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The Many Faces of The Headless Horseman

The Headless Horseman - The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (cover)One of the most prominent creatures in both Western and European folktales is the headless horseman and can be dated as far back as the mediaeval times within Celtic folklore. Still, the most popular feature of this legendary phantom is from the prominent American folktale that originated near Tarrytown, New York, in a quiet village called Sleepy Hollow. Written by Washington Irving, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is, I’m sure, one that every child had been exposed to in some fashion while they were growing-up. Personally, my very first introduction to the headless horseman was Disney’s 1949 film Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Within the animated film was the dark, headless figure mounted on a sable horse hefting a glowing jack-o-lantern. This disembodied spirit raised its headless form again with Tim Burton’s gothic film Sleepy Hollow released in 1999, which terrified me as a kid.

Within the legend itself, the phantom was formerly a Hessian trooper (German soldier originating from Hesse) who was killed by a cannon ball “in some nameless battle during the Revolutionary War.” The headless horseman arises every Halloween to try to find his skull by chopping-off heads till he locates his own. In Irving’s folktale, the headless horseman appears out of the darkness as Ichabod journey’s home after a night of trying to win the heart of Katrina Van Tassel, described in such a manner that leaves the reader just as uneasy as Ichabod:

In the dark shadow of the grove, on the margin of the brook, he beheld something huge, misshapen and towering. It stirred not, but seemed gathered up in the gloom, like some gigantic monster ready to spring upon the traveler.

Summoning up, therefore, a show of courage, he demanded in stammering accents, “Who are you?”

He received no reply. He repeated his demand in a still more agitated voice. Still there was no answer.

Once more he cudgelled the sides of the inflexible Gunpowder, and, shutting his eyes, broke forth with involuntary fervor into a psalm tune.

Just then the shadowy object of alarm put itself in motion, and with a scramble and a bound stood at once in the middle of the road. Though the night was dark and dismal, yet the form of the unknown might now in some degree be ascertained. He appeared to be a horseman of large dimensions, and mounted on a black horse of powerful frame. He made no offer of molestation or sociability, but kept aloof on one side of the road, jogging along on the blind side of old Gunpowder, who had now got over his fright and waywardness.

The Headless Horseman Pursuing Ichabod Crane by John Quidor

Within Irving’s folktale, the “Galloping Hessian of the Hollow” may have targeted the schoolmaster Ichabod Crane for his horrid treatment of his students or his greedy pursuits of Katrina Van Tassel. Or, it could had been dumb luck that landed Ichabod into the grips of the headless Hessian. Nevertheless, the headless horseman isn’t bound to the imaginings of Irving alone.

The Headless Horseman - A Strange Tale of Texas (cover)Another American legend of the “Headless Horsemen” is Mayne Reid’s Headless Horseman: A Strange Tale of Texas. The tale appears to follow a similar thread to Irving’s telling of the story, as it follows two men who court the beautiful Louise Poindexter out in Texas while a headless horseman roams the rolling plains.

The horse is perfect in all its parts—a splendid steed, saddled, bridled, and otherwise completely caparisoned. In it there appears nothing amiss—nothing to produce either wonder or alarm. But the man—the rider? Ah! About him there is something to cause both—something weird—something wanting!

By heavens! it is the head!

Interesting enough, the story’s origins center around El Muerto, the Headless Horseman tale told by Creed Taylor. The event is of two men who were hunting down horse thieves in Mexico. Finding the leader of a group of horse thieves, they killed and then decapitated him. Then they tied the headless corpse onto a wild stallion and set it loose as a warning to other thieves nearby.

In the Irish folktale, the fae headless horseman is the Dulachán or Dullahan. He drives a carriage pulled by multiple horses or simply rides on horseback. The horseman had its origins in the Celtic mythology of the Crom Dubh, who demanded beheaded sacrifices. The headless horseman would appear to someone connected to a prosperous master or landowner, foretelling of death. Other descriptions describe the horseman wishing to go unseen, and if noticed, will whip the beholder’s eyes out. Also, if the Dullahan pulls-up near you, you will die. If the horseman calls-out your name, you die. Seemingly, you don’t want this creature anywhere near you and, supposedly, no door can hold him out so could luck evading him.

The Dullahan appears in multiple folktales, in particular in Thomas Crofton Croker’s: Fairy Legends and Traditions: “Hanlon’s Mill”, “The Death Coach” and “The Headless Horseman”. Within “Hanlon’s Mill”, it tells of Michael Noonan whom goes to retrieve his brogues that are being mended and, while on the return home, is terrified by the apparition of the horseman:

He turned round on his elbow to see if it was so; but how was Mick astonished at finding, close along-side of the car, a great high black coach drawn by six black horses, with long black tails reaching almost down to the ground, and a coachman dressed all in black sitting up on the box.

But what surprised Mick the most was that he could see no sign of a head either upon coach man or horses. It swept rapidly by him, and he could perceive the horses raising their feet as if they were in a fine slinging trot, the coachman touching them up with his long whip, and the wheels spinning round like hoddy-doddies; still he could hear no noise, only the regular step of his gossip Darby’s horse, and the squeaking of the grudgeons of the car, that were as good as lost entirely for want of a little grease.

Night Carriage by Marutanielle

True to the folktale, the master of the estate ends-up dying in the end. In “The Death Coach”, the prose grimly describes the appearance of the horseman on a starless night bearing a whip made of a human spine, pulled by tireless horses and bearing spooky trappings:

A coach! – but that coach has no head;
And the horses are headless as it:
Of the driver the same may be said

– – –

There spokes are of dead men’s thigh bones,
And the pole is the spine of the back!

– – –

The hammer-cloth, shabby display,
Is a pall rather mildew’d by damps;
And to light this strange coach on its way,
Two hollow skulls hang up for lamps!

Finally, in “The Headless Horseman” the protagonist Charley Culnane is riding home in the rain after sharing a drink with his friend. While being overly concerned about his new snaffle reins being ruined by the downpour, he at first doesn’t notice the Dullahan trotting along beside him. He doesn’t notice the head of the horseman until he spots it tucked underneath the right arm of the fae:

The Headless Horseman - Image from 3rd Ed. D&DCharley did look again, and now in the proper place, for he clearly saw, under the aforesaid right arm, that head from which the voice had proceeded, and such a head no mortal ever saw before. It looked like a large cream cheese hung round with black puddings: no speck of colour enlivened the ashy paleness of the depressed features; the skin lay stretched over the unearthly surface, almost like the parchment head of a drum.

Two fiery eyes of prodigious circumference, with a strange and irregular motion, flashed like meteors upon Charley, and to complete all, a mouth reached from either extremity of two ears, which peeped forth from under a profusion of matted locks of lustreless blackness. This head, which the figure had evidently hitherto concealed from Charley’s eyes, now burst upon his view in all its hideousness.

The tale is more optimistic than the previous by its ending, the horseman and Charley race and, upon Charley pulling-up his old, white mare, the horseman informs Charley that ever since him and his horse broke their necks a hundred years past at Kilcummer hill, he’s been longing to race someone. He then tells Charley that he should always be a daring rider, for nothing ill will become of him and he will always find fortune. When Charley returns home he tells everyone what happened and everyone amounts it to the spirits he had drank earlier in the day. The curious part is that he happens to win a race with his old mare, proving his story true.

In contrast to Ireland’s Dullahan is India’s Jhinjhar, from the Sanskrit yuddhakarin, meaning “warrior”, who isn’t viewed as the villain of the story but, rather, the hero. This headless horseman has his origins in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan folklore. He was a prince who had perished at the hands of highwaymen or defending his village. Either way, the Jhinjhar had wrongfully died as a savior of the innocence.

Ewan the Headless from ScotClansThe Scottish folklore features Ewan the Headless, of the clan MacLain of Lochbuie. Ewan’s father, Hector, is annoyed by his wife’s and son’s pestering him to appoint the supposedly “dim-witted” Ewan the inheritor of his lands. Ewan and Hector get into a fight where Ewan hits his father on the head with his sword and storms-off. After informing Lachlan, Hector’s other son, of what happened between him and Ewan, Lachlan becomes infuriated and vows to meet Ewan in battle. Before the battle, Ewan ventures into a nearby wood and sees a fae, named Bean Nighe, sitting by the river, chest bare and washing unsoiled clothes that emit blood. He asked her the outcome of the battle and the Bean Nighe replies, “If tomorrow morning you are given butter with your porridge without asking then you will be victorious.”

This doesn’t sit well with the brainless Ewan who ends-up cursing at her. The following morning Ewan and the rest of his men are seated in the banquet hall, waiting to eat in silence till Ewan has received his butter. When the butter isn’t forthcoming Ewan becomes furious and screams, “The servants we have are terrible they don’t even bring me butter with my porridge!” Because he went against the Bean Nighe’s wishes and demanded butter he meets misfortune. Thus, during the battle against his brother Lachlan, Ewan’s head is chopped off. He does manage to mount his horse before he slumps in the saddle and dies. Since his death, if a clansman of Lochbuie MacLaines dies then the headless horseman Ewan will come and gather their soul.

Wild Hunt Faerie by MiguelCoimbra

Finally, Scandinavian folklore contains a headless horseman that is akin to the Irish’s Dulachán, in the sense that the horseman usually carries his head tucked underneath his arm. This headless horseman desired to continue hunting in his favorite woods of Gurre, even after death and had prayed to God to fulfill his desire. His wish granted, this headless huntsman pursues this “wild hunt” through the forest on a white steed, cracking his whip, his hounds with fiery maws accompanying him.

Officially, in folklore the Wild Hunt (which can be found also in Hackelnberg, The Wild Huntsman, and Han Jagendteufel by the Brothers Grimm) could be summed-up as simply a supernatural hunting party made-up of either spirits, elves, fairies or the undead led by a leader who varies from region to region of the tale’s origin. From Scandinavian folklore, the figure is Odin. In Germany, the leader is Wodan (the God of wind), Denmark its Valdemar Atterdag (translated as “King Waldemar” in English), to Theodoric the Great, king of Ostrogoths, Italy. Figures from The Bible even have been appointed as the “leader of the Wild Hunt,” as well as the devil. Whoever the true leader is, it can be assumed that someone of great significance led this hunt. And similar to being witnessed to the passing of the Dulachán, its coming foretold of death, either in war, the plague or the viewer’s own demise.

Also, numerous countries contain some dissimilarity of a “headless horseman” in their mythology. Which begs the question: Why are headless figures, particularly horsemen, so prominent in their folklore? One source notes that the practice of beheading corpses in order to keep them rising from the grave was the main reason. This practice is utilized in many gothic literatures, from Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla (1871), as well as Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897). The oldest known beheaded corpse dates back to the Paleolithic period of a young man found in Goat’s Hole, located in South Wales. Thus, decapitated corpses have been a long-held practice among the overly superstitious and one can only guess the reasonings why our distant ancestors beheaded the man. Were they, too, fearful of him rising from the dead and haunting them?

The Headless Horseman - SkyrimWhile the “headless ghost” continues to make its appearance throughout history, in both literature, such as the Arthurian legend Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, 14th Century, or in modern pop culture Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, it’s undeniable that many associated a horseman directly with death. This theme of horsemen being the “harbingers of death” also makes one surmise whether or not many had a fear of being chased by a horseman (either a peasant in the medieval era or in a later time period) and getting their heads chopped-off. And of course, what seems to be the easiest way of ending a poor soul’s life if not by swinging your weapon directly at their head while riding on horseback? All these “headless horseman” fables can’t be a coincidence.

Excluding India’s Jhinjhar, if a rider dies in horrid circumstances and its head is severed and lost, the ghost will arise in search of its head or rides across the lands bringing death to any unfortunate soul that gazes upon it. Either in the form of the Headless Horseman from Irving’s legend, the God of the Wild Hunt, the Dulachán’s coach, or an idiotic Scottsman, it can’t be denied that many of us have grown-up with some distinction of a headless horseman. And these stories have been told traditionally around Halloween to make our skins crawl, our hearts race, and, ultimately, to make us feel alive.

So, the next time you’re out in the night and you hear the clatter of hooves or a silent rider joins you on your stroll, just be sure you keep your head about you.

The Headless Horseman - Steve Mardo

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Works Cited

“Crofton Croker’s Fairy Legends.” The Dublin Penny Journal, vol. 3, no. 125, 1834, pp. 162–163. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/30003941.

Grierson, G. A. “The Headless Horseman.” Folklore, vol. 25, no. 3, 1914, pp. 382–382. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/1254793.

Rodger, Ian. “The Headless Horseman: An Amateur Inquiry.” Journal of the Folklore Institute, vol. 2, no. 3, 1965, pp. 266–271. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3814145.

Cited Links

1. Hessian definition
2. The Headless Horseman: A Strange Tale of Texas by Mayne Reid on Project Gutenberg
3. Headless horseman stories are rooted in Dutch folklore on Reading Eagle
4. The Legend of Sleepy Hollow on Wikipedia
5. What dark folklore inspired the famous Headless Horseman? on Icy Sedgwick
6. Searching for the Headless Horseman on Electric Lit
7. The Many Faces of The Headless Horseman on Woodland Horse Center
8. The Dullahan on Shee-Eire
9. Hanlon’s Mill on Shee-Eire
10. The Death Coach on Shee-Eire
11. The Headless Horseman on Shee-Eire
12. 5 Creepy Creatures From Myth and Folklore on The Current
13. Headless Horseman on Brickthology
14. gan ceann, gan-ceann on Oxford Reference
15. Ewan The Headless on Scotclans
16. Historic Belief in the Wild Hunt on Germanic Mythology
17. Odin on Wikipedia
18. Famous Ghost Stories: Legends and Lore (Pg. 52)
19. The Headless Horseman on Histeria
20. The Legend Of The Headless Horseman on Other World Mystery
21. The Skilful Huntsman on World of Tales
22. Grimms’ Fairy Tales by Jacob Grimm and Wilhelm Grimm on Project Gutenberg
23. The legend of the headless horseman originates with Celtic beliefs about a harbinger of death who came to speak one’s name on The Vintage News
24. Crom Cruach: The Dark God of the Burial Mound on Woodkern
25. An Introduction to the Popular Religion and Folklore of Northern India by William Crooke
26. Dullahan on Scary for Kids
27. Ashes of Immortality: Widow-Burning in India

Title image by Matthew Stawicki.

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2 Comments

  1. Richard Marpole says:

    Lots of cool lore here. Thanks for this!

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