Saturday, June 7, 2014

In Cutting off a Head the Celt Saluted the Gods

Celtic Druid Headhunters

Head-hunting, described in classical writings and in Irish texts, had also a sacrificial aspect. The heads of enemies were hung at the saddle-bow or fixed on spears, as the conquerors returned home with songs of victory. This gruesome picture often recurs in the texts. Thus, after the death of Cúchulainn, Conall Cernach returned to Emer with the heads of his slayers strung on a withy. He placed each on a stake and told Emer the name of the owner. A Celtic oppidum or a king's palace must have been as gruesome as a Dayak or Solomon Island village. Everywhere were stakes crowned with heads, and the walls of houses were adorned with them. Poseidonius tellshow he sickened at such a sight, but gradually became more accustomed to it. A room in the palace was sometimes a store for such heads, or they were preserved in cedar-wood oil or in coffers. They were proudly shown to strangers as a record of conquest, but they could not be sold for their weight in gold. After a battle a pile of heads was made and the number of the slain was counted, and at annual festivals warriors produced the tongues of enemies as a record of their prowess.
These customs had a religious aspect. In cutting off a head the Celt saluted the gods, and the head was offered to them or to ancestral spirits, and sometimes kept in grove or temple. The name given to the heads of the slain in Ireland, the "mast of Macha," shows that they were dedicated to her, just as skulls found under an altar had been devoted to the Celtic Mars. Probably, as among Dayaks, American Indians, and others, possession of a head was a guarantee that the ghost of its owner would be subservient to its Celtic possessor, either in this world or in the next, since they are sometimes found buried in graves along with the dead. Or, suspended in temples, they became an actual and symbolical offering of the life of their owners, if, as is probable, the life or soul was thought to be in the head. Hence, too, the custom of drinking from the skull of the slain had the intention of transferring his powers directly to the drinker. Milk drunk from the skull of Conall Cernach restored to enfeebled warriors 
their pristine strength, and a folk-survival in the Highlands—that of drinking from the skull of a suicide (here taking the place of the slain enemy) in order to restore health—shows the same idea at work. All these practices had thus one end, that of the transference of spirit force—to the gods, to the victor who suspended the head from his house, and to all who drank from the skull. Represented in bas-relief on houses or carved on dagger-handles, the head may still have been thought to possess talismanic properties, giving power to house or weapon. Possibly this cult of human heads may have given rise to the idea of a divine head like those figured on Gaulish images, or describede.g., in the story of Bran. His head preserved the land from invasion, until Arthur disinterred it, the story being based on the belief that heads or bodies of great warriors still had a powerful influence. The representation of the head of a god, like his whole image, would be thought to possess the same preservative power.