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Medieval Dog-Heads: An Eye-Witness Report January 9, 2012

Author: Beach Combing | in : Medieval , trackback

An interesting passage from the Itinerarium of Friar Odoric (obit 1331), a pioneering Italian traveller in Asia: Odoric may have been the first European to reach Lhasa. He certainly stood before the great Khan and penetrated China.

He also visited the south seas. The island of Moumoran has never been satisfactorily identified but probably lies in the Philippines. The delicious English in what follows belongs to Richard Hakluyt: the Latin is that of William of Solagna, Odoric’s amanuensis.

Moreouer I traueled on further by the ocean-sea towards the south, and passed through many countries and islands, whereof one is called Moumoran, and it containeth in compasse ii. M. [2000] miles, wherein men and women haue dog faces, and worship an oxe for their god: and therefore euery one of them cary the image of an oxe of gold or siluer vpon their foreheads. The men and the women of this country go all naked, sauing that they hang a linen cloth before their priuities. The men of the said country are very tall and mighty, and by reason that they goe naked, when they are to make battell, they cary yron or steele targets before them, which do couer and defend their bodies from top to toe: and whomsoeuer of their foes they take in battel not being able to ransom himselfe for money, they presently deuoure him: but if he be able to redeeme himselfe for money, they let him go free. Their king weareth about his necke 300. great and most beautifull vnions, and saith euery day 300. prayers vnto his god. He weareth vpon his finger also a stone of a span long which seemeth to be a flame of fire, and therefore when he weareth it, no man dare once approch vnto him: and they say that there is not any stone in the whole world of more value then it. Neither could at any time the great Tartarian Emperour of Katay either by force, money, or policie obtaine it at his hands: notwithstanding that he hath done the vtmost of his indeuour for this purpose.

Ultra transiui per mare Oceanum uersus meridiem, et transiui per multas contratas et insulas, quarum una uocatur Moumoran, et habet in circuitu 2000. milliaria, in qua homines portant facies caninas et mulieres similitèr, et unum bouem adorant pro Deo suo, et ideo quilibet unum bouem aureum uel argenteum in fronte portat: Homines illius contratæ et mulieres uadunt totaliter nudi, nisi quod unum pannum lineum portant ante uerenda sua. Homines illius regionis sunt maximi et fortissimi, et quia uadunt nudi, quando debent bellare, portant unum scutum de ferro, quod cooperit eos à capite usque ad pedes, et si contingat eos aliquem de aduersarijs capere in bello qui pecunia non possit redimi, statim comedunt eum; si autem possit se redimere pecunia, illum abire permittunt: Rex eorum portat 300. margaritas ad collum suum maximas et pulcherrimas, et 300. orationes omni die dicit Deo suo: Hic etiam portat in digito suo unum lapidem longitudinis unius spansæ, et dum habet illum uidetur ab alijs quasi una flamma ignis, et ideò nullus audet sibi appropinquare, et dicitur quòd non est lapis in mundo pretiosior illo. Magnus autem imperator Tartarorum de Katai, nunquam ui, nec pecunia, nec ingenio illum obtinere potuit, cùm tamen circa hoc laborauerit.

There are two other medieval texts which have canine humans living to the south or east of India. Ibn Battuta (obit 1369) mentions Barahnakar (?) where men (though not women) have dog mouths. Marco Polo (obit 1324) writes, meanwhile, that the people of the Andaman islands have dog heads. The fact that three fourteenth-century sources pick this up must surely suggest that there is a borrowed Asian topos at work here?

Of these three doggy sources Marco Polo is likely dealing in second-hand information about regions he had never visited and is, in any case, he is – apologies to MP fans – the least trustworthy. But Odoric and Ibn Battuta apparently came face to face with the dog-heads and they are extremely trustworthy.

There must have been some feature of an alien physiognomy that convinced the travellers they had encountered another species, or our own species with unusual features. Had they stumbled upon the borders between racial groups: the northern limits of the Austronesian peoples, for example? It is difficult though to see what would be ‘dog-like’ to European or Asian eyes.

Any explanations? We are all out. drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com



11 Jan 2012: First up KMH wants to remind readers that we’ve had dogheads and this debate before. Beach should have put the links in: here is St Christopher and here are Indian dogheads. KMH then continues. ‘My suggestion is that these people suffered from what we call a genetic defect which covered their faces with hair. Rare examples exist even today. The disease is called hypertrichosis.’    Grammy, has no theory but points to some unusual passages in the Bible. ‘The puzzle of human faces resembling dogs has intrigued me for decades.  In I Chronicles 12:8 (KJV), there’s this:  ”And of the Gadites, there separated themselves unto David into the hold to the wilderness men of might, and men of war fit for the battle, that could handle shield and buckler, whose faces were like the faces of lions, and were as swift as the roes upon the mountains;” There is also a mention of “lionlike men of Moab” in 2 Samuel 23:20, which is repeated in I Chronicles 11:22.   I always thought that lions’ faces looked like dogs.   The make-up staff produced a believable “lion-like” face for the old TV series Beauty and The Beast by simulating the divided upper lip.  And the whole subject is fascinating!‘ Finally, Greg offers this: ‘Concerning your post on reports of dog-headed and dog-faced people living in the Adaman Islands and other locales to the south and east of India, I suspect the witnesses were referring to the skull shapes of the peoples they encountered, which often differed from European and North African norms. Aboriginal peoples of the Adaman Islands, Australia, Melanesia and sub-Saharan Africa tend to possess jaws which protrude outward from the facial plane to a noticeably greater extent than the average European or North African.  The extent of jaw projection is sometimes referred to as prognathism and is measured statistically (by those who do such things) by the “Alveolar index”.  A couple of webpages that discuss this subject can be found at feminine beauty and racial reality  and . Variations in physical appearance between ethnic groups is a sensitive subject with a long and shameful history.  In the nineteenth century, Havelock Ellis noted the higher frequency of prognathism among what he referred to as the ‘lower races’.  It is easy to imagine our medieval correspondents, insensitive to their own biases and ethnocentrism, describing peoples with protruding jaws that they encountered as ‘dog-headed’ or ‘dog-faced’.Hopefully, these noxious, racially-based norms of physical beauty will continue to fade into obscurity‘. Hear, hear to that! Thanks Greg, KMH and Grammy!

21 Jan 2012: Radko writes in: ‘One thing I would like to point out is that Odoricus was born in a family of a Czech soldier serving during time when Czech king Premysl Otakar II controlled that particular part of Italy and I therefore can’t help but claim Odoricus as a Czech, being Czech myself, not an Italian. You place Moumoran to Philippines but I don’t think it follows the flow of the journey. Would it be possible that Moumoran is in fact Malabar or Malayalam?’ Thanks Radko!