In the book 1421: THE YEAR CHINA DISCOVERED THE WORLD, the Chinese, whose empire was expanding, sent sailors to navigate the seas and explore the world. They brought back to China all kinds of exotic animals from distant lands. They also spoke of the many different peoples they encountered in the world: the varied races, languages and customs they discovered in their journeys. The book mentions the Chinese also heard and believed there were even stranger people living in distant and mysterious lands – including dog-headed humans.
Reading that the Chinese in the 15th Century believed that dog-headed humans existed intrigued me since the same legends were bantered about in Byzantium and also believed to be factual. So much so that reports reached the Byzantine Orthodox that in these distant and mysterious lands, the dog-headed people had converted to Orthodox Christianity. Stories of their conversion were accepted as true. St Christopher was the reported name of the first saint of the dog-headed people. In some versions of his story he is transformed into a human after being baptized. That means they were willing to accept that a dog-headed person could and should be baptized. Christ’s salvation extended to every human being no matter how different they may be.
The Byzantines apparently were not surprised that the dog-headed people converted to Orthodoxy. They believed Orthodoxy to be the true faith and believed it to be a faith for all people of the world. It fulfilled a vision of the kingdom of God and of what it is to be human which was not limited to any one people of the world but was part of the new humanity created in Christ. Recently Pantelis Kalaitzides describes this vision this way:
“In this perspective, the Church is seen as a spiritual homeland, a spiritual genus, in which all the divisions of nature (race, language, culture, gender, social class) are overcome, and the mystery of the unity in Christ and the fellowship of divided humanity unfold. The Church is a new people, a new nation, which is not identified with any other people, race, or earthly nation since what characterizes it is not blood ties or subjection to the natural state of affairs, but voluntary personal response to the call of God and free participation in the body of Christ and the life of grace.” (“Church and Nation in Eschatological Perspective”, THE WHEEL #17/18 Spring/Summer 2019, p 54).
All things are made new in this eschatological vision and all old divisions are no more. As St Paul proclaimed:
… you have put off the old nature with its practices and have put on the new nature, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator. Here there cannot be Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free man, but Christ is all, and in all. (Colossians 3:11)
And so whatever separated the dog-headed humans from the rest of humanity was overcome in Christ. Humans were humans and Christ died and rose from the dead in order to save them all. They made icons of the saints of the dog-headed people and believed Christ Himself converted them.
In reality, the dog-headed humans didn’t exist. Lives of the saints contained many miraculous embellishments and were not always historical or factual, preferring to emphasize the miraculous. But it is interesting to note that for the Byzantine Orthodox if such people existed, they could be embraced into the Kingdom of God. They could be baptized, become saints, have icons of their holy people. Belief in the dog-headed people may never have become part of mainstream Orthodoxy, but the piety of those Byzantine Orthodox was ready to embrace these people as being God’s creatures and capable of being united to Christ, no matter how strange they seemed. Christ after all was pantocrator – Lord of the universe, of all living beings.
“When gathered in the Holy Eucharist, the Church realizes and reveals to the world and to history the incorporation of all in Christ, the transcendence of every discrimination and contrast, a communion of love wherein “there is neither male nor female, neither Greek nor Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian or Scythian, slave or free” (Col. 3:11 and Gal. 3:28). In this way, it presents an image of the Kingdom of God, but at the same time also an image of ideal human society, and the foretaste of the victory of life over death, of incorruption over corruption, and love over hatred.” (MESSAGE OF THE PRIMATES OF THE ORTHODOX CHURCH SYNAXIS-ASSEMBLY AT THE PHANAR CHRISTMAS 2000 AD)
When I was at St Vladimir’s Seminary, a little over 40 years ago, I remember Fr John Meyendorff saying that whatever else the Byzantines were (Hellenistic, triumphalistic, ethnic, xenophobic, nationalistic, phobic of anything “western”) they were not racist. That seemed to be his professional opinion based on years of research. His words stuck with me because through the decades it has seemed to me it is hard to differentiate the ethnicism in American Orthodox from the racism which was also present in the same people. But the Eucharistic and eschatological vision which Kalaitzides is far reaching in its scope and quite inspiring.
However the idea of “dog headed” people played out in Byzantine Orthodoxy, it does show that they really had an expansive view of what it is to be human. They were not racists, even though they allowed slavery. Slaves could even work their way up in the world in certain positions. They accepted eunuchs in the society – people whose gender identity was altered by force or choice (though eventually forbidding making eunuchs within the borders of the Empire). Several eunuchs rose to high positions in Byzantine society and some became saints in the Orthodox Church. Can Orthodoxy hold to this vision today as it deals with Trans-people as well? Certainly some Patristic theologians thought gender was not essential to humanity, and some saw it as belonging only to the fallen world but not to eternal life. We are challenged today with thoughts about what it is to be human which do have precedents in Orthodox history. God’s love is given to all who are human which the Byzantine Orthodox understood and applied to others no matter how differerent they imagined them to be.