Dog-Headed Men: Truth Behind the Legend?
Dog-Headed Men: Truth Behind the Legend?

Stories of dog-headed men pervade lore from ancient Greece through to medieval Europe and Africa. Many accounts center around India. What’s behind these accounts? Were they dehumanizing descriptions of foreign peoples? Were they distorted descriptions of real animals? Is there another explanation?

After invading India in the 4th century B.C., Alexander the Great purportedly wrote to his teacher, Aristotle, describing dog-headed men, along with other outlandish creatures dwelling in the East. The letter is included in a manuscript dating from about 1000 A.D., part of the Cotton Vitellius A. xv manuscript, which also includes the famed epic poem, “Beowulf.”

Ctesias the Cnidian wrote about the dog-headed men, also known as cynocephali, in the 4th century B.C. David Gordon White explained in his book “Myths of the Dog-Man,” that, “Although Ctesias believed he was reporting ethnological or geographical fact in his ‘Indika,’ there can be no doubt that a number of his accounts were in fact inspired by Indian myths.”

White wrote: “For some 1,500 years following Ctesias, conquerers, missionaries, and adventurers looked for, and indeed said they found, cynocephali in India.”

Gregory C. McIntosh, a leading expert on medieval maps (which often include depictions of cynocephali), said during a presentation at a 2013 conference at the Turkish Embassy in London that cannibals were often depicted as dog-headed men. Ancient Persians had a tradition of leaving their dead exposed, to be eaten by dogs and other scavengers, which gave the dogs a cultic importance in their culture. Herodotus, a Greek historian of the 5th century B.C., wrote of this Persian tradition. He also wrote of cynocephali living in Libya. 

“For some 1,500 years following Ctesias, conquerers, missionaries, and adventurers looked for, and indeed said they found, cynocephali in India.”
— David Gordon White

The cynocephali became part of Christian lore after the famed St. Augustine wrote about them, along with other monsters, in the 5th century A.D. He saw them as the the inheritors of Cain’s curse and the descendants of Noah’s disobedient offspring. White wrote: “Thanks to Augustine, the cynocephali were seen to be a part of the economy of salvation, albeit a fallen or exiled part; and so it was that they became widely allegorized and moralized as a quarrelsome, morally dumb, or even demonic race that was nevertheless redeemable.”

Wikimedia Commons)">A 14th century painting by an unknown artist. (Wikimedia Commons)
A 14th century painting by an unknown artist. (Wikimedia Commons)

Augustine’s view is similar to that of the Betsimaraka tribe in Madagascar.

One theory is that accounts of cynocephali in Africa may actually refer to a large species of lemur, the indri lemur.

In his book “On the Track of Unknown Animals,” Bernard Heuvelmans wrote of the indri lemur: “It is the largest of the lemurs known today and is extraordinarily like a little man with a dog’s head. Three feet high and with no tail but an inconspicuous stump, the indris is astonishingly like a man in outline. Like the other lemurs, or half-monkeys, it has a fine and pointed muzzle, which makes its head more like a fox’s or a dog’s.

“When you have seen one it is easy to understand why the Betsimaraka tribe [of Madagascar] both fear and worship the beast they significantly call babakato, or ‘child-grandfather.’ They believe it is a descendant of the men who used to hide in the forest to avoid working for the tribe. All lemurs are fady, or taboo, to many of the tribes, for they are thought to have once been men.”

Like Augustine, the tribe equated the human-like animals with morally depraved humans. 

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