Cult of the Head?
Citing iconographical evidence, classical quotations
and mythological evidence we are presented with the existance
of a tradition of a widespread belief in the head as the seat
of the soul (common amongst many peoples) and that this represented
a medium for communication with the OtherWorld.
It is generally taken as fact that in the early
Celtic period :
that the head was believed to be the vassal
of the soul.
that great honour was to be found in collecting
the heads as trophies in battle.
There is, however, much debate amongst Celtic Historians
as to the validity of the so called Celtic “Cult of the Head”.
Authors such as Dr Anne Ross have speculated the
Cult of the Head as a pan-Celtic religious tradition. Others disagree.
Professor Ronald Hutton has the opinion that “the
frequency with which human heads appear upon Celtic metalwork
proved nothing more than that they were a favourite decorative
motif, among several, and one just as popular among non-Celtic
peoples”, that the use of the head as icons is merely due to the
practice been a favoured artistic image.
Marian Green, in The Gods of the Celts states that
'there is no doubt that the head was considered the most important
part of the human body – the emphasis on head-hunting demonstrates
this – and the stress on the head in Celtic art is incontestable.
Yet I believe it is a mistake to think in terms of a specific
The taking of heads as trophies is well documented,
with enough classical, mythological and archaeological evidence
to back it up. It is however harder to prove the reasons for the
practice, did it imply a sacred act, a way of demonstrating prowess
on the battlefield, or a combination of the two?
Iconographical evidence to back up the theory is
always going to be open to individual interpretation, whether
the 'tete coupee', or severed head, is an artistic motif or religious
There is evidence to suggest that the positioning
of skulls, discovered during excavations of Celtic earthworks,
indicate that heads were displayed upon entrance gates of hillforts
and sanctuaries. The shrine at Roquepertuse in modern day France
was entered through a brightly painted stone archway, into which
human skulls were placed in niches within the upright pillars.
A stone tete coupee, complete with grasping hand
was unearthed in Entremont, along with numerous head groupings.
Many have been found throughout the British Isles, with a great
many found within the kingdom of the Brigantes in the north of
modern day England.
There is, however, an over use of the phrase “Celtic
Head” as a catchall term to describe the often crudely carved
stone heads that are found around the British Isle and mainland
Europe. Some are prehistoric in origin, others from the early
Christian period (although they themselves may be considered a
continuation of the “sacred head” as a motif) and it is important
that we view these as separate, although connected.
"(The Gauls) cut off the heads of enemies
slain in battle and attach them to the necks of their horses.
The blood stained spoils they hand over to their attendants and
carry off as booty, while striking up a paean and singing a song
of victory, and they nail up these first fruits upon their houses
just as those who lay low wild animals in certain kinds of hunting.
They embalm in cedar oil the heads of the most distinguished enemies
and preserve them carefully in a chest, and display them with
pride to strangers, saying that, for this head, one of their ancestors,
or his father, or the man himself, refused a large sum of money.
They say that some of them boast that they refused the weight
of the head in gold" - Diodorus Siculus.
There are a number of Classical Writers who cite
a reverence to the taking of heads as a seemingly sacred act,
including Strabo, Diodorus Siculus, Livy and Julius Caesar.
We do however have to be very careful with using
classical references as legitimate sources of information. Both
Siculus and Livy were writing from a second hand source, both
received their information from Poseidonius, whose main focus
of interest was the south of Gaul. Strabo too quotes Poseidonius
as a source.
"There is also that custom, barbarous
and exotic, which attends most of the northern tribes, when they
depart from the battle they hang the heads of their enemies from
the necks or their horses, and when they have brought them home,
nail the spectacle to the entrance of their houses. At any rate
Posidonius says that he himself saw this spectacle in many places,
and that, although he first loathed it, afterwards through his
familiarity with it, he could bear it calmly" – Strabo
Julius Caesar makes a single reference, which is
taken by many to refer to the act of head hunting, namely where
Indutiomarus, a leader of the Treviri is slain by Labienus, having
been overtaken at the ford of a river, his head is taken and carried
to the camp.
It has been suggested that someone such as Caesar,
to whom acts such as head hunting would have been used for propaganda
and political capital, and taking into account his level of detail
of the customs of the people he came into contact with in Gaul
and Britain, it seems interesting that he is completely silent
on the subject.
Pagan Celtic Britain
Dr Anne Ross, is one of the strongest supporters
of the Celtic “Cult of the Head”.
"The cult of the human head then constitutes
a persistent theme throughout all aspects of Celtic life spiritual
and temporal and the symbol of the severed head may be regarded
as the most typical and universal of their religious attitudes."
Within Pagan Celtic Britain, Dr Anne Ross gives
over an entire chapter to the study of the proposed cult, detailing
at length countless carvings and various mythological tales. Reference
is also made to examples of folklore pertaining to sacred wells
which seem to be a continuation of ancient belief. Although the
book was first published in 1967 it is one of the most important
studies on the subject.
Dr Anne Ross states that “the evidence for the cult
of the head funished by the iconography, and testified to be the
comments of the classical writes, is fully supported by the literatures
of the British Isles.”
The main corroboratory evidence from British Mythology
is that of the Head of Bran. The Tale of Branwen, Daughter of
Llyr, the Second Branch of the Mabinogion, refers to Bran, sometimes
Bendigeidvran, who is fataly wounded in battle. He asks his comrades
to bury his head within the White Mount in London, later Tower
"And take you my head," said he,
"and bear it even unto the White Mount, in London, and bury
it there, with the face towards France.”
In another tale from the Triads, Arthur has the
head of Bran interred as he himself wishes to be the defender
Additionally within Gaelic Mythology, from the tale
of the Tain Bo Cualinge we have numerous references to the practice
of head taking -
“When they found him they fought foul and fell on him all 12
together. But Cu Chulainn turned on them and struck off their
12 heads. He planted 12 stones for them in the ground and set
a head on each stone.”
Later tales, such as those pertaining to the Celtic
Saints, as well as tales such as Sir Gawain within the Arthurian
Cycle all hint at an older mythos and tradition.
Peter Berresford Ellis, within Celtic Myths and
Legends states, that “it is important to remember that, for the
ancient Celts, the soul reposed in the head”, and although this
in itself does not signify a Cult of the Head, it does imply a
reverence of the head was seen as a belief amongst Celtic people
from Gaul to Britain and Ireland.
J Craig Melia - 2005
Pagan Celtic Britain - Dr Anne Ross ISBN 0-89733-435-3
Animals in Celtic Life and Myth - Miranda Green ISBN 0-4151-8588-2
The Gods of the Celts - Miranda Green ISBN 0-7509-1581-1
Symbol and Image in Celtic Religious Art - Miranda Green ISBN
Celtic Heritage - Alwyn and Brinley Rees ISBN 0-500-27039-2
Iron Age Britain - Barry Cunliffe ISBN 0-7134-7299-5
The Druids - Stuart Piggott ISBN 0-12 02.1650 2
The Celts - Frank Delaney ISBN 0-340-34932-8
Celtic Myth and Legend - Charles Squire ISBN 0-87877-039-5
Celtic Myth and Legend - T W Rolleston ISBN 0-946495-84-X
The Apple Branch - Alexei Kondratiev ISBN 1-898256-X
Tales from the Mabinogion - Gwyn Thomas & Kevin Crossley-Holland
Britain and the Celtic Iron Age - Simon James & Valery Rigby
Taliesin - John Matthews ISBN 1-85538-109-5
Dictionary of Celtic Mythology - James MacKillop ISBN 01986-9157-2
The Celtic Heroic Age - John T Koch ISBN 0-9642446-1-6
Dictionary of Celtic Religion and Culture - Bernhard Maier ISBN
Roman Britain - Peter Salway ISBN 019-821717-X
The Tain - Thomas Kinsella ISBN 019-2881090-1
The Druids - Peter Berresford Ellis ISBN 08028-3798-0
The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles – Ronald Hutton