Saint Guinefort

Guinefort, dog-headed saint.

Guinefort, dog-headed saint.

Very few people have been given the honor of being venerated as a “Saint,” but only one dog has been fortunate enough to receive that distinction. He even has a feast day, which is on Aug. 22.

His story dates back to around the 13th century. Historians say that Guinefort the dog saint assumed the name of an earlier human saint of the same name, but about whom very little is known, except that he was executed by being shot with many arrows. It is unclear how he became transformed into a Greyhound, but this is not uncommon in the history of saints. Many also believe that Guinefort might have been a cover story for the use of a pagan healing well.

Guinefort the greyhound belonged to a French knight who lived in a castle near Lyon. One day, the knight went hunting, leaving his infant son in the care of Guinefort. When he returned, he found the nursery in chaos – the cot was overturned, the child was nowhere to be seen and Guinefort greeted his master with bloody jaws. Believing Guinefort to have devoured his son, the knight slew the dog. He then heard a child crying; he turned over the cot and found his son lying there, safe and sound, along with the body of a viper. Guinefort had killed the snake and saved the child. On realizing the mistake the family dropped the dog down a well, covered it with stones and planted trees around it, setting up a shrine for Guinefort.

The local peasants hearing of the dog’s noble deed and innocent death, began to visit the place and honor the dog as a martyr in quest of help for their sicknesses and other

Saint Guinefort depicted in a miniature.

Saint Guinefort depicted in a miniature.

needs. Women especially, with sick or poorly children, carried them to the place, and went off a league away to a nearby castle where an old woman would teach them a ritual for making offerings and invocations to the demons and lead them to the grave. When they got there, they offered salt and certain other things, hung the child’s little clothes on the bramble bushes around, fixing them on the thorns. They the would throw the baby through the opening between the trunks of two trees, the mother standing on one side and the old woman on the other side, while invoking the demons to adjure the fauns in the wood of “Rimite” to take the sick and failing child which they said belonged to them and return to them their own child big, plump, live and healthy. Once this was done, the mothers took the baby and placed it naked at the foot of the tree on the straws of a cradle, lit at both ends two candles a thumbsbreadth thick with fire they had brought with them and fastened them on the trunk above. Then, while the candles were consumed, they went far enough away that they could neither hear nor see the child. In this way the burning candles burned up and killed a number of babies.

The Catholic Church was unamused and In 1262, Inquisitor Etienne de Bourbon demanded that the remains of the dog be burned and the shrine and surrounding trees be completely destroyed. The church decreed that anyone found even going to the site of the former shrine would have all their possessions seized and sold. Despite this threat, the shrine continued to receive many visitors up until the 19th century,

Adela