Head: Symbolism and Ritual Use

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The symbolic and religious value of the head is attested by various myths that stress the theme of many-headedness (thus calling attention to assorted aspects of divine power) as well as by numerous rituals, dating to prehistoric times, in which the human head is hunted, offered as a sacrifice, preserved, and venerated. Whatever exact meaning these myths and rites ascribe to the head, they all rest on a common, and certainly very ancient, valorization that must not be overintellectualized. In the most archaic psychology the forces of courage as well as the impulses of anger and violence have their base in the head. The Greeks of the Homeric age considered it the location of a psuchē difficult to control and opposed to reason and judgment, which were located in the chest and heart. In agreement with Alcmaeon of Croton, the Pythagoreans localized sperm in the head. From that localization of life force came the belief that the vital and spiritual element of a victim could be assimilated by eating his brain.

As a source of power, the skull naturally became an object of worship: its magical value came from the fact that it was supposed to be the center of life. Among the Celts, for example, the head was the container of a sacred force, whereas in other ancient and traditional cultures, the head is conceived of as the seat of vital energy, the active principle of the whole individual. From such beliefs come headhunting rituals, the offering of skulls in sacrifice, and veneration for ancestors' skulls, as well as the apotropaic talismanic value attributed to the head.

Multiple Heads

Indo-European mythologies represented the diverse fields of application of the divine power by endowing the gods with three heads. Hinduism recognizes the trimūrti, a figure with three faces on the same head, representing Brahmā, Viu, and Śiva; in other words, the creating, preserving, and destroying power of the divine One.

Śiva is often shown with three or five faces and many arms, a sign of his omnipotence. Agni (Fire), accomplishing the will of Indra in the world, is endowed with three heads. Indra, "the leader of all the gods and lord of light," will struggle against Triśiras, the son of Trar the demiurge, a young ascetic Brahmā also possessing three heads: with one he reads the Vedas, with the second he eats, and thanks to the third, he surveys the whole universe. He was endowed with a threefold knowledge and a threefold will and thus risked upsetting the divine equilibrium. Indra therefore struck Triśiras with his thunderbolt and had a woodcutter chop off his three heads. In the Greek world, Hekate, the lunar goddess of night and of crossroads, has three heads: a horse's or cow's head and a dog's head that together frame the head of a young girl. She possesses an abundance of magical charms. In the same nocturnal register there corresponds the dog Kerberos, with three heads and tails of a serpent. Kerberos is the guardian of Hell, and his monstrous voracity, born of the imagination, is the incarnation of the greed of devouring death.

The Hindu god Aditi has two faces, for it is he who begins and ends each liturgical act (Śatapatha Brahmāna Like him, the Bifrons Janus of the Romans has a double face, for he is the god of passage in time as well as space. His face is double, as his functions as overseer and protector of time are ambivalent. Among the Celts, the three-headed god, often identified by the Gallo-Romans with Mercury, had many representations in Aedui country and in the northeast of Gaul. Certain Celtic myths feature animal gods with three heads or three horns. This repetition signifies, as in Hinduism, the desire to represent, and thereby augment, the divine power. It is the same for the Thracian Rider, often endowed with three heads. In the nineteenth century, thousands of representations of anthropomorphic divinities with three or seven heads were destroyed during the evangelization of the Samoyeds. This many-headedness recalls the faculty of seeing and knowing everything that the Finno-Ugrians assigned to the sun, which was the principal manifestation of the god Num.


Numerous discoveries in mountain caves have revealed the existence during the last interglacial period (150,000 years ago) of rites in which the skulls of bears were placed with long bones and preserved as if they were an offering to a divinity in charge of dispensing the spoils of the hunt. This rite seems analogous to one practiced not so long ago by the Inuit (Eskimo) of King William Island and to another rite practiced by the Samoyeds, in which a reindeer's head and long bones were exposed on some branches as an offering to Num, their supreme god. The discovery in Silesia of the skull of a young bear whose incisors and canines had been sawed and filed has been compared to a rite practiced by the Gilyak of Sakhalin Island and by the Ainu of Yezo, present-day Hokkaidō. This offering of an animal's skull and long bones appears very characteristic of hunting peoples. However, if the fact of their belief in a supreme being who is lord of the animals can be contested because of the lack of unambiguous documents, the religious character of this offering seems certain from the time of the late Paleolithic age.

It is difficult to ascertain whether it is a question here of a sacrifice of firstlings in which the brain and the marrow are offered to the god (the thesis of Alexander Gahs, 1928) or of a belief that the killed animal will not be reincarnated into another similar animal unless its bones remain intact (according to Karl Meuli's hypothesis in Griechische Opferbräuche, Basel, 1945). It is possible to state, however, that the idea of a ritual intended to assure the quantitative renewal of game rests upon an identical belief observed in a large zone extending from the Caucasus to Tibet, and in the entire Arctic European and North American zone. Similar indications have been found in Mesopotamia, in ancient Ugarit at the time of the Aqhat epic, as well as in the Egyptian Book of Going Forth by Day. Applied to the hunted animal (bear or reindeer) the belief is that life resides in the "soul of the bones," and that in offering the skull it is the whole animal, in its most vital part, that is thus consecrated to the god.

One finds the same belief, but now applied to man, in founding rituals that mention certain myths: the first decapitation is the sacrifice that founds the order of the created world. According to the Chaldean priest Berossus (third century bce), the god Marduk ordered the head of the first (primordial) man cut off. From a mixture of the spurting blood and the earth, Marduk then fashioned all humans and animals. The construction of a city or a temple is also found to be linked to a sacrificial decapitation in certain myths about the Kotoko of Chad.

Pliny reports (Natural History 23.4) that when the temple of Jupiter Capitolinus was constructed at Rome, a gigantic human skull was found during the laying of the foundations. This was interpreted as a favorable portent that Rome would be the head of the world and the capitol the seat of its power. We should also recall the Christian legend of Adam's skull, found at the very place where the cross of Christ was raised at Golgotha, "the place of the skull," as if to mark the foundation by the new Adam of the new Jerusalem of redeemed men. A completely different meaning, closer to that of hunting peoples, appears in the Aztec ritual of beheading during the sacrifice to Chicomecoatl-Xilonen, the goddess of young corn, and to Teteoinnan (Toci), the mother goddess of fertility and vegetal plenty. It should be noted that the same word, quechcotona, designates both sacrificial decapitation and the gathering of ears of corn.

The head-hunt, a rather common practice, is the necessary condition for being recognized as an adult and being deemed suitable for marriage. This practice is more like a ritualized war expedition than a sacrifice to the gods. It is well documented among Indo-European peoples such as the Scythians, who suspended the heads of enemies they had killed around the necks of their horses (Herodotos, 4.6.4). In ancient Greece the head hunt was an obligatory rite for initiation into the brotherhood of animal-men: Dolon the Trojan dressed himself in a wolf skin and tried one night to bring back the heads of Odysseus and Agamemnon; when he was discovered, his own head was cut off by Odysseus and Diomedes (Iliad 208ff.). The skull hunt was commonly practiced by the Celts. The Gauls hung the trophy skulls in their homes or nailed them to the main door after having rubbed them with cedar oil (Strabo, 4.4.5; Diodorus Siculus, 5.29.45). Sometimes these skulls, glazed with a thin layer of gold, served as sacred vessels for human blood libations to Teutates, and as cups strictly reserved for use by the druids and the chiefs (Livy, 23.24.12). This custom was to be maintained in Celtic Ireland and in the country of the Gauls. Gallic coins from Armorica pictured chopped-off heads as a victory symbol evoking the hero Cú Chulainn, the son of the god Lugh who brandished decapitated enemy heads in battle in order to frighten the enemy. He himself died in single combat with Lugard, who cleaved his head, since in the Celtic world death took effect only if the membranes of the brain, the adversary's seat of life and force, were reached.

In certain Semitic cultures, or cultures influenced by Semitic peoples, the head hunt is associated with the hunt for genital parts. Whether practiced in ancient Israel (1 Sm. 18.2527, 2 Sm. 3.14) or by ethnic groups in northern East Africa, the trophy brought back is, along with the head, the foreskin or male member. Among the American Plains Indians, scalps have always been war trophies that the Cheyenne or Blackfeet hung at the tip of a pole around which they danced in honor of the forces of nature. Joseph François Lafitau (Mœurs des sauvages amériquains, vol. 2, De la guerre, 1724) says that the Iroquois exposed the severed head of an enemy caught apart before the battle in order to frighten their opponents, but that afterward they only scalped those who were dead or left for dead. This scalp was prepared like the skin of an animal taken in the hunt and exhibited at the end of a pole. Lafitau compares this practice to that of the Scythians and the Gauls.

In the whole Malay archipelago, the head hunt and human sacrifice have been so closely linked that among the Niassans, the same word, binu, designates both. Among the Dayak in central Borneo, the ideal booty consists of the head because it contains "the substance of the soul." The victims of this hunt are excluded from the kingdom of the dead, as are the hanged, those struck by lightning, and those who died in an accident. On the other hand, victorious hunters and heroes who fall in the course of a head hunt are noble, and their souls will live at the summit of high mountains in the company of the Kamangs, their ancestors. A similar practice was more recently extended to the mountainous populations of Indochina, to the Nagas studied by J. P. Mills (19261937), as well as to the Jivaroan people of Latin America and the Mundurum of Brazil, who carefully preserved the heads of decapitated enemies, sometimes by shrinking. Head hunts are conducted on the occasions of rites of passage and initiation, or during the foundation rites for a common house, the chief's house, or the village temple.

The close connection between the skull hunt and human sacrifice has also been noted in Assam and Burma. Under the influence of Śaiva Tantrism, the ritualistic and symbolic role of the skull in Tibetan Buddhism has often been superimposed on a very ancient stratum of local beliefs, culminating in a revalorization of prehistoric practices in a type of Tantric yoga. Such was the case with the Aghorins, Śaiva ascetics who ate from human skulls and meditated while seated on cadavers, and who also practiced ritual cannibalism up to the end of the nineteenth century. They were the successors of the Kāpālikas, or "carriers of skulls," who had certain orgiastic practices and were worshipers of Śiva the great destroyer (Maitrāyaī Upaniad 6.8). Forgetting the yogic significance of the corpse and the skeleton, these Aghori naturally rediscovered the most ancient practice of the cannibalistic headhunters (Mircea Eliade, Yoga, New York, 1958, pp. 296298).

The Aztec decapitation ritual took place after the human sacrifice. The head, separated from the body from which the heart and the lungs had already been removed, was impaled and publicly displayed on the tzompantli. The skulls, perforated transversally at the level of the temples, remained there a long time. This ritual was ordinarily practiced at the time of the sacrifices to the warrior gods, the hunting gods, or the agrarian gods, but we have not been able to uncover the deepest reason for such a practice. In a single Mexican village, Fray Bernardino de Sahagún saw seven tzompantli (Florentine Codex, appendix 2) and the conquistadors counted between 80,000 and 136,000 human heads exposed in this way, among which Cortés recognized those of fifty-three of his companions next to four heads of the first horses put to death. It is not certain that these "skull walls," which inspired respect mixed with fear, were the result of the worship of the god of death. But it is certain that the head was a sacrificial trophy that was displayed as the personal property of the Aztec collectivity, since the handling of these heads seems always to have been reserved for the priests and dignitaries of the Aztec people (Florentine Codex 3.53).

Certain African ethnic groups link the skull to initiation rituals; thus, in the blood-pact rite in Benin, the skull of a traitor or one who died by accident serves as the receptacle for a beverage made of the coinitiates' blood. Those who betray their oath will experience the same ignominious death as the skull's owner. In the rite of initiation into Haitian Vodou, the concepts of pot-tête, mait-tête, and lav'tête have quasi-magic importance, as the place where the initiate, whose head hair, body hair, and nails have been gathered, unites with the lwa, or spirit, received at the time of initiation.

The Honored Head

Discoveries from the Middle and Upper Paleolithic ages, in Europe as well as in the Middle East, or in Australia, show the importance of the cult of the skulls of the ancestors. Their heads were prepared with great care and preserved. These skulls have undergone an enlargement of the occipital orifice, have been colored with red ocher, a substitute for blood as the symbol of life, and have been preserved according to a precise ritual orientation exactly like that practiced not long ago in Sulawesi. Likewise, the Aborigines of Australia preserve their relatives' skulls with great care, in order to venerate them and carry them along with them on their pilgrimages. The same care in decorating and preserving the ancestors' skulls is also found among the Andamanese of the Bay of Bengal, the Papuans of New Guinea, and the Indians of Bolivia. All of them believe that the "soul of the dead" resides in his skull and that it protects them.

In the same way, the Celts preserved the skulls of their next of kin on "encephalic" pillars with hollowed-out niches, such as those of Roquepertuse, Entremont, and Glanum. This custom was maintained for a long time in the Danube Basin where the ancestors' skulls, separated from their skeletons, were preserved under the main altar in churches. Every year, during the rites of passage, the young men took them out and wore them around their necks. Certain African ethnic groups, like the Bamileke, bring the skull of the deceased back into the home and deposit it near the family altar, where it is invoked in prayers of benediction and protection. This is because the skull, as a vessel for sacred power of divine origin, protects its possessor against all kinds of peril and gives him health, wealth, and victory.

Belief in the oracular powers of the head follows from this worship of the ancestors' skulls. Because the head is the seat of life, it is believed that one can easily enter into a relationship with the dead by means of the skull. Those of ancestors permit one to question the spirits, a common practice in Melanesia and Polynesia. Among certain Indian ethnic groups of Latin America, the Jivaroan people in particular, the spirits manifest themselves in the shape of skulls, formidable if they belong to ancient shamans. The Inuit of Iglulik believe in the existence of tattooed flying heads, the manifestation of spirits who have taught language to the Inuit. In ancient Israel, the terafim show the relation between the worship of skulls and divination: small anthropomorphic domestic idols become the instrument of divination (Gn. 31:19; 1 Sm., 15:23, 19:13, etc.). Commenting on these texts, medieval rabbis affirmed that the terafim were made from the decapitated head of a firstborn son from which the hair had been removed. The head, sprinkled with salt and castor oil, was preserved and questioned about the future according to a ritual analogous to the one reported in the tenth century among the natives of Hauran. The Greeks likewise were acquainted with the existence of oracular heads: that of Orpheus at Lesbos (Philostratus, Heroicus 5.704) and that of Archonides preserved by Cleomenes of Sparta (Aelianus, 12.8).

But it is especially in Celtic literature that the theme of the oracular head comes to its fullest expression. Separated from the body, heads continue to act and speak as if they preserved the vital breath they once contained, like Brân's head in the Mabinogi, or those of the Roman Arthurians who take up the old theme of Fledh Bhricrenn, in which the hero Cú Chulainn is the prototype of the knight Gawain. The Celtic theme of the severed head, still living and speaking, is the foundation of Christian legends of cephalophoric saints, the most famous of which is Saint Denis, the bishop of Paris. All these legends originated in northern Gaul, in Celtic country, and do not illustrate, as was long believed, the affirmation of Chrysostom concerning the martyrs who could present themselves with confidence at God's tribunal "carrying their cut-off heads as a testimony of their martyrdom." It is always the same sacred power, vital and of divine origin, that is expressed by the severed head testifying to its religious faith.

See Also

Bones; Crown; Human Sacrifice, overview article; Nimbus.


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Michel Meslin (1987)

Translated from French by Kristine Anderson