Wondrous Tribes: Cynocephali

I’ve written about cynocephali (literally, “dog heads”) before. They are described by various classical authors, who locate various types or species of them in Libya, Ethiopia, Central Asia, and India. Some of them are said to be gentle, even civilized. In the Middle Ages, they are sometimes portrayed farming, wearing clothes, and inhabiting organized villages.

More often, they are more animalistic in their behavior. They are the only wondrous race that Isidore of Seville categorized as more animal than human. They are never said to speak but only to communicate with each other in barks and growls, though some learn to understand snippets of human language. They don’t have a material culture to speak of, but might use weapons or tools that human beings provide to them.

The status of cynocephali as humans was debated in classical and medieval times. Saint Augustine pondered whether they possessed human souls. In the ninth century, the monk Ratramnus of Corbie wrote to a colleague on the question of whether one should attempt to preach the gospel to cynocephali should one encounter them.

The first European to report the existence of cynocephali in the Americas was none other than Christopher Columbus, who reported native testimony of dog-headed cannibals. Others followed suit by repeating Columbus’s account. Among these are Lorenz Friez, who reports what Columbus was told in his Carta Marina (1525). The Piri Reis map of 1513, reportedly based on maps made by Columbus, depicts cynocephali on the northern coast of South America.

Since Columbus originally thought he had reached the mysterious East, it shouldn’t surprise us that he would expect to find the same wondrous tribes in the Americas that Pliny, Ctesias, and others had told them to expect in the islands off the coast of India. Indeed, he likely believed the account he was told confirmed the success of his voyage!

There do not seem to be any first-hand accounts by Europeans of actually encountering these creatures. I’m tempted to wonder what the natives actually told Columbus, and why. A perfectly human subject in a ceremonial mask, face paint, or some sort of facial body modification might well be described as possessing the head of an animal—especially as the story is heard by educated Europeans familiar with the classic geographies and their accounts of “monstrous races.”

Then again, who’s to say that the natives who told Columbus about the dog-headed men weren’t already actively de-humanizing members of a rival tribe? Europeans don’t, after all, have a monopoly on thinking of “the enemy” as less than human and exaggerating their more unsavory traits.

At the same time, the idea of a creature that combines the traits of both humans and animals, especially canines, seems to be nearly universal. That’s why werewolf stories are found in so many cultures. That’s why Egyptian gods like Anubis, Duamutef, and Wepwawet were depicted with canine heads (jackal, jackal, and wolf, respectively) 5,000 years ago.

As it turns out, there are some indications of similar phenomena in the Americas. An Adena culture burial mound in Eagle Creek, KY (1st millennium BC) contained the remains of a human body where the the jawbone and front portion of a wolf skull was cut to fit over the Adena man’s mouth. I can’t say why someone would modify a corpse to make it look like a cynocephalus, only that it points to something deeply rooted in the psyche of the people who did it.

Similarly, certain effigy mounds in southern Wisconsin, created by the ancestors of the Siouan Ho-Chunk people, take the form of a humanoid with wolf-like ears.

When Columbus returned to Europe with reports of dog-headed men, what had was he really talking about? Humans with distinctive canine adornments? Ceremonial artifacts that somehow suggested the existence of such beings?

Or was it all a strange concoction of wishful thinking mixed with notions of cultural superiority? If so, then perhaps Augustine’s conclusions about the cynocephali should be a word of caution for us all: “We are not bound to believe all we hear about all kinds of men” (City of God 16.8).

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