Talking Heads in Irish Myth
August 27, 2020

Talking Heads in Irish Myth

By admin

The Cult of Heads practised by the Celts have been from the time immemorial till now have been a subject of great controversy. However, it is undeniable that we can see several stories of severed heads in the ancient stories of Ireland. Many Greek and Roman historians and authors believed that he Celtic warriors of Europe chopped of heads of their enemies in battle and hung them from their horse bridles. Afterwards, they were either displayed and preserved as war trophies.

However, Romans might have missed the fact because now the archaeologists believe that the Celts look off the heads not of their enemies but of their beloved persons who died in battle.

Had the same thing happened in Ireland? And, if it was true, why would they behead their beloveds?

A hero named Cuchulainn in Tain Bo Cuilnge has been described as coming back home from battle hanging nine enemy heads in one hand and ten in the other. After his killing, the heads of ten men who killed him, are taken in revenge and presented to his wife, Emer and she accepts them. There was a king of Leinster named Mac Datho. He had a magnificient guard dog named Ailbhe Queen Medb of Connacht and King Conchobar of Utster both wanted the hound. Therefore, Mac Datho invited both parties to a feast. Suddenly warriors from both the sides began contesting among themselves over the greatest warrior entitled the curadmir or hero’s portion of the meat.

Cet of Connacht emerged as the most likely man until Conall Cernach arrived from Ulster. Cet accepted his superiority but commented that if his brother Anluan was there, he would not be getting the curadmir because he was the better warrior. Conall pulled Anluan’s head from his belt and threw it at Cet so hard that he was splattered with his brother’s blood. Finally, there was a fight for the dog.

Then we find a very strange story of the death of Conchobar mac Nessa, King of Ulster.

Meisceidra, King of Leinster had been killed by Conall Cernach. He took off the brain and preserved it by mixing it with lime.

St. Oliver Plunket, a Roman Catholic bishop had been falsely accused of conspiring against the state and offending God by practising his false religion. He was hung and hs head was brought to St. Peter’s Church in Drogheda where it has remained ever since.

All these stories indicate the reverence for the head as a tradition, which has continued through ages in Ireland. There is the cult of head worship. The Corleck Head is a carved stone head now kept in the National Museum in Dublin.

The Stone Head of Brigid was thought to have been worshipped as a triple deity at a shrine on top of neighbouring hill of Drumeague. It is believed that the Celts honoured head as a potent symbol. They thought it was the seat of the soul. We may consider taking someone’s head unimaginably violent. But to the Celts it might not have been so. Probably, it was an act of honour for bravery. Maybe it was a gesture if possession, to prevent the enemy’s soul ascending in the otherworld. Maybe it signified gathering wisdom. The Celts perhaps thought that by bringing back home the heads and thus the souls of their friends and relatives who had died in the battlefield they were returning them to their near and dear ones. Perhaps, according to them, bringing the severed heads war a mark of respect, honour and love for the heroes who had laid down their lives in the battlefield.

But what about the talking heads? There are numerous stories in Irish mythology of dismembered heads which astonishingly continue to speak even after their death.

Conaire Mor had been a High King of Ireland whose reign was remarkable as long and peaceful. However, things went wrong when he was being forced by events to break some of his taboos. While at Da Derga’s hostel, he was attacked. He killed many of his enemies and told his champion, Mac Cecht, to bring him some water. When the warrior returned with the drink, he saw two men chopping off Conaire’s head. Being angry he killed both of them. Then Conaire’s head carried on talking, drank the water and even composed a poem in honour of Cecht’s loyalty and prowess.

There was a fierce battle— the Battle of Allen. The Leinstermen were celebrating their victory over the men of Ulster. Baethgelach was dispatched to the battlefield to bring a trophy head. Suddenly, he heard the most beautiful, etherical singing. This led him to the severed head of a young warrior, Donn-Bo.

Baethgalach told him to sing for his King in exchange for being returned to his body afterwards. He sang so sweetly and sadly for the King of Leinster that the whole court was moved to tears. Baethgalach then returned with him to the battlefield, where they found out Donn-Bo’s body and the two parts were magically joined together and was made whole once more.

Back to the Tain, Sualtam was sent to inspire the men of Ulster to fight against Medb’s forces. Accidentally, the sudden jump of his horse caused his shield to slide, slicing his head clean off. But his head continued to call for the Ulstermen’s assistance. This finally brought them to Cuchulainn’s aid.

At last, Fothad Canainne was a man who literally had to lose his head over a woman. Actually, he was a chieftain of the Connacht branch of the Fianna. He fell in love with the wife of Ailill Fiann Bece, who was the leader of the Monster Fianna. As the eloped, they were followed by Aillil and his men. Almost all of them were killed. The hapless woman found her lover’s severed head, picked it up and took it to where his body lay. Fothad’s head then talked to her and left her with a verse in memory of his life and sad end.

Thus, we can see that the complexity and richness of these mythic tales enchant everyone. May be the legends of the Celts are more fascinating than the much better-known tales from Classical Mythology. These tales not only reveal information about the Celtic past, these myths are such racy and entertaining that none can overlook their appeal.