In the Eastern Orthodox division of Christianity, which is the primary creator and user of Christian religious icons, there is a very strong emphasis on tradition. But tradition can at times be perilous, and it certainly does not guarantee freedom from error.
Eastern Orthodoxy has never been particularly careful about what it chose to accept as tradition, and this is quite obvious in the stories of the saints, which most believers — until very recently — took to be absolutely true, but which are filled with fictions and fantasy.
Some saints in the Orthodox calendar never existed, or else their existence has been so distorted and fantasized that they are no longer recognizable.
One of quite a number of such errors is seen here: the painting and veneration of icons of a saint called Christopher “Dog-head,” Christopher Kynokephalos.
Yes, the people who painted these icons — which were even included in the painters’ manuals — really did believe that there was a saint who had the head of a dog. But to put that in perspective, keep in mind that icons used to have inscriptions dating the time of their painting from the creation of the world, which the icon painters (and the rest of the Church) believed took place only some 7,000 years ago. That tradition, held for about as long as Eastern Orthodoxy has had a formal dogmatic proclamation authorizing the veneration and making of icons and cursing those who refuse to accept them, has now been quietly retired, except among very conservative Eastern Orthodox, including no doubt many Old Believers.
And though icons of St. Christopher “Dog-head” were painted and venerated in both the Russian and Greek branches of the church, and of course instructions were found in painters’ manuals, one does not generally see new icons of this saint being painted today, or even old ones being venerated in the churches. This saint — in this form — has also been quietly retired, because some traditions do come back to bite you.
There were stories of dog-headed men in early pre-Christian Greek writings, so it is not surprising that when people read that there was a saint from the land of dog-headed men whose name was Christopher (Khristophoros = “Bearer of Christ”), they assumed that he was one of an odd race at the edge of the world, and that he — a soldier — had been converted to Christianity. The “dog-headed men” in these old stories — at least when referring to Africa — may have actually been baboons, which the Greeks later called “Dog-headed Ones” (kynokephaloi).
In Herodotus, Histories 4. 191. 3 (circa 5th century B.C.) we find :
“For the eastern part of Libya, which is inhabited by nomads, is low-lying and sandy as far as the Triton river; but the land west of this, where the farmers live, is very mountainous and wooded and filled with wild animals. In that country are huge snakes and lions, and elephants and bears and asps, horned asses, and the Dog-headed and the Headless men who have their eyes in their chests, as the Libyans say, and the wild men and women…. “
Other early accounts place dog-headed men in India as well.
Christians accepted the existence of dog-headed men as part of the supposed “knowledge” of the time.
On Cyprus at a much later date, another tradition developed, saying that Christopher was not born with a dog’s head. Instead, he was such a strikingly handsome youth that women were always after him. Wanting to avoid temptation, Christopher prayed to God, who in answer to the prayer changed his head to that of a dog.
There is a very good summary of the origins — speculative, inevitably, but well done — of the cult of St. Christopher at this site:
As is common, this summary states that there is no connection between Christopher and Greco-Roman depictions of the Egyptian jackal-headed god Anubis. Perhaps. But the resemblance to icons of Christopher is nonetheless remarkable, and there are many blank spots in his history.
The earliest surviving Eastern Orthodox example of an icon of Christopher dog-head seems to be this Latin-inscribed ceramic image from Macedonia, depicting him with St. George, dating from the 6th-7th century c.e.:
In the “modernizing” reign of Peter the Great, the “Holy Synod” censored the painting of icons of Christopher Dog-head in Russia in 1722, but as with the earlier Stoglav proclamation against painting icons of God the Father (Gospod’ Savaof), it was often ignored in everyday practice, particularly by the Old Believers who did not accept rulings of the State Church, and by those painting icons for the Old Believers. People saw no need to stop doing what had long been done, because in Orthodoxy tradition is very important. In Russian icons, Christopher’s head sometimes tends to look more like that of a horse than the more dog-like depictions favored in Greek icons.
Here is a lubok (print on paper) version of Christopher, with a troparion and kontakion added at the base:
Here is an Old Believer icon of Christopher “with the life,” that is, showing significant incidents from the hagiographic tale of this saint:
Was there ever a real “Christopher,” under any name, with or without a dog’s head? It hardly matters, because the story is so distorted by time and imagination that any real person who may have been behind it has been submerged in hagiography to the point of oblivion. It is often the case that there is little or no difference between Eastern Orthodox traditions and folk tales.
An old Russian painters’ manual describes how he is to be painted:
And the Holy Martyr Christopher: A dog’s head, in armor, in the hand a cross and in the other a sword in sheath; outer robe cinnabar with white, under green; elsewhere is written: Christopher: young man like Demetrius of Thessalonika, robe carmine, under green, in the hand a scroll:
“Lord Almighty, where my memory is honored and you are praised, save them from sin and do not judge them.”
In the following example, a so-called “prayer” icon — Christopher “Dog-head” is seen in Roman armor, with the martyr Sophia and her three daughters Faith, Hope, and Love (Vera, Nadezha, Liubov)
Each holds a cross of martyrdom. The two border saints are Ekaterina (Catherine) and Marfa (Martha). Christ blesses from the clouds above.
Icons depicting the dog-headed St. Christopher together with Sophia and her daughters are surprisingly frequent. The reason for this is said to be that to the Old Believers, these saints signified persistence and perseverance in the face of persecution and torment, and Christopher also was believed to protect against sudden death. So it was common for an icon combining these saints to be found as a family patronal icon among Old Believers. The forbidding of the dog-headed Christopher by the “Holy Synod” in 1722 only confirmed the Old Believers in their notion that the persecuting State Church was on the side of the Antichrist, and so they clung to icons of Christopher “Dog-head” even more firmly, and continued to paint and venerate them even as they faded away in State Church iconography.
Here is another example with the same pairing of Christopher with Sophia and her daughters:
As one might expect, most modern depictions of Christopher in State Church Eastern Orthodoxy depict him as a normal-looking human, dressed as a Roman soldier.
One Russian blog (in Russian) gives an interesting modern reader’s story about Christopher “Dog-head.” *A customer went into the big “Sofrino” store that is operated by the Russian Orthodox Church under the Patriarchate of Moscow. Sofrino sells all kinds of Russian Orthodox Church supplies, including icons. The man requested an icon of St. Christopher painted in the old style, with a dog’s head. The clerk replied that the image was uncanonical, forbidden by the Holy Synod in the 18th century. The customer countered by saying that the Council of 1971 (under the Moscow Patriarchate) abolished all restrictions on the Old Ritualist (Old Believer) canons and icons, and lifted the anathema on the Old Belief. He added that the old-style images of Christopher were still to be found in many local Orthodox Churches.
The clerk was having none of it. He replied that it was not their business — that the factory was forbidden to make them, and that what the customer wanted was blasphemy. He added that the store only sold the “true” image of Christopher. Interestingly enough, he showed the customer an example of a “true” image on his computer: it depicts Christopher carrying Jesus on his shoulders, which type, amusingly, is just as mythical as the dog-headed version. Here is a modern rendering of that type (the tale behind it is found in the Golden Legend of Jacobus de Voragine):
According to this relatively late but colorful legend, Christopher was some 18 feet in height, and took as his Christian task the bearing of people across a dangerous river. As the tale goes, one day he was in his hut when he heard a child calling him. Here again is the old “third time is the charm” motif in that portion of the tale as given in the Golden Legend:
The third time he was called and came thither, and found a child beside the rivage of the river, which prayed him goodly to bear him over the water. And then Christopher lifted up the child on his shoulders, and took his staff, and entered into the river for to pass. And the water of the river arose and swelled more and more: and the child was heavy as lead, and alway as he went farther the water increased and grew more, and the child more and more waxed heavy, insomuch that Christopher had great anguish and was afeard to be drowned. And when he was escaped with great pain, and passed the water, and set the child aground, he said to the child: Child, thou hast put me in great peril; thou weighest almost as I had all the world upon me, I might bear no greater burden. And the child answered: Christopher, marvel thee nothing, for thou hast not only borne all the world upon thee, but thou hast borne him that created and made all the world, upon thy shoulders. I am Jesus Christ the king, to whom thou servest in this work. And because that thou know that I say to be the truth, set thy staff in the earth by thy house, and thou shalt see to-morn that it shall bear flowers and fruit, and anon he vanished from his eyes. And then Christopher set his staff in the earth, and when he arose on the morn, he found his staff like a palmier bearing flowers, leaves and dates.
This motif of Christopher carrying the Christ Child who becomes heavier is Arne-Thompson Folk Motif #768.
There is an interesting “halfway” image of this type, in which Christopher still has the head of a dog, in the Nașterea Domnului Church at Sărata, Romania:
Now interestingly, this motif of a man carrying someone who grows heavier and heavier across a river is found in the much earlier ancient Greek episode of Jason and the goddess Hera. In it, Jason is traveling homeward. On the way he comes to the River Anauros, where he finds an old woman wanting to cross, but no one will carry her. Jason takes her on his back, and steps into the water. But as he crosses, the old woman (who is Hera in disguise) becomes very heavy, and Jason loses a sandal in the river (a key plot point of the story that results in his search for the Golden Fleece).
Christopher was considered the patron saint of travelers. Those of you who are old enough to remember the 1960s may recall the fad among the “surfer” crowd and others for wearing the little round colorful silver and enamel St. Christopher medals. These are now collector’s items. St. Christopher was removed from the Roman Catholic calendar of saints in 1969, but he is still found as “Great Martyr Christopher” in the Eastern Orthodox Church Calendar, on May 9th.
*(those who read Russian will find the account at: http://trinixy.ru/122467-muchenik-hristofor-samyy-neobychnyy-svyatoy-v-hristianstve-21-foto.html)