acquiesce to proof-texts that are both divine and his own, is a human’ (Peter the Venerable 2013, p. 123). Peter further repeatedly called Jews dogs in his Adversus Iudeorum inveteratam duritiem (‘Against the Inveterate Obduracy of the Jews’). He referred to them as bloodthirsty dogs in reference to the crucifixion of Christ (Peter the Venerable 2013, p. 122). This description was reiterated by Martin Luther who called Jews bloodhounds (Martin Luther 1948, p. 17). It is, therefore, possible that the birth of the hybrid emulated these ideas. However, it is uncertain whether its audience would have made this connection.

The mating of women with dogs was also thought to result in monstrous races. According to Pliny, the Greek historian Duris of Samos (c.350 – 281 B.C.) stated that some Indians had regular sexual relations with animals that resulted in half-human, half-animal hybrid offspring (Pliny 1962, p. 79). Adam of Bremen (d. 1075), a bishop and German historian of the eleventh century described the birth of cynocephali from the Amazonian women of Asia. In his historical treatise, Gesta Hammaburgensis ecclesiae pontificum (‘History of the Archbishops of Hamburg-Bremen’), Adam wrote:

Some, too, assert that they are made pregnant by the merchants who pass that way, or by the men whom they hold captive in their midst […] And when these women come to give birth, if the offspring be of the male sex, they become Cynocephali; if of the feminine kind, they become most beautiful women (4.19)

(Adam of Bremen 2005, p. 200)

Ancient myths, which included interbreeding between men, animals, and gods that produced hybrid offspring were not ascribed with moralising lessons. Bestiality to the ancient Hebrews, however, was abhorrent, a view that influenced Christianity (Jahoda 1999, p. 5). Some sixteenth-century Germanic sources attributed the birth of cynocephali to bestiality, which categorised them as heretical beings in the Christian worldview. Martin Waldseemüller’s map and Lorenz Fries’ Uslegung have suggested that the cynocephali were not a true ‘race,’ but the result of bestiality.

There was a drive to maintain strict boundaries within the hierarchical Christian worldview, where tales of bestiality served to warn against intermingling with different people deemed Other for fear of producing hybrid offspring. This was not only thought to be the result of bestiality, but also by women mating with different races as described by the tales of Amazonian women and illustrated in Waldseemüller and Fries’ sources.

Adam of Bremen, History of the Archbishops of Hamburg-Bremen (c.1073-1076), trans. Francis J. Tschan, New York: Columbia University Press, 2005.

Jackson, Peter, The Mongols and the West: 1221-1410, New York: Routledge, 2005.

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

Luther, Martin, The Jews and their Lies, Los Angeles: Christian Nationalist Crusade, trans. Anonymous, 1948.

Peter the Venerable, Peter the Venerable: Against the Inveterate Obduracy of the Jews, trans. Irven M. Resnick, Washington: The Catholic University of America Press, 2013.

Pliny, The History of the World commonly called The Natural History of C. Plinius Secundus or Pliny, ed. Paul Turner, trans. Philemon Holland, New York: McGraw-Hill, 1962.

Salisbury, Joyce E. The Beast Within: Animals in the Middle Ages, New York: Routledge, 1994.

Stow, Kenneth, Jewish Dogs: An Image and its Interpreters: Continuity in the Catholic-Jewish Encounter, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2006.

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