Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Ratramnus and the Dog Heads

Near a mountain called Nulo there live men whose feet are turned backwards and have eight toes on each foot. Megasthenes writes that on different mountains in India there are tribes of men with dog shaped heads, armed with claws, clothed with skins, who speak not in the accents of human language, but only bark and have fierce grinning jaws.....Those who live near the source of the Ganges, requiring nothing in the shape of food, subsist on the odour of wild apples, and when they go on a long journey, they carry these with them for safety of their life by inhaling their perfume..Should they inhale air, death is inevitable

Megasthenes’ Indica – Reported in Pliny

eople in the Middle Ages inherited many esoteric ideas from antiquity, among them the belief that beyond the known world there are races of beings that look very different to humans. Although strange to the modern eye, this notion was widespread in the ancient and medieval world. In Pliny we find that Ctesias, a Greek physician, claimed that he had heard of tribes without necks . This resulted in the eyes being displaced to the shoulder. Others had eyes in the middle of the forehead. Some, like the Scythian cannibals, drank out of human skulls and used the scalps as napkins (at least they had some table manners). Still more strange were the Monocoli (Monopods), a tribe which had one leg and an enormous foot. In hot weather they would lie on their backs and protect themselves with the shadow of their feet. The Machlyes, according to Aristotle, performed the function of either sex alternatively, being equipped with the left breast of a man and the right of a woman. Some people in India would have sex with wild animals and produce children of mixed species. Other races had men with dog’s heads and tails.

Ctesias wrote:

‘In the mountains dwell men who have the head of a dog; they wear skins of wild beasts as clothing, and they speak no language, but bark like dogs, and in this way understand one another’s speech. They have teeth bigger than a dog’s...they understand the speech of the Indians, but cannot respond to them; instead they bark and signal with their hands and fingers, as do mutes’.

They attempt to cook their food, but lacking the ability to make fires, they have to cook it in the boiling sun. Their sexual activity is rather what one would expect of a canine:

‘All of them, men and women, have a tail above their hips, like a dog’s except bigger and smoother. They have intercourse with their wives on all fours like dogs, and consider any other form of intercourse to be shameful. They are just, and the longest lived of any human race; for they get to be 160, sometimes 200 years of age’.

The existence or non existence of the dog-heads at the edge of the known world being somewhat hard to verify, the idea became popularised in the medieval period, a subject documented by Robert Bartlett in ‘The Natural and the Supernatural in the Middle Ages’. The dog-heads had passed into popular legend but also into the imagination of monks and clerics due to the great encyclopaedias and standard texts of the late Roman and early Medieval world. They were probably also used as bogeymen to frighten enemies and to represent virtues and vices in Church art. Hence according to a Welsh poem, King Arthur fought with the creatures:

‘On the mountain of Edinburgh; He fought with dog-heads; By the Hundred they fell’

A story of St Christopher from Ireland depicted him in these terms:

‘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.’

Having regretted his former pagan, human-eating habits, St Christopher became baptised. As a result he gained human appearance before getting martyred.

In the 9th century a churchman called Rimbert - who later became the archbishop of Hamburg-Bremen – was planning to leave on a missionary journey to the northern reaches of Scandinavia. The idea of converting Scandinavia to Christianity had been enthusiastically pursued by the Emperor Louis the Pious and Archbishop Ebbo of Rheims in the 820s. In preparation for the journey Rimbert wrote to Ratramnus, a monk of Corbie in Picardy, asking for information regarding the dog-heads, whom he thought he might encounter. Ratramnus had been sent a dossier Rimbert had put together which informed him that the dog-heads lived in villages, practised agriculture and domesticated animals. In response Ratramnus wrote his Epistola de Cynocephalis a work which would answer the question of whether the dog-heads were worthy of evangelism. The issue hinged on whether the mysterious creatures could be considered rational. Ratramnus begins by describing their manner of speaking:

the form of their heads and their canine barking shows that they are similar not to humans but to animals. In fact, the heads of humans are on top and round in order for them to see the heavens, while those of dogs are long and drawn out in a snout so that they can look at the ground. And humans speak, while dogs bark.

And yet, despite their appearance, the information Rimbert had supplied clearly indicated they were capable of domesticating animals. ‘I do not see’ wrote Ratramnus, ‘how this could be so if they had an animal and not a rational soul’:

since the living things of the earth were subjected to men by heaven, as we know from having read Genesis. But it has never been heard or believed that animals of one kind can by themselves take care of other animals, especially those of a domestic kind, keep them, compel them to submit to their rule, and follow regular routines.

Ratramnus pointed to the way in which the dog-heads ‘keep the rules of society’ and recognised the rule of law. ‘There cannot be any law, which common descent has not decreed. But such cannot be established or kept without the discipline of morality’. Unlike Ctesias’s dog-heads, Rimbert’s report stated that they covered their genitalia. Ratramnus interpreted this as a sign of decency and these and others attributes convinced him they were human; in any case, St Christopher had once been one and converted. Hence, Ratramnus concluded that the dog-heads were degenerated descendants of Adam, although the Church generally classed them with beasts. They may even receive baptism by being rained upon. Here Ratramnus was following in the footsteps of Augustine of Hippo, who had written that if the monstrous races do exist, they were created according to God’s will and, if they are human and descended from Adam, they must be capable of salvation. This would extend the Churches missionary obligation to the farthest flung parts of the earth and make ‘monstrous missionising’ a necessary fulfilment of Christ’s charge.

Lest we sneer from our Modern standpoint, it has to be pointed out that Ratramnus is responding to what he thinks is good information from a man who was travelling to Scandinavia, the edge of the known world. In his reply he is using what are recognisably modern anthropological categories to decide whether the dog-heads are man or beast. His work covers issues which were to become extremely pertinent when Europeans came into contact with other peoples in the New World and the debate began concerning whether they had souls capable of salvation and were entitled to equal dignity and universal brotherhood.

In the event, according to Bartlett, one John de Marignollis travelled to the Far East in the 1330s and looked for the monstrous races the ancients had spoken of. Unable to find the one legged monopods he concludes that the travellers who had reported their existence must have been confused by the umbrellas the Indians carried. He tried to ask the locals about the existence of the dog-heads and other tribes but unfortunately the only response he appears to have got is ‘we thought they lived where you came from’.

Discuss this post at the Quodlibeta Forum

'God's Philosophers' by James Hannam is available now from Amazon


Humphrey said...

Another point I could have mentioned is there have been far sillier speculations in the 20th century about 'little green men' and their space probes.

Mike Flynn said...

This seems to have been the medieval version of SF. They didn't conceive of the planets as "planets" in our modern sense, so they had to locate their aliens in far-off places of the Earth.

Or maybe, it's us who have to locate our "monstrous races" off-earth because we've pretty much covered the earth. The one difference: the medievals at least knew of people who had been to India.

I had to chuckle over some of the similarities between the Dog-Heads, the baptism of St. Stephen of Ireland, and the conclusions Ratramnus reported to Rimbert -- versus the parallel events regarding the grasshopper-like Krenken, the baptism of (St.) Johann von Sterne of Oberhochwald, and the conclusions Arch-deacon Willi reported to Pastor Dietrich in my novel, Eifelheim.

Humphrey said...

My dad tells me that in Ireland, the Dog people were actually an iron-age tribe. Dog-Heads was apparently a pun on their name and the nickname gradually hardened into fact. That may be where the St Christopher story comes from.

There are so many Dog-headed myths though. There is even one in China.

James said...

If I recall, Herodotus mentions the dogheads in his Histories, together with the people with faces on their chests and no heads. He thinks they live beyond Libya.

Best wishes


shawn kennedy said...

They have visited me the bark talk shape shift demonic alien humanoid that if you see and live you lucky you didn't die of fright I would love to share a story

shawn kennedy said...

They have visited me the bark talk shape shift demonic alien humanoid that if you see and live you lucky you didn't die of fright I would love to share a story