#FolkloreThursday: Headless Horsemen

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And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him.

Revelation 6:8

Headless Horsemen, y’all… folklore is lousy with them. Seriously. And their message is always the same: Death is coming.

John Quidor, 1858

The dominant spirit, however, that haunts this enchanted region…is the apparition of a figure on horseback, without a head. It is said by some to be the ghost of a Hessian trooper, whose head had been carried away by a cannon-ball, in some nameless battle during the Revolutionary War, and who is ever and anon seen by the country folk hurrying along in the gloom of night, as if on the wings of the wind…the ghost rides forth to the scene of battle in nightly quest of his head, and that the rushing speed with which he sometimes passes along the Hollow, like a midnight blast, is owing to his being belated, and in a hurry to get back to the churchyard before daybreak.

Irving, Washington. The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, by Washington Irving, Project Gutenberg, 25 June 2008.

Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is a very well known variant of the Headless Horsemen stories. Irving’s story focuses on a schoolteacher named Ichabod Crane who taught in the town of Sleepy Hollow. Crane was wildly superstitious and also wildly popular with most of the women in town.

To summarize, Ichabod enters into a competition, of sorts, with Brom Bones for the hand of the very pretty and very wealthy Katrina Van Tassel. When riding home from a party at the Van Tassel’s, Ichabod is pursued by a horrifying, headless rider. The rider eventually launches his head (or a pumpkin?) at Crane, Crane is thrown from his horse, and he is never seen again. The inference is that the rider was actually Brom Bones and that Crane was either scared out of town or Brom just killed him. Cartoons, live-action movies, and television shows have been created around this story, however, Irving’s decapitated Hessian is not the only horseman in folklore. He is simply the most well-known in American folk-lore because y’all, there is another one.

Some were at first incredulous, and treated the thing as a joke. But the wholesale testimony—and the serious manner in which it was given—could not long be resisted; and the existence of the headless horseman became a universal belief. Of course there was an attempt to account for the odd phenomenon, and many forms of explanation were suggested. The only one, that seemed to give even the semblance of satisfaction, was that already set forward by the frontiersman—that the horse was real enough, but the rider was a counterfeit. For what purpose such a trick should be contrived, or who should be its contriver, no one pretended to explain.

Reid, Mayne. The Headless Horseman: A Strange Tale of Texas, Project Gutenberg, 16 March 2011.

The Headless Horseman was a serialized novel that was published between 1865 and 1866 by Mayne Reid. The story is purportedly based on the author’s “adventures” in Texas and comes from a South Texas folktale. If you read the Wikipedia article, there is a rather convoluted explanation for how Reid came across the story and what the actual “facts” are for the story. The root of the original tale seems to center on a Mexican horse thief who is caught, killed, and decapitated. The vigilantes then tied his body to a wild stallion (narrator’s note: this should not be confused with a Wyld Stallyn, which is completely different), put his head into his sombrero and tied that to the pommel of the saddle. The horse was then left to roam the countryside as a warning to other horse thieves.

After reading about all of this, I have a suspicion that there is a very particular reason that Reid took such an interest in this story. Mayne Reid was an Irish-American novelist who came to America when he was 22. As such, he would have been well-steeped in Irish folklore, and so it’s highly likely that he would have been familiar with Ireland’s own version of the Headless Horseman, the Dullahan.

Artist and Date Unknown

“I seen the dullahan myself, stopping on the brow of the hill between Bryansford and Moneyscalp late one evening, just as the sun was setting. It was completely headless but it held up its own head in its hand and I heard it call out a name. I put my hand across my ears in case the name was my own, so I couldn’t hear what it said. When I looked again, it was gone. But shortly afterwards, there was a bad car accident on that very hill and a young man was killed. It had been his name that the dullahan was calling.”

W. J. Fitzpatrick, storyteller, Mourne Mountains in County Down

Unlike the Hessian or the horse thief, the Dullhan was never human but instead is Fae, a member of the Unseelie Court. He is said to be a dark rider on a dark horse, who carries his head in his hand and often lifts it above his head to light his way. His head is described as being “the colour and texture of stale dough or mouldy cheese, and quite smooth.” The face is split into a wide grin and has beady eyes lit with a “malignant fire.” In a move that makes him much more terrifying than other headless horsemen, the Dullahan also carries a whip that is essentially a human spine. To make matters worse, the Dullahan’s head is capable of limited speech; as he rides he will shout the name of the person that he rides for, the person that is soon to die.

The Dullhan is believed to be the physical embodiment of an ancient Celtic god named Crom Dubh, or Black Crom. Sacrifice by decapitation was a part of Crom Dubh’s yearly worhsip in order to increase fertility. When Christian monks arrived and this kind of pagan worship was driven out, Crom Dubh took physical form in the Dullhan, in order to continue gathering souls. There is no real way to fight against the Dullahan because he is simply a herald of Death, however, it is said that flinging gold coins and other gold objects in his path may slow him down and even drive him away for a time.

The final bit of headless horseman folklore revolves around the Scottish tale of Ewan the Headless and while it seems to be a somewhat known story, there were absolutely zero images except for this…

A fierce battle commences, In the middle of battle Ewan aptly receives a sword blow to the top of his head slicing the top of it off. Ewan manages to mount his horse, but as the horse gallops off Ewan dies slumped in his saddle. The MacLeans of Duart leave the battlefield victorious.

“Ewan the Headless,” ScotClans.Com

This is a convoluted and very Scottish story that involves a greedy wife, a browbeaten husband, and an inevitable clan battle over land. Ewan’s horse was eventually caught and Ewan was buried, one assumes both body and head. Having said that, there seems to be a myth, on par with the Dullahan but family specific, that says that the horseman appears anytime someone in the clan dies, and that he “rides out to harvest in the souls of the Lochbuie MacLaines.”

Whatever the case may be, each of these stories makes it clear that to see the headless rider is to know that Death is coming. The rider may not coming for you, but he is surely coming for someone you know. So pay heed when you hear the hoofbeats, scatter some gold, lock your doors, and pray that sunset arrives soon.

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