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.
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?
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.
Want more mythology? Sign up to my mailing list!