There are a cluster of mythological or cryptozoological creatures that seem to straddle the line between humanoids and canines. Dogs (descendants of ancient wolves) were the first animals humans ever domesticated, so you can see why they would figure heavily in our folklore. After thousands of years, they have become familiar to us while still remaining alien. The idea of creatures that blend human and canine characteristics can be especially unnerving or disconcerting.
In this post, I won’t try to deal with werewolves and other human–canine shape-shifters. If you want to know a little about those sorts of creatures, I’ve already written a little about them here. Instead, I’ll be dealing with non-shape-shifting creatures that combine in their natural (or supernatural?) form a blending of human and canine characteristics.
We can divide the canine–humanoid population into two broad groups, one more dog-like in overall body shape and one more human-like. Those in the first group have come to be called “dogmen,” especially among cryptozoologists. “Dogmen” possess what might be called a traditional “wolf-man” appearance. They have the overall build of a large dog or wolf, with digitigrade posture, a bushy tail, and often a muscular torso with forelegs longer than hind legs.
They are more often than not associated with modern-day sightings of unusual creatures rather than ancient myths or folklore, though they do sometimes show up in world mythology. For example, the sa’lawiya is a type of ghoul or jinn in the folklore of the Arabian peninsula. They have a form similar to a greyhound, slender and long-legged, but with an ash-gray mane. They enjoy frightening camels away from their grazing area.
The gizotso or “man-wolf” of Basque folklore might be something similar, though I’m not in a position to state that with certainty.
Cynocephalus simply means “dog-head.” It is a term applied to a number of dog-headed humanoids described in European sources as far back as ancient Greece. Unlike dogmen, cynocephali are generally human (or humanoid) from the neck down but possess dog-like or wolf-like heads. While dogmen are said to sometimes walk upright, cynocephali seem to be strictly bipedal and have a plantigrade posture. Furthermore, the generally do not have tails.
These creatures are usually said to inhabit far-off lands such as Ethiopia or India. They also seem to come in a number of different breeds or species.
The dog-headed humanoids of Africa are sometimes called cynoprosopi (“dog-face”). At least some of them have beards, and they are all covered in black fur. Despite their animalistic appearance, they are described as a tribe or tribes of more or less human “barbarians.” The dogmen of Libya, for example, were said to fight with the Libyan army, apparently as a sort of auxiliary force. Discussing the cynocephali inhabiting the lands south of Egypt, Aelian states,
After traversing the Egyptian oasis one is confronted for seven whole days with utter desert. Beyond this live the human Kynoprosopoi along the road that leads to Ethiopia. It seems that these creatures live by hunting gazelles and antelopes; further, they are black in appearance, and they have the head and teeth of a dog. And since they resemble this animal, it is very natural that I should mention them here [in a book on Animals]. They are however not endowed with speech, but utter a shrill squeal. Beneath their chin hangs down a beard; we may compare it with the beards of Drakones, and strong and very sharp nails cover their hands. Their whole body is covered with hair—another respect in which they resemble dogs. They are very swift of foot and know the regions that are inaccessible: that is why they appear so hard to capture.
Both European and Chinese writers spoke of tribes of cynocephali inhabiting Central Asia. For example, the medieval traveler Giovanni da Pian del Carpine reports a tribe of cynocephali living north of Lake Baikal that was encountered by the army of Ogedei Khan. In the an Old English document called The Wonders of the East, similar creatures are called Conopenae. They are described as having a horse-like mane, tusks, and breath “like the blaze of a fire.” They are described in some sources as “hairy giants.” They are sometimes called hemicynes or “half-dogs” and said to inhabit the regions of the extreme north.
Perhaps it is cynocephali of this species that were said to travel with the Germanic Lombards as they invaded western Europe. In his History of the Lombard People, Paul the Deacon writes,
They pretend that they have in their camps Cynocephali, that is, men with dogs’ heads. They spread the rumor among the enemy that these men wage war obstinately, drink human blood and quaff their own gore if they cannot reach the foe.
The most advanced cynocephali were those that Ktesias called Calystrians, which inhabited the mountains of India. According to Ctesias’s Indica fragment:
On these [the Indian] mountains there live men with the head of a dog, whose clothing is the skin of wild beasts. They speak no language, but bark like dogs, and in this manner make themselves understood by each other. Their teeth are larger than those of dogs, their nails like those of these animals, but longer and rounder. They inhabit the mountains as far as the river Indos. Their complexion is swarthy. They are extremely just, like the rest of the Indians with whom they associate. They understand the Indian language but are unable to converse, only barking or making signs with their hands and fingers by way of reply, like the deaf and dumb. They are called by the Indians Kalystrii, in Greek Kynocephaloi. They live on raw meat and number about 120,000…
The Kynokephaloi living on the mountains do not practise any trade but live by hunting. When they have killed an animal they roast it in the sun. They also rear numbers of sheep, goats, and asses, drinking the milk of the sheep and whey made from it. They eat the fruit of the Siptakhora, whence amber is procured, since it is sweet. They also dry it and keep it in baskets, as the Greeks keep their dried grapes. They make rafts which they load with this fruit together with well-cleaned purple flowers and 260 talents of amber, with the same quantity of the purple dye, and 1000 additional talents of amber, which they send annually to the king of India. They exchange the rest for bread, flour, and cotton stuffs with the Indians, from whom they also buy swords for hunting wild beasts, bows, and arrows, being very skilful in drawing the bow and hurling the spear. They cannot be defeated in war, since they inhabit lofty and inaccessible mountains. Every five years the king sends them a present of 300,000 bows, as many spears, 120,000 shields, and 50,000 swords.
They do not live in houses, but in caves. They set out for the chase with bows and spears, and as they are very swift of foot, they pursue and soon overtake their quarry. The women have a bath once a month, the men do not have a bath at all, but only wash their hands. They anoint themselves three times a month with oil made from milk and wipe themselves with skins. The clothes of men and women alike are not skins with the hair on, but skins tanned and very fine. The richest wear linen clothes, but they are few in number. They have no beds, but sleep on leaves or grass. He who possesses the greatest number of sheep is considered the richest, and so in regard to their other possessions. All, both men and women, have tails above their hips, like dogs, but longer and more hairy. They are just, and live longer than any other men, 170, sometimes 200 years.
This same advanced species is apparently found in Southeast Asia and even on islands in the Bay of Bengal. Marco Polo reported a tribe of barbarians with heads like big mastiff dogs living in the island of Angamanain (Andaman Islands). He said they grew spices but, unlike their Indian cousins, were very cruel.
The wulver of the Shetland Islands are quite different from most dogmen in that they are a relatively gentle species. In Jessie Saxby’s Shetland Traditional Lore, she explains,
The Wulver was a creature like a man with a wolf’s head. He had short brown hair all over him. His home was a cave dug out of the side of a steep knowe, half-way up a hill. He didn’t molest folk if folk didn’t molest him. He was fond of fishing, and had a small rock in the deep water which is known to this day as the “Wulver’s Stane.” There he would sit fishing sillaks and piltaks for hour after hour. He was reported to have frequently left a few fish on the window-sill of some poor body.
North American (or maybe Japanese?) Cynocephali
The Buddhist missionary Hui-Shen of the late fifth century AD described an island of dog-headed men located to the east of Fusang, a legendary land that is identified by scholars as either Japan or somewhere in North America.
North American (for sure!) Cynocephali
According to cryptozoologists, similar creatures still inhabit parts of North America, though they usually describe them as being a type of sasquatch or bigfoot, just with an unusual skull or facial structure. Whatever may be said for the merits of such accounts, they seem universally to describe a purely animalistic creature with none of the tokens of human culture (clothing, tool use, etc.) found in Old World accounts.