Just because you’ve been decapitated doesn’t mean you have to stop helping your friends. On and off over the past couple of months I’ve been researching into one of my favourite magic cases about a man planning to trap a spirit inside a severed head, and today I realised – bugger – that I’ve been focussing on the wrong thing. It’s great when you realise the actual path you should be pursuing and feel excited about your research again, but at the same time, darn, I’d written bits up already. But all is not lost. I have below several summarised stories of medieval severed heads going about their business.
I mean, it’s the start of the week and you may something to fill silences at exotic parties or awkward works meetings, so here, now, are enough severed head things to get you well ensconced as the life of the party, or have you escorted off the premises.
Or…halloween’s coming up? You need a good repertoire of severed head stories for that occasion…? I’ll be honest, I can’t justify this post, just stop thinking about it and read on.
One of the most famous talking severed heads in medieval popular culture is Mimir “The Rememberer”. This Norse lad was renowned for giving good advice and lived next to a well which produced mead so good that chief god Odin once sacrificed an eye for a drink. Such a connection proved handy to Mimir though, when he was beheaded during war, and Odin himself embalmed Mimir’s head with special herbs, and chanted charms to preserve the spirit within. Mimir was able to speak and reveal secrets from other worlds to Odin. He was a useful head to have around.
In classical Greek mythology – going back a bit further, but not unknown to the medieval scholar – Orpheus the poet has his body torn up by jealous women who were angry he wasn’t paying attention to them and instead mooning over his love Eurydice, who he left in the underworld. (Love stories in Greek times were complicated, ok?) His head and lyre miraculously survive and float across the sea to Lesbos, where he’s popped in a shrine and consulted as an oracle. Like Mimir, Orpheus is a head consulted for knowledge, but these heads retain their original inhabitant’s knowledge and personality.
Brân the Blessed
Similarly, Brian Blessed – sorry, Brân the Blessed, or Bendigeidfran – of Welsh mythology, was a British king killed in battle whose head survived and returned to Britain with seven survivors. They spent seven years in Brân’s hall, feasting and being entertained by the head, and then moved to another location for 80 years, until they opened the doors to the hall and suddenly realised how much time had passed (or, in another version, the head was carried to the doors and broke the charm because he wasn’t supposed to look outside). Brân’s now silent head was then taken to the “White Hill” (Tower of London) and buried towards France to ward off invasion. Interestingly, Brân usually translated into English as crow, or raven – this could link to the more modern superstition of keeping ravens at the Tower. Of course, King Arthur was later said to have dug up the head, claiming that he could protect London by his strength alone. I bet there were some Welsh lads shaking their heads when 1066 happened.
Chaps carrying their own heads around are so common in Christian saints stories that there’s a name for them – Cephalophores. Sounds like a specific type of semaphore done by molluscs to me (cephalopods, to give a type of mollusc their Sunday name). Arguably the most famous cephalophore is St Denis; he was Bishop of Paris some time in the 3rd Century, and decapitated by the Romans (probably under Emperor Decius). This wasn’t going to stop him continuing his good work, though. He simply picked up his head and walked off, delivering a sermon on repentance to the people he passed. Think on that next time you’re planning on skiving off work with a sniffle.
A special shout-out here goes to St Edmund, the East Anglian king who I completely forgot about until a friend reminded me. Edmund was tortured by Vikings (as they do) and calling on Christ to help him, which really, really irritated them to the point where they dialled the torture up to eleven and then beheaded Edmund. To further show their disgust, they dropkicked his head into a nearby wood too. Seems excessive. A passing friendly wolf looked after this head, knowing that his followers would be searching for it. But the head was not helpless; it cried out “here, here!” leading the men to it in one of the strangest games of “hot and cold” ever played.
I’d also like to pause and note one of my favourite local saints (yes I have several. It’s how I roll.) St Oswald of Northumbria, the pious king, was killed in battle and dismembered by pagan Mercians. Oswald’s arm is his most famous body part, as it was blessed by St Aiden and so never rotted after death (and was reportedly stolen from Bamburgh by the monks of Peterborough, because buying it instead would have cost them an arm AND a leg. Boom boom!) but his head was buried in Durham cathedral with another favourite local saint, St Cuthbert. There are, however, four other heads claiming to belong to Oswald floating around Europe, just in case you see any on your holidays and wonder how he got there from Durham. None of them talk though, so this was an irrelevant diversion.
The Green Knight
Finally, the Green Knight of Arthurian legend deserves a mention. He rocks up at Camelot one Christmas, either naturally green skinned or wearing all green clothing depending on your story version, and offers a deal: one of the knights can strike one blow against him with his axe, and in a year’s time he will re-emerge to return the blow.
Sir Gawain promptly decapitates the Green Knight, who then picks up his head and says “see you next year, pal.” Like the Terminator of Middle English Romances. The following year, Gawain is looking for the knight’s Green Chapel and stops the night at a castle, where the Green Knight is in disguise. The Knight tests Gawain’s loyalty and chastity, and when he passes the tests, returns the axe blow with just a slight clip.
So there you go. A severed head for every occasion. Some are wise, some are just whingers. Know of any good ones yourself? Tell me in the comments below, or tweet me @scranshums.