Talking Heads in Irish Mythology

Talking Heads in Irish Mythology www.aliisaacstoryteller.com
Talking Heads in Irish Mythology
http://www.aliisaacstoryteller.com

There has been much debate over whether the Celts practised a Cult of Heads. Even now, experts are divided over the issue. It’s easy to jump to conclusions; a severed head depicted in Celtic artwork does not a macabre ritual make. Such ‘evidence’ must be interpreted and so conclusions are arrived at through speculation. However, it’s fair to say that the severed head makes many appearances in the ancient stories of Ireland.

According to Greek philosopher and historian Posidonius (died c. 51 BC), Roman author Livy (died c. AD 17) and Greek historian Diadorus Siculus (died some time after 36BC), the Celtic warriors of Europe struck off the heads of their enemies in battle and strung them from their horses bridles. Later, they would be displayed around their homes, or enbalmed in cedar oil and stored in a chest as war trophies. Sounds mighty gruesome to me, not to mention just a little unhygienic, but perhaps I’m just being squeamish.

Could the same thing have happened here in Ireland?

Well, in the Tain Bo Cuilnge, Cuchulainn is described as returning home from battle swinging 9 enemy heads in one hand, and 10 in the other. Nice. Later, when he is killed, the heads of the 10 men involved in his slaying are taken in revenge and presented to his wife Emer, who accepts them. Not a souvenir I’d like to see on my sideboard, but I guess they did things differently in the Iron Age.

Mac Dathó was a King of Leinster who owned a magnificent guard dog named Ailbhe. Queen Medb of Connacht and King Conchobar of Ulster both desired possession of the hound, so Mac Dathó invited both parties to a feast. The warriors of both sides start contesting among themselves over who was the greatest warrior entitled to the curadmír, or hero’s portion of the meat.

Cet of the Connacht men emerges as the most likely candidate, until Conall Cernach arrives from Ulster. Cet concedes to him, saying, “If my brother, Anlúan, was here, you would not be getting the curadmir, for he is the better warrior.” Conall replies, “But he is here!” and pulls Anlúan’s head from his belt and throws it at Cet so hard, he is splattered with his brother’s blood. In the end, there is a fight for the dog, and even the poor old mutt ends up decapitated.

There is a really strange story about the death of Conchobar mac Nessa, King of Ulster. Meisceidra, King of Leinster had been killed in single combat by Conall Cernach; he removed the brain and preserved it by mixing it with lime. Presumably, this hardens soft tissue. Later, the brain-ball was stolen by Cet mac Mágach, who fired it at Conchobar from his sling. It lodged in the King’s head, but surgeons were unable to remove it without causing more damage, so they sewed up the wound with the brain-ball in place. The King survived for seven years, but upon hearing of the death of Jesus, had such a fit of anger that the brain burst from his head and he died. Luckily, the blood baptised him, and he went to heaven… notice any Christian intervention in this story, anyone?

Death by brain-ball. That one should have made it into my 5 Weirdest Hero Deaths post; sorry Medb, but it even beats your death by cheese!

Evidence of ‘trepanning’, or brain surgery in which holes were made through the skull has been found on human remains going back into the Bronze Age. In Ireland, there is the story of Cenn Fáelad mac Aillila, who in 636AD sustained a severe injury to his head at the Battle of Magh Rath in Co Down. He was brought to Tuaim Dreccon, a monastic school in Brefffni, now Co Cavan, where he received treatment from Saint Briccin, a renowned scholar and surgeon.

According to The Cycle of Kings, “the virtue is not that the brain of forgetfulness was taken out of the head of Cenn Fáelad, but in all the book-learning that he left after him in Ireland.”

Not only did he make a recovery, but his memory improved to such an extent that he became word-perfect. He stayed on to study Brehon Law, Poetry, and History, and produced three great scholarly works on Law, Grammar and History.

The shrine containing St Oliver Plunkets enbalmed head, St Peter's church, Drogheda. Hover curser for accreditation.
The shrine containing St Oliver Plunkets enbalmed head, St Peter’s church, Drogheda. Hover curser for accreditation.

St Oliver Plunket was a Roman Catholic bishop (born in Loughcrew, believe it or not) falsely accused of conspiring against the state and offending God by practising his false religion. He was hung, drawn and quartered in 1681 for his crimes, and his head brought to St Peter’s Church in Drogheda, where it has remained ever since, and can still be viewed today. A pagan tradition adopted by the Christians? Apparently, he’s not the only headless saint.

These stories indicate a reverence for the head as a tradition which has endured through the ages in Ireland, even if their origins were lost.

Last year, I learned of a ‘cult’ of head worship which had been going on in my area well into the C19th. The Corleck Head is a carved stone head now housed in the National Museum in Dublin, but with a fine replica in the Co Cavan Museum in Ballyjamesduff. It’s not just any old carving, though; it has three faces, which is indicative of triune goddess worship.

It was unearthed in a small quarry on Corleck Hill near Bailieborough in Co Cavan in 1855. Standing 32cms high, made from sandstone, each of the three faces are almost identical with a narrow mouth, bossed eyes, and a rather enigmatic expression.

Corleck Hill, from the Irish corr, meaning ‘round hill’ and leac, meaning ‘flat stone/ rock’, has a long association with the worship of the old Gods. It is also known by another name, Sliabh na trí Dána, meaning ‘the hill of three Gods’.

In Irish mythology, the term ‘Trí de Dána’ refers to the Three Gods of Art; Goibniu the smith, Luchtaine the carpenter, and Credne the goldsmith. Could the stone head with its three faces represent this trio of skilled craftsmen/ deities, after which the hill of its resting place was named?

Replica of the Corleck Head, Co Cavan Museum
The Corleck Head replica. The Stone Head of Brigid may have looked something like it.

The Stone Head of Brigid was said to have been worshipped as a triple deity at a shrine on top of the neighbouring Hill of Drumeague. Interestingly, her triple aspect celebrated her skills as a poet, a smith and a healer, rather than the typical maiden, mother and crone of womanhood. Eventually, her stone head was brought into the local church, where she was canonised as St Bride of Knockbride.

Unfortunately, this treasured idol went missing, but there is a curious tale attached to its disappearance.

When the church was rebuilt in its current position, Fr Owen O’Reilly, who was the parish priest between 1840 and 1844, brought the head from the old church in the west of the parish to the new one in the east.

He claimed that as he was passing Roosky Lake, the head ‘jumped’ out of the carriage of its own accord and fell into the water, never to be seen again. It is also said, however, that she lies buried beneath the foundations of the new church.

It’s thought that the Celts may have honoured the head as the seat of the soul. Taking an enemy’s head may not therefore have been seen as the violent act we imagine. Perhaps it honoured their bravery in battle. Perhaps it was a gesture of possession, preventing the enemy’s soul ascending to the Otherworld. Perhaps it belonged neither to the physical world or the next, but somewhere in between. Perhaps it signified accumulating wisdom.

But what of the talking heads? There are tales in Irish mythology of disembodied heads which, weirdly, continue to speak after their death.

Conaire Mór was a High King of Ireland, who had a long and peaceful reign. However, things start to go wrong when events conspire to make him break some of his geisa (taboos). He is attacked whilst staying at Da Derga’s hostel. After slaying many enemies, he asks his champion, Mac Cécht, to bring him some water. As the warrior returns with the drink, he sees two men lop off Conaire’s head, and enraged, he kills them both. Conaire’s head carries on talking, drinks the water, and composes a poem in honour of Mac Cecht’s loyalty and prowess.

After the Battle of Allen, the Leinstermen are celebrating their victory over the men of Ulster. Baethgelach is sent to the battlefield to obtain a trophy head. There he hears the most beautiful, ethereal singing, which leads him to the severed head of young warrior, Donn-Bo. Baethgalach persuades him to sing for his king in exchange for being returned to his body afterwards. He sings so sweetly and sadly for the King of Leinster, that the whole court is moved to tears. Beathgalach then returns with him to the battlefield, where they locate Donn-Bó’s body, and the two parts are magically joined together and made whole once more.

Back to the Tain, and Sualtam is sent to rouse the men of Ulster to fight against Medb’s forces. In a freak accident, the sudden jolting of his horse causes his shield to slide, slicing his head clean off. His head continues to call for the Ulstermen’s assistance, however, and it is this which finally brings them to Cuchulainn’s aid.

Finally, Fothad Canainne was a man who quite literally lost his head over a woman. He was chieftain of the Connacht branch of the Fianna, and fell in love with the wife of Ailill Flann Becc, who was leader of the Munster Fianna. They eloped, and Ailill came after them with his men. Nearly all were killed, and the poor woman, finding her lover’s severed head, picked it up and carried it to where his body lay. Fothad’s head then spoke to her, leaving her with a verse in memory of his life and sad end.


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69 thoughts on “Talking Heads in Irish Mythology

  1. My goodness, Ali Isaac, is that really a head in that case? I thought I’d stumbled upon one of my short horror stories, at first, 😀 How do they keep it in such good condition? I’m guessing it’s because that case is airtight?
    All this talk about decapitated talking heads gets me in the mood for writing more horror.

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  2. Apparently when they used to execute people by beheading, there are stories of the heads and bodies moving after they were separated, so to speak – I think Charles I is the most well-known one I’ve heard. Whether it’s true or not is another thing.
    And, like the other commenters, I had also heard such stories from Welsh mythology, like the head of Bran, so it does seem to be a common theme among the Celts, definitely. I do wonder whether head taking was for trophies or to honour the dead. I suppose showing someone the head is proof positive you’ve killed them – a severed limb could belong to anyone (not to be too graphic).

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    1. I guess that’s true, Helen. I remember when I was a kid in Cyprus hearing this awful shrieking that went on for ages; it was the old woman next door killing a chicken, but instead of wringing its neck quickly, she was sawing at it with a knife. After it had been beheaded, it ran around the yard. It was horrific. Consequently, I’ve never forgotten it, although I have somehow managed to blank the image from my mind, because it upset me so much.

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  3. Fantastic post, Ali! It was exciting to read about so many talking head stories from Ireland… the only talking head story I knew about beforehand was the Welsh tale in the Mabinogion of Bran, who is slain in battle. The seven surviving people from Whales take their king’s severed head with them, returning home, and Bran talks to and entertains the whole company on the way back. I think there is a good number of years where the head stays with them. Finally it requests to be buried in a particular location, and as long as it isn’t dug up, Whales won’t be conquered by another country. 🙂
    ***

    I think things were, unfortunately, a bit more gruesome in the past, Ali. There was a game people would play often after battles with skulls–not particularly the heads of the people just killed, but skulls that were just the bones. It was like a game with sticks and balls, but instead of a ball, you played with a head. Yeah, I know it’s gnarly.

    ***
    My intuition is that you are absolutely right, and our ancestors thought the soul resided in the head of a person. Perhaps retrieving the heads of enemies had to do with claiming possession of them, I’d suspect, just my own thoughts on it, that it wasn’t so much in order to prevent them from crossing to the otherworld, but was a way of possessing their heritage. While fighting, they belonged to one tribe or clan, if you took the head, they would no longer belong to their birth group. That’s just an idea I had. I am sure there were lots and lots of motivations to keep heads, warning people off of fighting you, a tangible way to show how much power you had. It’s really fascinating stuff. I have a book on head hunting in the iron age but haven’t had any time to read it. I also think it might be gory, so have put it off for that reason, too. 🙂 Anyway, I learned so much from your post, thanks again!

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    1. Thanks, Éilis. Yes, I’ve heard about that game with the skulls. I also remember a story at the Battle of Moytura, how the Danann played hurling with the heads of their enemies before the battle to try and frighten them, I suppose. Don’t how true any of it is, but people love reading this kind of stuff. And I learned lots too!

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        1. Yikes! That is gruesome! I bet it did the trick, though. If I saw that while I was waiting for battle to start, I think I’d run as fast as I could in the other direction! Sorry to disappoint you, Ailbhe!

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          1. I’d do the same thing, Ali. It doesn’t disappoint Ailbhe I think she understands. Besides, we’ve grown up in a completely different era. She is very careful to not freak me out.😌😀

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  4. All a bit creepy, but I guess it makes sense that the head (the face) identifies the dead person for than any other part. We sort of live in our heads (as you said – the seat of the soul) so it becomes symbolic of the person’s entire being. It’s interesting to me that the bombing of cities is somehow an acceptable practice of war, but beheading is not. Interesting post, Ali. I think I’ll skip the head on the sideboard 🙂

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  5. Severed heads have their place in Welsh myth, also. I’m sure you’re familiar with the Monster of Noves http://www.kelticos.org/gallery/main.php?g2_itemId=625 which plays a big role in Evangeline Walton’s retelling of Welsh myth, in v.1 Prince of Annwn. I discuss it here: http://termitespeaker.blogspot.com/search/label/Monster%20of%20Noves It’s interesting that in the epilogue to the novel the name is misprinted as Monster of Moves. I had a terrible researching this – couldn’t find it anywhere. Finally I traced in through my 1990s set of Encycl. Brit.!

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  6. We must always avoid projecting our likes and dislikes onto the past. The modern attitude to severed heads is one of them, in the past they have been military trophies (it was proof you had actually killed the man), holy relics, kept to protect houses, and even honour the dead. In Roman Britain skeletons are sometimes found that have had their heads severed, but otherwise buried with respect. in these cases I suspect that the person had died without the equivalent of last rites and the head was severed to ensure that the spirit made their journey to the next world.

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    1. I know. It’s very hard not to do that, though, isn’t it? We lead such sheltered lives nowadays. The only time I ever got close to a dead body was to an open casket at a funeral. It made me so uneasy. I dont know why I should have felt that way. I think we are precondition ed by crap movies of living dead creatures. I know I wouldn’t feel comfortable around deputation heads.

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      1. I don’t know, a deputation head could be something for a fantasy novel.

        As for terrible films –
        I am a retired archaeologist, I worked in a council archaeological department and we once had a ‘health and safety audit’ for our office. It’s was an ordinary council office so no different from any other office (yes we did have a skeleton in the closet but don’t tell anybody), but the powers that be were insistent that we should identify dangers specific to our work. My colleague came up with , ‘Accidentally waking the spirits of the dammed to wreak havoc on all mankind’, being the plot of most dodgy horror films.
        It was actually published in the first draft of health and safety guidance for the council!

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  7. It all sounds rather macabre until I think of all the saints’ heads (among other body parts) still displayed and honored in Orthodox churches and monasteries. Indeed, there is one monastery in Mitilini (Lesvos) that has a wall made of the skulls of monks slaughtered by the Turks.

    There are plenty of Irish myths about talking heads, it seems. I remember one head in particular, that was kept in a jar so that it could continue offering its advice for years.

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  8. Cool gruesome post. Is there anything about shrinking those heads? Or is it just all the display and collect version of decapitation?! Interesting history. I had a google of hung drawn and quartered cause I didn’t actually know the specifics and apparently we only abolished the death penalty for treason in 1998…..?!?!?! Surely that’s wrong?

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    1. Really? But I thought it was abolished yonks ago! There is no mention of the heads shrinking, just that they were treated with cedar oil. I’m not sure if that was done here or not. I read somewhere that they were treated with smoke to preserve them in Ireland, but do you think I could find that reference? No! It was driving me batty! In any case as the heads dried out I’m sure they must have shrivelled and reduced naturally in size. I’m surprised how peaceful Oliver Plucknett looks after his horrific death.

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      1. They removed the death penalty for murder in 1967 but several remained incl treason and, oddly, setting fire to her majesty’s dockyards or somethign similar as I recall. It took the Labour govt of 1997 to clean those anomalies up.

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  9. Great post. I am always interested in Irish mythology. Even though my ex-parents in law lived in Drogheda, I never did get the nerve to go and look at the head of Oliver Plunkett! But I did live very close to the Hill of Tara, many years ago, which is a magical place I will never forget.

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    1. You’really never that far away from an ancient site in Ireland. Tara is special, for sure. It can be difficult for visitors to appreciate because it has not been reconstructed, but I like that. Its a wonderful space. I haven’t seen Plunkett’s head either… but I will. My little girl was sick that day, so my husband and sons went to see it. Its a bit of an unusual thing to see in a church.

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  10. What a lovely Brigid story for the collection. The first chance she got, her head made a runforit back into the water. That parish priest maybe had more than a touch of the pagan about him.

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    1. I dont think so, Jane, sadly. He was responsible for tearing down the huge pagan shrine at the top of the hill, so I suspect he threw the head in the lake in an attempt to break the bond the people still had with the Goddess Brigid.

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        1. But also he wasn’t thinking about water being the gateway to the Otherworld. Or maybe he was, and was sending her home. Wonder if she’s still there. Its a very beautiful lake.

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  11. The talking head of Bran the Blessed is at the centre of mythology here too and at the very heart of our lore, being buried beneath the Tower of London, protecting the land. The headless saints are curious though, it is surprising how many of them we have come across, including so many whose stories are widely known but where their final beheading is a lesser known detail. A good many are cephalophores and continue talking after their death.

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    1. Yes, it’s very curious indeed, almost as if they, or their followers were reluctant to give up their wisdom and knowledge. I know the story of Bran, isn’t he also linked with the ravens that live in the tower? I think Bran means raven, but I’m not sure. Anyway, it’s a fascinating topic. I’d like to know more about the headless saints, too.

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      1. Yes, the ravens are a link to Bran. The saints are fascinating. I knew of a fair few, but there were a number of well known ones with their popular stories quite inaccurately leading us to assume that they were martyred by other methods, when deeper research shows them to have been beheaded. Which obviously led us down some speculative pathways in The Initiate 🙂

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            1. Actually it seems to be the other way round, beheading was the commonest form of execution in the Roman world, and it seems that a more prosaic story of arrest, condemnation and execution was embroidered to make it more exciting. For example St Margaret of Antioch was originally arrested for her religion, flogged to try and make her change her mind and, after being rude to the judge, was beheaded. This is printably true, however later stories added such wonderful additions as being fed to a dragon!

              As she made the sign of the cross inside the dragon which burst open to release her unharmed, she became the patron saint of difficult childbirth!

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            2. Agreed. The stories, after such grandiose embellishments may have fallen flat with a simple beheading and, being a common method of execution, did nothing to spread the idea of the miraculous nature of sainthood. I don’t think the beheadings were hidden so much as forgotten after the overlay of the fantastic was applied… or where the stories leading up to the execution caught the public imagination. I was surprised to learn of the beheadings of St Christopher, St George and possibly St Lawrence, for example. Beheadings seem redundant when set against the rest of their stories.

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  12. There is a new discovery all across the Internet right now. Shakespeare’s head is not in his grave. Maybe they should search eBay. I love these stories. I can see me writing something with a talking head in it some day.

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    1. Haha! I haven’t heard that one! I suspect Shakespeare’s talking head may turn up in one of your stories sooner or later, Craig… I’m looking forward to that one! 😂😁😄

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  13. There are many things about the Middle Ages that make me cringe. Severed heads is one of them. I’m amazed lately at the number of posts I’ve seen about grave robbing for skulls. Whether it’s prankish teenagers or profiteers, it makes me sad that someone’s final resting resting place would be disturbed. Is there no sanctity left in this world?

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    1. Really? Who would do such a thing? Yuk. I agree, leave ’em be. I wondered what the big bodies would think of being displayed, or cemeteries being disturbed and examined by archaeologists. I guess they’ve moved on and have no further use for their remains, but it seems hardly respectful.

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