Cynocephali and Signs of ‘Barbarous’ Language

Keywords: Hand Gesture, cynocephali, barking, John of Plano Carpini, Martin Waldseemüller

The dog-headed cynocephali were frequently depicted with their hands raised or pointing. Hand gestures were recognised in ancient Greece and Rome as a part of universal human expression, used for persuasive and emotive discourse (Kendon, 2004, p. 17). As the Roman rhetorician, Marcus Fabius Quintilian (35-100 A.D.) had stated: ‘though the peoples and nations of the earth speak a multitude of tongues, they share in common the universal language of the hands (Quintilian, 1922, p. 291).’ In Renaissance art, hand gestures have often been used to communicate with the viewing audience to express emotion or by pointing to something significant to elucidate the meaning of the work. In this way, the use of hand gestures was a part of the European idea of human expression and communication from antiquity to today.

Michael Wolgemut (1434-1519) and Wilhelm Pleydenwurff (c.1420-1472), ‘Marvelous Races’, Detail, 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.

While the use of gesture was recognised as a valued expression of body language and appears to humanise the representation of cynocephali, it has also been associated with signs of primitiveness. The motif of expressive hand gestures was used to illustrate the coarse mannerisms and unintelligible speech of ‘barbarous’ people in juxtaposition to composed and articulate European explorers (Groesen, 2008, pp. 207-08). In the context of Renaissance prints, the iconography could be used to replicate communication with people who did not share a common language with first contact. Peasants were represented as crude with their hands raised and mouth wide open in a boorish expression of communication. This illustrates that it was not just the physical manifestation that distinguished otherness but also language and how it was expressed visually.

Albrecht Dürer, The Peasant and His Wife, c. 1497,
Engraving, 10.6 × 7.5 cm,
The Met, New York.

Constructing sixteenth-century cynocephali with visibly exaggerated hand gestures derived from classical sources. When describing the dog-king of the people of Ptoeambati and Ptoemphanæ, Pliny stated that the king would make signs with his body, which his subjects would interpret as commandments they would observe (Pliny, 1962, p. 67). It was the dog-head that made the cynocephalus king unintelligible and that made human speech impossible. Therefore, the portrayal of the cynocephali’s hand gesture was not simply a sign of human expression. It was a sign that these ‘races’ did not possess human speech. In the woodcut of a cynocephalus in Konrad Lykosthenes’ ‘wonder book,’ it appears to capture the Plinian idea that they communicated with their entire body. While the cynocephalus in Lykosthenes’ ‘wonder book’ demonstrated an influence from Hartmann Schedel’s Nuremberg Chronicle, but differed by showing the figure standing, with legs wide apart. With both arms raised, the unnatural stance of the cynocephalus underscores the foreign otherness in the portrayal of this method of communication of exaggerated body movements that may have appeared crude to its viewing audience. More importantly, if not for their canine heads, it was the lack of speech that separated them from the ‘human race.’ The text that accompanied a lone cynocephalus in Martin Waldseemüller’s Carta marina, (1516) that was inspired by John of Plano Carpini (c.1182-1252) stated that it was men alone in this ‘race’ who appear as dogs while the women appear human (John of Plano Carpini, 1980, p. 23).

Here are people where the men have dog’s heads, but the women are like ours (‘Hic sunt homines viri habentes capita canina mulieres autem sunt ut nostre.’)

(Translation and transcription from Duzer, 2010, p. 228)

He further stated that the dogs communicated with the women through sign language, thus underscoring the depiction of the hand-gesturing cynocephali discussed above (White, 1991, p. 132).

Konrad Lykosthenes, Wunderwerck, Basel: Heinrich Petri, 1557, fol. 11, German Edition
Munich, Bayerische StaatsBibliothek

Cynocephali were described as not being able to speak but would bark like dogs. They were frequently portrayed with their mouth open, unlike other monstrous races, emphasising their canine teeth and long protruding tongue. It may have also been a method of representing the barking and growling ‘language’ of dogs. The barking cynocephali embodied the incomprehensible speech of the foreign barbarian. The term ‘barbarian’ was derived from the ancient Greek barbaros and meant ‘gibberish speaker (Strickland, 2003, p. 48).’ For the ancient Greeks, who polarised all humankind between Greeks and barbarians, articulate speech defined man’s civility and level of humanity (DeMello, 2012, p. 37; Cartledge, 1993, p. 11). This view was shared by ancient Romans, who not only regarded the Greeks and their language as barbarous, but most of the monstrous races described by Pliny were also said to possess incomprehensible speech (Pliny, 1962, pp. 76-77).

The representation of cynocephali reflected an established history of defining a group of people based on their language, where each group defined the incomprehensible speech of the Other as less civilised. As a result, language, in part, defined the civilised interior from the barbarous exterior (Moser and Boletsi, 2015, p. 14). This follows from Ctesias of Cnidus (or Ktesias) a Persian court physician who also stated in c.400 B.C. that ‘by barking and by making signs with their hands and their fingers like the deaf and the dumb, [cynocephali] can make themselves understood (McCrindle, 1882, p. 22).’ These behavioural characteristics illustrate that the cynocephali relied upon hand gestures to supplement their primary communication of barking (Friedman, 1981, p. 29).

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.

‘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.’ (‘Hic prope oceanum reperiuntur homines sive monstra habentes pedes bovinos caput humanum faciem caninam due verba loquuntur tercium latrant.’)

(Translation and transcription from Duzer, 2010, p. 227).
Martin Waldseemüller, Carta marina (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, Woodcut, 128 x 233cm, each sheet measures 45.5 x 62 cm,
Library of Congress, Washington DC, Jay I. Kislak Collection.

This description is directly taken from John of Plano Carpini’s History of Mongols (1247) (Carpini, 1980, p. 31). 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 (Pseudo-Callisthenes, 1991, p. 178).’ 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 (Velupillai, 2015, p. 16). 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 further distinguished this cynocephalus with two more cynocephali portrayed further down the map where text beside them notes they rely exclusively on barking to communicate (Duzer 2010, p. 228). 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 thereby the cynocephali on this map look less canine in appearance. 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.

Martin Waldseemüller, Carta marina (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, Woodcut, 128 x 233cm, each sheet measures 45.5 x 62 cm,
Library of Congress, Washington DC, Jay I. Kislak Collection.

Cynocephali were not only othered for their canine heads but that they were constructions of alterity based on conceptions of the foreign in order to understand or define the Other. To understand the cynocephali is to understand how Europeans viewed outsiders who appeared different—physically and behaviourally—to themselves


Carpini, John of Plano, ‘History of the Mongols (1247),’ in Christopher Dawson (ed.), Mission to Asia, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1980, pp. 3-73.

Cartledge, Paul, The Greeks: A Portrait of Self and Others, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.

DeMello, Margo, Animals and Society: An Introduction to Human-Animal Studies, New York: Columbia University Press, 2012.

Duzer, Chet Van, ‘A Northern Refuge of the Monstrous Races: Asia on Waldseemüller’s 1516 “Carta Marina,”’ Imago Mundi, 62.2, 2010, pp. 221-31.

Friedman, John Block, The Monstrous Races in Medieval Art and Thought, Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1981.

Groesen, Michiel van, Representations of The Overseas World in the de Bry Collection of Voyages (1590-1634), Leiden: Brill, 2008.

Kendon, Adam, Gesture: Visible Action as Utterance, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

McCrindle, John Watson, Ancient India as Described by Ktesias the Knidian, London: Trübner, 1882.

Moser, Christian and Maria Boletsi, ‘Introduction,’ in Barbarism Revisited: New Perspectives on an Old Concept, Leiden: Brill, 2015, pp. 11-29.

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.

Pseudo-Callisthenes, The Greek Alexander Romance, trans. Richard Stoneman, London: Penguin, 1991.

Quintilian, Marcus Fabius, The Institutio oratoria of Quintilian: Books X-XII, trans. H.E. Butler, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1922.

Schedel, Hartmann, Liber chronicarum, 1493. Trans. by Walter W. Schmauch. Morse Library, Beloit College, 2010.

Strickland, Debra Higgs, Saracens, Demons, & Jews: Making Monsters in Medieval Art, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003.

Viveka Velupillai, Pidgins, Creoles and Mixed Languages: An Introduction, Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company, 2015.

White, David Gordon, Myths of the Dog-Man, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991.

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