Celtic Heritage - culture, belief and traditions of the Celtic Peoples
Celtic Heritage - culture, beliefs and traditions of the Celts

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 :

  1. that the head was believed to be the vassal of the soul.
  2. 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 head-cult.'

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?

Iconography

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 motif.

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.

Classical Citations

"(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.

Mythological Evidence

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 Hill.

"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 of Britain.

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

Bibliography

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 0-4150-8076-2
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 ISBN 0575-04343-1
Britain and the Celtic Iron Age - Simon James & Valery Rigby ISBN 07141-2306-4
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 08511-5660-6
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 ISBN 06311-8946-7

 

 
Content by J Craig Melia - Social Evolution - www.socialevolution.co.uk