The severed head is a common motif in films and television. Horror as a genre is full of beheadings, and heads mounted on pikes draw their authenticity from historical practices.
Heads made excellent display objects if you wanted to warn your enemies that you meant business. People recognise severed heads and only one conclusion can be drawn.
This person is dead.
This ultimately makes them so much more horrific than a severed foot or a section of an arm.
But what do they have to do with folklore? Surprisingly, quite a lot. An obvious example would be Perseus cutting off Medusa’s head.
I originally did a lot of research into severed heads for a forthcoming book on the Gothic nature of body parts in literature and film. But after posting a discussion around the Headless Horseman last week, I decided to focus on the head itself this week!
Let’s get cracking…
The French Revolution
You can’t talk about decapitation and not mention the French Revolution. And you might wonder what it has to do with folklore.
As with any event whose impact is far-reaching and based on fear, several urban legends sprang up around the guillotine and her bloodlust. One tale appears several times, that of the ghostly woman who holds her decapitated head in place with a choker. A young man takes her home, only to discover her headlessness the following morning.
Washington Irving (yep, he of the Headless Horseman fame) even wrote a short story about it, ‘The Adventures of a German Student’. He wrote it in 1824 so the French Revolution was still in living memory for some.
A severed head in a jar dispenses advice to Odin
Norse legends sometimes become difficult to follow when texts refer to a range of characters, often with the same name. Mimir is one such character. No one knows if Mimir is a single figure or two. But either way, one of the versions of Mimir guarded the well of wisdom. The other was equally wise, but ended up being decapitated by the Vanir for continually acting as an advisor by his dim-witted brother.
Mourning the loss of a great advisor, Odin ended up with Mimir’s severed head and pickled it. He kept it by the well of wisdom so he could ask Mimir for counsel whenever he needed him.
That’s something you don’t see in Marvel’s Thor films. (Leave a comment below for casting ideas to play Mimir’s head!)
The head of Orpheus continued to sing after death
Orpheus is most famous within Greek mythology for his descent into the underworld. His pursuit of his wife, Eurydice, ends in tragedy.
The stories differ about what he did when he left the underworld. For whatever reason, he was dismembered. Someone nailed his severed head to his lyre. After it fell into the ocean, it washed up on the island of Lesbos.
Orpheus continued to sing and the Lesbians created a shrine for it in a cave. As the son of a muse himself, Orpheus needed no muse, and he eventually became more popular than the oracles of Lesbos. In the most famous legend, Apollo tires of its incessant chatter and tells it to shut up.
The transformative powers of St Catherine’s severed head
I’ve long been fascinated by religious relics (and not just because of the first series of Blackadder).
St Catherine of Siena has a truly memorable story. She lived during the 14th century, and legends attribute her with stigmata and even levitation. She died in Rome at the age of 33, and the people of Siena wanted her body back for burial. Roman officials refused.
A few townspeople from Siena travelled to Rome to steal her remains. They realised how difficult it would be to smuggle a whole body out of the tomb and decided to decapitate her instead. Some legends even say her body was so badly decomposed by the conditions in the tomb that she was almost headless anyway.
Either way, the Siena locals succeeded in their task. They left the tomb to smuggle the head out of Rome in a bag. Guards stopped them, demanding to see inside the bag. They prayed to St Catherine for help. When the guards peered inside, they saw only a pile of rose petals.
You can see her head (safely ensconced behind glass) in her home church in Siena.
You can read about other religious relics here.
Bran’s head helps repel invasion from Europe
In Celtic mythology, the severed head becomes a symbol of power. In one legend, Bran the Blessed becomes embroiled in a war after his brother-in-law dishonours his sister in Ireland. After being poisoned, Bran asks his fellow warriors to decapitate him and bury his head in Gwynfryn (the site of the Tower of London).
The warriors take his head back to Britain but they didn’t bury it as instructed. Instead, they camp out, first at Harlech, then Gwales, enjoying the head’s tall tales and good humour. Eventually, some 87 years later, they finally bury Bran’s head in London.
Bran asked them to bury his head in London, facing France to repel invasion attempts. Yet in one version of the legend, King Arthur even hung up the head and buried it facing the opposite direction. Apparently, he didn’t like the idea they could only repel invading forces by magical means. He preferred to rely on the prowess of the Knights of the Round Table.
Who knows if his head remains beneath London?
If you’d like to read more about heads in art, culture, and folklore, then I highly recommend Frances Larson’s Severed: A History of Heads Lost and Heads Found. (aff link).
Do you know of any other severed heads in folklore?
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