Ox-worshipping Cynocephali in Mandeville’s Travels: Christian Conversion of Pagan Heathens

Keywords: Cynocephali, John Mandeville, Ox-worship, Christian conversion, St. Christopher

The cynocephali depicted in Otto von Diemeringen’s German translations of late-fifteenth century editions of John Mandeville’s Travels mirror Christian practices of worship. Not only do they kneel before their god, like Christians, but one cynocephalus in a Strasbourg 1499 edition was portrayed clasping his hands in the same way a Christian would in prayer. This illustrates that the canine motif could also be used to suggest positive ideas and the potential for Christian conversion. In its original edition, Mandeville discussed the difference between an idol and simulacra. Simulacra from the Latin simulo meaning to imitate or copy was defined by the likeness of all-natural things (Mandeville, 2011, p. 102; Pinkus, 2017, p. 2). Thus, by this definition, Mandeville equated the worship of the ox with the reverence of God’s natural creation. This description offered a nuanced if not positive textual description to interpret the representations of the ox-worshipping cynocephali. On the other hand, an idol was something not found in nature such as a man with an ox’s head (Mandeville, 2011, p. 102). In other words, something a pagan would worship.

John Mandeville, Reysen und Wanderschafften durch das Gelobte Land, trans. Otto von Diemeringen, Strasbourg: Bartholomaeus Kistler, 1499,
Munich, Bayerische StaatsBibliothek.

Diemeringen’s translation, which was based on Mandeville’s French and Latin editions, was an adaptation rather than a direct translation (Crosby, 1965, p. xvii). Diemeringen omitted several passages including the distinction between idols and simulacra, as well as other descriptions of pagan worship. Francis E. Sandbach suggested that their omission could be because Diemeringen was a cleric and thus omitted the offending passages (Sandbach, 1899, pp. 29-35). However, Diemeringen expanded upon the description of the piousness of the cynocephali and wrote of them more favourably than the original text. Diemeringen called the cynocephali: ‘god fearing people.’ He continued: ‘Although they have dogs’ heads, they are devotional and good in the way of their belief, and are of lovely and virtuous life style and behaviour, and are subservient to their lords and obedient and loyal.’ (‘und sind gut erber got föchtig lüt da wann das sie hundes häupter hand doch sind sie andächtig und güter wiß nach irem glouben und sind lieblichs und tugentlichs wandels und geberden und sind iren herren undertäntg und gehorsam und getrüwe.’ Translation by Gerda Dinwiddie). The textual emphasis on piety can explain the portrayal of the cynocephali in active and enthusiastic worship.

Mandeville began his book with a declaration of Christian faith, which contextualised how Travels, including the ox-worshipping cynocephali, was intended to be read. Andrew Fleck, for example, discounted any possibility of salvation for the cynocephali who were ‘marginalized and discounted for their worship of an ox.’ (Fleck, 2012, 2000, p. 385, note. 19) However, Mandeville’s Travels was a tale of pilgrimage to the Holy Land that was written in the tradition of Christianising ‘primitive’ pagans, including the dog-headed race. For example, in an apocryphal story of St. Christopher (who was revered as a saint in predominately Byzantine art), Andrew and Bartholomew were sent on a mission to Parthia (modern day Iran). They happened upon a creature with the face of a dog and whose appearance was ‘awful and terrifying’ (B, fol. 184a, col.2). As the tale goes, Andrew and Bartholomew prayed the beast out of the dog-headed man who became gentile as a lamb (B, fol. 186b, col. 2). This account underlines the cynocephali’s bestial appearance and nature as having been linked to the lack of Christian faith. It further demonstrates the civilising nature of Christianity as further described that: ‘he was rejoicing and was glad because he had learned to know the right faith’ (B, fol. 184a, col.2). This tale highlights, there was a long tradition that associated bestial appearance and behaviour to the non-Christian Other. For this reason, it was the cynocephalus’ deed of ox worship that turned him into a beast. However, it also allowed for redemption to be found in the Christian faith. It also demonstrates that religion separated people more than early concepts of race or nationality during the Renaissance.

Saint Christopher (depicted with the head of a dog)
67 x 35 cm
Byzantine and Christian virtual museum
Source: wikimedia

Deuteronomy 28.20-23 directly linked the sin of defying God with being inflicted with all manner of diseases and physical afflictions. Consequently, deformity, ugliness, and evilness became intrinsically linked. Their hybridity and deformity made them imperfect in European ideas of beauty. The connection between physical deformity and the cynocephali is further evidenced in the tympanum of the Church of La Madeleine. In eight compartments above Christ, cynocephali and other disfigured peoples are awaiting conversion, whereas the apostles below are portrayed receiving the Holy Spirit (Kleiner, 2010, pp. 175-76). Therefore, the ugly and deformed were believed to be damned, while the beautiful were thought to be holy (Strickland, 2007, p. 101). As a result, people with either cultural or even religious difference were often characterised as grotesque with exaggerated features for they did not know the one true God (Strickland, 2003, p. 29). A Further example of this appears in the fourteenth-century Middle-English poem, Cursor Mundi (‘The Runner of the World’). The poem stated that ‘black and misshapen’ Saracens asked to see the True Cross. After kissing it ‘their skin became white, and their shape was set right.’

File:02 Basilique Ste-Marie-Madeleine de Vézelay - Tympan.jpg
tympanum of the Church of La Madeleine.
Photo credit: Jean-Pol GRANDMONT

As a result, early Renaissance interest in cynocephali, and the monstrous races more broadly, was likely informed by a Christian program of spreading the Gospel. While there was a lack of true motivation for colonisation, the cynocephali were created in a culture that aspired to spiritual colonisation. The pope had sent Franciscans and Dominicans to convert Asians as early as the mid-thirteenth century (Phillips, 2014, p. 5). The cynocephali stand out for conversion as they were representative of Eastern idolaters. Also, if a creature as bestial in both behaviour and appearance as the cynocephali could be converted, then spreading the word of Christ to all corners of the world was possible.

Stories of converting the monstrous races, and especially the cynocephali, was popular during the Middle Ages, as seen with the story of St. Christopher (Friedman, 1981, p. 61). Not only did monstrous races represent the nature of the foreign Other, but they also reflected the real fear of human corruption. Physical deformity was long associated with sin, with human-animal hybrids reflecting the greatest perversion of God’s creation (Strickland, 2003, pp. 66, 65). The analysis of Mandeville’s cynocephali has revealed that a nuanced interpretation is needed when analysing representations of idolatrous worship. What is significant about the portrayal of Mandeville’s cynocephali is that the image of idolatrous heathens and signs of Christian reverence is not mutually exclusive. Both negative and positive connotations can be drawn from the worshipping cynocephali portrayed in Mandeville’s sixteenth-century prints. Regardless of this nuanced interpretation, the worship of a domesticated animal used widely in agricultural production across Europe would have been deemed repugnant to its European audience (Pascua, 2011, p. 90 ). Furthermore, at a time when showing too much affection for an animal was frowned upon, worshipping one as a deity was worse (Groesen, 2007, p. 126).

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