The Speech of Severed Heads and Gaelic Necromancy
Irish and Celtic myths and legends, Irish folklore and Irish fairy tales from the Mythological Cycle
When staying one step ahead of the rest took on a new meaning
The Tuatha De Danans
By the force of potent spells and wicked magic,
And conjurations horrible to hear,
Could set the ministers of hell at work,
And raise a slaughtered army from the earth,
And make them live, and breathe, and fight again.
So it was written in Keating's General History of Ireland, considered by many to be the definitive work bridging the Ireland of the ancient world with the Ireland of the modern world. He was working from texts we no longer possess and know only by reference, but there are still sections of the Lebor Gabála (the Book of Invasions, a very ancient tome) which tell of the occult necromantic skills of the Tuatha.
From the time before the flood, when the dread wizards recalled by Enoch walked the land, when vast tablets of ice had buried half the world beneath gloomy fathoms of imponderable weight, when there were still dragons, wyrms steeped in wickedness, feasting on the nations of the earth, came the sorcery of the Tuatha Dé Danann.
The knowledge of these last vestiges of an elder age was passed on in secret to the druids of the Milesians when they came, especially the likes of Mogh Ruith who studied beneath the Sidh, in the dark underworld the Tuatha Dé Danann had retreated to. This they added to the wisdom of the Fomorians brought forth from the grey-wracked ocean by rare travellers of that race, and become known across the realms for their power and wisdom.
Very often their rites and rituals centred around the head, where they believed the soul was seated. This was also reflected in cultures across the isles and the continent, with the Greeks recording that the Celts would have strings of severed heads hanging from the bridles of their horses. Later, they would be displayed around their homes, or embalmed in cedar oil and stored in a chest as war trophies. The Romans were also greatly disturbed by this habit, although they were not averse to taking a few heads themselves!
However the manner in which the rich and varied tapestry of peoples who were later called the Celts took and preserved heads was quite different from the vengeful example-making of the Romans.
Noted was their habit of taking the heads of their most honoured friends and leaders, in some cases defleshing them and in others preserving them with oils and ointments, decorating them with jewels and golden plates, and keeping them in honoured positions of prominence. They might take the head of one of their allies in case it fell into the wrong hands. There may also have been a belief that you could influence a person's afterlife by the use of their head.
On the continent, temples have been found with niches for the most important heads to be placed, and human skulls were nailed over doorways and gates in farms and fortresses. Carven mouthless stone heads with closed eyes are found all over Ireland and Scotland, symbolising the dead.
Decorated skulls would have been used by the druids for drinking from their sacred springs and wells during their rituals, a tradition which is still spoken of – although not practised – near some holy wells in Ireland. This may also have been associated with the cult of Crom Cruach, which some have translated as “Ceann Cruaigh” or the bloody head.
Recent scientific examination has demonstrated that the cut and scrape marks created by the defleshing of the dead by Gaelic peoples are quite different from bones butchered for meat. Evidence for defleshing seems to go as far back as the mid to Upper Palaeolithic, about 27,000 years ago, when individual skulls were heavily ochred and separately buried. This defleshing took place possibly after a period of excarnation, and prior to burial.
Cú Chulainn is said to have come back from his first battle with quite an array of severed heads, three attached to his chariot, nine in one hand and ten in the other, and no one was more impressed than his wife, Emer.
In the epic The Táín Bó Cualinge after cutting off twelve of his opponents heads Cú Chulainn he planted twelve stones for them in the ground and set a head on each stone. In the story of Garb of Glen Rigel Cú Chulainn meets the two-headed Garb in single combat. He cuts Garb's double head from his neck and impales it upon a stake.
But as strange and macabre as that might seem to us, it was nothing compared to what the heads used to do after being severed – for many are the tales that tell of heads continuing to speak, offering advice, giving orders, reciting poetry and more, long after being removed from their bodies!
Severed heads were valued for their association with divination and the supernatural, offering protection from malevolent spirits. Often enough a head taken in battle might be brought to a celebratory feast where food and drink were offered to it, and the head in turn might tell a story. Sometimes heads didn't wait that long, and would give orders on the battlefield where it had been slain.
These heads may have also served as gatekeepers and bridges into the Otherworld, transporting whole groups of people to strange places and times.
In the Táin the hero Sualtam is sent to awaken the men of Ulster to fight against invading forces, but in a freak accident, the sudden jumping 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 the aid of Cú Chulainn.
In the story of the Destruction of Da Derga’s Hostel, Conaire Mór, famed king of Ireland, was attacked. After slaying many enemies, he asked 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 Cécht’s loyalty and prowess, which all things considered was impressive.
The head would thereafter speak when water from a sacred well was poured upon it.
In the Battle of Allen or the Cath Almaine, preserved in the 11th-century Yellow Book of Lecan, the men of Leinster fight against Fergal Mac Maile Duin, who is slain.
Fergal is beheaded and his head is taken to King Cathal who honours it, washes it and braids and combs smooth its hair, wraps a cloth of silk about it, and places seven oxen, seven wethers and seven cooked pigs before Fergal's head.
From the same book comes the tale of the Head of Donn Bó, a young man famed for his sweet singing who was slain at the battle and decapitated. Donn Bó had promised to sing that night for his lord Fergal no matter where they should be. One of the victorious called Baethgelach went onto the battlefield in order to take a head back to the feasting-place as a trophy.
As he approached, he heard the severed head entertaining the dead king’s body on the field. The voice of Donn Bó was sweeter than the voice of any other head, or so the story goes. When the warrior approached to lift his head, the head stops him and says it is pledged to sing for Fergal alone that night.
Nevertheless he lifted the head, and taking it back to the building, placed it on a pillar. It is asked to sing, wherein it turned its face to the wall so that it was in darkness and sang so sweetly that all wept. It was finally taken back to the battlefield, where it was magically rejoined with its body.
A mighty warrior called Fothad Canainne never sat down to a feast without decapitated heads before him, and in turn Fothad's severed head sings a long poem to Ailill's wife after she lifts it up.
Then there was Fothad Canainne, not the first man to lose his head over a woman but one of the few to tell about it afterwards! He was chieftain of the Connacht branch of the Fianna who fell in love with the wife of the leader of the Munster Fianna. They eloped, but her husband came after them with his men. Nearly all of them were killed in the ensuing scrap, 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 tragic ending.
Fionn of the Fianna was not unfamiliar with talking conversational heads either, for when his favourite fool Lomna was killed upon witnessing his wife’s adultery, Fionn found the headless body and followed it to the house of the murderer. Within there was none other than Lomna’s head beside the fire, but when the murderer Coirpre doesn’t feed it any fish three times, Lomna’s head decides to tell the whole tale, but in riddles. So much did it talk that Coirpre eventually had to put it outside like a misbehaving dog, where it still refused to shut up!
There are many more such tales in Welsh and Scottish folklore, and even in pre-Roman British legends, such as The Assembly of the Wondrous Head where King Bran, having been mortally wounded in the foot with a poisoned spear, ordered his head to be cut off by his own men. The head kept talking and as good company as it ever was until it was buried.
And even more can be found, including the making of brain-balls of lime and… the brains of enemies… to be cast from slings. One such, called the Tathlum, was used by the Dé Danann lord Lugh to slay Balor of the evil eye, and the recipe for this is given as follows:
A tathlum, heavy, fiery, firm,
Which the Tuatha Dé Danann had with them,
It was that broke the fierce Balor's eye,
Of old, in the battle of the great armies.
The blood of toads and furious bears,
And the blood of the noble lion,
The blood of vipers and of Osmuinn's trunks
It was of these the tathlum was composed.
The sand of the swift Armorian sea,
And the sand of the teeming Red Sea
All these, being first purified, were used
In the composition of the tathlum.
Briun, the son of Bethar, no mean warrior,
Who on the ocean's eastern border reigned
It was he that fused, and smoothly formed,
It was he that fashioned the tathlum.
To the hero Lugh was given
This concrete ball, no soft missile
In Mag Tuireadh of shrieking wails,
From his hand he threw the tathlum.
Peculiar tales persist about these traditional beliefs lasting even into recent times, such as that of a young man who travelled to Antrim in the 1940s for work. When there, he fell ill, but before he died asked that his friend cut off his head and carry it to his home village, where it can be buried with his own people.
The friend duly returned the severed head to its home village, and the rest of the story tells how, as the funeral procession is approaching the graveyard, they saw another procession coming and – as was the custom, the story says – the funeral parties raced to see which would have the honour of holding their ceremony first. The other party won but, as it reached the graveyard wall, it vanished.
And then of course we have the Irish custom of carving turnips into heads, and even letting them dry year on year to give them a more wizened and wrinkled appearance, to be lit with candles on Hallowe’en, the time of the dead!
Strange and ancient are the ways of Ireland.
Da Dearga’s hostel was rumoured to be near the spot marked on the map below!
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