Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Myth-Logic: St. Christopher with the Head of a Dog

It seems that in Orthodox Catholicism St. Christopher is sometimes depicted as having a dog's head. Jonathan Pageau has an interesting article about this. I won't attempt a summary or analysis, but here's a passage well into the article:
The relation of the foreign and marginal with excessive corporality, animality and disordered passions like cannibalism must be seen within a general traditional understanding of periphery. In a traditional view of the world, there is an analogy between personal and social periphery, both pictured in patristic terms as the garments of skin, those garments given to Adam and Eve which embody corporal existence. What appears at the edge of Man is analogous to what appears at the edge of the world both in spatial and temporal terms, so the barbarians, dog-headed men or other monsters on the spatial boundaries of civilization and the temporal end of civilization are akin to the death and animality which is the corporal spatial limit of an individual and the final temporal end of earthly life. The monsters as part of the garments of skin dwell on the edge of the world, and though they are dangerous, like Cerberus at the door of Hades, they also act as a kind of buffer between Man and the outer darkness. Just as our corporal bodies and its cycles are the source of our passions, they are also our “mortal shell” protecting us from death. It will therefore be by a more profound vision of the garments of skin across different ontological levels of fallen creation that we can make sense of St-Christopher[4].

St-Christopher in the Bible.

The relation of the Dog to periphery appears several places in the Bible. Dogs are of course an impure animal. They are seen licking the sores on Job’s skin[5]. They are excluded from the New Jerusalem[6]. They eat the body of the foreign queen Jezebel after she is thrown off the wall of the city[7]. The giant Goliath himself creates the St-Christopher dog/giant/foreigner analogy when he asks David: Am I a dog that you come at me with sticks?[8] The dog is used by Christ as a substitution for a foreigner when he tells the Samaritan that one should not give to dogs what is meant for the children[9]. The answer of the woman is also telling as she speaks of crumbs falling off the edge of the table, clearly marking the dog as the foreigner who is on the edge. Just these examples might be enough to explain St-Christopher symbolically, but there is still more.
At this point we go to stories of river crossings, not only Christopher, but various crossings in the Bible, Old and New Testaments, and then:
There are many other stories, taken even from other cultures, where this structure appears. From Odysseus’ encounter with the Cyclops, the giant “Little John” fighting Robin Hood on a river to the three billy goats gruff, examples abound showing how deep and noetic the story is in human experience. The most recent clear example of this structure is the very successful book “Life of Pi”. As is usual in contemporary story telling which wants to push things further, here the movement of the garments of skin is brought to its extreme. In order to assure his “crossing”, the main character must rely on cannibalism imaged as a Tiger in the bottom of his boat. Cannibalism is of course one of the most common attributes given of the monstrous foreign races and is a very strong image of death.

Hopefully our trip will have proven how rather than simply being a series of accidents and exaggerations, the basic story and iconography of St-Christopher are perfectly coherent with Biblical narrative and tradition. Whether the dog headed warrior or the river crossing giant, both strains of iconography point to the deep meaning of flesh being a carrier of Christ, being “christophoros”, of the foreigner being the vehicle for the advancing of the Church to the ends of the Earth. Indeed, the story of St-Christopher is in fact an image of the Church itself, of the relationship of Christ to his Body, our own heart to our senses, our own logos to its shell.
That's pretty much the end of the article. But there is a second part, which I've just barely glanced at.

This is, of course, well within what I've been calling myth logic in various posts here at New Savanna.

H/t Adam Roberts.


  1. The part I found interesting was the manner in which the writer was using the material to negotiate and mediate matters relating to contemporary cultural identity through the material.

    The multi- vocal aspect of these forms narrative and the long term manner in which the material is used in such social negotiations is what makes them fascinating but somewhat difficult to study.

  2. "The part I found interesting was the manner in which the writer was using the material to negotiate and mediate matters relating to contemporary cultural identity through the material."

    Glad you pointed this out. I hadn't quite focused on it in this way, but you're right. That's what he's doing, and I think that aspect gets more intense in the second part.

  3. What is interesting me at the moment so it distracted and leaped out. Have to read it again when I am less focused on particular things.

    You're discussion of terms in regard to the M word, replication and reproduction immediately makes me think of reinforcement and reminded me a look at the psy here has been long overdue on my part. Hoping I can use behavioral psy to fine tune terms and language.