Before the Age of Discovery, the borders of the western world were teeming with far-off mysteries and legends. Some ancient and classical cartographers and explorers were remarkably correct in their assertions and measurements. Others, however, had more fanciful tales to tell about far-flung lands. Some of these tales included descriptions of a mysterious race of men with the bodies of humans but the heads of dogs. These peoples were referred to as Cynocephaloi.
The word Cynocephaloi, which is Greek, can be placed beside other mythical races that supposedly inhabited the lands beyond the Mediterranean, like the Sternophthalmoi (men with no heads, who had their faces on their chests) or Monommatoi (a race of men with a single eye). One of the most fanciful depictions of Cynocephaloi comes from the Ancient Greek author and physician Ctesias, in his lost work Indica. As the name implies, Indica was a description of the mystical land of India, which during the 5th century B.C. could only be reached through travel across the Persian Empire. Although Ctesias almost certainly didn’t visit India, his work purportedly described the land at length, complete with mystical races that included the Cynocephaloi. Although the descriptions were most likely viewed with suspicions, the book clearly influenced enough authors to be regularly cited in the works of authors that survived to today.
In addition to being seen in India, the Cynocephaloi merged in and out of popular myth elsewhere. Megasthenes, Ancient Greek diplomat of the Seleucids, claimed that the Cynocephaloi in India communicated while barking, while Herodotus claimed that the Cynocephaloi were recognized by the inhabitants of Libya. Even St. Augustine of Hippo mused about the status of the Cynocephaloi, and whether they and the other fantastical races were humans like us:
Others are said to have no head, and their eyes in their shoulders; and other human or quasi-human races are depicted in mosaic in the harbor esplanade of Carthage, on the faith of histories of rarities. What shall I say of the Cynocephali, whose dog-like head and barking proclaim them beasts rather than men? But we are not bound to believe all we hear of these monstrosities. But whoever is anywhere born a man, that is, a rational, mortal animal, no matter what unusual appearance he presents in color, movement, sound, nor how peculiar he is in some power, part, or quality of his nature, no Christian can doubt that he springs from that one protoplast [lineage from Adam or Noah].
Beowulf and Chinese records indicate contacts with Cynocephaloi, and Marco Polo and Ibn Battuta both mention the mythical race. Even St. Christopher was once revered as a man with the head of a dog. While this widespread, international belief in the dog-headed may not have been grounded in hard fact, their mythological existence proves the human need to believe in the fantastical. As St. Augustine said on the matter:
We can distinguish the common human nature from that which is peculiar, and therefore wonderful.