Speaking of Severed Heads

My collection of retold folk-tales, Head and Tales, was inspired by a story I found in Irish Folk Tales, edited by Henry Glassie, and published by Penguin Folklore Library in 1985.

          I have read and loved folklore since a child, and was well aware that the severed head has a special significance in Celtic-Nordic folklore. Two examples are the severed head of Mimir which, in Norse Myth, is kept beside the spring at the foot of the World Tree, and gives advice to Odin when he needs it; and the head of Bran, from Welsh legend, which continues to entertain and advise his followers after Bran’s death.

In 'Irish Folk Tales', I came across a story, collected in Kerry in 1945, called ‘The Grave of His Fathers.’ It tells of a young man who travels, with a friend, to Northern Ireland to find work. While there he takes sick. He feels that he’s dying, and his dying wish is to have his head cut off and carried home, so it can be buried ‘in my own churchyard.’

          The friend duly returns the severed head to its home village, and the rest of the story tells how, as the funeral procession is approaching the graveyard, they see another procession coming and – as was the custom, the story says – the funeral parties race to see which will have the honour of holding their ceremony first. The other party wins but, as it reaches the graveyard wall, it vanishes.
          The party who’ve come to bury the head are disconcerted, but nevertheless hold their funeral. Some time later another man of the family dies, and they reopen the family grave – but instead of the single coffin they’re expecting, find two. Inside one coffin is a bodiless head; in the other a headless body. So the ‘ghost funeral’ at last makes sense; and the lad who died away from home rests whole and entire in the grave of his fathers.
          I enjoyed the story, but was particularly struck by how, even in 1945, a severed head was given such importance. It is, after all, his head that the man feels must rest in his own country and not, say, his heart.
Rackham's 'Three Heads in the Well'. More miraculous severed heads.
Rackham's 'Three Heads in the Well'. More miraculous severed heads.

       I felt that, perhaps, something had been lost from this story – that if it had been told at another time, the head, unable to rest, would have talked to its friend as he carried it home. When I looked up the story for these notes, I found my own pencilled scribble at the bottom of the page: ‘The basis of a story? The head carried from place to place, solving problems, being prophetic?’ (I always make notes to self in the form of questions, to remind me that I don’t have to be restricted by first thoughts.)

          At the same time I’d been reading about the traditions of story-telling, how stories have often been thought of as spells of a kind. The Irish Bards were said to be able to compose such scathing satires that their words raised blisters on the faces of their subjects. Words have power. Stories have power. So some stories were only to be told at weddings, others only at funerals, still others at christenings.

          These ideas underlie several of my collections of retold folk-tales, such as Telling Tales. They are certainly present in Head and Tales, where, in the framing story, the father’s head, carried by his children, guides, encourages, defends, consoles – and all with stories.