Imagining the New World: Representations of Cannibalistic Cynocephali in Lorenz Fries’ Uslegung der Mercarthen oder Carta Marina

Keywords: New World, cynocephali, Native Americans, Cannibalism, Lorenz Fries

With the discovery of the Americas, there was a natural decline in the interest in monstrous races, as that was superseded by the interest in real marvels of the New World. However, the legacy of the monstrous races persisted to the mid-sixteenth century. After the discovery of the Americas, the image of the cynocephali was depicted in the New World illustrating how transferable the iconography of the dog-head was as representative of the foreign Other. Lorenz Fries (1489-1550) isolated the cynocephali from the other monstrous races and portrayed them as a race of dog-headed inhabitants of the Americas in Uslegung der Mercarthen oder Carta Marina (‘Guide and Instructions for the Carta Marina’). They appear in both its 1525 and 1527 Strasbourg editions, as well as the title-page of a 1530 edition. The woodcut was further used to accompany a 1530 Strasburg edition of Amerigo Vespucci’s Carta Maritima (Moffitt and Sebastián, 1996, p. 119).

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.

Fries’ Uslegung was influenced by travel narratives from Amerigo Vespucci (1454-1512) and Christopher Columbus (c.1451-1506), whom Fries cited as having recently discovered the Americas. In comparison to the late-fifteenth-century representations of the monstrous races, Fries’ book presented a systematic attempt to categorise different peoples of the world with extended descriptions and accompanying woodcuts. On the surface, it appears to resemble an early attempt at a ‘scientific’ ethnographic study. In this way, cynocephali evolved from representing vague notions of wonders of the East to being associated with or representing ‘racial’ groups. The depiction of cynocephali in the context of the New World would have likely added to the exotic and mysterious otherness of the newly discovered land and peoples who added to the variety of human life. If this entirely new world could be discovered, which had not been mentioned in the Bible, it lent to the idea that further races with varying features were waiting to be revealed.

In this way, the representation of sixteenth-century cynocephali were composites of what was foreign and Other. Fries’ cynocephali, for instance, were based on the stereotype of naked (feather-wearing) Native Americans whom seldom came in contact with artists (‘The cannibals all go naked except that they adorn themselves with parrot feathers of all kinds of colours, strangely woven together.’ Translation by Gerda Dinwiddie). Artists were often inspired by items brought back from the Americans and kept in cabinets of curiosities or from costume books. These sources often did not reflect the diversity of dress of Native Americans in different groups to different climatic and geographic locations (Doggett, 1992, pp. 88, 90). For example, Albrecht Dürer witnessed an exhibition of Aztec artifacts while traveling to Brussels, which included Aztec armour (Hess, 2005, p.163). Contact with these more sophisticated items did not influence the way Native Americans were represented, including by Dürer himself. Despite the sophistication and diversity in the items, artists maintained stereotypical motifs of the primitive Other. Therefore, publications continued to maintain stereotypical motifs such as feather-wearing and nakedness as that is what their audience came to expect (Groesen, 2008, p. 201).

Cannibalistic cynocephali were portrayed as a group of peoples in the New World in the chapter Von Canibalen (‘Of Cannibals’) in Fries’ Uslegung. In the accompanying woodcut, the central focus is a cynocephalus shown butchering a human into pieces as he holds a cleaver above his head. Not only are they characterised as man-eaters, but it also displays their method of food production as if eating humans was a customary part of their diet. This point is illustrated by the dismembered body parts that hang above the block illustrated in a similar vein as a crude outdoor butcher’s shop. Another cynocephalus is portrayed to his right with his arms stretched out as if to signify the purchasing of human flesh. The image was likely influenced by Amerigo Vespucci’s statement of Native Americans: ‘I was once in a certain city…where human flesh was hung up near the houses, in the same way we expose butcher’s meat (Vespucci, 2010, p. 47).’ The woodcut resembles an outdoor butcher shop, not unlike what would have been seen in Europe at the time. For this reason, the scene could have been rendered not altogether implausible to its viewing audience as it mixed the familiar with the unfamiliar.

Fries’ woodcut is the most overtly violent representation of cynocephali in sixteenth-century German prints. Fries’ cynocephali also appear to be the only ones depicted with and described as living in houses. The palm leaf-covered constructions are not dissimilar to the portrayal of huts associated with Native Americans, where their habitats did not sway explorers’ perception of the natives’ level of civility (Rowe, 1972, p. 5). Instead, they only served to reinforce their primitiveness (Moffitt and Sebástian, 1996, p. 142). However, the portrayal of cynocephali’s constructions appears to be modeled on European architecture and European outdoors butcher’s shop. The print parallels with portrayals of Native Americans in scenes of cannibalism with hanging body parts or in the act of cooking human flesh roasting above a raging fire. Such imagery was inspired by European practices of cooking over a fire or hanging salted meat, something that French explorer, Jean de Léry (1536-1613) dismissed as not a practice of Native Americans (specifically the Tupinambá peoples of the Brazilian coast) (Léry, 1990, p. 126; Rowe, 1972, p. 2). Moreover, the dog-headed man-eaters are depicted chewing on raw and bloodied body parts that would have been deemed all the more savage.

Theodor de Bry, ‘Cannibalism in Brazil in 1557 (as described by Hans Staden)’, illustrated in Theodor de Bry, Americae tertia pars: memorabile provinciæ Brasiliæ historiam contines, 1592, p.178

The familiarity of the cynocephali’s structures further stresses the alterity of the butchering and consumption of men in the foreground. Alterity is magnified when something unfamiliar or strange occurs in a familiar setting. Fries’ print recalls Sigmund Freud’s (1856-1939) idea of the uncanny, the unease when one feels when the familiar becomes unfamiliar (Freud, 2003, pp.124-25). While the cynocephali were represented as semi-civilised peoples living in huts and using tools, images showing them eating human flesh added a grisly and fearful element to their visual representation. Therefore, these images were constructions by Europeans, combining the familiar with the unfamiliar.

Rather than reflecting the reality of people found in America, the motif of man-eating foreigners recycled old stereotypes and folklore of cannibalistic outgroups to portray the natives as sub-human despite first-hand contact (Arens, 1979, p. 28; Colin, 1999, p. 20). For example, the description by Fries closely resembles an early characterisation of the New World in Peter Martyr’s (1457-1526) Oceani decas (‘Decade of the Ocean,’) (1511):

They are accustomed to castrating male prisoners just as we do with rams, capons and bulls so they become fatter for slaying. The old men, however, they directly consign to slaughter. They devour the intestines, together with the outer limbs, as a fresh delicacy. […] They sustain the female prisoners for the purpose of breeding as we keep hens for eggs, but the old women they set to toil and servitude (Cited in Davies, 2016, pp. 91-92).

More than a decade later, Fries similarly wrote of the cynocephali:

These people prefer most of all to eat human flesh, and therefore, often in the year they go to surrounding islands in order to capture people. And they grab boys, beef them up all the hours the way we do it to camels, so that they will become fat and strong and all the better for being eaten. They kill the old ones and eat their entrails. They hang up the other meat the way we do with pork. But if they grab women, if these are young, then they keep them, so that they make a lot of children, just the way we with hens on account of the eggs. If they are old, then they keep them as prisoners for their service and work (Fries, 1525, fol. xvi).

‘Diß volck isset nichts lieber dan menschen fleisch / un darumb so faren sye offt im iar uß in andere umligende Insulen lewt zu faßen/ und so sie faßen junge knabe / hauwen sie vonn stunden an uß wie wir den kamelen thund / uff das sye feißt un dester besser zu essen werde / die alten ertodten sye un essen ir ingeweid / das ander fleysch henckent sye uff wie wir den schweinen thund. So sye aber frawen faßent / seind die selbigen jung / so behalten sy die / das sy vil kinder machenn gleich als wir die hennen umb der eyer willen. Seynd sye alt so habend sye die selbigen für gefangene zu irer dienstbatkeit unnd arbeit.’ Translation and Transcriptions by Gerda Dinwiddie.

This passage was similarly reproduced by Landsknecht (German soldier), Ulrich Schmidel (1510-1579) when referring to the people of Carios in the New World (Schmidel, 2010, p. 20). Therefore these descriptions of cannibalism were not based on empirical evidence but a set idea of people of the New World. Such reiteration of myth was likely due to the desire to sell their wonderous adventures and gave the public what they expected. In consequence, these motifs made all foreign people appear interchangeable to the Western viewer and became composites of what was foreign and ‘Other.’ The sensationalised stories brought back by travel writers reinforced conceptions of otherness and marginalised them as dangerous external out-groups.

Nonetheless, given the cynocephali’s remote location on the margins of the civilised world, it is unlikely that images of the dog-headed race chewing on human body parts would have stirred fear of these man-eating monsters among its viewing audience. Fries’ publication likely attracted buyers who were interested in learning about different peoples around the world. However, even for the most sceptical viewer, Fries’ depiction of dog-headed ‘cannibals’ would have functioned as a metaphor for the Euro-centric human condition.

While portrayals and stories of the dog-headed cynocephali appear to be simply a reiteration of myth, there may have been some motivation in their portrayal to justify colonisation and enslavement of the Americas. The philosopher and humanist, Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda (1494-1573) called for the enslavement of Native American because of their cannibalism and ignorance of Christianity (Las Casas, 1992, pp. 42, 54; Bartelson, 2009, pp. 78, 79). Associating Native Americans with cannibalism also served early conquistador’s purposes as Queen Isabella wrote in a 1503 letter commanding that the natives not be treated cruelly unless they were cannibals who could be enslaved (Isabella, Queen of Spain, 1963, pp. 62-63). Therefore, it would have benefitted colonialists by portraying Native Americans as barbaric cannibals and as animalistic as possible as was the case with Fries’ cynocephali. As a consequence, more and more regions and islands in South America and the Caribbean were regarded as the land of the cannibal (Palencia-Roth, 1993, p. 43).

Germany had a limited role in the colonisation of the Americas. Fries’ Uslegung was published just three years prior to the colonisation of Venezuela by Germans in 1528. However, it is also likely that publishers were motivated by reaffirming stereotypes of barbarous people in distant lands to sell fantastical stories to a buying audience. Spain did not have the same visual tradition as Germans. This could be the result of Spain’s continued contact with the Americas, where Christopher Columbus, Amerigo Vespucci, and Hernán Cortés (1485-1547) took hundreds of captured natives with them back to Spain (Vaughan, 1992, p. 12; Doggett, 1992, p. 38). On the other hand, natives remained an exotic cultural symbol in Germany where distance often breeds fear as well as fascination of the Other (Palencia-Roth, 1993, pp. 48-49). The increased contact with the Americas from colonisation must have played a role in the cynocephali’s limited representation in the New World and their disappearance from the late sixteenth century onwards.

It is curious that the dog-headed monstrous race were regarded as cannibals, and explicitly labeled as such in Fries’ Uslegung. This suggests that the cynocephali were regarded as closer to human than animal after all, or more than they would like to admit. Perhaps they were deemed cannibals because they were still half human. They were, nonetheless, regarded as monstrosities for this very reason. Monsters were typically represented as half-human, half-animal composites so that people could safely project their innermost fears on these odd figures (Gilmore, 2003, p. 1). It appears that what people most feared was the ‘demon’ within oneself – the ‘othered’ self. Cynocephali revealed the potential for human savagery or the temptation of immorality. They served as an example of what happens when one turns away from or is ignorant of God – the epitome of goodness. There was an implication that not knowing the one Christian God or not having faith in Christ had turned them into bestial monsters. The physical manifestation served as a warning and provided physical evidence of the corruption of the internal self.


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