Saint Christopher the Dog Headed Saint / by Chris Hall

Saint Christopher was a Christian martyr who lived during the reign of Roman Emperor Decius (reigned 249 – 251).  Christopher's name, in Greek (Christoforos), translates as “Christ-bearer.”  He earned this title for his act of carrying a child, who was unknown to him, across a river.  The child later revealed himself to be Christ and Christopher became the patron saint of travelers.

According to legend, Christopher originally went by the name Reprobus, which roughly translates as “Scoundrel.”  He was a Canaanite 5 cubits (7.5 feet (2.3 m)) tall and had a fearsome face like a dog.  In the New Testament, the Canaanites were reported to eat human flesh and to bark like dogs.  While serving the King of Canaan, he decided to leave and serve “the greatest king there was.”  He went to the king who was reported to be the greatest (historically, it is thought that Reprobus joined with the Roman Army, the Third Valerian Cohort of Marmantae, in North Africa), but one day he saw the king cross himself at the mention of the devil.  Learning that the king feared the devil, Reprobus left to look for devil, and serve him.  Soon he came across a band of marauders, lead by a man who declared himself to be “the devil.”  Reprobus joined their party.  But when he saw his new master avoid a cross found at a fork in the road, he found out the devil feared Christ, and so Reprobus left him in order to seek Christ.

Reprobus met with a hermit who taught him about the Christian faith.  He asked the hermit how he might serve Christ.  When the hermit suggested fasting and prayer, Reprobus replied that he was unable to perform these duties.  Next, the hermit suggested that because of his size and strength, Reprobus could serve Christ by ferrying people across a dangerous river that lay nearby.  It seemed that many people had drowned there while attempting to cross.  The hermit promised that this service would be pleasing to Christ.  After Reprobus had performed this service for some time, a little child approached and asked if he might take him across the river.  During the crossing, the river had swelled and the current strengthened.  The child who Reprobus was carrying on his shoulders had also become as heavy as lead and Reprobus barely made it across.  When they finally reached the other side, he said to the child, “You have put me in the greatest danger.  I do not think the whole world could have been as heavy on my shoulders as you were.”  The child replied, “You had on your shoulders not only the whole world, but Him who made it.  I am Christ, your king, whom you are serving by this work.”  The child then vanished.

Reprobus later visited the city of Lycia (in modern Turkey) where he comforted the Christians who were being martyred.  Brought before the local king (historically, the governor of Antioch), he refused to sacrifice to the pagan gods.  The king tried to win him over with the promise of wealth and by sending two beautiful women to tempt him.  Reprobus, instead, converted the women to Christianity.  The king then ordered his execution.  Various attempts on his life failed, but eventually Reprobus was decapitated.  Reprobus was a stranger in Antioch, and his name was not generally known.  He was given the name and title Christoforos, “Christ-bearer,” for his deeds.  Some historians have speculated that Saint Christopher's remains may have been taken to Alexandria by Peter of Attalia to be buried.  

Because Saint Christopher had offered protection to travelers and against sudden death, he quickly grew in popularity.  Many churches had placed images and statues of him in places where he could be easily seen, usually opposite the south door.  In the West he is usually depicted as a giant man, with the child Christ on his shoulder and a staff in one hand.  In Eastern Othordox icons, however, Saint Christopher is often depicted as a giant with the head of a dog.  The origin of the dog head depiction, which, incidentally, is called cynocephaly, can be traced to two sources.  According to legend, Reprobus was captured in combat on the border of Egypt and Libya before he switched sides and enlisted in the Roman Army.  He was recorded as being a giant and having the head of a dog instead of a man.  This was in addition to the Byzantine misinterpretation of the Latin name for his nationality, Cananeus (Canaanite), for canineus, which means canine.