Severed Heads

There is an episode in the Second Branch of Y Mabinogi where the mortally injured Brân asks the other survivors of the battle in Ireland to cut off his head:

'Take the head' said he 'and bring it to the White Hill in London, and bury it with its face towards France. And you will be on the road a long time. In Harlech you will be seven years in feasting, the birds of Rhiannon singing to you. The head will be as good company to you as it was at its best when it was ever on me. And you will be at Gwales in Penfro for eighty years. Until you open the door facing Aber Henvelen on the side facing Cornwall, you will be able to abide there, along with the head with you uncorrupted. But when you open that door, you will not be able to remain there. You will make for London and bury the head.

Severed heads, it has been claimed, were an integral part of pagan celtic religious practice.[i] Be that as it may, I have been struck by the frequency of the occurrence of decapitation in surviving folklore narratives. Among folktales I have read recently, I have noted the following:

§     A frog who is really a prince who has had a spell cast upon him. The common base theme of a girl who is prepared to kiss him, or let him sleep with her, in order for him to be turned back to human form, is extended in some tales where she is required to cut off his head in order for the transformation to take place.

§    A princess transformed into a white hind and hunted by a young man on a quest who follows her into a cave and is then required to cut off the head and throw it into a well in order to transform the hind into a woman who, in her human form, is imprisoned in an enchanted castle.
(‘The King of England’ source: School of Scottish Studies

§     A young man on a quest who has to undergo a series of trials with each of three brothers living along separate stages of his quest route. These are old and grotesque but on his return journey he has to cut off the head of each of the brothers in turn and throw them into wells after which they are transformed into young men and their lands are renewed to prosperity, as here:

“The young prince dismounts, and puts his horse in the stable, and they go in to have some refreshments, for I can assure you he wanted some; and after telling everything that passed, which the old gentleman was very pleased to hear, they both went for a walk together, the young prince looking around and seeing the place looking dreadful, as did the old man. He could scarcely walk from his toe-nails curling up like ram's horns that had not been cut for many hundred years, and big long hair. They come to a well, and the old man gives the prince a sword, and tells him to cut his head off, and throw it in that well. The young man has to do it against his wish, but has to do it. No sooner has he flung the head in the well, than up springs one of the finest young gentlemen you would wish to see; and instead of the old house and the frightful-looking place, it was changed into a beautiful hall and grounds.”

from ‘The King of England and his Three Sons’ retold by Joseph Jacobs

All of the above happen to be from tales collected in Scotland. All have the theme of renewal by beheading and there is also the element of throwing the head into a well as part of this process. What are we to make of this?

If the well is to be regarded as a source of life and, in this context, re-birth, and the head as the part that can be re-born, a symbolic structure could be re-constructed. But that, somehow, escapes the mysterious subtext that suggestively underlies these tales. The story of Brân in Y Mabinogi is clearly a medieval story incorporating Other-world elements in the Birds of Rhiannon and the dwelling on a time-suspended island. The folk tales, similarly, deal in enchanted castles, shape-shifting and other transformations. Though simply told they often hint at psychic depths as well as deep things in the world we inhabit.

A frog in a well is ..... just a frog in a well - until it speaks. To engage with such things is to engage with strangeness. Often travellers in these strange worlds are asked to kill their helpers in order to renew a vital part of themselves. Is such psychic questing only about individual fulfilment or initiation? Or does it extend beyond the individual into the domain of myth when the land itself is renewed? Thinking about it, it is difficult to separate these two categories. And why should we want to?

[i] Discussed by Anne Ross in Pagan Celtic Britain -Chapter Two (1967)


Ancestral Celt said...

Don't forget the element of beheading in the tale of "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight", though I am not sure how you might relate that to renewal.

Hilaire said...

I haven't come across those tales before - interesting.

There are stories of Welsh saints (Irish too?) being beheaded and a well appearing where their heads fall.

An interesting article debunking the 'head cult theory':

Do you know of the story in Cormac's Glossary of the head of Lomna, Finn's fool (or possibly,poet)? It is a talking head rather like Bran's but was cut off the body of Lomna in revenge by Coirpre and set on a stake by the fire while he and his companions cooked. It began to speak and annoyed Coirpre so was put outside from where Finn found it and killed Coirpre.

Finally, on a 'decapitated head' theme, I was just reading (in translation) the poem in the Llywarch Hen Cycle, 'On Urien and the Gogledd' where Llywarch has taken Urien's head to prevent it falling into enemy hands and buries the body, and Gruffudd ab Yr Ynad Coch's moving elegy for Llywelyn ap Gruffudd: Fair Llywelyn's head, deep and universal dread/Seeing it stuck on a steel pike...
am trying to imagine living in a world where severed heads are not uncommon - difficult. Tho' I have a vague memory of one of the Classical authors talking about the Gauls carrying severed heads on horseback and how you get used to it!

Heron said...

I'd thought about including a comment on Gawain and the Green Knight, AC, but as you suggest, it didn't easily fit in with the point I was making. However it could on reflection fit the theme of Renewal given the Winter Solstice setting for the poem. Maybe a future blog ...

Thanks for calling in Hilaire. I did consider Irish parallels but know a lot less about them and wanted to make the point mainly about the folk tales I'd been reading. Thanks for the head cult ref. I was never fully convinced by Anne Ross' argument and I don't think the evidence of a few Roman commentators is enough to go on to be certain about this.

Llywelyn's head certainly fits this symbolically but I think the treatment of it by Gruffudd is one of straight forward tragic elegy. My own translation of the poem is posted at
Llywarch is worth considering in this respect though.

Hilaire said...

I tried the link for your Llywelyn Llywarch translation but it said no such blog existed...

By the way, have you read Joseph Clancy's excellent'Other Words: Essays on Poetry and Translation'?

Heron said...

I think Llywelyn & Llywarch got run together and shouldn't have been. (I don't think you can put active links in this comment boxes). You could try this:

or click on the 'Llywelyn' label on the blog itself.

Yes I know Joe Clancy's essays. And he is a great translator. I arranged an interview with him by some of students a while back, which we published in 'Bilingual Matter's'. I can let you have a copy if you like.

Hilaire said...

Thanks, I'd like to read it.

Magaly Guerrero said...

I haven't read this post yet, but I'll come back and take a look-see. I just wanted to inform you that you have an award waiting for you. Go to Pagan Culture to claim it.

Magaly Guerrero said...

You know, the more mythology I read the more I think that true individuality is just a perspective. Yes, we have our own ideas and do our own thing in life, but how many others have thought the same things centuries before us? How many will do it in the future?

Just like Hilaire pointed out, there are tales about beheading for purification purposes in Caribbean mythology too--and by the Gods we are quite a way from each other!

Hmm, why do you always make me think so hard? lol

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