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The Human Head

   Lundy, Isle of Avalon         Mythology

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"Amongst the Celts the human head was venerated above all else, since the head was to the Celt the soul, centre of the emotions as well as of life itself, a symbol of divinity and of the powers of the other-world."  Paul Jacobsthal, Early Celtic Art

The cult of the head

One aspect of early Celtic religion which tends to be either ignored or over-emphasised by later writers is their reverence for the human head. 

To the Celts the human head represented a physical manifestation of that centre of life, the essence of being which Christians know as the soul. 

The head was also a prized trophy in battle

The heads of vanquished enemies were frequently severed and preserved. 

"When their enemies fall, they cut off their heads and fasten them about the necks of their horses...and carry them off as booty, singing a paean over them and striking up a song of victory, and these first fruits of battle they fasten by nails upon their houses...The heads of their most distinguished enemies they embalm in cedar oil and carefully preserve in a chest, and these they exhibit to strangers, gravely maintaining that in exchange for this head someone among their ancestors, or the speaker himself, refused the offer of a great sum of money. And some men among them, we are told, boast that they have not accepted an equal weight of gold for the head they show..."     Diordus Sciculus writing in the 1st Century AD

The condition and positioning of human skulls discovered during excavations at Celtic earthworks, including Stanwick and Bredon Hill, suggests that heads had been displayed either on the gates or on poles beside the gates of the hillforts

Human heads featured prominently on Celtic decorative art, coinage, sculpture, etc. The 'Green Man' still to be seen on sale is one example that springs to mind.

" but much more than this it was a potent symbol of the total religious attitudes of the Celtic peoples. The head stood for divinity. It was the supreme conveyer of hospitality, the distributor of the divine feast. It had powers of prophecy, healing, fertility, speech, independent movement and incorruptible life. If was regarded as the essence of being, the seat of the soul, the symbol of evil-averting divine power. Its meaning for the early Celtic peoples is clear throughout their history - it can truly be said to contain the essence of their religious philosophy and to be the most distinctive and powerful of all their cults." - Ann Ross, "Head", Man, Myth & Magic, An Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Supernatural

The Christian 'Cult of the Head'

The cult of the head was so deeply held that Christianity couldn't ignore it, the reverence for the head was absorbed by the new religion;  indeed it became an important part of the mythology of early Celtic Christianity.

There are numerous examples among the Celtic saints of the west of the saint being beheaded and then carrying their own head for some considerable distance, before the head is buried at a well, or spring or other sacred site which is then dedicated to that saint. Nectan at Hartland for example.

 These  Celtic holy places became the sites of Christian churches as Christianity supplanted the elder religions.  

As the older pagan beliefs were rationalised into Christianity the cult of the head was so strongly held that it had to be integrated as a major feature of the new mythology.

 

The story of ‘Branwen’ from the ‘Mabinogion.’ tells of Bran the Blessed whose head was carried back from Ireland and buried under a tower on the white hill as a protective talisman to guard the fertility of the land;- to ward off the 'Wasteland'.

A story also mentioned in triad 37 - 'the three concealments of the isle of Britain'

 

 

<-----   Knight Templar Rock on Lundy

 

Related Pages

Apollo of the Hyperboreans
 
The Myth of Atlas
 
The myth of Kronos as a god imprisoned on a North Atlantic island
 
Bran -  The Hospitality of the Noble Head
 
the rock which holds Lunet in 'The Lady of the Fountain,
 
the rock or oak which imprisons Merlin.
 
Knight Templar Rock on Lundy

 

 

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