Saturday 13 December 2014

Saint Christopher: Doghead

Saint Christopher: the Kynokephalos (Doghead)

(Ἅγιος Χριστόφορος, Ágios Christóforos)

Saint Christopher as he appears in the Byzantine and Christian Museum in Athens

Saint Christopher’s story dates from circa 250 during the Roman persecution of Christians. The story goes that he was a Canaanite named Reprobus (we get the term reprobate from the same root), a giant of a man, no better than he should be whose ambition was simply to serve the most powerful leader there was. This led him first to kings, then to the devil and then to Christ whom he decided was the One and he became a Christian.

 How best to serve Him? He was advised to become a human ferryman across a dangerous river that men of normal strength or height could not ford. One day, a child asked to be carried across the river. Christopher complied and as he progressed realized that the child on his shoulders was becoming increasingly heavy as he crossed the river – so much so that he could barely carry his burden. It was then that the child revealed to him that he was indeed Christ who created the world and that Christόferos was carrying Him and the weight of the created world on his shoulders.   That is how the reprobate came to be called Christopher – the Christ bearer.

Christopher’s story then follows the usual pattern – being brought before the Roman court for refusing to sacrifice to pagan gods. Unimpressed by the promise of two prostitutes if he renounced Christ (the bribes vary in these stories but one or two prostitutes always seem to be on the list) he was beheaded. 

In Greek churches he is usually depicted as a large man with a staff bearing a child across the water.

Rivers are rarely empty in Orthodox icons!

There are varying details attached to his legend. Stories from just about anywhere get attached to popular saints as time passes (see the Saint George entry in the ABC section). Local heroes or local saints melt into one figure thus accommodating local variations. Christopher’s story had merged early on with a similar story of the popular Egyptian Saint Menas. 

 Because of his role as ferryman his most popular role today is as patron saint of travelers and the Saint Christopher medallion is one of the world’s most popular talismans.

It would be a rare car in Greece that didn’t have a medallion like this tucked away in the  glove compartment or hanging from the rear view mirror- probably along with more pagan  blue  beads. You can’t be too careful…

Christopher is also the patron saint of soldiers, bookbinders, fruit sellers and, a modern touch - surfers. At least surfers and soldiers can come under the category of travelers, but book binders and fruit sellers?  Possibly in the medieval period he was a favourite of a guild with a church dedicated to him nearby? He is also the saint to call on if a toothache strikes.  This last one had me stumped for a bit, not the fact that he that he specialized – most saints have a specialty - but why teeth? At this point I admit I thought of Little Red Riding hood and the wolf’s toothy grin. Too big a stretch? Well, thinking mythopoeically can lead to excess but, in so many ways, Christopher’s legend just invites you into that world. 

So Mythopoeic!

Christopher as bearer of the world has echoes of the Atlas story, not to mention the story of Jason of Argo fame bearing an old woman of great weight across a river who turned out to be Hera. These faint echoes have never been taken advantage of in the Christian legend but they do point to the fact that popular patterns from earlier religions have a habit of recurring in Christianity.  There is a more definite echo of both the Egyptian god Osiris  and the  Greek Hero Heracles (Hercules) in the rod carried by Christopher in the first and second icon. It is green and blooming. 

Compare it to the palm branch carried by Osiris in ceremonies. (1)

It symbolized eternal life to Egyptians and would do so later to Christians.

This flowering staff also resonates with the flowering club carried by ancient Greece’s own heavyweight reprobate Hercules in images reminding the viewer of his original role as a seasonal weather god and bringer of new crops. (2)

Pausanias repeats the story of Hercules planting his club in the ground and it turning into an olive tree.

  All of these symbols, out there in the contemporary cultural Zeitgeist, segue rather nicely into the Christopher legend giving his figure depth and suggesting both prowess and the idea of renewal (cyclical in the case of Hercules, eternal in the case of Christopher).

Christopher’s Dog Head

He is not always depicted this way, but this image of him has stubbornly persisted throughout history and is very much a part of his story.

In his canine mode, he is doesn’t really need a written name to identify him in a row of saints in the nave of an Orthodox church, but rules are rules!


Christopher duly labelled

It’s interesting that, whether full figure or bust, the dog-headed Christopher is shown in profile, not full or three quarter face. Iconically speaking, profiles were for devils or dragons so there must have been some deep feeling all along that a dog face was not quite, well… kosher.

This points to an inherent ambivalence in the dog head image itself.
And that leads, as my travels to churches in Greece so often do, to a small digression, - this time into the world of cynocephάlia and its persistent appeal. (3)

Cynocephalia: A Short Survey 

In Egypt theriomorphic gods were the norm and the image of Anubis, the jackal-headed protector of the dead, is ubiquitous; he is the most famous cynocephalic god of all.


He ushered people into the afterlife so he was a liminal figure, a guardian but also feared. (In the more rationalized Greek myths, the guardian of the gate became a dog – Cerberus – and a three-headed one at that.)  With Anubis in mind, new Christians in the Egyptian world would have felt comfortable with a dog-headed saint like Christopher from the get go.
In time, the dog headed Anubis became associated both with Osiris and the Greek god Hermes, another protector of travelers and guide to the Underworld who developed a dog’s head in Hellenistic and Roman  times.

A Roman statue of Hermanubis (their word) in the Vatican 

How the Dog’s Head Went to Greece and then to Church

Many ancient writers, Herodotus and Pliny for example, wrote about tribes of dog- headed people (always somewhere just beyond contemporary verifiable boundaries, of course). It was a popular subject in ancient Greece, kind of like Susquatch or the Abominable Snowman today, and these tales would have remained popular in early Christian times as well where  the ambivalence of the dog image as fierce predator/ benign protector would fit surprisingly well into Christian ideology. Remember the early stories of Andrew’s missionary mission to the land of the bestial Myrmidons? (See the blog entry on Agios Andreas in Patras)

 Having missionaries like Andrew going to spread the gospel among these already legendary bestial or semi-bestial tribes  showed the incredible power of the Christian missionaries to tame the bestial nature of man. Not surprisingly, the reward for these half-beasts becoming Christians was a ‘return’ to human form!
Did They Ever Exist?
Well, According to Marco Polo in his thirteenth century Travels, there was a tribe of fierce dog-headed barbarians on an island in the Bay of Bengal. He compared them to Mastiffs

because their custom was to cut their cheeks on either side of their mouths towards their ears in order to expose their teeth and make their grimace truly terrifying to their enemies in battle. 
It is true that depictions of Saint Christopher were even more popular after Marco Polo’s Travels was published so the tale many have generated even more popular interest in the dog head part of Christopher’s  legend.
To more rational minded Christians the dog’s head story could be incorporated into his life by having Saint Christopher travel to their faraway lands and convert them to Christianity a la Saint Andrew. That would make his canine head more symbolic than real - a kind of honorific symbolizing that success…

Hmm… Still not totally convincing for a saint’s portrait:  why not Christopher in human form preaching to dog heads?  I suspect that the story was just so darn popular and entrenched that no one questioned it. 

The Etymological Argument

Some spoilsports suggest that the whole doggy tale is merely a result of confusing the Latin word for canine (caninus- dog) with the Latin word for Canaanite (Cananus – the place) but even that prosaic explanation would not account for the popularity of the image, so I prefer the more complex possibilities. 

The Orthodox Icon 

Greek iconographers, more used to local hunting dogs, seem to have either got the species wrong or were thinking of Anubis - and their hunting dogs!  
Orthodox depictions of Saint Christopher as dog face make him look rather like Snoopy.   

Some thoughtful icon painter may have briefly considered the point (assuming he was aware of Marco Polo’s story), but such is the conservatism of Greek Orthodox icons and the books which came to prescribe how they must be portrayed that once a hound, always a hound. (4)


There is a stock market of sorts for saints. Some eras value them more highly than others. The Catholic Church demoted Saint Christopher in 1970. He was late to appear in their calendar of saints in any case, was not considered ‘Roman’ enough and his feast day was dropped.  That embarrassing to some dog’s head might have been part of the reason too. This demotion has not affected sales of Saint Christopher medals at all. They have entered the arena of effective lucky charms along with evil eyes and blue beads.

  In Orthodoxy Christopher is still a popular saint. Many, Greek children are still named after him. Agrinion in western mainland Greece has him as their patron saint. His feast day is May 9th and there is a special prayer:

Thou who wast terrifying both in strength and in countenance, for thy Creator's sake thou didst surrender thyself willingly to them that sought thee; for thou didst persuade both them and the women that sought to arouse in thee the fire of lust, and they followed thee in the path of martyrdom. And in torments thou didst prove to be courageous. Wherefore, we have gained thee as our great protector, O great Christopher.

Today the Orthodox Church discourages his iconic presentation with a dog’s head while not quite banishing it. The first line of the above prayer still suggests a canine possibility!

A hint: If searching for the dog head icon in churches in Greece, try late Byzantine or post Byzantine churches!


(1)   Classics 101 alumni may remember that bit in Apuleius’ The Golden Ass when the priest dons a dog’s head and carries a palm branch. This ritual mimicking Osiris was familiar and had spread all over the Graeco-Roman world.

(2) Those little knobs on Hercules’ club are, in fact buds. Just as an aside, there is a tree which grows in the American south named after his club.

The Hercules tree

(3) Books abound about cynocefalia  (I prefer kynokefalia since it is a Greek word after all) and not just old tomes either. I mean on Try Myths of the Dog Man by David Gordon White (University of Chicago Press, 1991) or The Monstrous Races in Medieval Art and Thought (Harvard University press, 1981) by John Block Friedman for a more general look.

(4) Romanian artists have been a bit more cutting edge in their religious depictions. Here is a version from Moldavia.

The head is more like that of a wolf.  And that opens up other avenues of thought (see footnote 5)
(5)Try  an interesting article on dog headed people. Another Christian saint Mercurius’ grandfather was killed by one of the dog headed race whom he later converted to Christianity and those of his tribe who converted were given a human form.
 Werewolf stories are apparently kissing cousins of our story - men turning to wolves and back again   - remember those werewolves on Mount Lycaion in ancient Greece?





  1. That make up return made my smirks teary since my amateur premonition the archetype singing, detrimental absolutely consequently it is too well written for the 6 grader, on the alternative fist similarly--assist flavorless strenuous importantly--so in the raining nexus everywhere a preteen plus an juvenile appropriate resonant considers. τελευταίες τελευταίες ειδήσεις σήμερα

  2. Found this blog by chance. I am reminded of the French St Guinefort, venerated locally in France from the thirteenth to the mid-twentieth centuries as a protector of children. He was a dog, specifically a greyhound.