Cynocephali & 15 Curious Details About the Dog-Headed Myth

Cynocephaly refers to a mythical or folkloric concept of humans with the heads of dogs or wolves. The term is derived from the Greek words “kynos,” meaning dog, and “kephale,” meaning head. Creatures with cynocephalic features have been a part of various cultures’ mythologies and legends throughout history.

In different traditions, cynocephalic beings are described with varying characteristics and roles. They are often depicted as intelligent and capable of human-like behavior despite their canine appearance. The concept of cynocephali can be found in the folklore of ancient Egypt, Greece, China, and other cultures.

These creatures sometimes play roles in religious or cultural narratives, often serving as symbols or representations of specific ideas. The interpretation of Cynocephaly/cynocephaly can vary widely depending on the cultural context and the specific mythology in which it appears.

Additional references emerge from medieval Eastern and European contexts. In contemporary popular media, cynocephalics are also found as characters in literature, comic books, and graphic novels. Cynocephaly is typically differentiated from lycanthropy (werewolf or werebear transformation) and anthropomorphic talking dogs in modern storytelling.

1Ancient Greeks Learned About Cynocephali From Depictions Of Egyptian Deities Like Duamutef, Wepwawet, And Anubis

The ancient Greeks were acquainted with the concept of cynocephaly through depictions of Egyptian deities such as Duamutef (son of Horus), Wepwawet (the opener of the ways), and Anubis (the Egyptian god of the dead). The Greek term “κῠνοκέφᾰλοι” (kynokephaloi), meaning “dog-head,” was also associated with a revered Egyptian baboon featuring a dog-like face. Rather than serving as literal representations of a hybrid human-animal state, these portrayals of cynocephalic deities conveyed the therianthropic ability of these gods to transition between fully human and fully animal forms.

In the context of Ancient Egyptian hybrid imagery, the head symbolized the original form of the depicted being. As noted by the Egyptologist Henry Fischer, a depiction of a lion-headed goddess, for instance, signified a lion-goddess in human form, while a royal sphinx represented a man assuming the form of a lion. This non-literal approach to illustrating deities may have been perplexing to Greek visitors, leading them to mistakenly believe that Egyptians worshiped gods with dog heads or that Egypt was inhabited by mortal cynocephalic entities.

2The Term “Cynocephaly” Comes From The Greek Words For “Dog” And “Head,” Reflecting The Idea Of Beings With Dog Heads, And Is Connected To The Scientific Term “Cynomorpha”

The term cynocephaly, derived from the Latin language, has its origins in the Greek word κυνοκέφαλοι (kynokephaloi), the plural form of κυνοκέφαλος, with “kyno-” being a combining form of κύων (kyōn), meaning “dog,” and “kephalē,” meaning “head.” This linguistic evolution reflects the concept of beings with dog heads.

Interestingly, the root “dog” is also present in the designation Cynomorpha, meaning “dog-shaped.” This term is applied to a sub-group within the family Cercopithecidae, encompassing various species of macaques and baboons, highlighting a connection between the mythical concept of cynocephaly and the scientific nomenclature for certain primate species that share a resemblance to dogs in shape or appearance.

Also Read: Garmr: A Fearsome Wolf & Norse Myth’s Underworld Sentinel

3Greek Stories Claimed About Existence Of Dog-headed People In Indian Mountains Who Communicated Through Barking, Wore Animal Skins, And Lived By Hunting

References to dog-headed races have their roots in Greek antiquity, with notable accounts emerging in the fifth century BC. Ctesias, a Greek physician, provided a comprehensive account of the cynocephali in India in his work “Indica.” In a similar vein, the Greek traveler Megasthenes asserted knowledge of dog-headed people residing in the Indian mountains. According to his observations, these individuals communicated through barking, donned wild animal skins, and sustained themselves through hunting.

Claudius Aelianus also documented the existence of dog-headed tribes in India, noting their human shape and attire made from animal skins. Although lacking verbal communication, they were believed to comprehend the Indian language, communicating through howls. Herodotus, too, reported claims by ancient Libyans regarding the presence of such creatures in the eastern regions of their lands, alongside accounts of headless men and other anomalies.

4Greek Writers Wrote Many Other Several Accounts Of Dog Headed People From Different Cultures

Historical records suggest that the battleground for the conflict between the Argonauts and the Cynocephali likely occurred in what is now modern-day North Serbia or South Hungary.

Furthermore, certain Greek writers made mention of the Hemicynes (singular, Hemicyon), described as half-dogs, with “ἡμι” meaning “half” and “κύων” meaning “dog.” These accounts contribute to the rich tapestry of ancient Greek narratives surrounding dog-headed beings and half-dog entities.

5Dog-Headed Saints In The Legend Of Saint Mercurius Abu-Sayfain, Is One Of The Famous Example Of Various Medieval Texts

The legend recounting the life of the Coptic saint Mercurius Abu-Sayfain includes a distinctive portrayal of two saints named Ahrakas and Augani, who are depicted with the head of a dog. These saints are said to have faithfully served Saint Mercurius. Notably, an image of them can be found on an icon housed in the Coptic Museum.

The imagery of cynocephali, with their dog-headed appearance, held a powerful allure in medieval literature, symbolizing a blend of magic and brutality often associated with the inhabitants of exotic and distant lands. This fascination with cynocephali persisted through various medieval texts. 

Must Read: 10 Facts & Fables About Cadejo: The Mythical Canine In Folklore and Beyond

6St. Augustine Argued That If Cynocephali Were Human, They Must Be Descendants Of Adam

St. Augustine of Hippo, in his work “The City of God,” specifically in Book XVI, Chapter 8, engaged in a discussion about whether these beings could be considered descendants of Adam. Augustine contemplated the possibility that cynocephali might not exist at all or, if they did, might not fit his definition of a human as a mortal and rational animal. Despite these considerations, Augustine insisted that if cynocephali were indeed human, they would be descendants of Adam. The enduring presence of cynocephali in these medieval narratives reflects their enduring significance as symbols of the mysterious and otherworldly in human imagination.

7Eastern Icons Depicting Saint Christopher with a Dog’s Head

In the Eastern Orthodox Church, there are some pictures that secretly show Saint Christopher with a dog’s head. But the church doesn’t really support this idea, and in the 18th century, Moscow officially banned these images.

The story behind these pictures goes back to a time when a man named Reprebus was captured by Roman forces. He was forced to join a group called the Roman numerus Marmaritarum, fighting against tribes in Cyrenaica, west of Egypt. It’s suggested that these tribes might be the Marmaritae, possibly the same as the Marmaricae Berber tribe. Reprebus was said to be extremely large with a dog’s head, which was typical of the Marmaritae. Later, he and his group were moved to Syrian Antioch, where Bishop Peter of Attalia baptized him. Reprebus was eventually martyred in 308.

Some people think the dog-headed Saint Christopher images in the Byzantine tradition might have come from a misunderstanding of the Latin term “Cananeus” (Canaanite), read as “caninus,” meaning “canine.”

8Walter of Speyer’s Unique Tale: Saint Christopher, the Dog-Headed Giant Turned Christian Military Saint

In the late 10th century, a German bishop and poet named Walter of Speyer told a different story. According to him, Saint Christopher was a giant from the land of the Chananeans (Canaan in the New Testament), where he belonged to a dog-headed species that ate human flesh and barked. After meeting the Christ child, Christopher regretted his past actions, got baptized, and was rewarded with a human appearance. From then on, he dedicated his life to serving Christianity and became one of the military saints, known as Athleta Christi.

9The Role of Cynocephali in Medieval Christian Legends: The Transformation of Abominable

Cynocephali play a role in medieval Christian perspectives as well. In a particular legend associating Andrew the Apostle and Bartholomew the Apostle with the Parthians, there is an account featuring a character named “Abominable,” a resident of the “city of cannibals” characterized by a face resembling that of a dog. Following his baptism, Abominable underwent a transformation, being freed from his dog-like appearance.

10Encountering the ‘Dog-Mouthed’ People: Ibn Battuta’s Journey to the Land of the Barahnakar

During Ibn Battuta’s travels, he encountered a group of people described as “dog-mouthed,” potentially referring to the Mentawai people, known for their practice of tooth sharpening. These individuals resided on an island situated between India and Sumatra. Ibn Battuta’s account, as follows:

“After traveling for fifteen days from Sunaridwan, we arrived at the land of the Barahnakar, a tribe whose mouths resembled those of dogs. This community, considered disorderly, does not adhere to the Hindu religion or any other specific belief. They dwell in reed huts with grass roofs along the seashore and have an abundance of banana, areca, and betel trees. The men, although having a human-like physique, possess mouths reminiscent of dogs, a characteristic not shared by their women, who are described as exceptionally beautiful. The men typically go unclothed, revealing their nudity without concealment, except for occasional ornamental pouches made of reeds suspended from their waists. The women, on the other hand, wear aprons crafted from tree leaves.

Inhabiting a separate quarter, a contingent of Muslims from Bengal and Sumatra coexists with them. The natives engage in trade with merchants on the shore, utilizing elephants to transport water, as the water source is some distance from the coast. They are reluctant to allow merchants to fetch water themselves due to concerns about their women approaching well-formed men. Despite the prevalence of elephants in their region, the authority to dispose of them lies exclusively with the sultan, who trades them for woven textiles.”

11Some Medieval West Stories & Accounts Of Cynocephali Described them As Dog Headed Creature With Inhumane Qualities

Paul the Deacon, in his Historia gentis Langobardorum, talks about cynocephali, which are described as people with dog heads. According to the story, these cynocephali are said to be in the camps, and there’s a belief that they fight fiercely in battles, drink human blood, and even consume their own blood if they can’t reach their enemies.

At Charlemagne’s court, the Norse people were given a similar description, suggesting that they had un-Christian and less-than-human qualities. The King of the Franks, in Notker’s Life, expressed his disappointment at not having the chance to interact with these “dog-heads” using his Christian hand.

In the ninth century, a Frankish theologian named Ratramnus wrote a letter, the Epistola de Cynocephalis, discussing whether cynocephali should be considered human. He believed they were, and if so, Christians should preach the Gospels to them. If they were considered animals without souls, preaching to them would be pointless, according to Ratramnus.

Quoting St. Jerome, Thomas of Cantimpré supported the idea of cynocephali’s existence in his Liber de Monstruosis Hominibus Orientis, emphasizing their presence in the East.

In the thirteenth century, Vincent of Beauvais informed his patron, Saint Louis IX of France, about an animal that had a dog’s head but looked human in all other aspects. He noted that this creature behaved like a man but could become cruel and retaliate against humans when angered.

The Nowell Codex, renowned for housing the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf, features references to Cynocephali, also known as “half-dogs,” found in a section of the manuscript called The Wonders of the East. In this context, they are referred to as “healfhundingas.”

In Anglo-Saxon England, the term “wulfes heafod” (wolf’s head) carried a specific meaning as a technical term for an outlaw. Outlaws designated with this term could be lawfully killed, akin to treating them as wolves. The Leges Edwardi Confessoris, written around 1140, provided a somewhat literal interpretation, stating that an outlaw, from the day of their outlawry, bears a wolf’s head, known as “wluesheued” in English. This sentence applied uniformly to all outlaws.

12The Battle of Eidyn: Cynocephali and the Mythic Encounter in the Old Welsh Poem Pa gur

The Old Welsh poem Pa gur? introduces Cynocephali as “cinbin” (dogheads), portraying them as adversaries to King Arthur’s retinue. The narrative unfolds with Arthur’s men engaging in a battle against these dog-headed beings in the mountains of Eidyn (Edinburgh), resulting in a significant number of them being defeated by Arthur’s warrior Bedwyr, later known as Bedivere. Subsequent lines in the poem describe a confrontation with a character named Garwlwyd (Rough-Gray). Gwrgi Garwlwyd, identified as Man-Dog Rough-Gray, appears in one of the Welsh Triads, where he is depicted in a manner that has led scholars to explore the possibility of him being associated with werewolf mythology.

13Cynocephali References In Medieval travelers Giovanni da Pian del Carpine and Marco Polo 

Medieval travelers Giovanni da Pian del Carpine and Marco Polo both made mention of cynocephali in their accounts. Giovanni described the armies of Ögedei Khan encountering a race of dogheads residing north of the Dalai-Nor (Northern Ocean) or Lake Baikal. In Marco Polo’s Travels, he referred to dog-headed barbarians located on the island of Angamanain, identified as the Andaman Islands. Despite cultivating spices, Polo depicted these people as cruel, likening them to “big mastiff dogs.”

14Piri Reis Map That Featured A Fight Between Dog Headed Being And A Monkey

Interestingly, references to dog-headed people extended to the New World. Christopher Columbus reported that the Taino people were acquainted with cynocephali. In 1517, the Ottoman Sultan Selim I received a map of the New World from Piri Reis, featuring an illustration of a dog-headed man engaged in combat with a monkey in what is now Colombia. Additionally, in 1519, the Governor of Cuba directed Hernán Cortés to investigate rumors of cynocephali during his expedition to the American mainland. According to Henri Cordier, a scholar, the origin of all these fables about dog-headed barbarians, whether in European, Arabic, or Chinese traditions, can be traced back to the Alexander Romance.

15Cynocephali Reference Also Found In The Book of Liang And The History Of The Northern Dynasties

In Central and East Asia, a prevalent calendar system revolves around a twelve-year cycle, with each year symbolized by an animal. The eleventh animal in this cycle is the dog. It’s customary for these animals to be portrayed as humanoid figures with the head of the respective animal, and often, they might even have a tail (though this is not explicitly mentioned in the source).

Moreover, the Chinese historical document, the Book of Liang, contains an account from the Buddhist missionary Hui Shen. According to his description, there exists an island inhabited by dog-headed men situated to the east of Fusang. Fusang, a nation Hui Shen visited, has been variously identified as either Japan or the Americas. Additionally, the History of the Northern Dynasties, authored by Li Dashi and his son Li Yanshou, historians during the Tang dynasty, makes reference to a “dog kingdom.”


Ctesias, Indica, as excerpted by Photios in his Epitome, tr. J.H. Freese

Green, Thomas (2007). Concepts of Arthur. Stroud, Gloucestershire

Leges Edwardi Confessoris, ed. and tr. Bruce R. O’Brien, God’s peace and king’s peace: the laws of Edward the Confessor. Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 1999.

Bromwich, Rachel (2006). Trioedd Ynys Prydein: The Triads of the Island of Britain. University Of Wales Press.