My primary interests center around the folklore, customs, history, and mythology of the Celts, the Germanic speaking peoples, and the Slavs.
The severed head as a literary motif shows up in Celtic Myth and Arthurian legends with regular frequency. It likely has its origins in the practice of headhunting, which was quite common among the Celts, especially in Gaul. The preoccupation with the head extends far back beyond the historical period. Headhunting had just as much prominence within insular areas as it did on the mainland of Europe. In Ireland, Cormac’s Glossary gives a kenning for the act of head hunting “Macha’s Nut Harvest.”
Scholars of the Mediterranean such as Diodorus and Strabo both make reference to the fondness that the Celts had for preserving the heads of their enemies.
"(The Gauls) cut off the heads of enemies slain in battle and attach them to the necks of their horses. The blood stained spoils they hand over to their attendants and carry off as booty, while striking up a paean and singing a song of victory, and they nail up these first fruits upon their houses just as those who lay low wild animals in certain kinds of hunting. They embalm in cedar oil the heads of the most distinguished enemies and preserve them carefully in a chest, and display them with pride to strangers, saying that, for this head, one of their ancestors, or his father, or the man himself, refused a large sum of money. They say that some of them boast that they refused the weight of the head in gold."
– Diodorus Siculus.
"There is also that custom, barbarous and exotic, which attends most of the northern tribes, when they depart from the battle they hang the heads of their enemies from the necks or their horses, and when they have brought them home, nail the spectacle to the entrance of their houses. At any rate Posidonius says that he himself saw this spectacle in many places, and that, although he first loathed it, afterwards through his familiarity with it, he could bear it calmly."
While these quotes evidence how prominently the Celts (Gauls in particular) revered these heads, they do not further divulge the reason why they did so. Surely in part it appears to serve as bragging rights as a war trophy. Yet, there are those that speculate that there was possibly a cult of the head within Celtic culture. Certainly, there isn’t any conclusive evidence that proves that there was. However, given the plethora of references to them, it must be said that severed heads had great value to the Celts, possibly in a way that extended far beyond the material. If we refer back to the quote given by Diodorus, heads were so valued that even payment in gold was not incentive enough for the owner to part with them. If the sources can be trusted, it should then be considered likely that such a cult existed. There is little that cannot be purchased with enough money. Those things that are held sacred are one of the few exceptions.
Severed Heads in European Archaeology
The testimony of Strabo and Diodorus in regards to the Celt's fondness of severed heads is further supported by a plethora of archaeological discoveries in which these heads feature prominently. A later example can found in Wroxeter, this example of oil preserved skulls dates to the 4th century. At Breden Hill (Gloucestershire, England), a line of skulls appears to have originally been featured above the gate of a fort, only later falling down after the structure fell into disrepair. Continental Celts also appear to have displayed such skulls in a similar fashion, especially at the sanctuaries of Gournay-Sur-Aronde, and Ribemont-Sur-Aronde. Of particular interest are two locations in southern France; Roquepertuse and Entremont. Pillars located at the Roquepertuse location feature niches wherein it is thought that human heads were placed. At Entremonte another pillar that is carved with severed head imagery also features niches where humans skulls were nailed. The head imagery continues elsewhere in the structure where a relief carving features a warrior mounted on a horse with a head depicted hanging from the saddle. The location of these shrines (Roquepertuse and Entremont) are situated closely if not exactly where Lucan stated that the altars dedicated to Esus were located “Esus, who inspires terror by his savage altars.” To an outsider “savage altars” would appear to be an appropriate description. However, while these shrines may appear to be dedicated to a god of death, it is also possible to interpret this as a site dedicated to a heroic god, or cult of heroes along with their efforts in battle.
Disembodied heads can be found throughout the entire length of the Celtic world. Within Celtic Bohemia, at the location of Byciskala, a cauldron was discovered. In the interior of the cauldron, a human skull was recovered. Not far away from the cauldron, a drinking cup made from a skull was also discovered. Drinking from a skull might have been believed to allow the participant to absorb the knowledge of the deceased. At Corbridge (Northumberland) England, another skull was located that may have been used as a cup.
Legendary and Mythological References
Within literature of the medieval period, beheading scenes are quite common, particularly in the literature of Celtic and Arthurian works. One of the more prominent examples is the beheading scene from Sir Gawain and the Green knight, in which the Green Knight challenges Arthur and his knights to behead him. Part of this agreement is that if a knight does so, they are obligated to submit to being decapitated by the Green Knight in one year. This theme can also be located in Fled Bricrenn (Bricriu’s Feast), wherein Cu Chulainn beheads a herdsman, and is obligated to be decapitated himself the following night. In the Táin Bo Cuailnge (The Cattle Raid of Cooley) we again find Cu Chulainn routinely cutting off the heads of his enemies, which he subsequently takes home to display.
The second branch of Mabinogi also contains reference to a severed head. In Branwen daughter of Llyr, one of the central characters, Bran (Bendigeid-fran) is decapitated on his own command. After he is mortally wounded he orders his warriors to cut off his head and return it to Britain and bury it beneath the White Mount of London, where it will serve to protect the country from invasion. It is also worth mentioning that in legend King Arthur was said to remove the head as he felt that he should solely be responsible for protecting Britain.
In Peredur (An Arthurian Romance), it is possible that Bran makes another appearance. It has been routinely speculated that the Fisher King might in fact be a later rendering of Bran. Within the corpus of Arthurian legends, the Fisher King was given the name Bron (quite similar to Bran). Within Peredur, the Fisher King is the uncle of the main character. While Peredur is visiting his uncle, he sees a severed head being transported on a silver platter.
The Germanic/Norse people were close cousins to the Celts. They too featured severed heads in their lore. Within the Poetic Edda one can find the tale of Mimir, whose head is severed but is preserved by Odin with oil and herbs in order to counsel it. It is noteworthy that Mimir was considered to be very wise. By preserving the head, Odin was able to seek counsel from it at a later date. Elsewhere we can find that Sigurd the Mighty was betrayed by a severed head. According to the Orkneyinga Saga, Sigurd’s death was caused due to a scratch he received from a skull he had kept as a trophy
This is but a sampling of the archaeological evidence and associated lore of the severed head that can be found in Northwest Europe. It is testimony to how prominent the theme once was. While little can be stated conclusively whether there truly was religious motivation for preserving such heads, we do know that death was more of an immediate concern for the ancient Celts and Germanic people. Without the assistance of modern medicine, and with the nature of constant warfare in tribal societies it was understood that death was a reality that may happen quickly and unexpectedly. People of the period would have been likely to see death as a day-to-day concern, whereas modern people in western societies have lost this proximity to death and subsequently the associated wisdom that comes from the routine experiences highlighting life’s fragility.
Jason Mullinder on June 08, 2017:
That last Illustration is one of Gustave Dore's illustrations for Dante's Inferno