Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Historical background: Psoglav

Summary: Follow-up to the previous post about the Psoglav, here I take a look at the historical origin stories of the monster and getting an overview of what exactly inspired such a creature.
At the start of this post I’d just like to point out that this information here might not be 100% accurate. As with any kind of folklore or obscure theme, there are various in/accurate sources and all these different stories are entwined in different ways and are constructing layers upon each other, making it really hard to get to the true origin or version. This is just a short sum of the things I have read.

Our dog-headed friend is a peculiar one. Spread out in legends across the Balkans, it is called psoglav in Serbian, psoglavac in Croatian, pasjeglavec in Slovenian, psohlavec in Czech, kynokephalos (or cynocephalos) in Greek and so on, essentially all meaning dog-headed. All these peoples had their own version or variation of the creature and, although obscure, sources are abound. The majority of these sources hail from the Christian church and the image of Saint Christopher, but more on this later.

St. Christopher Carrying the Christ Child,
by Hieronymus Bosch (c. 1485)
The most mundane explanation for the Psoglav is that its name and its carricature-like appearance was used as a curse for the enemies of Christianity. These would include Turks and Tatars, Huns (most notably Attila and his kin, of course) and, in some Roman accounts, the Canaanites. The brutality and savagery of the Psoglav is most probably the main attribute associated with the “enemy”, as the European view of the many tribes from the east has been that of primitivism and pure blood-thirst.

The Canaanites are a special and interesting case though and could very well be one of the starting points for the inspiration of the Psoglav and his entry into the realm of the Christian church. The Romans encountered a rather combat savvy tribe west of Egypt (although, some accounts say it was around the area of modern day Palestine, which makes it more likely due to the Canaanite origins) and it was during these skirmishes that a man named Reprebus was captured, who was of enormous size and built. By some accounts, he was facially disfigured, while others state that he had a face of a dog and it is not clear whether this was just a figure of speech or a literal statement.

In any case, due to the sheer strength of Reprebus, it took 200 Roman soldiers to take him to Rome. He was eventually converted and baptized, becoming a Christian now named Christopher. He was even proclaimed a saint, since he died a martyr’s death. By some accounts, he met his end on the Greek island Samos, where he refused to offer a sacrifice to the pagan gods and was beheaded as a result.

Another version of the mighty Cannanite states that a man named Reprobus (or Reprob) was of titanic build and strength, eager to find “the most powerful man on Earth in order to serve him”. He roamed the land serving various kings. He served the first king until he realized the king feared the devil. Reprobus went to search for the devil, who he found to be among a band of marauders. Eventually, the devil showed fear of the cross and of a man named Christ. He then departed from the devil in search of Christ and the cross, in the end finding a hermit who taught him the ways of Christianity. This version also ends in Christopher being beheaded, this time on the island of Lycia.

But, to go back to the previously mentioned interesting point about the Canaanite origin, the saint’s depiction as dog-headed mainly stems from a misinterpretation of the scholars in the Eastern Roman Empire who by mistake used the Latin term “canineus” (or canine) instead of “Cananeus” (or Canaanite).

"Мученик Христофор",
museum of Kremlin, Russia,
artist unknown
Additionally, it is important to note that the literal dog-headed saint is only present in Eastern Orthodox Christianity and not Catholic teachings, most probably because of this peculiar “Byzantine” translation error which spread more easily into the eastern parts of the continent. 

Of course, this isn’t the only reason why the dog-headed representation has it’s roots in Orthodox Christianity. People in the Balkans, most notably Serbian and Bosnian tribes/nations, have always had an actual race of humanoid, dog-headed beings in their folklore and this is where the actual Psoglav creature draws its origin from. It is easy to assume that it would be almost expected from the Christian priests to use a member of such a savage and bloodthirsty monster and spin a tale for it where it would convert to their religion and even become a saint. 

That said, Sveti Hristofer (Saint Christopher, in Serbian) was literally a Psoglav who adopted Christianity. He is even attributed with knowing “the language of the dog-headed”, which made his mutterings and pondering about God hard to understand. In another version, it is the opposite, Hristofer was a human who was so beautiful that all the women of the land desired him, so he asked God for help who responded by turning him into one of the Psoglav.

Serbian monastery Sukovo is one of the places where one can see a fresco depicting the dog-headed saint. Located in the southeastern part of the country, the monastery has quite a selection of peculiar scenes depicted on its walls, including the already mentioned Psoglav, an image of Mary, mother of Jesus, with wings and a depiction of a bald Christ.

“Violent” Psoglav have been cited only vaguely in a handful of Roman reports. Some mention Roman legions encountering savage tribes of dog-headed during the conquests of the Balkan peninsula. The tribes were ferocious in combat and a horrifying sight to behold on the field. These stories are probably the main inspiration for the cannibal version of the Psoglav and the Roman version of the “curse” their enemies possessed. However, some accounts which portray the "saint" as a member of the African tribe of the Marmaritae, describe the land as a place of cannibals and dog-headed people, which some Greek traditions took absolutely literally.
Fresco from the Sukovo Monastery in Serbia, Sveti Hristifor on the right,
artist is unknown
In contrast to the relative mildness of the Romans and the church, the Balkan folklore incarnation of the Psoglav is much disturbing. Similarly to the way I described it in my monster section, it is a cannibalistic/necrophagic chimera with a one-eyed dog head, iron teeth and horse legs (sometimes even having one leg), living in caves where it has a fascination with gems. This depiction is written in only a handful of sources, as it was mostly based on word-to-mouth, oral folklore and only in more modern times was it put on paper. We can only guess what sparked the imagination of the people living on these lands to create such a horrendous creature.

As for my own representation of the Psoglav, I ended up including it in my Quassus setting, as I believe it is quite an integral part of the dark medieval times of the Balkans. It represents a similar, but at the same time extreme contrast to the regular werewolf. Where the lycanthrope is led by an uncontrollable instinct to shapeshift and go mad under the light of the Moon, the Psoglav is the way it is because it wants to be. It is a rabid, lethal entity, possessed and led by extravagant cravings and urges, which it could control, but chooses not to. A nocturnal predator with many tools that can maim or kill you, while still having a selected few weaknesses, yet better left completely avoided regardless. OSR as fuck.

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