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St Guinefort and St Christopher Cynephoros or Cynocephalus

Anthony Weir

detail of Ikon painted by Artëm Kotyenko, 2000

The legend of Saint Guinefort concerns a greyhound said to have lived in mid-13th century France. Dogs in feudal (as in Celtic) times were often highly-prized - especially hunting-dogs. They were also a source of warmth on the baronial bed during cold nights in unheated, cavernous and draughty stone castles.

Guinefort, a trusted family member, was, as often happened, left to guard an anonymous (but certainly seigneurial and almost certainly male) infant. When the father returned he saw blood covering the room and surrounding the infant's crib. Guinefort sat next to the crib, with blood around his mouth. Immediately the man took his bow and shot the dog in the heart. As the infant cried out, he realized his tragic error, and, on approaching the crib, he saw that his child was unharmed. Below the crib was the body of a dead snake (Satan ?) who had been creeping up on the infant. Guinefort had saved the child's life - and possibly his eternal life. In his grief, the father committed the dog's body to a well and (in the ancient Celtic tradition) planted a grove of trees around it to honour the brave greyhound. Local peasants and villagers, when they learned the story, began making pilgrimages to the grove to pray to the canine martyr.

This is the international folktale (motif B524.1.4.1.) known as The Faithful Hound. The primary textual traditions of this particular variant - The Dog-Saint - come from De Adoratione Guinefortis Canis (Concerning the worship of the dog Guinefort). It somehow came to be attached to a local Burgundian saint associated with the healing of children, who thereby was transmogrified into a greyhound.

"This recently happened in the diocese of Lyons where, when I preached against the reading of oracles, and was hearing confession, numerous women confessed that they had taken their children to Saint Guinefort. As I thought that this was some holy person, I continued with my enquiry and finally learned that this was actually a greyhound, which had been killed in the following manner...[T]he peasants, hearing of the dog's conduct and of how it had been killed, although innocent, and for a deed for which it might have expected praise, visited the place, honoured the dog as a martyr, prayed to it when they were sick or in need of something..."

Étienne de Bourbon, an inquisitor reporting from Dombes, north of Lyon (a small area now straddling the railway-line in the département of the Ain between Lyon and Bourg-en-Bresse), recorded the above account in his 13th century narrative supporting Guinefort's designation as a heretic. He had the dog "disinterred, and the sacred wood cut down and burnt, along with the remains of the dog." Apparently a dog cannot be an official saint, though he can be an official heretic. Despite the best efforts of the Inquisition to eradicate the cult of Saint Guinefort, people continued to visit the grove up to 1940, praying for the protection of their children. Ruins of a chapel dedicated to St Guinefort survive at Trévron in Brittany (Côtes d'Armor). In 1987, a movie was even made about the dog and his cult (The Sorceress, France 1988). The 14th century Saint Roch from Montpellier is also associated with a dog - who, during the Black Death, stole bread from his master for the saint when he was a plague-victim starving in the forest. The saint's history continues, but the dog drops out of the story.

There is an obvious connection between St Guinefort and St Christopher who is sometimes called Cynephoros in Greek (dog-faced) - though more often Cynocephalos (dog-headed). There are indeed some ikons of him shown with a dog's face. These are highly illicit - although illicitness and impropriety rarely get too much in the way of iconographical expression. So the story of St Guinefort is probably a popular misunderstanding of the cult of Christopher - Christophorus Cynocephalus or Cynephoros being easily corrupted to Guinefort. At the very least, it was strongly influenced by the dog-headedness of Christopher.

The cynocephalic St Christopher story also seems to have been known in England, though Old English traditions of the saint are rather unusual. According to the Old English Passion of St Christopher, he was healf hundisces mancynnes, 'of the race of mankind who are half hound'. The Old English Martyrology elaborates upon this:

...he was thære theode wær men habbath hunda heafod & of thære eorthan on theare æton men hi selfe, 'from the nation where men have the head of a dog and from the country where men devour each other'; furthermore, he hæfde hundes hæfod, & his loccas wæron ofer gemet side, & his eagan scinon swa leohte swa morgensteorra, & his teth wæron swa scearpe swa eofores texas - 'he had the head of a hound, and his locks were extremely long, and his eyes shone as bright as the morning star, and his teeth were as sharp as a boar's tusks'.

Dogs were highly prized in Celtic societies - at least as much as racehorses in ours - and the Celtic legends and mythologies celebrate various dogs called Bran. The name of the Irish hero Cú Chuailláin means Hound of Ulster. A Cú was much more valuable than a Madabh (farm dog). The Welsh dog-hero/saint Gelert, associated with Prince Llywelyn the Great (1173-1240), is, however, a romantic fiction of the late 18th century derived from a 5th century Indian Buddhist work, the Pancha Tantra. The story gained wide currency in Europe in the Middle East. The heraldic Rous Roll of the 15th century, for example, depicted the arms of Wales as a helmet on which stand a dog and a cradle. But it was finally applied specifically by a hotelier to the village of Beddgelert, named after an obscure, early-mediæval, local saint. To reinforce the story further, he erected a megalith, Gelert's Bed. The 'new' story became the subject of a poem by W.R. Spencer which Joseph Haydn set to music. Such is the stuff of nationalist legend - and this is one of the more benign examples...

click here for another bogus saint with an even more amazing legend and origin

In the Physiologus, the early-mediæval source of the late-mediæval Bestiaries, dogs are praised for "having more understanding than any other beast" - and for knowing their name and loving their master. Dogs "are like preachers who by warnings and by righteous living turn aside the ambushes of the Devil...As the dog's tongue heals a wound by licking, so the wounds of sin are cleansed by the instruction of the priest when they are laid bare in confession." There is also praise for dogs within dog-hating Islam.

The Physiologus also features Cynocephaloi or dog-headed humans.
This is a charming 16th century illustration.

Though the myth of dog-headed people largely derives from the depictions of the Egyptian Jackal-god, Anubis, of whom toga-clad statues were made in Roman times, early Greek writers reported dog-headed (shaggy ?) people living in the Himalaya.

Romanesque sculptors inevitably co-opted the motif, as in this fine detail of an archivolt at Vézelay (Yonne).

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image of Cynocephaus Christopher (Museum of Athens)

Ikon of St Christopher Cynocephalus,
from the Byzantine Museum of Athens



Image of dog-headed Christopher from Çegelköy in Turke.y

Ikon from
the Church of St. George,
Çegelköy in ancient Bithynia,Turkey.


Russian Ikon of St Christopher - whereabouts unknown to this author.

Two Russian ikons of St Christopher
(whereabouts unknown to this writer)


I am indebted to my friend Artëm Kotyenko of St Petersburg for bringing St Christopher Doghead to my attention.


The Legend of The Dog-headed
Saint Christopher

David Woods of University College, Cork, has collected the essential texts in this tradition at his St. Christopher website. Here is an excerpt from an Irish Passion of Saint Christopher:

Now this Christopher was one of the Dogheads, a race that had the heads of dogs and ate human flesh. He meditated much on God, but at that time he could speak only the language of the Dogheads. When he saw how much the Christians suffered he was indignant and left the city. He began to adore God and prayed. "Almighty God," he said, "give me the gift of speech, open my mouth, and make plain thy might that those who persecute thy people may be converted". An angel of God came to him and said: "God has heard your prayer."The angel raised Christopher from the ground, and struck and blew upon his mouth, and the grace of eloquence was given him as he had desired.

Thereupon Christopher arose and went into the city, and immediately began to stop the offering of sacrifice. "I am a Christian," he said, "and I will not sacrifice to the gods". There came a certain Baceus to him and struck him. "You may do so", said Christopher, "for I will not strike you in return, but I forgive you, for forgiveness is the new law."

Baceus went to the king, and said: "Hail O King, I have news for you. I have seen a man with a dog's head on him, and long hair, and eyes glittering like the morning star in his head, and his teeth were like the tusks of a wild boar. I struck him for he was cursing the gods; but he did not strike me, and said it was for the sake of God that he refrained. I am telling you this in order to know what is to be done with him, for it seems that it is by the God of the Christians that he has been sent, to help the Christians."

"Bring him to me," said the king. The bystanders said that a large number of men must be sent for him. "Let two hundred soldiers go for him," said the king, "and bring him hither in chains; and if he resist you, bring his head with you that I may see it."

Read the rest of St. Christopher's life and martyrdom.

The Origin of the Cult of St. Christopher
(abridged from a text by David Woods)

St. Christopher was a member of the north African tribe of the Marmaritæ. These inhabited the fringe of the Known World, where, tradition had it, people were cannibals, sciapods, cyclops, hermaphrodite or dog-headed. The latter myth derives from the appearance of baboons, and has nothing to do with the Egyptian cult of Anubis.

Christopher was captured by Roman forces during the emperor Diocletian's campaign against the Marmaritæ in late 301/early 302 CE and was transported for service in a Roman garrison in or near Antioch in Syria. He was baptised by the refugee bishop Peter of Alexandria and was martyred on the 9th of July 308. Bishop Peter arranged for the transport of his remains back to Marmarica in 311. He is really identifiable with the Egyptian martyr known as St. Menas. Insofar as the author of the lost, original acts of St. Christopher seems both to have been based at Antioch and to have wanted to encourage missionary activity, he is probably identifiable as Bishop Theophilus 'The Indian', present at Antioch circa 351-54, or as one of his circle. The fact that St. Christopher was martyred in one place but buried in a far distant region may explain the unusual development of his cult.

As to to the vexed question of Christopher's real name, the name Christopher, the same in Greek and Latin, meant "Christ-Bearer". There is no evidence to support its usage as a first name at this early date. It was still being used as an honorific title only, it would seem. According to the earliest Greek passions, Christopher only took this name at his baptism, before which he had been known as Reprebus. The earliest Latin passion reports a similar tale except that they preserve the name as Rebrebus. Both names look very like corrupt readings of the Latin term Reprobus meaning "wicked". Hence these texts seem to tell the tale of a wicked man, i.e. Reprobus, who became a bearer-of-Christ, i.e. Christopher, and to that extent they read suspiciously like a moralising tale rather than a factual report. It is arguable, therefore, that St. Christopher's real name has been lost. In so far as there exists an inscription commemorating the dedication of a Church of St. Christopher in Bithynia (south of the Black Sea) in 452, it is clear that it must have been lost at a very early date. Indeed, the fact that none of the surviving versions of the acts of St. Christopher preserve his real name suggests that this name had already been lost before the author of the lost, original acts composed his work based on the few surviving facts that tradition had managed to preserve until that time.

In Russia and Finland a different story - emanating from Cyprus - accounts for his cynocephaly: he was so handsome that he attracted the attentions of young girls. When he was baptised, he prayed to God that he would get such a face that nobody would be attracted to him. God responded to his prayers and gave him the face of a dog.



click to enlarge

Seventeenth-century Russian ikon
of SS Stephen and Christopher.


read more on ikons of St Christopher Doghead...>


click here
to see a 20th century 'freak',
Stefan Bibrowski, alias Lionel the Dog-faced Man.

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an edited version of
"Holy Dogs and Asses: Stories Told Through Animal Saints"
by Laura Hobgood-Oster, Ph.D.,Department of Religion and Philosophy
(Brown Working Papers, Southwestern University)

Saint Anthony, the founder of Christian monasticism, thought he was the first monk to live the solitary life until he heard of Paul the Hermit. In the third century CE, Paul left human society for the desert where he lived in a cave for sixty years. Anthony decided to find the Hermit. As the legend goes, a wolf "came to meet him" and proceeded to lead him to Paul's cave. The Hermit refused at first to speak to Anthony, but finally convinced he was genuinely seeking to be a hermit, the two embraced.

Soon, another animal entered the scene. When they started to become hungry, a crow flew down, carrying a loaf formed of two halves. Anthony wondered at this, but Paul told him that God provided him daily with food: this day the quantity was doubled to take care of the guest: the crow knew of Anthony's presence and brought enough food for both of these early Christian saints.

[click to read about another much-venerated desert saint]

During his time in the wilderness, Paul's companions had all been animals. They knew his location, led the wandering Anthony to the Hermit, provided Paul with nourishment and served as his only companions.
Paul died shortly after the encounter with Anthony. When Anthony returned and found him dead, he determined to bury him even though he lacked the means. Animals again came to his service. Two lions appeared, "dug a grave, and, when the saint was buried, went back to the forest." This account is one of the rare appearances of other-than-human animals in the hagiography.

Are these animal epiphanies rare or, rather, rarely noticed ? A careful probing of the stories of the Christian tradition reveals more animals than this religion, often classified (alongwith the other monotheisms) as extremely anthropocentric, would seem likely to incorporate. This paper seeks to recover a lost strand of silenced animal voices in the history of Christianities.

After studying many written texts and examining numerous visual representations, a framework for understanding the inclusion of animals emerges. Animals appear as saints, as sacraments, as revealers of the divine, as bearers of God or as Imitatio Christi ­ imitators of Christ. In these rôles animals act, are acted upon, and enact the will of the divine. Amazingly ,their agency and power, their action as subjects in their own right, is prominent in myriad stories and is central in numerous images.

As the history of Christianity intertwined with that of patriarchal and imperialistic Mediterranean and European powers, the dominant forms of Christianity became increasingly anthropocentric. Animals and their stories ceased to have a significant "voice" in the Christian "choir."

During and after the Scientific Revolution and Enlightenment, Christianity, along with the majority of interlocked European cultural systems, severed ties with the rest of nature. Thus an alienation from any being other than the human, or the human-like divine, set into these dominant forms of Christianity. This intense, dualistic transformation suppressed the holy animals within the religious tradition and its history.
Whereas the presence of animals had been integral to some aspects of various forms of Christianity in their earlier manifestations, the proclamations of such theologians and philosophers as René Descartes struck the final blow to the efficacy and inclusion of animals in the circle of religious dialogue. Humans, ascendant for centuries, began to understand themselves as the only subjects worthy of divine consideration. All other animals were simply tools for human use.

Of course, this hierarchical ranking of humans over animals interlocked by many systems of oppression that travelled with European imperialism to the rest of the world. The binaries that place male over female, the European "race" over all "races" of "colour," and mind over body, just to name a few, connect directly to the ranking of humans over all (other) animals. As long as one of these systems of domination remains, none of them is truly subverted.

Articulating the significant rôle that animals have played throughout the scope of Christian history strengthens the process of ending the interlocked dominations. It also provides one of many perspectives that have the potential to influence the development of a renewed, biocentric 'Christianity'.

Representation and Animals in Christianity

Distinct cultural patterns and symbol systems shape human experiences of and relationship to other living beings in our environments. Patterns are encoded in visual representations (a pig is presented as a strip of bacon), in language (animals are referred to as "it" rather than as "he" or "she") and in daily, pragmatic ritual performances (a homeless animal is often "put to sleep" and treated as a nuisance).

The societies that have formed around , influenced and been influenced by Christianity in its European and North American settings have informed many of these cultural patterns and symbol systems in profound ways. Animals are regarded as subordinate, irrational, soul-less beings whose primary purpose is based on a theory of utilitarianism that places human beings at the top of a hierarchy. Animals exist for human consumption, labour and æsthetic or emotional pleasure alone. Intrinsic value and direct relationship between animals and the sacred is denied.

But has this cultural pattern been static, or has some transformation of understanding occurred ? Did animals once engage humans and God, within 'Christianity', differently? If so, why would it matter or what could it affect ? The thesis that I offer is based on recovering an understanding of the relationship between humans and animals within the history of Christian traditions. Do certain patterns suggest cultural continuities and shared symbols ? Are animals legitimised or denigrated in the sacred history of this multi-faceted religious tradition ? What developments are linked to changes in these representations and experiences of human and animal ? What transformations take place in these relationships and how do these point toward other historical patterns?
In this paper I will address the first two questions in particular and suggest possible directions for continued research and analysis.

Christianities grew out of the various religious traditions found in the Mediterranean world two thousand years ago. Judaism, mystery religions, myriad pagan traditions and the official religion
[was there one ??? A.W.] of the Roman Empire, to name just a few, provided the primary sources for early forms of Christianity. As they develop, Christianities incorporate various aspects of these traditions and their belief systems. From this process a rather ambiguous place is forged fo animals in Christian traditions. Each of these religious traditions included and excluded animals in various ways, thus influencing the foundations for the inclusion and exclusion of animals in Christianities.

But Christianity, in its formalised, official and primarily patriarchal structure does not take other-than-human animals seriously. The major theological works of such figures as Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin and Karl Barth, the central doctrines and creeds of the both the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches as well as the primary themes of the Protestant world focus on human beings and the human relationship with the divine. Humans are of ultimate concern, with little or no regard for other animals. The culmination of the anthropocentric model in constructive theology and philosophy, as well as anthropocentric scriptural exegesis, melded with the philosophy of the Enlightenment to conclude that a fundamental, essential, divinely-ordained difference exists between humans and animals.

[This is in contrast to post-mediæval attitudes to handicapped children. Mediæval thinkers, notably including Martin Luther, were convinced that they were changelings and hence non-human. Thus they could be killed, beaten and tortured without any sanction from society. Gradually, however, the changeling legends (which involved fairies, who were fallen male angels who had by God's mercy escaped Hell, but could not reproduce) came to be seen as preposterous. For a while Roma people (Gypsies) - themselves regarded, and still regarded, with the deepest suspicion - took on the rôle of the child-snatching-and-substituting Fairies. - A.W.]

Yet various sources tell a different story, reveal a different image. The artwork, hagiography, oral traditions (later recorded in written form) and important legends reveal a close connection between humans and the natural world. Stories and images of animals abound. I suggest that these animals are not always or only symbolic or metaphoric but are often subjects, agents in the complete sense. Images and narratives contain multiple encodings and decodings. Oftentimes the animals presented in words and images are sacred, and play an active rôle in the revealing of the holy.

What is the context for animal saints and why, over the course of the last few centuries, have these stories disappeared ? It could be argued that most of the examples presented here are stories of animals with saints, not animals as saints. However, when one attends to the rôles of the actors, particularly the active rôles of the animals in these stories, the rôles are often reversed. Through their agency animals subvert the "power" and "control" of the human saint and elevate the status and piety of the animal saint.

Who is the saint or who are the saints in each story? That is sometimes left to the interpretation of the hearer of the story, seer of the image or witness to the event. The primary sources for these stories are the lives of saints from the 2nd century to the 16th century CE and religious images throughout the Christian areas of Europe during the same period. The religious imagery on which the paper, as well as my other work, focuses is popular art, displayed in churches where masses of common people see and interpret its meaning. A tracing of these stories and images suggests that certain patterns reveal cultural continuities and shared symbols. The four patterns that I address are: animals as exemplars of piety, animals as sources of revelation, animals as saintly martyrs, and animals as the primary intimate other in relationship.

Animals as exemplars of piety

Lions abound in Christian legend and symbol. For centuries lions stood on either side of many bishops' seats in cathedrals and framed the doors of many churches, including the church in which the young St. Francis was baptized - San Ruffino in Assisi, Italy.

One of the most amazing lions appears in the Acts of Paul. An early fragment, in Coptic, tells of a lion approaching Paul as he prayed. The lion lay down at the apostle's feet and Paul, never missing an opportunity to convert, asked the lion what he wanted. The lion replied, "I want to be baptised." Paul took him to a river and immersed him three times. The lion then greeted Paul with "Grace be with you!", then departed into the countryside. Baptism, the Christian sacrament that confirms an active choice of belief and that initiates one into the Christian community, is requested by and granted to a lion.

Lions also provide protection for Thekla, a companion of Paul in his journeys. At her martyrdom the beasts which were to tear her to pieces were exhibited. Then she was bound to a fierce lioness...And the lioness, with Thekla sitting upon her, licked her feet; and all the multitude was astonished...And Thekla...was stripped and received a girdle and was thrown into the arena. And lions and bears were let loose upon her. And a fierce lioness ran up and lay down at her feet...

A series of animals, some of whom meet their own demise, encounter Thekla during the numerous attempts to execute her. Eventually the lioness dies protecting her. One question, based on Paul's choice to baptise a lion by water, is whether the lioness who dies defending Thekla earns actual martyr status.

And what about the inclusion of animals in other central Christian sacraments, particularly the Eucharist? Apparently, animals have been invited to partake in this ritual as well. In Donatello's image, the scene is the celebration of the Eucharist, the central act of many forms of Christian worship, and of a mule kneeling before the host, the body and blood of Christ.

Saint Antony of Padua, considered to be the greatest preacher of his time, was a young Franciscan who preached to fish much as his predecessor, Saint Francis, preached to the birds. The miracle of the mule suggests the incorporation of animals into both the liturgy and the sacramental life of the Church. The image appears in highly acclaimed works of art, such as Donatello's bronze sculpture in a church in Padua, and on the walls of baptisteries frequented by the most common of people, such as the Baptistery in Siena.

A similar pattern is revealed throughout the stories of the life of St. Francis of Assisi. Many animals are connected with him, and the many artistic renderings of his life include birds, wolves and donkeys in company with the saint. Even images of Francis in ecstasy, at the height of mystical union with the divine, include animals. But a particularly poignant tale reveals the piety of the birds: "As St. Francis spoke these words to them, all those birds began to open their beaks, and to stretch out their necks, and to open their wings, and reverently to bow their heads to the ground, and to show by their motions and by their songs that the holy father had given them very great delight. St. Francis rejoiced with them and was glad and marvelled much at so great a multitude of birds, and at their most beautiful diversity, and at their attentiveness and fearlessness, for which he devoutly praised the Creator in them."

An "infinite multitude" of birds,
[Francis addresses them as "little sisters"] gather and attentively listen to Francis as he preaches about their blessedness and their need to praise God. ccording to two of Francis's biographers, he "blessed them, and having made the sign of the cross, gave them leave to fly away to another place...nor did one of them move from the spot until he made the sign of the cross over them and gave them leave." Upon leaving, another symbol of piety emerges as "all those birds soared up into the air with wondrous songs and then divided themselves into four parts after the form of the cross Saint Francis had made over them." The birds then proceed to announce their own belief: One flock flew toward the East, and one toward the West, and one toward the South and the fourth toward the North. And each flock went singing marvellous songs.

One of the primary scenes attesting to animals as exemplars of piety is also one of the most powerful symbolic-visual sets of images in Christian history ­ stories of the nativity of Jesus. These stories include images of adoring animals surrounding the manger. Cattle, sheep donkeys and the occasional dog or horse, prove uncanny in their ability to recognize the revelation of incarnation of the nativity. Indeed, some images depict humans as much less aware of the nature of the incarnation than were the animals.

Animals as sources of revelation

Animals have also been direct sources of revelation-messengers of the divine to human beings. Most particularly, animals have been the bearers or carriers, of the incarnation of the sacred - the bearers of Christ.
While hunting one day, a Roman soldier, Placidus, came upon a herd of deer. One of these, a large stag, impressed the soldier with his incredible size and beauty. As the stag ran into the dense woods, the soldier approached pondering how to capture this animal. Suddenly he noticed a cross with the image of Jesus between the antlers of the deer. The voice of the divine came from the stag's mouth and said: "O Placidus, why are you pursuing me? For your sake I have appeared to you in this animal. I am the Christ, whom you worship without knowing it. I have come, that through this deer which you hunted, I myself might hunt you." The next morning, the vision appeared to him, again with the stag as the vehicle for revelation. The soldier changes his name to Eustace and becomes a Christian.

His hagiography relates yet another animal saint. Years later when Eustace was displayed in the arena for martyrdom, a ferocious - and very hungry - lion served as the imperial death weapon of choice. But the lion came out peacefully, lowered his head and adored the soon-to-be martyrs rather than kill them. There are other similar stories.

St. Francis Xavier recounted (or invented) his own peculiar animal-aided vision of the divine. During a mighty storm in the Moluccas, Xavier tried to calm the waves by holding his crucifix over them, but a huge wave swept it overboard. Once safely on shore, Francis saw a large crab coming towards him, carrying the cross in his pincers.

Animals as martyrs and servants

The most striking images of animals in the hagiography are those of animals as martyrs or servants.. Following the example set by Jesus, martyrs claimed a second and ultimate baptism in blood. Their stories were told throughout Christianities to strengthen the commitments of believers facing oppression. But some of these martyrs are, not just symbolically, but literally sacrificial lambs.

One of the most fascinating martyr-saints is Saint Guinefort. The stories of his heroic martyrdom (above) and of the healings that took place at his shrine influenced generations of believers in Southern France.

In the year 406, Paulinus, a monk and a priest, read a poem honouring St. Felix on his birthday. The poem features animals as the principal characters in a series of miracle tales. Christianity had denounced animal sacrifice, primarily as a sign of differentiation from Roman religious systems. But the rituals continued, particularly in rural areas. At the tomb of St. Felix, in southern Italy, the practice had been Christianized and served as a way to distribute food to the poor who would gather at the tomb to collect meat from the sacrificed animals.

The first tale is of a horse "seemingly endowed with human reason" who provided a "holy sign" and became a "source of wonder for those in attendance." This inspired horse intervened as his master attempted to take the best portions of a hog that he had sacrificed rather than leave them for the poor. The equine saint threw the greedy man to the ground and then carried the sacrifice back to the tomb. Power and compassion are central to this horse-saint's piety.

A second story comes from this same tradition and relates the miracle of a rather plump pig. She had been vowed to Felix at birth, but because of her girth she was unable to walk the distance to the shrine. Her masters took two smaller piglets in her place, but when they arrived, the pudgy pig was already on the altar offering herself as sacrifice. Obviously, the sacred had been revealed in and through the pig who, by some accounts, placed her throat on the blade, willingly offering her life as food that others might live.

A similar story tells of a heifer who walks without a halter to the altar and "undefiled by the yoke and offering its neck to the axe, about to provide food for the poor from its slaughtered body, joyously it poured out its blood in fulfilment of its masters' vows."

Parallels between the sacrificial rôle of these animals and that of the figure of Jesus, particularly in their theological connotations, prove both striking and potentially controversial. Of course, the lamb is a pervasive visual and liturgical symbol of sacrifice and piety, oftentimes replacing the figure of Jesus and other disciples. A beautiful example is the seventh century apse of Sant' Apollinare in Classe that portrays all of the twelve traditional disciples as sheep.

So the symbol of the animal as sacrificial victim and even as saviour is central to Christianity. But the stories of St. Felix move these animals into active rôles, symbolic and actual in their life of sacrifice.

Another common theme of animals as servants comes at the time of death and burial. A story similar to that of Saints Paul and Anthony tells of another lion assisting in the burial of a saint. St. Mary of Egypt, a hermit and ascetic, had lived in the desert for years, eating only bread and lentils. A monk, Zosimus, came across this figure of holiness as he traversed the desert. One year, he served her the Eucharist and promised to bring this sacrament to her the next year as well. When he came back, he found her dead. Zosimus tried to dig a grave but could not. Then he saw a lion meekly coming toward him and said to the lion: "This holy woman commanded me to bury her body here, but I am old and cannot dig, and anyway I have no spade. If you could do the digging we will be able to bury this holy body together."

The lion began to dig and prepared a suitable grave, and when that was finished went away "like a gentle "lamb.
Even arachnids seem to hear the voice of God without hesitation - for another story connected to a saint named Felix includes spiders as heroes. While preaching, Felix, a bishop, found himself being pursued by persecutors, so he proceeded to hide:...he slipped through a narrow opening in the wall of a ruined house and hid inside. In a trice, by God's command, spiders spun a web across the space. The pursuers, seeing the web, thought that no one could have gone through the opening, and went on their way. Later Felix was killed by a group of boys he taught. Boys can be less compassionate even than spiders.

Animals as primary other in relationship to humans

Finally, there are numerous stories of animals as the primary other in relationship to humans throughout the Christian tradition.

Obviously many of the hermits and desert dwellers mentioned throughout are in the company of an animal or animals. In addition, anchoresses who lived cloistered, often as solitaries, would be permitted one cat in their cell. But one of the most popular stories of saint-animal companionship is that of St. Jerome, a Father of the Church who lived in the wilderness, probably close to Bethlehem, while translating the Bible from Greek into Latin. He lived with some other monks, and many animals including dogs ,hens, sheep and donkeys.

One day, a great lion came into the monastery courtyard. Needless to say, all the monks scattered, except for Jerome. He noticed that the lion was limping and welcomed him in the spirit of hospitality that pervades most monasteries. Jerome healed the lion, who decided to remain with Jerome.

The adventures of Jerome and the lion continue, but suffice it to say that on the death of the saint, the lion, a saint in his own right,is said to have grieved without ceasing.

This is not the only such account. The story of St. Giles and the hind is tender and tragic. Giles, who had cured many, became a solitary living in a cave close to a beautiful spring. But he was only a solitary in terms of his relationship with people, because as the story goes "for sometime he was nourished with the milk of a hind" or doe. Eventually, a group of hunters pursued her and she took refuge with St. Giles in his cave. She was "whining and whimpering ... not at all like her" so Giles went out and, hearing the hunt, prayed that God would save this doe, the "nurse" whom God had provided. This happened again and again, until finally, on the third day, the king brought a bishop along with him to survey the situation. This time "one of the huntsmen shot an arrow into the cave," wounding St. Giles as he knelt in prayer for the life of the doe.

St. Blaise, a bishop, also decided to live the life of a hermit. He "retired to a cave" where "birds brought him food, and wild animals flocked to him." These animals would not leave "until he had laid hands on them in blessing." This action indicates that Blaise understood the animals worthy of blessing and the animals understood the significance of the ritual. In addition, Blaise offered them healing and "if any of them were ailing, they came straight to him and went away cured."


Can animals be counted among the saints in Christianity? They have served as the locus for revelation, been examples of piety, offered themselves as martyrs and servants, and, in their relationships with others, have been the source of agape - divine love. Thus, the sacred history, though often obscured, suggests that animals may indeed be counted among the holy ones in the Christian tradition.

Of course, the functional world-view for these animal-human-divine relationships reveals a significantly different historical context in many cases. Humans and animals were intimately related in everyday life during the periods when these stories were developed. In contrast Euro-American culture of the early twenty-first century is a culture alienated from the natural world and other animals in most manifestations. Popular images of animals have morphed into human projections on a vast scale-from Disney's mawkish sentimentalities such as Bambi or The Lion King, to cultic-pornographic pedigree dog shows, to mass produced flesh for food, with the actual dead animal being an utterly-absent referent.

These differences could, arguably, render the relevance of such animal stories impotent. But even in those different cultural contexts saints provided an alternative relationship. Andrew Linzey, one of the few contemporary theologians to address the issue of animals, suggests this possibility in his book Animal Theology: "We need to remember that the challenge of so many saints in their love and concern for even the most hated of animals, was in almost all cases against the spirit of their times..."


from "How to become Holy"
written in 1453 by Abu Abdallah Muhammad Al-Jazuli Al-Simlali.

In order to eliminate feelings of self-importance, he who would become holy would do well to acquire the Ten Praiseworthy Attributes of the Dog:

1. He sleeps only a little at night; this is a sign of the God-lover.

2. He complains of neither heat nor cold; this is a sign of patient endurance.

3. When he dies, he leaves nothing behind to be disposed of; this is a sign of asceticism.

4. He is neither angry nor hateful; this is a quality of the faithful.

5. He is not sorrowful at the loss of a close relative, nor does he accept assistance; this is an attribute of the unshakeable.

6. If he is given something, he consumes it and is happy; this is a sign of the never-demanding.

7. He has no known place of refuge; this is the quality of holy wandering.

8. He sleeps in any place that he finds; this is a quality of the never-complaining.

9. He is incapable of hate, even if his owner beats or starves him; this is a quality of the knowers of wisdom. (Compare the injunction in the Hindu Upanishads: "Be like the sandalwood that perfumes the axe that hacks it.")

10. He is always hungry, which is a sign of the virtuous.

These attributes were amongst those of the black (therefore despised) Moroccan saint, Abu Yi'zza.

Rejoice in the Dog >>

The Parable of Lazarus >>

Saint Onouphrius of the Desert >>

An Albanian Ikon >>

The Nature of Christianity >>

more on Cynocephaly >>


This web-page is dedicated to the memory of Saint Oscar the Curly-tailed.




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