Part 1 | Understanding The Dog-Headed Icon of St. Christopher

Happy Christian Nihilist
11 min readMay 2, 2023

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This Orthodox icon of St. Christopher presents him as a warrior cynocephalus, a dog-headed man from Lycea. Sometimes he is also of gigantic size as well. According to his tradition, he was a Roman soldier taken from the far end of the world who converted and was martyred by an Emperor.

The icon of St. Christopher is one of the most astounding images found in the Orthodox tradition. Showing a dog-headed warrior saint, it conjures fantastical stories of werewolves or of monstrous races from Pliny’s edge of the world. Because of all the difficulties it presents, the icon was proscribed in the 18th century by Moscow.

In the Roman Catholic Church, the feast of St. Christopher was suppressed entirely with Vatican II modernization, though he continues to be one of the most popular saints in Catholicism — his image adorns the dashboards of cars all over the world. I believe understanding St. Christopher and his iconography is of prime importance today, and hopefully it will become clear why as we travel through the Bible, tradition, and iconography to see if we can decipher this saint who is such an affront to modern sensibilities.

Western images of St. Christopher present him as a giant Canaanite whose main story has him helping people cross a river by carrying them on his back. One day he takes across a young child who becomes heavier and heavier as Christopher advances in the water, so much so that he is afraid he will drown. Upon asking the child why this is so, Christopher discovers the child to be Christ, hence his name: Christopher, the “Christ-carrier.” 1

Scholarly studies on the origin of St. Christopher are available.2 But in reading these, one must endure the usual ho-hum conclusions that Christian tradition develops basically as a series of misunderstandings, confusions, and fantastical exaggerations. Modern scholars seem to believe that coherent meaning and analogy cannot exist without a kind of mechanical cause-and-effect historical development. When they see the overlays occurring in tradition between the terms Caïnite (son of Cain), Canaanite or cananeus (a giant of Canaan), and Caninite or canineus (a dog-man), these scholars immediately enlighten us on the mistaken transcriptions of those cave-dwelling Cro-Magnons of the Middle Ages. Yet, these same scholars remain blind to how profound and intuitive some of these relations can be.

Iconography of Monsters

The use of dog-headed men in iconography is not limited to the icon of St. Christopher. They also appear most commonly in images of Pentecost, prominently in Armenian manuscripts, but also in Western images.

Manuscript illumination of Pentecost with a dog-headed man

The dog-headed men are seen as the most faraway race present at Pentecost. Because they are the most faraway, in some Armenian images they appear in the center of the door or else they appear alone, representing a distilled image of the ultimate foreigner. There are some other images, such as a well-known one in which dog-headed men are represented as the barbarian enemies who threaten Christ. Sometimes they are seen as one of the races encountered in the mission of the Apostles.

Finally, dog-headed men appear in the story of St. Mercurios,3 a warrior saint whose father was eaten by two dog-headed men that were later converted by St. Mercurios. These dog-headed men’s savage nature could be unleashed by St. Mercurios on the enemies of the Roman empire in a way analogous to how Romans, and later Christians, used barbarians in their own wars. The most obvious examples of this are how the recently converted Germanic barbarians stopped the advance of Islam into Europe or how the recently converted Scandinavian Prince of Kiev provided the Emperor in Constantinople with a personal Varangian guard.

Christ surrounded by Cynocephalic warriors. Kievian Psalter. 15th century

Finally, dog-headed men appear in the story of St. Mercurios, a warrior saint who’s father was eaten by two dog-headed men later converted by St. Mercurios. These dog-headed men’s savage nature could be unleashed by St. Mercurios on the enemies of the Roman empire in a way analogous to how Romans and later Christians used Barbarians in their own wars. The most obvious examples of this is how the recently converted Germanic Barbarians stopped the advance of Islam into Europe or how the recently converted Scandinavian prince of Kiev provided the Emperor in Constantinople with a personal Varingian guard.

The tradition of St. Mercurios is alive and well in Ethiopia. Contemporary images of St. Mercurios and his two companions on the outside of a church.

These iconographic examples show the dog-headed men as representing barbarian foreigners par excellence, those living on the edge of the world, the edge of humanity itself. They are cannibal, savage, hybrid creatures who later will be conceived as descendants of Cain fallen to a monstrous state. The giant Canaanite of Catholic imagery⎯which has now often integrated Orthodox iconography⎯signifes the same reality as the dogheaded men, albeit in less visually shocking form, having lost his monstrous face. The giants in the Bible and in Christian tradition are often also interpreted as descendants of Cain and monstrous cannibal barbarians, who by their excessive bodies represent the extreme of corporality itself.

The relationship of the foreign and marginal to excessive corporality, animality, and disordered passions like cannibalism must be seen within a general traditional understanding of the periphery. In a traditional view of the world, there is an analogy between personal and social periphery, both pictured in patristic terms as the garments of skin, those garments given to Adam and Eve which embody corporal existence. What appears at the edge of Man is analogous to what appears at the edge of the world, both in spatial and temporal terms, so the barbarians, dog-headed men, or other monsters on the spatial boundaries of civilization and the temporal end of civilization are akin to the death and animality which is the corporal spatial limit of an individual and the fnal temporal end of earthly life. The monsters, as part of the garments of skin, dwell on the edge of the world, and though they are dangerous, like Cerberus at the door of Hades, they also act as a kind of buffer between Man and the outer darkness. Just as our corporal bodies and its cycles are the source of our passions, they are also our “mortal shell” protecting us from death. It will therefore be through a more profound vision of the garments of skin across different ontological levels of fallen Creation that we can make sense of St. Christopher.4

St. Christopher in the Bible

The relation of the dog to the periphery appears in several places in the Bible. Dogs are, of course, impure animals. They are seen licking the sores on Job’s skin.5 They are excluded from the New Jerusalem.6 They eat the body of the foreign queen Jezebel after she is thrown off the wall of the city.7 The giant Goliath himself uses the St. Christopher dog/giant/foreigner analogy when he asks David: “Am I a dog that you come at me with sticks?”8 The dog is used by Christ as a substitution for a foreigner when he tells the Samaritan that one should not give to dogs what is meant for the children.9 The answer of the woman is also telling as she speaks of crumbs falling off the edge of the table, clearly marking the dog as the foreigner who is on the edge. These examples alone might be enough to explain St. Christopher symbolically, but there is still more.

The key to fnding St. Christopher more profoundly in the Bible is the story of his crossing the river. In Scripture, there are several signifcant stories of water crossings, and through these appear the essential elements of the St. Christopher story as it relates to periphery and the garments of skin. As we search, we must remember the movement of the garments of skins being both death and a cure for death, both the cause of and the solution to the world of the fall. This means that the symbols will all be there in the different stories, but they can sometimes slip from one side to the other. The frst example comes in the food story, where Noah builds an ark, a shell full of animals to escape the world of fallen giants.10 Then in the crossing of the Red Sea, the Israelites mix with a host of foreign nations to escape the foreign Egyptians.11 This last one might not seem as clear, but it becomes so upon the next “crossing.” When the mix of Israelites and foreigners coming from Egypt fnally do cross the Jordan to enter the land of the Canaan where the giants live, there are only two people left of the adults in the original group. Of all those who fed Egypt, the only adults from the original group who cross the Jordan as the Ark of the Covenant separates the waters are the two spies Joshua and Caleb.12 Joshua, which means “savior,” is of course a form of the name Jesus, and he would become the leader of Israel as they entered Canaan. As for the other fellow, one of the meanings of the name Caleb is “dog.” This meaning is emphasized in the text because Caleb is a foreigner, a Kenizzite who is said to have been given the periphery, “the outskirts” of the land taken by Israel.13 And so here we have two people entering the promised land, crossing the Jordan: Jesus and the Dog, Christ and the Foreigner, the “head” and the “body.” The term Kenizzite, is one of those terms that will annoy modern scholars when I mention that it also has the “K-N” sound of Cain, Canaan, and Canine⎯just a coincidence worth mentioning.

The next examples of water crossing that will bring all of our discussion back on itself are the Jordan crossings of Elijah and Elisha.14 These happen in the same place that their ancestors crossed, near Jericho, the frst city taken by Joshua. Elijah uses his garment, which is a “hairy garment,”15 a garment of skin, to separate the waters and then leave this world bodily (just as Enoch did before the food, and Moses did before the entry into Canaan). Then Elisha, having received Elijah’s garments with a double portion of his power, uses the garments of skin to return to the Jericho side of the river. This story is, of course, symbolically linked to the food and the Ark, as well as to the crossing of Joshua and Caleb with the Ark of the Covenant, and so when we put all of these together, we have giants, garments of skin, arks, dogs, foreigners, and “the savior” who wields all these things in order cross the chaotic waters. What we have before us is an image of baptism, but in a deeper way, the image of St. Christopher with Christ on his back crossing the river is also an image of the Church itself.

Elijah ascends as Elisha grabs on to his garments of skin.
Icon from Novgorod.

The relationship between the crossing of waters and baptism is brought out in several stories of the New Testament, but regarding St. Christopher and the relation of the Church to the foreigner, we must look at the story of the Ethiopian eunuch.16 Of all the conversions in the early Church, St. Luke chose this story for a reason. The full meaning can only be understood if we know what an Ethiopian and a eunuch meant in the ancient world. Eunuchs played a role very similar to what we have been describing all along. Just like dogs, they were excluded from the temple. By castrating themselves they became strange hybrid creatures, neither male nor female. They were outcast, sterile, and without descent. This is, of course, bolstered by the fact that eunuchs were often slaves. But because they had no place in society, no posterity to preserve, they often became the “guards” of royalty or emperors. Even until Justinian, it was not rare to fnd a “buffer” of eunuchs around the Emperor protecting his person and his affairs. Foreigners could also play this role, as with the Varangians I mentioned earlier. This, of course, is the role of our Ethiopian eunuch, as he is said to be responsible for the treasure of the Queen of Ethiopia. Ethiopia in the ancient world was the home of the faraway races, monstrous races even, and was the original land of the Sphinx. The detail that the Ethiopian was of the court of Candace, Queen of the Ethiopians, is meant to evoke for us the Queen of Sheba who came to pose her riddles to Solomon. And so, our Ethiopian eunuch represents all that which the garments of skin represent. And just in case some doubts linger, an interesting detail in the story may convince. It is said that after Philip baptizes the Ethiopian, “The spirit of the Lord caught away Philip, that the Eunuch saw him no more.” This is, of course, the same phrase as in the story of Elijah and Elisha ⎯ after Elijah ascended, Elisha “saw him no more.” The use of the same phrase is there to remind us of the connection, of how the story of the Eunuch and his baptism is related to all the “water crossing” stories I have mentioned, many of which have someone ascending as part of them, all of which have as a “vehicle” for the crossing some aspect of periphery, some image of the garments of skin. This ascending and leaving behind a “body” is also related to the Ascension of Christ leaving behind him the Church.

Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch from the Menologion of St. Basil

There are many other stories, taken even from other cultures, where this structure appears. From Odysseus’ encounter with the Cyclops and the giant Little John fghting Robin Hood on a river to the Three Billy-Goats Gruff, examples abound showing how deep and noetic the story is in human experience. The most recent clear example of this structure is the very successful book Life of Pi. As is usual in contemporary storytelling which wants to push things further, here the movement of the garments of skin is brought to its extreme. In order to assure his “crossing,” the main character must rely on cannibalism, imaged as a tiger in the bottom of his boat. Cannibalism is, of course, one of the most common attributes given of the monstrous foreign races and is a very strong image of death.

Hopefully our trip will have proven how rather than simply being a series of accidents and exaggerations, the basic story and iconography of St. Christopher are perfectly coherent with Biblical narrative and tradition. Whether the dog-headed warrior or the river-crossing giant, both strains of iconography point to the deep meaning of fesh being a carrier of Christ, being christophoros, and of the foreigner being the vehicle for the advancing of the Church to the ends of the earth. Indeed, the story of St. Christopher is in fact an image of the Church itself, of the relationship of Christ to his Body, our own heart to our senses, our own logos to its shell.

Despite all of this, in the end, the big objection is still lingering: Yes, these stories are all well and good, but in our savvy scientifc age, no one believes in dog-headed men and races of giants anymore. St. Christopher remains an embarrassing trace of mistaken belief held in the past and should, for that reason alone, be sidelined.

1 The most complete version of this story is in the Golden Legend: http://www.catholic-forum.com/saints/golden234.htm

2 David Woods, the Origin of the Cult of St. Christopher, 1999

3 For an account of the legend, see Myths of the Dog-Man by David Gordon White, p.37–38, The University of Chicago Press, 1991.

4 For a general treatment of the Garments of Skin in St. Gregory of Nyssa and other Church Fathers, see my article on the subject : http://pageaucarvings.com/2/post/2012/9/the-garments-ofskin.html

5 Job 30:1

6 Rev. 22:15

7 2 Kings 9: 33–37

8 1 Sam. 17:43

9 Mat. 15:26

10 Gen. 6–7

11 Ex. 14. The Egyptians are seen very explicitly as symbols of the garments of skin by St. Gregory of Nyssa, relating them to the general notion of the foreigner and foreskin. See for example Life of Moses, book II, section 38–39.

12 Num. 14: 29–30

13 Joshua 21: 11–13

14 2 Kings 2

15 2 Kings 1:8

16 Acts 8: 26–40

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Happy Christian Nihilist

Poetry. Prose. All the hits so far. Don’t expect too much. Musings on theology. Thoughts on life, death, and the dash betwixt and between.