|St Christopher with a dog's head
Locals told him that a knight had ridden off one day leaving his faithful hound, Guinefort, to guard his infant son, and in common with similar legends from all over Europe from Saxon times, the knight had returned to find the cradle overturned, baby missing and blood on the teeth of his dog. In horror, believing the dog had devoured his son, the knight drew his sword slew the animal. Moments later, he heard the child crying and found him unharmed, with a dead viper lying close by, bearing the teeth-marks of the faithful hound. In grief, the knight buried the dog down a well and planted a grove of sacred trees around it.
Miracles began to be associated with the dog and locals declared the dog a saint, whose feast day was celebrated on 22nd August. Women brought ailing infants to St Guinefort’s resting place and made offerings of salt and items of their infants’ clothes. They then passed the child between two tree trunks 3x3 times - the magic number. Though, according to the disgruntled Étienne, the mothers didn’t gently ‘pass’ the child, but threw the baby to a woman on the other side of the trees who would then toss it back.
Ailing infants were often thought to be changelings, the healthy babies having been stolen by the devil, faery
|Devil replacing a human baby with a changeling
Whatever the truth, Étienne declared that a dog couldn’t be a saint, so it must be a heretic. He had the dog’s bones dug up and burned on a pyre made from the trees he felled from the sacred grove. But this only fuelled the flames of the local women’s devotion and many still remained faithful to St Guinefort right up until the early twentieth century.
With its sacred grove and holy well, the customs surrounding the dog-saint are probably a direct survival of ancient pre-Christian worship on this site, which later acquired a veneer of Christian elements. But it proved remarkably enduring in spite of the Church’s opposition.
Another doggy saint was the better-known St Christopher or the cynocephalus (dog-headed) saint.
Interestingly though, the Eastern Orthodox Church reverses the dog-head legend of St Christopher. In their version he was a remarkably good-looking youth and women were forever throwing themselves at him, so he prayed that he might be made less attractive to women and God answered his prayers by giving him a dog’s head.
Curiously, neither St Christopher nor St Guinefort is the patron saint of dogs, as you might expect. That
|St Sithney Church, Cornwall. Photographer: Tony Atkin
But sadly neither St Sithney nor St Hubert was able to protect one poor dog that lived in Hanley Castle,