Heads make a range of appearances in folklore and legend. It’s hardly surprising; heads are recognisable body parts, and the ability to speak or otherwise function after decapitation takes them into the realm of the uncanny.
Japan, and wider south-east Asia, have their own demons with flying heads. In Japan, the nukekubi is a form of rokurokubi. The vampiric heads detach from their body and float around, seeking victims. The Penanggalan is a south-east Asian ghost with a detachable head.
Yet we’re going to turn our focus west, to the northeastern states of the United States. Specifically, we’re going to meet the flying heads of the Iroquois tribes.
What are the flying heads of Iroquois folklore?
The name refers to two distinct types of spirit within American folklore.
In the first category, the flying heads are considered part of the Common Faces of the Forest. Here, the bodiless heads skip from tree to tree. In Oneida Iroquois Folklore, Myth, and History, Anthony Wayne Wonderley and Hope Emily Allen explain this version of the heads partly explains “the origin if the False Face medicine society” (2004, p. 91).
This society placed great faith in the heads, who instructed people to carve masks in their likeness. If someone held a feast, burned tobacco, wore their mask, and sang specific curing songs, the individual gained the ability to cure disease.
Yet the second category of flying heads holds far more danger to unwary humans.
These heads “personify the power of wind” (2004, p. 91).
According to the descriptions, the head glares with red eyes and stringy hair streams from its scalp. The jaw hinges open to reveal rows of sharp teeth. Wings flap on the side of its head in place of ears. Yet strangely, the heads ride the currents in stormy skies using their hair, not the wings.
These tales tell of the heads soaring through the air. Once a victim appears, the head dives and locks its teeth into the person. In some tales, they massacre entire villages.
As with legendary beings, the origins vary depending on the story. In some versions, the flying heads come from murders. The severed head of the victim grows to a monstrous size. Alternatively, the head emerges from a grave. Strangely, these flying heads don’t seek justice for their untimely end.
In other tales, the human becomes a flying head after becoming a cannibal. And in yet more stories, the flying heads don’t come from anywhere – they just are.
Are there any common legends?
Many of the stories seem to appear in one of two forms. In one, the flying head proves to be the hero. A witch preys on a group of brothers. The head intervenes, slaying the witch, and resurrecting the brothers.
Yet the second form bears more relation to the typical notion of a flying head. A boy stays with his grandmother and she leaves every day to find food. Before she goes, she reminds him never to go in a particular direction.
Naturally, the boy grows bored and one day heads off in the forbidden direction. A disembodied voice asks him what he would do if it rained forks. The boy thinks it’s a joke and laughs, saying they’d run away, but his grandmother doesn’t find it funny.
A storm rises and, as promised, it rains forks. The boy and his grandmother shelter under a stone but their tepee is lost. The boy doesn’t learn his lesson and heads in the forbidden direction the following day. This time, the voice promises manure, and again, the boy tells it he would run away if it rained thus.
Lo and behold, it rains manure. As before, the boy and his grandmother shelter under the stone. A third instance occurs but the raining material has been lost to posterity.
The boy tires of the head’s ways and decides to get revenge. He sets out but follows a circular route so he approaches where he heard the voice from a different direction. The boy speaks first, asking the voice how it would like it if the wind blew all of the trees down. He spots the head up a tree, which expresses its dismay at the boy’s wish for high winds.
The wind rises and breaks the branches of the trees, leaving the head homeless. The head disappears and the boy and his grandmother return to their lives.
How do you dispose of flying heads?
Thankfully, many describe the heads as relatively unintelligent. The Iroquois built campfires using small coals and roasted chestnuts among the ashes. The tribe ate the nuts, loudly announcing how delicious they were to anyone within earshot.
The smell of the roasting chestnuts lured the flying heads, who grabbed mouthfuls of coals instead of nuts. The locking mechanism of the jaws meant the heads couldn’t spit out the coals. The heads burst into flames.
Another story explains the heads grew afraid of humans after seeing a woman eating coals. The coals were actually roasting acorns, but the heads assumed the humans were strong enough to eat fire.
There are naturally stories beyond the scope of this post. And it’s difficult to know what to make of the flying heads. Do they provide cautionary tales for boys keen to stray beyond the boundaries of their village? Or do they represent dangers that can be outwitted?
Whatever they represent, the flying heads provide a fascinating glimpse into First Nation folklore.
Over to you! Have you heard of the flying heads before?
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