Dog History: The Sainted Dog

greyhound illustration public domain
In the French tale, the dog is a greyhound.
There is a legend, whether truth or fiction (likely fiction born out of some former truth, as most legends are), of a dog risen to sainthood, after protecting a child and receiving a swift execution as his reward.

There are two stories, one Welsh and one French, both with similar motifs, and one was almost certainly copied from the other. We'll focus on the French one first, and touch on the Welsh one later.

In this tale, a French noble from the 13th century raised a greyhound named Guinefort like it was his child, and had a great trust for the dog due to this relationship with him. Some stories say the man was a prince, while others say he was a nobleman or knight, but that is neither here nor there. What is important to know is that this lofty French fellow later had a baby with his wife, and began raising the child with his beloved dog. He trusted the dog so much that he decided that he could leave his baby alone with the dog while he went out hunting (OK, so he's not in the running for Father of the Year or anything here!). It is unknown where the baby's mother was when this noble hunter decided to go off hunting and not scrounge up a few bucks (17th century French bucks, of course) for a sitter.

So, the wealthy dad, after some time away, returns home to find the nursery, where the dog was guarding the baby, awash in blood and the baby is no where to be seen. The guy jumps to the conclusion that the dog has killed his son, and he kills the dog almost immediately. The last sound the dog makes is a yelp, and at that noise the baby cries out! The prince/nobleman realizes his mistake. The baby is under the overturned crib and there is a dead snake next to him.

The father, realizing that the dog was protecting the baby from harm, now feels horrible for the wrongful murder of a loving pet and protector. He puts the dog's body into a well and covers it with stone. He plants a grove of trees around the well, and it becomes a shrine to his dog.

Terrible story so far, right? Well, here's where it gets all weird and metaphysical. The story continues with the local townsfolk hearing about the dog's unjust killing in defense of a baby, and they begin to visit the shrine and pray to the dog for protection of their own babies and children! Miracles are said to happen, and the dog begins to gain fame as a Saint. The dog became known locally as the patron Saint of babies and children, although this name is likened to many other Saints. It is said that a Dominican inquisitor decided that the people who believed in the dog as a Saint were a cult, and he called the dog a heretic and tried to turn the people's thought away from it. The "cult" of Saint Guinefort was said to have continued until the 1930's in France.

public domain image of dog protecting child
Gelert, presented here as a large hound, protecting a babe.
This image is in the public domain because of an expired copyright.
This story is used as a proverb for not jumping to conclusions without evidence, or "haste makes waste." It is a fascinating tale, and repeated in many cultures, in various guises. In the Welsh version, the owner is Prince Llywelyn the Great, the dog's name is Gelert, he is some kind of hound (possibly an Irish Wolfhound or Scottish Deerhound), and he was a gift from King John of England. Also in the Welsh version, the snake becomes a mighty wolf. The burial is a big ceremonial affair, and the Prince never smiles again as a result of his blunder. There are even children's books about Gelert available on Amazon.

Whatever the case, the story that this originates from is both tragic and compelling. It touches our hearts, because we, as dog lovers, know that our dogs would probably be willing to die for us, too.

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