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  • That Was Genius Team

Episode 101 - Alexander the Great's Stinking Left Flank (Dogs Week)

Tom's Notes:


Audience feedback:

Was listening to your episode 100 and thoroughly enjoyed it! For a while I attended the US Military Academy (our version of Sandhurst) and a punishment there was “walking hours” where in dress uniform you’d walk back and forth for hours at a time, if you walked 100 hours you could earn an unofficial award called “a century man,” We have a similar thing in the UK, it’s called Captain Tom Moore. one of my biggest regrets is by the time I left I had walked 97 hours, 3 short of becoming a century man! There’s a semi interesting story around 100 for you I thought I’d pass along.

I recently learned about the heist to steal silk worms from China back in ye olde times, and thought I’d recommend “historical heists” as a topic. STEALING WORMS, AT A TIME WHEN EVERYONE HAD THEM. HOW ARE WE GOING TO GET THESE BACK? PUT THEM WITH THE OTHERS. OWP!

As usual, I’m having a pint while typing this out. Sadly my partner is in fact sitting across from me and I’m not drinking alone while sending you a message, I know that will disappoint Sam, keep up the good work lads!

Cheers from Seattle,


I started with feral children of history, unfortunately most cases of children raised by dogs are not as romantic and epic as Romulus and Remus, Mowgli or Tarzan. It’s usually poor little children with alcoholic parents who ignore them so they go to live with the dog, or children who get lost and end up cuddling up with a wild dog from a young age and end up thinking they’re dogs. All in all, it was unpleasantly ‘laugh and point’ at the retard child. So I moved on…

Let’s start by twatting the audience with our fact-stick. Here’s a cracking little fact to tell your mates. It will make you sound well smart mate.

Do you know the origin of the phrase, ‘cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war.’ It’s a phrase that is more commonly heard in one of its two component parts – i.e. ‘cry havoc’ (or variants like ‘wreak havoc’) or ‘let slip the dogs of war’.

The phrase is originally from Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar. Shakespeare uses the phrase ‘cry havoc’ in a number of other plays. ‘Cry havoc’ would have been a well-known phrase that has been around for at least 800 years. It was a signal to your soldiers that they can plunder.

‘Let slip’ refers to letting hunting dogs off their leash – pretty obvious that one. ‘Dogs of war’ in Julius Caesar doesn’t necessarily refer to soldiers, it’s just a nice bit of imagery isn’t it? There’s going to be some violence!

Anyhow, I thought I’d start with that. Now on to my main topic – people from history what had the head of a dog, or as they are commonly called in the historical sources, cynocephalae (sino-seffer-lie). Of all the mysterious races thought to live the far reaches of the world during the middle ages, the dog-headed people are probably the most widely referenced.

Humans have been merging dogs and men for thousands of years. The earliest examples I found in my research are from Libyan cave engravings. These dog-headed men are depicted hunting and often fucking animals – giraffes and elephants I’m told by a reliable source, an undercover operative I know. Dave Blinkingsock from down the road. Disappointingly, all I could find was a couple of photographs of engravings on the British Museum website. One looked to me like a primitive sex-doll carved out of limestone. It was provocatively positioned women with two holes. The other was a happy looking man with a big penis twice the length of his legs.

The Ancient Egypitian had dog headed dieties like Anubis, Khenti-Amentiu and Wepwawet. Not only was Wepwawet dog-like in the face, he also felt dog-like in the fingers and dog-like in the toes. The earliest depictions of Anubis, probably the most famous of the three, are from around 3000BC.

I find Egyptian history very complicated, but as I understand it, these three dog-headed gods were at times separate, at time they sort of merged. Ancient Egypt was around for a long time! The history of Ancient Egypt usually starts around 3000 to 3500BC and lasts for 2500 to 3000 years before the Alexander the Great turns up in at the end of the 4th century BC. So there’s plenty of time for things to change. Just to give you an idea of how long Ancient Egypt was around for, Cleopatra lived closer in time to the building of the Channel Tunnel than she did to the building of the Great Pyramid in Giza.

Referring to Anubis again, for a long time the Egyptians viewed him as their liminal deity (that is, deity that transports people, or their souls, to the underworld). It’s is thought that Anubis was given a dog-head because the buried corpses of Egyptians were frequently dug up by wild dogs and jackals. So it made sense to have an aggressive, barking dog to protect the souls of the dead as they tried to make their way to the underworld.

Moments ago I referred to Alexander the Greats conquest of Egypt in around 332BC. In 323BC Alexander dies and Egypt remains Greek and in 305 it becomes Ptolemaic, i.e. Hellenistic. Cleopatra being the last Ptolemaic regent (she actually being Cleopatra VII).

Let’s talk a bit more about Alexander the Great now. At some point in the 2nd century AD, a Hellenized Egyptians wrote a folk epic about Alexander the Great. We know very little about this document but it certainly started the Alexander Romances which is term used to describe a genre of story that evolved from the 2nd century AD right through to the Renaissance when the popularity of such stories reduced as people became more interested in the actual history of Greece and Rome and not these balmy stories about what Alexander had got up to. Incidentally, the Gates of Alexander, a wall built by Alexander to keep the barbaric Gog and Magog (two old Testament tribes) away from the civilisation of Europe and the Eastern Mediterranean, is a classic Alexander Romance theme and even found its way into the Koran.

So why am I talking about the Alexander Romances? Well, it’s because the Cynocephali often crop up in these stories. In some stories, it is the Cynocephalae who are pushed back behind the Gates of Alexander. In other stories, Alexander defeats an army of tens of thousands of Cynocephalae by telling his archers to not use their arrows, but to fire tennis balls instead and shout ‘fetch’. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find the original texts for these stories.

But dog-headed people have been written about by Greeks long before Alexander came along. Here’s Herodotus from the 5th century BC. (Herodotus being the Ancient Greek historian).

"For the eastern region of Libya… In that country are the huge snakes and the lions, and the elephants and bears and asps, the horned asses, the Kunokephaloi (Cynocephali) (Dog-Headed) and the Headless Men that have their eyes in their chests, as the Libyans say, and the wild men and women, besides many other creatures not fabulous."

Ctesias (Tee-see-us), Greek historian, from his Indica (only fragments of which survive) C4th BC.

"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… They cannot be defeated in war, since they inhabit lofty and inaccessible mountains… 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 … 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."

Pliny the Elder refers to them in the 1st Century AD and Isidore of Seville, so named because he loved making his own marmalade, regurgitates what Pliny had to say at the start of the 7th century.

Claudius Aelianus was a Roman writer who mentions Cynochephalae in his ‘On the nature of Animal’. Aelianus wrote at the end of the 2nd century and start of the 3rd century AD and so lived for a time under Emperor Elagabalus. I won’t quote it because it adds nothing much. Suffice to say it would appear that Aelianus is describing some sort of primate.

A few hundred years later we have the Christian Theologian Augustine the Hippo, so named because he was fat, ate watermelons whole and farted like a power washer, struggling to work out whether these dog-headed people (and other odd peoples) were human or not, and thus whether or not god gave a toss about them. There is also a surviving letter from a Frankish ecclesiastical writer from the ninth century who is deeper concerned by the same problem. There are other references to the dog-heads here or there.

Then we get to the Middle Ages, and not only have we got these Alexander Romances everywhere (there are Alexander Romances being written as far away as Iceland), but we also start getting stories from early explorers who like to squeeze in some fantastic creatures to boost sales. John of Plano Carpini (I wrote my undergraduate dissertation on this chap) refers to them when he becomes one of the first Westerners to visit the Mongols in 1245. The Mongols had invaded Poland and Hungary in the 1230s, reaching as far as Germany with some raiding parties. The Europeans were naturally concerned and so Pope Innocent IV sent Plano Carpini into the unknown – deep into Asia to find out what the fuck was going on. Poor old Plano Carpini was in his 60s! Anyway, his account is largely factual but there are fleeting references to weird peoples. From memory, Plano Carpini keeps asking the people he encounters where these weird races are, and the they keep saying WEST COUNTRY “over the next hill”.

William of Rubruck followed the route of Plano Carpini a few years later and also refers to dog-headed people although he does not find any. Everyone knows about Marco Polo, he travelled the silk route about 50 years after Plano Carpini and Rubruck and according to him, the dog heads live in the Andaman Island which lie between India and Thailand. Odoric of Pordenone is a little bit later and he also refers to dog-headed people. He too was a Franciscan friar and his work was a point of reference for the hugely successful Tales of John Mandeville that was largely fictional but based on real accounts of people visiting Asia and China.

Whilst Europeans thought dog-headed people lived in distant lands, so too did the Chinese. Ibn Battuta, the famous Arab explorer also half-refers to dog headed people;

“Fifteen days after leaving Sunaridwan we reached the country of the Barahnakar, whose mouths are like those of dogs. This tribe is a rabble, professing neither the religion of the Hindus nor any other. They live in reed huts roofed with grasses on the seashore, and have abundant banana, areca, and betel trees. Their men are shaped like ourselves, except that their mouths are shaped like those of dogs; this is not the case with their womenfolk, however, who are endowed with surpassing beauty.”

Classic holiday bants, the women are hot but the blokes are ugly.

From this point onwards, it gets even harder to track the spread of the myth of the dog-headed people. It spreads fast! They appear on lots of medieval maps, like the Hereford Mappa Mundi and there are plenty of cool pictures of them in medieval manuscripts. Colombus writes in his diary that he was expecting to find them on the island of Haiti. Later Spanish and Portugese explorers were also looking out for them in the Americas.

So who were the Cynocephali? Well, I would love to give you a stupid but exciting answer like this one that I found on a website: NERD VOICE “No one knows for sure what happened to this small, but powerful race. It is believed that as the empires around them expanded they were killed off. They were most certainly a warring tribe and would have preferred death in battle to succumbing to another culture's ways. Either way, they have disappeared from human view. Perhaps there are still some of them living in caves awaiting a day where they may return to power.”

Listeners, you might have spotted that Sam and I are a little bit slap-dash at times with our research, you might also have spotted that we occasionally swear and crack rude jokes. I also sometimes click my pen and Sam’s phone occasionally goes off. But at least we’re not fucking stupid like the person who wrote that.

Back to my question, who were the Cynocephali? Well there are lots of possible explanations, all of them probably influencing the stories at some point by varying degrees. All merging together to create the myth.

Firstly they could be garbled stories of primates and other human-like animals. I’ve often wondered if monopods or sciopods were kangaroos because a kangaroo looks a lot like an outback Aussie on occasion, just a bit cleaner, less racist and more modern haircut. Not like a mugshot from the 1990 world cup sticker album.

Secondly, it’s not difficult to imagine a human with a dogs head, so they these creatures could have just been imagined from the outset. The human relationship with wild dogs and their domestication goes back much further than written history so I don’t find it hard to believe that people have been making up stories since the dawn of time, as the cave paintings in Libya and the Egyptian gods suggest.

Thirdly, this could be what we’d call today, cultural insensitivity/racism. The accounts could be referring to races of people who looked different. Certainly I don’t think it’s politically incorrect to say, for example, that Aboriginal Australians have very different faces to white Europeans.

Fourthly, and linked to what I’ve just said, the dog-headed people could have evolved from a cultural memory of now extinct human ancestors such as Neanderthals who only died out 40,000 years ago.

Fifthly, this could refer to peculiar tribal practices in remote areas of the world such as sharpening teeth.

Sixthly, and lastly, I did see somewhere the postulation that these dog-headed people evolved out of garbled stories of the lower castes in Hindu society.

As I said a moment ago, it’s probably all of the above!

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