The Headless Horseman is a strange figure. He stands astride several categories at once; phantom, urban legend, folklore character, and film icon.
The most famous Headless Horseman of all is perhaps the one immortalised by Washington Irving in ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’.
His original story (spoiler alert) implies that human agency is behind the appearance of the aforementioned horseman. Not so for the 1999 Tim Burton adaptation, or the Sleepy Hollow TV series.
These takes their stories from the traditional folklore of the area. In these, the Horseman died during the American Revolutionary War. Decapitated during a battle in 1776, his ghost roams the area every Halloween in search of his missing head.
Some of the research I’ve done seems to cite Dutch folktales as the source of the Headless Horseman. That’s possibly due, in part, to the existence of a Dutch story about a headless horseman roaming around Tarrytown, NY, one Halloween.
Yet the stories are much, much older. And we have to go to Ireland if we want to get to know the Headless Horseman a little better…
The Headless Horseman in Ireland
The horseman is known as the Dullahan in Irish folklore. He roams the back roads of rural Ireland, collecting the souls of the dead.
He dresses in black and rides a black horse, although in some stories he drives a coach pulled by six horses. Coffins, gravestones and bones make up the coach. The horses gallop so fast their hooves set fire to the hedges lining the road.
Whichever version it is, the Dullahan carries a whip made of a human spine in one hand. In his other, he carries his own head. It glows, acting as a lantern.
He’s also been known to lash out the eyeballs of anyone who sees him.
Deaths occur whenever he stops riding and calls out a name. If you heard him call yours, then you’d be the next to die.
Reverend John O’Hanlon claimed the Dullahan only acted as an omen of death for the rich families in the area. Apparently his coach “had no sound as it passed by on the road, which was usually how one determined it was of an otherworldly character” (Irish Folklore: Traditions and Superstitions of the Country, 1870). Here he becomes conflated with the banshee, announcing deaths in prominent Irish families.
Yet he does have a fear of gold, which sends him fleeing into the dark.
Some believe the Dullahan’s origins lie in the 6th century. Christian missionaries banned the worship of Crom Dubh, the Celtic god of fertility. Every year, he demanded human sacrifices, usually created using decapitation.
Once they banned his worship, the locals turned him into a terrifying figure that still demanded corpses. Eventually, Crom Dudh fell out of the stories, and the horseman became the Dullahan.
The Headless Horseman in Britain
In Scotland, a man named Ewen became a headless horseman after being decapitated in a clan battle. He lost his chance to be chieftain, as well as his head, and accounts state both he and his horse are headless.
Tales of acephalous ghosts are rare in England, something Owen Davies puts down to the fact our main method of execution has been hanging (The Haunted: A Social History of Ghosts, 2007).
Davies notes the existence of a single English headless horseman, who haunted a track in Wiltshire every New Year’s Eve. According to a local legend, he made a wager to make it home in Stourton from Wincanton market in 7 minutes. He broke his neck during the race, which apparently explains the headless state of his phantom (2007).
The Headless Horseman in Germany
German folklore is slightly different. Locals blamed windstorms on the appearances of these spectral hunters and they were accompanied by mysterious noises.
The Grimm Brothers collected two folk tales, both set in Saxony. On one, a woman goes out to gather acorns early one morning. After hearing a hunting horn, she sees a headless man astride a grey horse. He speaks to her, identifying himself as Hans Jagenteufel, telling her a tale of his former life of wickedness.
In another, the Wild Huntsman was a man named Hackelberg in life. On his deathbed, he begged God to allow him to continue riding in the Hunt until Judgment Day. God granted this strange request. Yet the sounds from Hackelberg’s Wild Huntsman provide a form of warning to others.
If any heard the sounds during the night and still went hunting the following day, they’d meet some kind of misfortune in the woods. Those who heard the sounds avoided the hunt and so avoided any nasty accidents.
Elsewhere in German folklore, the headless horseman hunts those who commit capital crimes. The opening lines of the Hans Jagenteufel story even note that any who escaped beheading for their crimes in life were doomed to wander headless throughout eternity. So maybe the German horsemen are trying to even up the score.
In these cases, the headless horseman takes on a guardian or judicial role, warning of danger or punishing wrongdoers.
These days, the Headless Horseman is more famous as a film and TV character than a terrifying local figure. He even makes an appearance in the World of Warcraft game at Halloween.
But don’t forget that a corpse-hungry Celtic god and a spine-wielding demonic fairy lie behind this pop culture character…
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