At the age of four, I awoke from a bizarre dream. A human skull bounced into my room – much like a basketball – and got me out of bed with an invitation to join it and its friends in the kitchen! What confronted my eyes there would make the typical adult shriek and run, but being a curious child, I was game. Human skulls – all alive and chattering away – covered the floor. They greeted me cheerily and I vaguely remember following the bouncing heads outside to the backyard to play on the swing set – bodies not required.
Carl Jung might have explained my dream as a fragment of the collective unconscious, defined as “an inherited ‘racial conscious,’ dominated by a set of symbols called archetypes or ‘primordial images’….Jung believed that all these archetypes owed their existence to the individual’s heredity” (Roediger et al., 1984, pp.475-476). Could the skulls of my dream be an archetype of headhunting in the Celtic collective unconscious?
Roman accounts speak of a Celtic “cult of the head.” According to Hubert (1992, v.2, p.191), the Gauls cut off the heads of their slain enemies. Poseidonius, who travelled in Gaul, says that horsemen hung them at the necks of their horses, or nailed them to the timbers of their houses like trophies of the chase, or dressed and embalmed them. He adds that his hosts showed him these trophies with pleasure and boasted of the great sums offered by the families of the victims to buy them back.”
The cult of the head moved with the Celts to the British Isles. At Brendon Hill in Gloucestershire, six human skulls had been affixed to the gate of the Celtic fort there. At Danesbury Fort in Hampshire, eight skulls were excavated from a pit. Skulls “decorated ramparts at Stanwick in Yorkshire and Hunsbury in Northamptonshire, and individual human heads have been found in pits within other fortresses” (Hutton, 1992, p. 194). Heads seem to have been ritually severed and deposited even during the Roman occupation of Britain. Nine wells throughout England and Wales have yielded human skulls deposited during this period.
In ancient Ireland, a cult of the head existed among the Gaels. Árcenn, a colorful word for “battle” in Old Irish, literally means “head-harvest.” “The Annals of the Four Masters relate that Aed Finnliath, King of Ireland, having defeated the Danes in 864, caused the heads of the slain to be piled in a heap. When the famous Bishop-king Cormac was killed in 908, somebody cut off his head and presented it to the victorious King Flann Sina, who, as a matter of fact, restored it with honour to Cormac’s party” (Hubert, 1992, v.2, p. 192).
The story of Bran the Blessed from the Mabinogion is a fine piece of evidence for a cult of the head in Wales. Mortally wounded in battle with the Irish, Bran bids his friends to decapitate him and bear his head back to Britain. “Bran’s head is taken back for burial in a strange voyage that takes many years, during which the head of Bran remains alive, talking and eating…reinforcing the Celtic concept of the soul dwelling in the head” (Ellis, 1992, p.43).
Cowan points out that “…ancient Irish accounts tell of severed heads which, when placed on stone pillars, would talk, sing, and even move around” (1993, p. 43).
Here’s hoping you have a safe and happy Samhain…and that you all keep your heads!
Cowan, T. (1993). Fire in the head: Shamanism and the Celtic spirit. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco.
Ellis, P.B. (1992). Dictionary of Celtic mythology. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO.
Hubert, H. (1992). The history of the Celtic people. London: Bracken Books.
Hutton, R. (1992). The pagan religions of the ancient British Isles: Their nature and legacy. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell.
Roediger, H.L. et al. (1984). Psychology. Boston: Little, Brown, & Co.