St Christopher is the patron saint of travelers and seafarers. In Christian popular tradition, he was a giant who carried travellers across a river. The story is well known, and does not need to be repeated here.
But Old English traditions of the saint are rather unusual. According to the Old English Passion of St Christopher, se w s healf hundisces mancynnes, ‘he was of the race of mankind who are half hound’.*
According to Irish stories of saints, Christopher is born a pagan Dog-head called Reprobus. He regrets his beastial nature and is overjoyed when his conversion to Christianity allows him to lose his Cynocephalic nature. An eighth-century list of Saints explained that Christopher “was one of the Dog-heads, a race that had the heads of dogs and ate human flesh. He meditated much on God, but at that time could only speak the language of the Dog-heads”.
As time passed, the writings mentioned less and less of Christopher’s Cynocephalic nature. Walter of Speyer wrote, in the tenth century, stated that Christopher “took his origins from the Cynocephali, a people in speech and countanence dissimilar to others”. Saint Christopher was more popularly pictured as a giant carrying the christ child. This still satisfied that Christopher was a convert from a monstrous race. But it was probably more due to the fact that Christopher literally means Christ carrier.
It is plain that this is not quite the patron saint of travelers that we are told about at Sunday School. It is a peculiarly Old English view of St Christopher. He resembles the monstrous Healfhundingas, a race mentioned in two Old English texts: The Wonders of the East and The Letter of Alexander to Aristotle. More to the point, he resembles the lupine monsters of Beowulf.
Like most other Indo-European traditions, the Germans seem to have conceived of an otherworldly ferryman who conducted the dead to the underworld; indeed, Odin was so pictured during the Viking Age. It seems reasonable to suppose that St Christopher’s occupation and location struck a traditional chord familiar to Anglo-Saxon ears, and that the legend was consequently coloured by Germanic underworld motifs.
Other conversions of dogheads include a saint or two. Saint Mercurius (not well known in western tradition, mostly in greek and egyptian accounts) used converted Cynocephali as soldiers.
* The Old English Martyrology elaborates upon this: he was thaere theode thaer men habbath hunda heafod & of thaere eorthan on theare aeton men hi selfe, ‘from the nation where men have the head of a dog and from the country where men devour each other’; furthermore, haefde hundes haefod, & his loccas waeron ofer gemet side, & his eagan scinon swa leohte swa morgensteorra, & his teth waeron swa scearpe swa eofores texas, ‘he had the head of a hound, and his locks were extremely long, and his eyes shone as bright as the morning star, and his teet were as sharp as a boar’s tusks’.