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Werewolves and the Dog-headed Saint in the Middle Ages

By Danièle Cybulskie

Whether or not the hordes of preteens who read or watched The Twilight Saga series know it, “Team Jacob” has a very long history. Stories of werewolves and their canine kin have been around for centuries, and some of them may be a bit surprising.

In the twelfth century, Marie de France wrote a collection of “lais” – stories of Breton origin – many of which had supernatural elements to them. One of my favourite stories is “Bisclavret,” the story of a nobleman who also happens to be a werewolf. As a preface to the story, Marie notes that there are many other stories of werewolves, so tales of these creatures were, apparently, not uncommon. Unfortunately for Bisclavret, his wife tricks him into revealing his secret, and she uses it against him, stranding him in wolf form. She does get her just desserts in the end, when her wolf of a husband bites off her nose. (So much for “for better and for worse.”) You can read this fun story, as well as Marie’s other lais, here (it’s called The Lay of the Were-Wolf on this page).

Dog-headed men – cynocephali – were long thought to be residents of the little-explored regions of the world, and you can find references to them in both encyclopedic texts, as well as travel literature (yes, medieval people did write quite a lot of travel literature). Even the famous Marco Polo mentions them, going so far as to place them in the Andaman Islands. Everyone agreed that cynocephali were savage and cannibalistic – not the type of creature you’d like your preteen to fall for. Perhaps the idea of widespread belief in cynocephali is not so far-fetched when one considers the prevalence of imagery in Egypt featuring Anubis, the god of the dead with the head of a jackal. Perhaps traders’ experiences in Egypt helped to spread the idea. What makes it really interesting, though, is when cynocephali step over into Christianity. Hard to believe? Read on.

Traditional eastern depiction of a dog-headed Saint Christopher: an icon from the Byzantine and Christian Museum in Athens.When thinking about St. Christopher, the image that immediately springs to mind is that of an old man with a boy on his shoulders – St. Christopher the “Christ-bearer.” But before St. Christopher was ever that icon, he was – have you guessed it? – a cynocephalus. In the first few centuries C.E., the legend of St. Christopher told of a dog-headed man who converted to Christianity, leaving behind his animal nature, gaining speech, and seeking to convert others. He is, of course, martyred for his beliefs, after doing his best to convert everyone he comes into contact with. Despite being a cynocephalus, St. Christopher is a very respectable saint, and is welcomed into heaven at the end of his life. You can read translations of the St. Christopher (as cynocephalus) stories here. (Two are translated from Latin, one from Old Irish.)

What is fascinating to me is that, despite the consensus that cynocephali and werewolves were vicious and to be feared, in both “Bisclavret” and in the legends of St. Christopher, these wolf-men are the heroes. In both stories, it is their persecutors who are very clearly in the wrong. (This type of story always makes me smile when I hear people talk about the monstrous antihero as a modern concept.)

You can get lost for hours Googling St. Christopher and cynocephali, and I’m sure there are even more websites that cover the new incarnation of werewolves as handsome, musclebound Native Americans, thanks to Twilight. While I could leave you with one of those images, I think I’ll go with one of St. Christopher, the original Team Jacob mascot.

You can follow Danièle Cybulskie on Twitter @5MinMedievalist

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