St. Guinefort, the Dog Venerated as a Saint

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For hundreds of years, residents in the Dombes region of eastern France worshipped a saint who was said to help protect infants from illness and danger. They prayed to his name, and brought sick infants to his shrine for healing.

Such tales aren't very unusual for a saint—except this one was a dog.

According to a legend that originated some time before the 12th century, St. Guinefort was a greyhound owned by a wealthy knight. One day, the knight and his wife left their infant son for the day in the care of his nurse and their loyal dog. They returned to find a scene of carnage in the child’s nursery—the crib overturned, and blood spattered around the room. Guinefort had blood smeared all over his muzzle.

The knight, believing that Guinefort had killed his son, struck the dog with his sword, killing him. Immediately afterward, he heard the cry of a baby and found his son, healthy and whole, underneath the overturned crib. (It's not clear where the nurse was during this time, but she evidently wasn't doing a very good job protecting the child.) Next to the baby was a snake that had been bitten to bloody pieces.

The knight realized that he had killed the dog unjustly—Guinefort had in fact protected the baby. To make amends, he buried the dog in a well and planted a grove of trees around it as a memorial.

As the story of the brave and loyal Guinefort spread, people began to visit the well and brought their sick children there for healing. There are reports of women leaving salt as an offering, or placing children in the grove with lit candles overnight in hopes they would be healed by morning.

These local rituals had continued for about a hundred years when a friar named Stephen of Bourbon heard of the legend and the local custom [PDF]. He declared that the veneration of a dog was heathen—the people who were asking for intercession from the saint were really invoking demons, he said, and the women leaving their children at the shrine overnight were trying to commit infanticide. He had the dog’s body dug up and burned, and the trees cut down.

But the cult of St. Guinefort lived on, and the locals continued to pray to him. A folklorist found that the well and grove still existed in the late 1870s, while a historian discovered evidence that people were still venerating the dog-saint after World War I. Reverberations of his legend—that of a dog-healer living in the forest—seem to have lasted as late as the 1960s.

A stylized illuminated manuscript-type illustration of a greyhound
Wikimedia // Public domain

St. Guinefort was never officially recognized as a saint by the Roman Catholic Church—or anyone else. In order to recognize someone as a saint, the Vatican requires evidence that the person led a holy life and performed miracles. (They also usually require evidence that the individual was human.) But the legend of St. Guinefort dates to before this process of sainthood was formalized, when individuals of great holiness were often spontaneously acclaimed by the people in their local areas.

As it turns out, the Guinefort legend has parallels around the world. There are similar legends elsewhere in Europe and beyond of loyal dogs that are killed after being accused of endangering a child they had in fact protected. One legend from 13th century Wales concerns a dog named Gelert, who saved a child from a wolf but was killed when his master misunderstood the bloodied scene (and thought he'd killed his child instead of the wolf). There is a more modern echo of the story in the film Lady and the Tramp (1955), when Tramp defends a baby from a rat and is hauled off by the dogcatcher for his trouble. In India, a similar story is told about a woman who kills a mongoose who has defended her son from a snake; in Malaysia, the protector is a tame bear who defends a child from a tiger. Folklorists think the tales are told as a caution against acting too hastily in the heat of the moment.

By some accounts, August 22 is St. Guinefort's feast day (although this may be a confusion with an earlier, human saint). And while there's no official dog saint, if you need heavenly intercession for any canine problems, the patron saint of dogs and dog owners is St. Roch—who is also the patron saint for those, like Guinefort, who were unjustly accused.

What's the Difference Between Pigeons and Doves?

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To the layman, the difference between pigeons and doves has something to with color, maybe. Or location. Or general appeal (doves usually get much better press than pigeons do). But what’s the actual, scientific difference between doves and pigeons?

As it turns out, there isn’t one. Paul Sweet, the collection manager for the department of ornithology at the American Museum of Natural History, says the difference is more linguistic than taxonomic.

“The word dove is a word that came into English from the more Nordic languages, whereas pigeon came into English from French,” Sweet tells Mental Floss.

Both dove and pigeon refer to the 308 species of birds from the Columbidae family, Sweet says. There’s no difference between a pigeon and a dove in scientific nomenclature, but colloquial English tends to categorize them by size. Something called a dove is generally smaller than something called a pigeon, but that’s not always the case. A common pigeon, for example, is called both a rock dove and a rock pigeon.

“People just have their own classification for what makes them different,” Sweet says. “So in the Pacific, for example, the big ones might get called pigeons and the smaller ones might be called doves, but they’re actually more closely related to each other than they are to other things in, say, South America, that are called pigeons and doves.”

The difference boils down to linguistic traditions, so feel free to tell people you’re releasing pigeons at your wedding or that you’re feeding doves in the park. Scientifically speaking, you’ll be correct either way.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

8 Hair-Raising Facts About Black Cats

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No member of catkind is more maligned than the black cat. At best, they're bemoaned as lackluster photography subjects; at worst, they're seen as harbingers of really bad luck. But there's a lot to love about these furballs, as evidenced by the holidays in their honor—the ASPCA celebrates Black Cat Appreciation Day annually on August 17 and, across the pond, October 27 is National Black Cat Day—and the facts below.

1. IN SOME CULTURES, BLACK CATS ARE GOOD LUCK.

A black kitten stretching
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They may have a less-than-stellar reputation in some areas of the world, but there are plenty of places where black cats aren’t bad luck at all. If you’re a single woman in Japan, owning a black cat is said to increase your number of suitors; if you’re in Germany and one crosses your path from right to left, good things are on the horizon.

2. THEY'RE A SAILOR'S BEST FRIEND.

Not only were cats welcome aboard British vessels to hunt mice, but sailors generally thought a black cat in particular would bring good luck and ensure a safe return home. A few of these kitties have been enshrined in maritime history, like Tiddles, who traveled more than 30,000 miles during his time with the Royal Navy. (His favorite pastime was playing with the capstan’s bell-rope.)

3. THERE IS NO ONE BLACK CAT BREED.

The Cat Fanciers’ Association (CFA) recognizes 22 different breeds that can have solid black coats—including the Norwegian Forest Cat, Japanese Bobtail, and Scottish Fold—but the Bombay breed is what most people picture: a copper-eyed, all-black shorthair. The resemblance to a "black panther" (more on those animals in a bit) is no coincidence. In the 1950s, a woman named Nikki Horner was so enamored with how panthers looked that she bred what we now refer to as the Bombay.

4. BLACK CATS ARE AS EASILY ADOPTED AS CATS OF OTHER COLORS.

Black cat facts.
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It’s common to think that black cats in shelters are the last in line to find their forever homes, but a recent survey from the ASPCA suggests otherwise. Although euthanasia numbers for black cats were some of the highest, their total number of adoptions was the highest of any hue as well. The vet who conducted the study argues that there may just simply be more black cats than other colors.

5. THEIR COATS CAN "RUST."

A black cat’s color all boils down to a genetic quirk. There are three variants of the black fur gene (solid black, brown, and cinnamon), and the hue works in conjunction with the pattern. If a cat has a solid black hue, but also the dominant tabby stripe gene, heavy exposure to the sun can make the eumelanin pigment in its fur break down to reveal its once-invisible stripes (another potential cause: nutritional deficiency). What was once a black cat is now a rusty brown cat.

6. THE GENE THAT CAUSES BLACK FUR MIGHT MAKE THESE FELINES RESISTANT TO DISEASE.

Even though their coloring is what gives them a bad reputation, these felines may be getting the last laugh after all. The mutation that causes a cat’s fur to be black is in the same genetic family as genes known to give humans resistance to diseases like HIV. Some scientists think the color of these cats may have less to do with camouflage and more to do with disease resistance. They’re hoping that as more cat genomes are mapped, we may get a step closer to curing HIV.

7. YOU CAN VISIT A CAT CAFE DEVOTED TO BLACK CATS.

Step through the doors of Nekobiyaka in Himeji, Japan and get ready for your wildest cat lady dreams to come true. Black cats are the stars of this café and visitors are invited to pet (but not pick up) these lithe felines. Each of Nekobiyaka’s identical-looking black cats wears a different colored bandana to resolve any catastrophic mix-ups.

8. THEY'RE DIFFICULT TO PHOTOGRAPH—BUT IT CAN BE DONE.

A black cat is photographed against a blue-gray background
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The modern-day conundrum black cat owners face isn’t bad luck, but bad lighting. In a world filled with people sharing photos of their pets on Instagram, black cats can end up looking like a dark blob in photos. One photographer’s advice? Minimalist backgrounds, so your subject can stand out, and angling them towards natural light sources (but keep them out of bright sunlight!). If you're snapping pics on your iPhone, tap on your cat's face, then use the sun icon to brighten up the photo.

BONUS: BLACK PANTHERS HAVE SPOTS.

Technically, there is no such thing as a black panther—it’s a term used for any big black cat. What we call black panthers are in fact jaguars or leopards and yes, they have spots, too. Their hair shafts produce too much melanin thanks to a mutation in their agouti genes, which are responsible for distributing pigment in an animal’s fur. Look carefully and you can see a panther’s spots as the sunlight hits them in just the right way.

This article originally ran in 2016.

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