BOO! Pardon Me, Have you seen my Head?
The Headless Horseman is a mythical figure in English and American folklore since the Middle Ages. This entity is very similar to the headless reapers or demonic fairy known as Dullahan in Irish myth.
The most commonly known examples of the Headless Horseman is from the American tale “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” by Washington Irving, and the English tale “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.”
The 14th century poem Gawain and the Green Knight features a headless horseman who is the titular giant knight. After he is beheaded by Gawain, the Green Knight lifts his own head up with one hand and rides from the hall, challenging Gawain to meet him again one year later.
The most prominent Scots tale of the headless horseman concerns a man named Ewen decapitated in a clan battle at Glen Cainnir on the Isle of Mull. The battle denied him any chance to be a chieftain, and both he and his horse are headless in accounts of his haunting of the area.
There is also The Headless Horseman by Mayne Reid, first published in monthly serialized form during 1865 and 1866 and was based off of his adventures in the US, which was later published as a book in 1866. Also known as “A Strange Tale of Texas”, Reid wrote of the local Texan folktale of their own headless horseman based on the author’s adventures in the United States.
The Legend of Sleepy Hollow
The legend of the Headless Horseman (also known as “the Headless Hessian of the Hollow”) begins in Sleepy Hollow, New York, during the American Revolutionary War. Traditional folklore holds that the Horseman was a Hessian trooper who was killed during the Battle of White Plains in 1776. He was decapitated by an American cannonball, and the shattered remains of his head were left on the battlefield while his comrades hastily carried his body away. Eventually they buried him in the cemetery of the Old Dutch Church of Sleepy Hollow, from which he rises as a malevolent ghost, furiously seeking his lost head. Modern versions of the story refer his rides to Halloween, around which time the battle took place.
Appearance ( who is that riding by)
The Headless Horseman is traditionally depicted as a man upon horseback who is missing his head. Depending on the legend, the Horseman is either carrying his head, or is missing his head altogether, and is searching for it.
Famously described as the haunting antagonist in author Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, the Headless Horseman has captured imaginations for generations.
Ichabod Crane (not a good look for ole Ichabod)
The Legend of Sleepy Hollow embarks on the tale of Ichabod Crane, a skittish schoolteacher who tries to woo a wealthy landowner’s daughter, Katrina Van Tassel. Crane’s plans are spoiled by the raucous and brawny Brom Bones. In the story, Bones poses as the Headless Horse in a devious plot to scare away Ichabod Crane.
The Headless Horseman, sometimes known as the Galloping Hessian, is portrayed with a pumpkin (often a jack-o-lantern) while riding a black horse. The story goes that the Headless Horseman is the ghost of a Hessian soldier who was decapitated by canon fire during the Revolutionary War.
While this frightening figure continues to live on in the pages of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, local lore claims that the Headless Horseman is buried in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Sleepy Hollow, New York. The legend says the ghost tethers his horse to graves in the churchyard, only to set out at night in search of his missing head.
Irving first published The Legend of Sleepy Hollow between 1819 and 1820 in his collection of essays, The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. Set in Dutch country of the Hudson Valley, this iconic 19th century story has been told and retold countless times for generations in books, songs, movies and on stage.
A number of the local landmarks described in Irving’s story are visible in the community of Sleepy Hollow. The story’s influence prompted the village of North Tarrytown to officially change its name to Sleepy Hollow in 1996.
While myths about headless horsemen can be traced to the Middle Ages, the infamous Headless Horseman from The Legend of Sleepy Hollow has become a fixture in American folklore.
Ireland and Beyond
Halloween is fast approaching and it’s time to delve back in the origins of Irish traditions and explore how Samhain became Halloween.
Irish ghost stories and funerary traditions travelled with the Irish diaspora and often became entangled with local customs to form entirely new traditions through the decades.
We’re going to look at an Irish ghoul who has made an appearance in ghost stories around the world – the Dullahan, or also known as the headless horseman. The legend of a decapitated horseman carrying his own head is one that crops up in numerous European storytelling traditions. From the middle English of Gawain and the Green Knight to the stories of the Brothers Grimm, headless horsemen abound, haunting the highways and byways of remote locations and even occasionally marauding our city streets.
The Dullahan (“dark man”) was a malevolent harbinger of death whose roots lie in Celtic mythology. He is said to be the embodiment of Crom Dubh, a fertility god who demanded blood sacrifice in the form of decapitation, his worship ended with the coming of Christianity to Ireland. Frustrated by the loss of his sacrifice, he still roams the roads, calling the names of those doomed to die, and carrying his head under his arm. The flesh of the face is decayed, with the specific (and slightly odd) reference to the consistency of the flesh being akin to mouldy cheese recurring in many telling of the tale.
The Dullahan is recorded in Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry edited by WB Yeats: “An omen that sometimes accompanies the banshee is the coach-a-bower (cóiste bodhar) – an immense black coach, mounted by a coffin, and drawn by headless horses driven by a Dullahan. It will go rumbling to your door, and if you open it, according to Croker, a basin of blood will be thrown in your face. These headless phantoms are found elsewhere than in Ireland. In Norway the heads of corpses were cut off to make their ghosts feeble. Thus came into existence the Dullahans …”
The gruesome process of beheading corpses to ensure their spirits don’t roam recalls the origins of another famous Irish horror creation, Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Stoker lived in Clontarf and it is thought that details in his novel may have been inspired by, among other things, the practice of burying corpses with a stake through the heart at the suicide burial plot at the crossroads of Ballybough and Clonliffe Road – another measure to prevent the deads’ unquiet spirits from wandering the earth. It’s not difficult to see parallels between these dark myths.
The most famous and lasting iteration of the Dullahan figure must be the headless horseman featured in Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, which is set in rural New York. The horseman takes the form of a Hessian soldier slain during the American Revolutionary War. Irving was an American citizen, whose parents hailed originally from Cornwall, and the story was written while travelling in England. It’s intriguing to see how the Celtic roots of this tale are filtered through the history of the America of the day. Sleepy Hollow is as much a satire of materialistic Dutch settler communities as it is a ghost story.
As mentioned above, the cóiste bodhar (deaf or silent coach) often attends the Dullahan as he stalks the night. It’s referenced in Thomas Johnston Westropp’s A Folklore Survey of County Clare, where a number of stories relating to it are recorded:
“On the night of December 11th, 1876, a servant of the MacNamaras was going his rounds at Ennistymon […]In the dark he heard the rumbling of wheels on the back avenue, and, knowing from the hour and place that no ‘mortal vehicle’ could be coming, concluded that it was the death coach and ran on, opening the gates before it. He had just time to open the third gate and throw himself on his face beside it, at the bank, before he ‘heard a coach go clanking past. It did not stop at the house, but passed on…the following day Admiral Sir Burton MacNamara died in London.”
Like the Dullahan, the cóiste bodhar has made some surprising appearances in more recent pop culture, the first of which, Darby O’Gill and the Little People, has terrified generations with its depiction of that other staple of Irish ghostly legend, the banshee. In Darby O’Gill, the spectral figure of the cóiste bodhar comes floating through the air to carry away Darby’s daughter Katie to the land of the dead.
The death coach or carriage has become a standard of many horror tales – making an appearance at the end of Stephen King’s Needful Things, where Leland Gaunt departs the town of Castle Rock in a car that transforms into a death coach. Most recently, a reimaging of the trope appears in the final vignette in the Cohen Brother’s western The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, where a group of immoral people spend what may be their final journey bickering with each other as the death coach brings them closer to their destination.
The roots of Irish mythology have become interwoven with other cultures, creating new traditions and evolved mythologies that forge a strong link between the past and the present.
So beware my pretties, it may look like a pumpkin, but could next be seen on a headless figure! BOO!