Cult of the Severed Head

Exploring severed heads in art and history...

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Have you ever wondered why the skull or head holds such power over people, even today? In this community we intend discuse what the severed head/skull has symbolized through out history in different cultures. If you would like more information on the beliefs associated with Celtic Culture please read my article bellow.

The Celtic Cult of the Severed Head... or not...
By: skullarix

I find that most practitioners of a Celtic-ish path will not or do now cover the Cult of the Severed Head. I decided when I overhauled this website that I would touch up on this subject.

When I first learned of the Cult of the Severed Head I was in an Internet chat room and someone threw out some comment like, "Didja know the Celts were head hunters." The of course the battle ensued regarding whether or not the Celts were head hunters or not. I, not taking the claim at face value, had to research.

First I would like to point out the there probably wasn't a Cult of the Severed Head, the severed head was probably a cultic ritual item. To have a Cult you need to have a charismatic cult leader. A carving or an actual severed head is not a cult leader, unless it talks, but we will get into that later.

The fact is that the Celts were indeed "head hunters," though I don't feel that those words describe the honor and veneration given to the heads.

Herbert Kuhn suggests in L'Ascension de L'humanite that the act of taking heads during prehistoric times marked man's discover of the spiritual principle residing in the head and not the body.

The Celts being head hunters is not unique among archaic peoples. What is unique is the extent to which the venerated the head. It is incorporated into their art and religious practices. Even today, carved stone heads can be seen all over Ireland and Scotland. According to Anne Ross, "Evidence strongly suggests that the Celtic Cult of the Severed Head stems directly from Unified and earlier Bronze Age Europe where the had was clearly used in certain instances as a solar symbol."

To the Celts that act of taking a head was not a grisly act of dishonor to a fallen foe. In fact the would often take the head of one of their allies lest it fall into the wrong hands, creating the idea that the head was the whole person and could exist in its own right. The concept of the head being the whole would also play a roll in ancestor worship. The Celts believed that you could control a person's afterlife through the use of their head. There are Archaeological9 discoveries of skulls at farmsteads, that appear to have been once nailed over door ways and gates. Celtic warriors may have believed that the power of their fallen foe could be used to help protect their homes and families. These same heads also could have been an offering or thanksgiving for the periods of good harvests.

This concept of protection and or offering also translated to temples.

The idea of a Cult of the Severed Head came to light because of two famous temples discovered in what would be southern Gaul, Roquepertuse and Entremont. Niches were carved to hold actual human skulls in the pillars at the gate of Roquepertuse. At Entremont the heads are carved images in the stone pillars.

Within the temple of Entremont there were also twenty skulls found in the sanctuary, which could have been offerings. It is also said that the heads of enemies were taken as a trophy and the flesh was removed, the skull was hollowed out, and decorated with gold. These decorates skulls were then use by Druids for ritual libations.

I believe the use of skulls for ritual libations could have brought about the association of heads and holy wells. In Scotland and Ireland the cure for different aliments is to drink for a skull at certain holy wells. (This is especial true for Epilepsy in Scotland). There are also many wells that have stone heads as part of their structures. there is a legend that tells of St. Helen's Well in Eshton where the head is below the water line. One would hold their breath and dunk their head under the water and kiss the stone head for luck or a cure.

"The head appears to have been regarded as an object of power, bringing luck and strength into a house or increasing the holiness of a sanctuary. A further reason for valuing a severed head might be its association with divination, suggested by the part played by speaking or singing heads in Irish tales."
Myths and Symbols in Pagan Europe

Often times a head taken in battle might be brought to a celebrator feast where food and drink were offered to it. In turn the head might speak or sing. Sometimes heads didn't wait that long, and would speak on the battle field and either relate a prophecy or issue orders.

In the famous Welsh tale "Branwen Daughter of Llyr", Bran the Blessed is wounded in battle by a poisoned spear, before the poison reaches his head he demand that this followers sever his head and take it with them. For eighty years they prospered and felt no sorrows under the "Hospitality of the Noble Head." Unfortunately one of Bran's men breaks the spell and the head had to be buried. Bran's head is said to be buried at the White Mountain in London facing France.

In the Welsh version of the Quest for the Holy Grail Peredur also known as Percival is entertained in a castle where they boy pages bare a bloody severed head on a platter. What this head represents is unclear, however some feel that the head itself is a representation of the Holy Grail. The head motif is found on many vessels such as cauldrons and bowls. The cauldron of re-birth is a very important symbol in Celtic beliefs, and is actually carried over into the Christian Holy Grail myth.

The had motif can even be found on churches and cathedrals as the Green man and later Gargoyles. The Celtic idea of the Severed Head is that heads are looked upon with reverence as a sacred talisman. These talismen have healing, protective, apotropaic and life-giving properties.

Contributing Sources (and further reading):
The Folklore of the Scottish Highlands
Anne Ross
Copyright 1976

The Mabinogion
Translated by Jeffrey Gantz
Copyright 1979

The Celtic World
Barry Cunliffe
Copyright 1979

Myths and Symbols in Pagan Europe
H. R. Ellis Davidson
Copyright 1988

Stony Gaze
John Billingsley
Copyright 1998