A brazen head (or brass head or bronze head) was a legendary automaton that often appeared in literature, reputed to be able to answer any question. It was said to have been owned by medieval scholars who were believed to be wizards, or who were reputed to be able to answer any question. The device was always in the form of a man's head, and it could correctly answer any question asked of it. Mechanical variations appear in fictional literature: the head might be cast in brass or bronze, it could be mechanical or magical, and it could answer freely or it could be restricted to "yes" or "no" answers.

Alleged owners

Among the people reputed to have a brazen head were:

Roger Bacon (possibly tonsured, like a monk's)




Robert Grosseteste

Albertus Magnus

Pope Sylvester II

Arnaldus de Villa Nova

Enrique de Villena




Pope sylvester ii

Born Gerbert d'Aurillac (Gerbert of Aurillac), in the Auvergne in 940, Pope Sylvester II (d. 1003), the first French Pope was earlier the archbishop of Ravenna and became Pope by the grace of Otto III late in his life. He had in his Palace a mysterious brazen skull that allegedly answered YES or NO to questions put to it on politics, finances, or the general position of Christianity. It is a well-attested fact that Cardinal Benno publicly accused Pope Sylvester II of being a sorcerer and ‘a magician in league with the devil’.¹ The ‘magic head’ went missing when Sylvester died, and the information it imparted was concealed in the Vatican vaults.

Gerbert was accused by his enemies of having studied magical arts and astrology at the Islamic cities of Córdoba and Seville and even at the University of Al Karaouine in Morocco. This gave rise to legends that portray him as a sorcerer in league with the Devil.


Pope Sylvester II and the Devil in an illustration of c. 1460.

Gerbert was supposed to be in possession of a book of spells stolen from an Arab philosopher in Spain. Gerbert fled, pursued by the victim, who could trace the thief by the stars, but Gerbert was aware of the pursuit, and hid hanging from a wooden bridge, where, suspended between heaven and earth, he was invisible to the magician.

Gerbert was supposed to have built a brazen head. This "robotic" head would answer his questions with "yes" or "no". He was also reputed to have had a pact with a female demon called Meridiana, who had appeared after he had been rejected by his earthly love, and with whose help he managed to ascend to the papal throne (another legend tells that he won the papacy playing dice with the Devil).

According to the legend, Meridiana (or the bronze head) told Gerbert that if he should ever read a mass in Jerusalem, the Devil would come for him. Gerbert then cancelled a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, but when he read mass in the church Santa Croce in Gerusalemme ("Holy Cross of Jerusalem") in Rome, he became sick soon afterwards and, dying, he asked his cardinals to cut up his body and scatter it across the city. In another version, he was even attacked by the Devil while he was reading the Mass, and the Devil mutilated him and gave his gouged-out eyes to demons to play with in the Church. Repenting, Sylvester II then cut off his hand and his tongue.

The inscription on Gerbert's tomb reads in part Iste locus Silvestris membra sepulti venturo Domino conferet ad sonitum ("This place, at the advent of the Lord, will yield to the sound [of the last trumpet] the buried members of Sylvester II", mis-read as "will make a sound") and has given rise to the curious legend that his bones will rattle in that tomb just before the death of a Pope.

The alleged story of the crown and papal legate authority given to Stephen I of Hungary by Sylvester in the year 1000 (hence the title 'Apostolic King') is noted by the 19th-century historian Lewis L. Kropf as a possible forgery of the 17th century. Likewise, the 20th-century historian Zoltan J. Kosztolnyik states that "it seems more than unlikely that Rome would have acted in fulfilling Stephen's request for a crown without the support and approval of the Emperor."

Fables and romance tell of a variety of severed oracular skulls, like those of Minos, Aesculapius, Orpheus, Sualdam, Bran, and Osiris, whose head was preserved in a specially built Temple at Abydos where, according to legend, it provided the priests with much of Egypt’s knowledge of the afterlife. Among the best known in Christian circles are; the strange head in possession of St. Albert the Great (Albertus Magnus, d. 1280); the brazen skull of Roger Bacon (d. c. 1292); the mysterious ‘hoary head’ of the Knights Templar (c. 1135-1314), and the magical skull of the de Medici popes (c. 1513-1565). There are twelve historical records that reveal the existence of oracular skulls, five of them involving Popes and one of the frightful story of Catherine de Medici (1519-89) Queen of France and niece of Giulio de Medici (Clement VII, Pope from 1523 to 1534).



Speaking Heads and Sounding Stones.

Jabel Nagus [mountain of the bell ], in Arabia Petræa, gives out sounds of varying strength whenever the sand slides down its sloping flanks.

The white dry sand of the beach in the isle of Eigg, of the Hebrides, produces, according to Hugh Miller, a musical sound when walked upon.

The statue of Memnon, in Egypt, utters musical sounds when the morning sun darts on it.

The speaking head of Orpheus, at Lesbos, is said to have predicted the bloody death which terminated the expedition of Cyrus the Great into Scythia.

The head of Minos, brought by Odin to Scandinavia, is said to have uttered responses.

Gerbert, afterwards Pope Sylvester II., constructed a speaking head of brass (tenth century).

Albertus Magnus constructed an earthen head in the thirteenth century, which both spoke and moved. Thomas Aquinas broke it, whereupon the mechanist exclaimed, “There goes the labour of thirty years!”

Alexander made a statue of Esculapios which spoke, but Lucian says the sounds were uttered by a man concealed, and conveyed by tubes to the statue.

The “ear of Dionysius” communicated to Dionysius, Tyrant of Syracuse, whatever was uttered by suspected subjects shut up in a state prison. This “ear” was a large black opening in a rock, about fifty feet high, and the sound was communicated by a series of channels not unlike those of the human ear.




Albertus Magnus, a Dominican, bishop of Ratisbon, and one of the most famous doctors of the XIII century, was born at Lawingen, on the Danube, in Suabia, in the year 1193, or 1205. Moreri's dictionary gives us an account of the several employs which were conferred upon him, and the success of his lectures in several towns. It is likewise said, that he practised midwifery, and that he was in search of the Philosopher's Stone: that he was a famous Magician, and that he had formed a machine in the shape of a man, which served him for an oracle, and explained all the difficulties which he proposed to it. I can easily be induced to believe that, as he understood the mathematics, &c. he made a head, which, by the help of some spirits, might certain articulate sounds. Though he was well qualified to be the inventor of artillery, there is reason to believe, that they who ascribed the invention of it to him are mistaken. It is said that he had naturally a very dull wit, and that he was upon the point of leaving the cloister, because he despaired of attaining what his friar's habit required of him, but that the Holy Virgin appeared to him, and asked him in which he would chuse to excel, in philosophy or divinity; that he made choice of philosophy, and that the Holy Virgin told him he should surpass all men of his time in that science, but that, as a punishment for not chusing divinity, he should before his death, relapse into his former stupidity. They add, that, after this apparition, he shewed a prodigious deal of sense, and so improved in all the sciences, that he quickly surpassed his preceptors; but that, three years before his death, he forgot in an instant all that he knew: and that, being at a stand in the middle of a lecture on divinity at Cologne, and endeavouring in vain to recal his ideas, he was sensible that it was the accomplishment of the prediction. Whence arose the saying, that he was miraculously converted from an ass into a philosopher, and, afterwards, from a philosopher into an ass. Our Albertus was a very little man, and, after living eighty-seven years, died in the year of our redemption, 1280, at Cologne, on the 15th of November; his body was laid in the middle quire of the convent of the Dominicans, and his entrails were carried to Ratisbon; his body was yet entire in the time of the Emperor Charles V. and was taken up by his command, and afterwards replaced in its first monument. He wrote such a vast number of books, that they amount to twenty-one volumes in folio, in the edition of Lyons, 1651.

The Magus, Book II: Biographia Antiqua.



Catherine de medici

One of the accusations thrown at Catherine was the use of astrology and black magic, and her belief in omens, signs, portents and premonitions. Nostradamus was known to have prophesied for her on more than one occasion. R. J. Knecht, in his book Profiles in Power: Catherine de' Medici, states that she:

"owned a book with pages of bronze on which rotating disks represented the constellations. By manipulating them, she could easily work out the conjunctions essential to the reading of horoscopes."

She was especially diligent at this in the case of her children. She also used astrologers at court, one being Regnier, but the more famous being Cosimo Ruggieri. Ruggieri was not just an astrologer, but also a Black Magician too. In her book, Catherine de Medici, Leonie Frieda talks about some of the practices used by Catherine and Ruggieri to get rid of her enemies in the Protestant camp, in particular the use of dolls and models to torture and kill at a distance. After one battle in particular, three of the top Hugenot's were found in exactly the same position as the dolls used by Ruggieri.

By far the most henious sorcery attributed to Catherine and Ruggieri was the Oracle of the Bleeding Head. Both Helena Blavatsky, in "Isis Unveiled", and Eliphas Levi, in "Transcendental Magic", quote Bodin's "La Demonomanie, ou traite des Sorciers" to describe the foul act of preparing the oracle. A male child, without imperfection, was chosen, and given his first communion. The black mass was prepaired, in front of the inverted cross, in the rooms of Charles IX, Catherine's sickly son. At the altar, after taking the white wafer, the head was struck from the body in a single blow, and placed:

"all palpitating, upon the great black wafer which covered the bottom of the paten, then placed on a table where some mysterious lamps were burning...the demon was charged to pronounce an oracle, and reply by the mouth of this head..."

We do not know the question allegedly asked of this oracle, but the answer given in "a feeble voice, a strange voice, which had nothing of human character about it..." was: "Vim patior" which in Latin means "I suffer violence." It is thought that this would be the king's fate in Hell for his part in the St Bartholomeaw's Day Massacre. On hearing this, he ran from the room, and died shortly after.




Chapter Eight


In medieval churches, castles, and mansions where there is a parapet rising from the wall and obscuring a portion of the roof, this parapet is supported at intervals by corbels, that usually represent heads of either men or beasts, very frequently grotesque. These corbels are not of any great structural importance, though they add to architectural decoration. They are, in fact, a perpetuation of a traditional usage earlier than the construction of buildings of stone. When buildings such as halls were erected of wood, and even later, when the walls were of masonry, the lye beams of the roof projected beyond the supporting walls. These tye beams sustained the principals and the king-post, and rested on the wall-plate. Such was the earliest and simplest form of roof, and it is one that remained in use till Norman times. The stability of the roof depended on the tye beam, which, where it protruded beyond the walls, was sawn off against the grain, and was there most vulnerable, subject to the drive of the weather, and liable to rot. For its protection skulls were hung upon these extremities; and when stone buildings came to be erected with parapets upon them, then under the string--course that marked the wall--plate corbels were added, and the place of the skulls was supplied by stone figures representing the heads of men or beasts. This was not the case only in Gothic architecture; the same adaptation or modification may be seen in that of Greece and Rome, where the skull, mainly of an ox, forms a principal feature in the ornament of an external cornice, and seems to indicate that in early days the heads of the victims sacrificed were thus employed.

Nowadays the sportsman nails up the skulls and antlers of the stags he has shot, or the masks of foxes he has hunted, in his hail; but in Bavaria and Austria they still decorate the exterior as well as the interior of the shooting-lodge. There exists naturally in every sportsman an ambition to bring home and exhibit some trophy of his exploits; and as at the present day his energies and barbarous instincts are confined to the slaying of wild animals, it is only the heads of wild animals that he can display to his own satisfaction and that of admiring friends.

But it was otherwise when war was the great occupation of man and his great enjoyment. Then he preserved the heads of his enemies killed in fair fight; and after they had been efficiently dried, he hooked them onto the ends of the tye beams of his house, or dangled them inside against his walls, and was able to yarn to his comrades over each, and tell all the incidents of the fight, and display his superior courage or adroitness. Every single head provided a theme for a story on a winter's evening, and every head pointed out proved conclusively that the story was fact and not fiction.

The head-hunting of the Dyak of Borneo is but a degraded and despicable survival. A girl will not marry a native till he has some heads to show. Accordingly he lurks among the rushes till the girls come down to the riverside for their ablutions, when he dashes among them and cuts off as many heads as he can secure victims. Such trophies are worthless as evidences of his heroism, but they pass and are accepted.

"I have cut off four heads," said a Dyak to his fellow.

"I seven."

Thus a missionary in Borneo overheard two natives conversing. And a few weeks later the second was dead. His village friends hooked his body out of the river. But it was now headless. Then they knew, and the missionary also knew, that now the other owned five heads.

The reason why only the skulls are preserved is that this is comparatively easy. The body itself decays and moulders, and is thus not only difficult to preserve but also has the repulsive properties of soft corrupting flesh, whereas it is always easy to keep the skull. But even that may be felt too cumbrous, and the North American Indian contented himself with a scalp as a trophy; and the ancient fish chief extracted the brain of his slain enemy, mixed it with chalk, rolled it into a ball, and so preserved a trophy of his prowess.

Jehu had the seventy sons of Ahab beheaded in Samaria and set up in two heaps at the entrance of the palace of Jezreel, and I have seen a photograph of such piles before the doorway of the Bey of Tunis. The last exhibition of heads as a decoration was over Temple Bar, when those of the Jacobite rebels of 1746 were set up there on iron rods. They remained there till 1772, when one of them fell down in a storm, and the others soon followed. Previous to the Rebellion of 1745, for about thirty years, Temple Bar exhibited the head of a barrister named Layer, who had been executed for a Jacobite conspiracy soon after Atterbury's plot.

The stone balls that adorn the gateposts into a manorial park actually, it is believed, represent heads, and were set up to show that the lord of that manor possessed right to pronounce capital sentences. But now they are on the gateposts of every petty suburban villa. At Görlitz, north of the Riesen Gebirge, in the marketplace above the town hail, are iron rods or spikes; halfway up each is a ball, to represent a head that has fallen under the sword of the city executioner. When I was a boy at Pau, in the South of France, there was a house in the Grande Place that had been erected by a retired executioner who had had lively times during the Reign of Terror. Along the front was a balustrade for a parapet, and at intervals stone balls, and these were said to represent the number of heads that he had cut off with the guillotine.

Although among the Aryans human sacrifice was not common, I do not find any evidence that the heads of the victims were made use of as ornaments. This was a privilege reserved for warriors who had fallen in battle. Nor were slaves decapitated for this purpose, though very frequently sacrificed.

It is, however, other in Africa. In certain tribes a man's dignity depends on the number of heads of slaves he has had decapitated and which he can show.

In the North-West Congo, a rich man of the Babangi tribe endeavours to send forward a number of his attendants as outrunners to provide comfortable quarters for himself and to minister to his convenience when he arrives. He calls together all his attendants to a great feast of palm-wine and fish. But eating and drinking are only the preliminaries to the real business that has to be transacted--the sacrifice of a slave. The actual victim is not announced beforehand, the essential reason being that he has to be taken out of the midst of the revellers and then and there consigned to death.

Before the residences of well-to-do Babangi are tables laden with skulls, some blanched, others still with the skin about them and in a condition of putrefaction. The black gentleman conducts his admiring and envious guest about the table and points out to him what a large retinue he will possess in the other world. He fully understands that, when he is dead, his legal successors will grudge sending human victims after him. Their view rather is: "Why should we send slaves to the man in the other world, when we ourselves shall want them to provide for our comfort hereafter?"

The custom among the Scandinavians and others of the Aryan race of drinking out of skulls of their enemies is but another instance of disregard of the human frame, a purposeful exhibition of contempt for the skull.

The earliest instance is in the Eddaic lay of Viglund or Veluni, the same as the English Wayland the Smith. That the story was familiar to our Anglo--Saxon forefathers we know, because Alfred the Great refers to it. It was also well known in Germany.

Viglund was a smith who lived by the side of a lake in the realms of Niduth, King of Sweden. Hearing of his great skill, Niduth and his men visit the hut whilst the smith is absent, and find a number of gold rings strung together. They take one. On Viglund's return he finds that one is missing; nevertheless he goes to sleep, but on waking he is surrounded and taken prisoner. The queen, mistrusting the man, has him hamstrung. The king sets him on an island in a lake, and bids him make gold and silver ornaments for him and fashion steel weapons. Niduth had two sons, whom he strictly forbade going near the forge. They were, however, inquisitive, and did visit it, and persuaded Viglund to show them what he had made.

Viglund dazzled their eyes with his work, and promised to give them of it if on the following day they would return with the utmost secrecy. They agreed and went, whereupon Viglund murdered them both, sunk their bodies in a morass, but chased their skulls in silver and formed out of them two drinking--bowls for the king. He set the boys' eyes in gold and sent them to the queen as brooches, and the teeth of her brothers he made into a necklace for their sister. The story is extremely barbarous, and, as it can be traced even to Greece, it probably forms part of a legend told prior to the Aryan dispersion. The necklace of teeth is a specially early trait.

Should love and devotion, and the effort to maintain relations with the departed, triumph over fear, then the reverse process to the getting rid of the dead ensued. The dead were preserved at least in part. As, however, the children of Nature are always wavering between fear and respect for the dead, so also all burial rites oscillate between the destruction and the preservation of the body. Thus it happens that extremely opposite sentiments give rise to most complicated practices and conceptions, which are frequently in flagrant contradiction with one another.

Be that as it may. I think that what we shall see in Europe of inconsistencies is due to there having been in it the Aryan race, which placed little value on the body, but esteemed the soul as the essential quality of personality; and on the other hand, the Rude--Stone--Monument Builders, who had no conception of the soul as apart from the body, and whose religion consisted not in animism at all, but in ancestor worship, this is to say, of the ancestor buried in his cairn or dolmen.

We know that periodically a family or tribe opened the ancestral tomb and scraped and cleaned the bodies of their forebears. We know this, because we can trace the scratches made on their bones with flint scrapers, as also, because not having a perfect knowledge of anatomy, they sometimes replaced the bones wrongly, as the tibia of the right leg placed on the left side. We know also, from actual finds, that a loving widow would occasionally secure the skull of the late lamented and suspend it round her neck; or if not the entire skull, yet a portion of it, prized as an inestimable treasure, as it kept her in some relation with him whom she had lost.

It is remarkable how completely the Roman Church has surrendered to the usages of the primeval man in the cult of relics. I have seen repeatedly above altars in Switzerland and Tyrol grinning skulls under glass forming the most conspicuous object of adoration above an altar. The builder of megalithic monuments has passed away, or been absorbed by nobler and more intelligent peoples, but his worship of the dead remains intact; the only difference being that the devotion is no longer offered to the skull of an ancestor, but to that of a more or less fictitious saint. I suppose that the officials are in some places becoming a little ashamed of this, for at St Ursula's, Cologne, where a few years ago the space above the arches and below the clerestory windows was crowded with small boxes containing skulls, they have of late years been placed under curtains. But the sacristy still maintains the appearance of a charnal-house.

It is significant how the cult of images and relics disappeared out of England and Scotland without leaving a trace, or only the faintest.

At Llandeilo, under the Presilly Hills, in South Wales, is a holy well of St Teilo; and in the farmhouse hard by, Mr Melchior, the tenant, preserves the brainpan of the skull that was shown and used before the Reformation as that of the saint. He is the hereditary guardian of the relic. Unhappily for its genuineness, the open sutures prove that it must have been the head of a young person, and as Teilo died at an advanced age, it could not have belonged to him. Moreover, a part of the superciliary ridge remains, and this is of slight elevation, so that it seems almost certain to have been a portion of a young woman's head. Patients drank water till quite recently from the well out of the reputed skull, and many cures are recorded.

At Skaiholt, in Iceland, was preserved and venerated the supposed skull of St Thorlac, till on examination it proved to be a coconut that had been washed up in one of the fjords.

But if there remains but the most meagre trace of the worship of saintly relics in England, there remain tokens of what appears to have been at a remote period a veneration for the heads of ancestors or founders of houses.

Near Launceston is the ancient house of Tresmarrow that belonged to Sir Hugh Piper, Governor of Launceston Castle under Charles I. By the marriage of Philippa, daughter and heiress of Sir Hugh, the house and property passed into the Vyvyan family; then it passed to a Dr Luke, whose wife was a Miss Vyvyan. He sold it to an old yeoman farmer of the name of Dawe, and it remained in the Dawe family till about five years ago, when it was again sold.

Now, in a niche in the old buildings for centuries was to be seen a human skull. All recollection of whose it was had passed away. One of the Dawes, disliking its presence, had it buried, but thereupon ensued such an uproar, such mighty disturbances, that it was on the morrow dug up again and replaced in its recess. The Dawe family, when they sold Tresmarrow, migrated to Canada, and have taken the skull with them.

There was a "screaming skull" at Waddon, in Dorsetshire, about fifty years ago, kept respectfully in a recess on the stairs; but as it was liable to be fractious and cause disturbances in the house, it was given to the Dorchester Museum, where it now is. The story about it is that it was the head of a negro, and it bore on it the mark, of a cut from a sword. The black man went to his master's room at night, and the latter, believing him to be a burglar, killed him by mistake. He was killed in the bedroom over the dining-room. The owners of Waddon were the Grove family of Zeals, in Wiltshire. When Miss Chafyn Grove died some years ago, her cousin, Mr Troyte Bullock, inherited, but with the property had to take the name of Chafyn Grove.

screaming skull

A few miles distant from Waddon is Bettiscombe. Here also is a "screaming skull". The house was rebuilt in Queen Anne's reign, but the richly carved wainscoting and fine old oak stairs pertain to the earlier house that was pulled down when the present mansion was built. This was done by Azariah Pinney, who had joined Monmouth's forces, and was exiled to the West Indies, he being one of those who escaped sentence of death by Judge Jeffreys at the "Bloody Assizes", held at Dorchester, after the Rebellion. His life was spared through the influence of a friend at the Court of James II. He remained in the West Indies for a period of ten years, and then returned with a black servant, to whom he was much attached; and then the man died; but whether the skull be his, or, if so, why it was preserved above ground, none can say. It would seem probable, however, that it was taken along with the wainscoting out of the earlier house.

The prevailing superstition is that, if it be brought out of the house, the house itself will rock to its foundations, and the person guilty of the sacrilegious act will die within the year. The house had remained uninhabited for some years until, about 1760 or 1770, a farmer came into occupation. Finding the skull, he declared with an oath that he would not have the thing there, and he had it thrown into a pooi of water. During that night and the next the farmer heard some uncanny noises, and on the third day he said he would have the skull back. He did so, and then, as the story goes, all the noises ceased. It has been carefully preserved since, and kept in a kind of loft under the roof in a cigar box.

In Looe Island, off East and West Looe, is still, or was a few years ago, a skull preserved in a cupboard in the sittingroom, behind glass. I have not been able to find any tradition connected with it. Looe Island was at one time a great resort of smugglers, till a coastguard station was established on it.

At Warbleton Priory, near Heathfield, in Sussex, were two skulls preserved till some few years ago, when they were stolen, greatly to the wrath of the proprietor. Legends were told, in the usual way, of the hideous cries and wailing that would ensue were they disturbed. But there has been no trouble in the house since. Very vague traditions remain as to their origin.

Near Chapel-en-le-Frith, in Derbyshire, is a farmhouse where the skull of one called "Dickie" is preserved. A skull in perfect preservation is at Higher Chilton Farm, in the village of Chilton Cantelo, Somerset. This is the headpiece of one Theophilus Brome, who died in 1670, and was buried in the north transept of the church. Collinson, in his History of Somerset, referring to Chilton Cantelo and Brome, says:--

There is a tradition in this parish that the person here interred requested that his head might be taken off before his burial and be preserved at the farmhouse near the church, where a head--chop--fallen enough--is still shown, which the tenants of the house have often endeavoured to commit to the bowels of the earth, but have as often been deterred by horrid noises portentive of sad displeasure; and about twenty years since (which was perhaps the last attempt) the sexton, in digging the place for the skull's repository, broke the spade in two pieces, and uttered a solemn asserveration never more to attempt an act so evidently repugnant to the quiet of Brome's Head.

The truth of the story that the skull preserved in the house is that of Theophilus Brome was proved during the restoration of the church, some forty-five or fifty years ago, when Brome's tomb was opened and the skeleton discovered minus the head.

Now, we may ask, Why did Brome desire his head to be kept in the house? He was assuredly possessed with a traditional idea that it would be good for him, or for the household rather, td have his head as its guardian and overlooker of the household. Thus the head of Bran the Blessed was taken to London and buried where now stands the Tower; and it was foretold that so long as it remained there no invasion could be made of Britain. In a fit of vainglorious temerity King Arthur dug it up, saying that he chose not to hold the island except by his own prowess; and I have heard of a Black Forest farmer who desired to be buried on a hill commanding his whole land, so that he might see to it that the labourers did their work properly. [a]

Ivar the Boneless, King of Northumbria, when dying, ordered his body to be planted in a great mound, where he might watch and protect the confines of the kingdom, and he declared that Northumbria would not be subdued so long as he remains therein. It was said that one reason why King Harald Hardrede fell in the battle of Stamford Bridge was that Ivar the Boneless was engaged against him. It was further said, later, that William the Bastard, when he proceeded north to quell the turbulent spirit of the Northumbrians, disinterred the incorrupt body of Ivar, had a mighty pile of wood collected, and burned the carcass to ashes, after which he set to work in most ruthless fashion to devastate Northumbria.

In Wardley Hall, Lancashire, is preserved the skull of Father Ambrose, that is to say, Alexander Barlow, one of the Papist martyrs. For saying Mass on Sunday April 25, 1641, he was seized by an infuriated mob, led by a Puritan minister, and was hanged, drawn, and quartered on September 10. His head was impaled on the tower of the old church, Manchester, but was afterwards removed and taken to Wardley Hall, where the skull is likely to remain in its accustomed place so long as Wardley Hall stands, for a clause is always inserted in leases of the house forbidding its removal. Some years ago, when the old house was let out in tenements to colliers, an attempt was made to get rid of it, but it was said that no peace ensued in the house till it was restored. Once it was flung into the moat, which had to be drained to recover it.

And now I come to a case that, if I mistake not, lets in light on the subject of these screaming skulls, and explains the reason why they exist.

Burton Agnes is situated in the East Riding of Yorkshire, and the hall is a noble structure. The estate, which was anciently owned by the De Somervilles, passed in the reign of Edward I to the Griffith family, which died out in three co--heiresses, sisters, in the last years of Queen Elizabeth. As they were very wealthy, they resolved on rebuilding the family mansion in the style of the period, and the youngest sister, Anne, took the keenest interest in planning and furnishing the hall. When it was complete, the ladies took up their abode in it; but one day soon after, Anne was murdered on her way to visit some friends by ruffians, then called wood-rangers. for her purse and rings. She had been stunned by them by a blow over the head with a cudgel, and was carried back to Burton Agnes; but although she lingered during five days, she never recovered, and finally died. In her last conscious intervals she besought her sisters, when she was dead, to sever her head from her body and preserve it in the house that had been her delight and pride.

The two surviving Misses Griffith thought this an absurd request, and did not comply with it. But the noises in the house, of things falling, of doors slamming, cries and moans, so scared them that they had the family vault opened, the head of the sister Anne detached and installed in the hall, whereupon the noises ceased.

The Boyntons of Barmston inherited Burton Agnes by right of descent from Sir Matthew Boynton, who married the last surviving of the three sisters, and was created a baronet in 1618. The Boyntons had the skull buried in the garden; but no luck attended the house and family till it was returned to its accustomed place.

Now, here we have the foundress and fashioner of the house, at her particular desire, requiring her skull to be for ever preserved in it; undoubtedly like that of Bran, who watched for the interests of Britain. When Bran had been wounded in the foot by a poisoned arrow in Ireland, he bade the seven survivors of his party cut off his head and take it back with them to Wales. He told them that they would sit long at dinner at Harlech, where the head would converse with them and be as entertaining as it had ever been when attached to the trunk. From Harlech they were to proceed to Greshoim, and remain there feasting in company with the head so long as they did not open a door that looked towards Cornwall. Should they open that door, then they must set out for London, and there, on the White Hill, bury it with its face towards France; so long as the head remained undisturbed in this position, the island would have nothing to fear from foreign invasion.

There is an fish story also concerning a speaking head. Finn had his hunting--lodge in Jeffia. Whilst he was absent, his fool Lomna discovered Finn's wife engaged in an intrigue with one Cairbre, and he divulged the fact to Finn. Next time that Finn was abroad, Cairbre returned to see the lady, and, discovering who had betrayed what he had done, cut off Lomna's head and carried it away with him. Finn, in the evening, found a headless body in the booth, and at once concluded that this was Lomna's, and that Cairbre had been his murderer. He went in pursuit, and tracked Cairbre and his party to an empty house, where they had been cooking fish on a stone, with Lomna's head on a spike by the fire. The first portion cooked was evenly divided by Cairbre among his followers; but not a morsel was put within the lips of the head, which thereupon chanted an obscure verse of remonstrance. The second charge cooked was distributed in the same manner, and again the head sang a verse expressive of indignation. Cairbre then said, "Put the head outside; it has but evil words for us." No sooner had the order been obeyed than the head outside sang a third verse, and Finn and his party arrived on the spot.

In Scandinavian mythology Odin had the head of Mimir, that had been cut off, ever by him as guide and adviser.

In the Arabian Nights is the story of the Greek king and the physician whom he has condemned to decapitation. The latter gives the king a book, and bids him question his head as to what he wants to know after it has been cut off, and it will answer him. In the medieval story of Friar Bacon, it is a brazen head that the friar and Bungey fashion, and which is to instruct them how to wall England round with brass. Through the dullness of the man Miles set to watch it, the favourable moment is lost.

That at some time in the remote past the skull of the ancestor was regarded as oracular is possible enough, but we have no evidence to that effect. What we have seen has been the survival of the preservation of the skull, presumedly of an ancestor, at all events of a founder, as a protecting relic, not genius, for no thought of spirit enters into it. It is the osseous mass of bone that is the guardian, not any soul that once inhabited it.

I may instance the usages of the natives of the Torres Straits. Here the corpse is first laid upon a horizontal frame sustained by posts at the corners. The moisture is pressed out, and then after a long time, when the bone is everywhere exposed, the head is detached, and the rest buried or thrown into the sea, after which some funeral feasts ensue. The important part of the ceremony consists in the solemn delivery of the skull to the survivors. Sometimes the head is placed at night on the old bed of the deceased, so that he seems to be sleeping with the family as in his lifetime, till at last. the head of the family, or the chief, puts the skull as a pillow under his own head. Thenceforth it is treated with great respect and is given a sort of hutch in which to rest. One such from the Solomon Islands may be seen in the British Museum.

The few "screaming skulls" in the country may be regarded as the last lingering remains of a custom once general, at a still earlier date universal. But it is a custom that goes back into the darkest ages of mankind--at all events, to that of the Dolmen Builders, who used stone weapons, and had not as yet acquired the knowledge of bronze.

[a] Precisely the same thing occurs in an Icelandic saga.



From Riddley Walker Annotations

People follow a timeless human tradition of displaying their enemies' severed heads on a stick, not only as a warning to others but as a source of mystical knowledge.

Perhaps the best-known talking head was Orpheus: after he was pulled apart, his head washed up on the island of Lesvos, where in some versions of the story it continued to sing and delivered prophecies. However, Orpheus is not a typical case in that his head was not removed for this specific purpose, but became an oracle for reasons of its own (in fact, Apollo had to tell it to stop).

More commonly, heads are preserved because someone is after information from the departed spirits. In Voudon and other African traditions, a spirit can be consulted either through a prepared skull or an artificial construct into which the spirit is placed. Closer to home for Riddley, the Celts identified the head with the soul and prized the heads of their own ancestors as well as those of their foes; possessing a head implied possessing the strength and wisdom of the deceased. The deathless head of Bran the Blessed not only protected his country from harm, but entertained dinner guests for eighty years.

Head of st john the baptist

In Christian legend, John the Baptist is sometimes said to have continued his prophetic career after his decapitation; the Knights Templar were accused of worshiping a head called Baphomet, which some said was actually the Baptist. Visitors to the tomb of Karl Marx at Highgate may feel a similar principle is at work.

Artificial speaking heads are a later development, and not nearly as popular; of course they are not as easy to get, but there may also be a natural suspicion of the idea of artificial intelligence. Roger Bacon and the medieval magician Albertus Magnus were accused of building intelligent heads. Only in modern science fiction do we see the idea of connecting heads to machines, such as the iron hat that Eusa unwisely puts on.

The best-known oracular head in modern literature belongs to the pig in William Golding's Lord of the Flies (1954). Golding's novel, like Hoban's, features children in a possibly post-apocalyptic setting; its descent into savage ritual begins with the children sharpening a pole.

Heads also play a major role in Hoban's other novels: Pilgermann (the tax collector and several hundred Turks and Crusaders, decapitated); Kleinzeit and The Medusa Frequency (Orpheus, decapitated; Medusa and the Kraken as snaky heads); Fremder (Fremder's father, his head accidentally teleported across the galaxy).



Baphomet, the symbol of the satanic goat, usually portrayed as a half human, half goat figure, or a goat head. It is often misinterpreted as a symbol of witch-craft in general. It is used by Satanists, but is not used by neo-pagan witches who do not worship the devil.

The origin of the Baphomet is unclear. It may be a corruption of Muhomet (Mohammed). The english witchcraft historian Montague Summers suggested that it was a combination of two greek words, baphe and metis, meaning "absorption of knowledge." Baphomet has also been called the Goat of Mendes, The Black Goat and the Judas Goat.

In the middle ages the Baphomet was believed to be an idol, represented by a human skull, a stuffed humans head or a metal or wooden human head with curly black hair. The idol was said to be worshipped by the Order of Knights Templar as the source of fertility and wealth. In 1307 King Phillip IV of France accused the Order of the Knights Templar of heresy, homosexuality and among other things, worshipping this idol and anointing it with the fat of murdered children. However, only 12 of the 231 knights interrogated by the church admitted worshipping or having knowledge of the Baphomet. Novices said they had been instructed to worship the idol as their god and savior, and their descriptions of it varied: it had up to three heards and up to four feet; it was made of either wood or metal, or was a painting, sometimes it was a gift.

Masons baphomet

In 1818 a number of idols called heads of Baphomet were discovered among forgotten antiquities of the imperial museum of Vienna. They were said to be replicas of the Gnostic divinity, Mete, or "Wisdom."

Perhaps the best-known representation of Baphomet is the drawing by the 19th century French magician, Eliphas Levi, called "The Baphomet of Mendes." Levi combined elements of the tarot devil card and the he-goat worshipped in antiquity in Mendes, Egypt, which was said to fornicate with its women followers ( as the church claimed the devil did with witches). Levi's Baphomet has a human trunk with rounded, female breasts, a caduceus in the midriff, human arms and hands, cloven feet, wings and a goat's head with a pentagram in the forehead and a torch on top of the skull between the horns. The attributes, Levi said, represented the sum total of the universe - intelligence, the four elements, divine revelation, sex and motherhood and sin and redemption. Hite and black crescent moons at the figure's side represent good and evil.


Aleister Crowley named himself Baphomet when he joined the Ordo Templis Orientalis, a secret sexual magic order formed around 1896 in Germany

The Church of Satan, founded in 1966 in San Francisco, adopted another rendition of baphomet to symbolize Satanism. The symbol is a goats head drawn within an inverted pentacle, enclosed in a outer circle, hebraic figures at each point in the pentagram spell out leviathan, a huge water serpent associated with the devil. In Church of Satan rituals, the sigil of Baphomet is hung on the wall behind the alter. The Baphomet may also be worn as a medallion.




By Fred Bush

30 September 2002

There's just something about a severed head.

It gets us right in the gut. Whether it's saving Hitler's brain, keeping brains alive in cryonic suspension, or watching the headsman's axe drop, it's striking. The visual impact of a head being removed from its body is shocking.

Within movies, particularly horror movies, the severed head is vitally important. Zombie movies like Dead/Alive and Evil Dead often feature heads hopping around and wreaking havoc even when removed from their bodies. One of the more disturbing scenes in Labyrinth features strange monkey-like beings interchanging their heads, until the heads are kicked away. In the Re-Animator movies, a severed head becomes an important character, surviving the first film in an atrocious state and undergoing a remarkable healing process before entering the second movie. When we are told that immortals in the Highlander universe cannot be destroyed unless their heads are cut off, it makes perfect narrative sense, and we don't goggle at the absurdity.

Where does this power come from? Why is the severed head such a powerful image throughout movies and within our heads? I want to begin by taking us back to some prehistoric conceptions and myths surrounding severed heads, and then move to some more contemporary science fictional ideas.

The severed head as item of power

Historically, the head has been a focus of power and strength, a sought-after trophy in many societies. Popular among native peoples throughout much of the world (the Solomon Islands, India, the Phillipines, Amazonia, New Guinea) the tendency to take heads has entered fiction as a fearsome element, not unlike the cannibal tradition of certain natives (like the Caribs or the Fore of New Guinea). While nowadays we tend to view headhunting as an eccentricity of these faraway peoples, in antiquity it was commonly attributed to the Celts, who were spread over much of Europe in Neolithic times, and who were the forebears of many modern European societies.

The Romans accused the Celts of maintaining a "Cult of the Severed Head." The early Roman historian Diodorus Siculus relates that the Celts would take the heads of their opponents, fasten them to the necks of their horses, and dance and sing songs about them. Distinguished enemies were embalmed in cedar oil and preserved in chests, then shown as trophies to strangers. Heads, Siculus tells us, were quite valuable: chieftains would brag about how much they had been offered for their heads, or how much they paid for them, and some were literally worth their weight in gold.

Jivaro shrunken head

Still valuable today as a curio is the shrunken head, another practice which evolved from a belief in spiritual power. The Jivaro people of Ecuador, responsible for this addition to the horror canon, are a group of fierce warriors who actually managed to remain unconquered into the 20th century. Legendary among South Americans for their ferocity, they defeated the Incas under Huayna Capac, then defeated Spanish colonizers in a successful revolt in 1599. Isolated for a century and a half, they were visited by a Spanish trading mission in 1767, and gave the traders skulls of the defeated Spaniards as gifts. Their reputation helped to enhance the reception for their unique productions: their tsantsa, or shrunken heads, started to become valuable in the late 19th and 20th centuries.

According to anthropologist Michael Harner, the practice of creating tsantsa exists to ward off the avenging soul of a killed man. Upon a violent death, a portion of the victim's soul, the muisak, can emerge from the body and take the form of a deadly animal, such as an anaconda, and exact vengeance upon its killer or upon the killer's family. The act of shrinking a head, however, traps the muisak within the head, and makes its spiritual powers available to the head-taker. The preparation involves removing the skull (a gift for the anaconda spirits), boiling the skin, drying and scraping the skin, scorching it with fire-heated stones, baking it with hot sand, and then coating it with charcoal. It takes about six days, and repeated applications of hot sand and charcoal, to produce the tiny little withered trophy which the hunter will then wear around his neck.

These shrunken heads are now a valuable commodity. In fact, the Jivaro complain that several neighboring tribes have stolen their technique of making shrunken heads, not out of a desire to protect their souls from the vengeful ghosts of murder victims, but rather in order to make some fast pesos. It is illegal to sell shrunken heads in Ecuador, but unscrupulous retailers often pass off monkey heads as the real thing, and sometimes the real thing does come on the market. Prospective buyers, be sure to read the fine print: the "Jivaro shrunken head MUST SEE" currently available on eBay is, alas, made of goat skin.

The commodification of the shrunken head attests to its effectiveness as a visual image. Within fiction, the shrunken head is a horror staple, showing up often as a prop, to indicate "generic witch doctor" -- it's a visual cliche, not unlike the Jacob's ladder in the mad scientist's lab. It's often in this capacity that it shows up in movies -- although the shrunken head is such a cliche that it does allow for jokes, such as in Beetlejuice, where a vexed witch doctor scatters some magic powder on the title character, shrinking his head into a helium-voiced miniature.

The prophetic head

Other ancient tales allow a severed head to provide wisdom . . . for a time.

Welsh mythology has a famous story of a severed head within the Mabinogion (the source for Lloyd Alexander's Chronicles of Prydain). The tale of Bran the Blessed is found in the story of "Branwen Daughter of Llyr." Bran, king of Britain, invades Ireland and is wounded by a poison dart in battle with the Irish. Knowing he is about to die, Bran commands his surviving followers (including the bard Taliesin) to cut off his head, bring it back to England, and bury it so that the head faces France. Bran proceeds to prophesy good fortune for his men, and indeed, after his men follow his instructions, this burial ensures eighty years of prosperity, known as "yspydawt urdaul benn," or the "Hospitality of the Noble Head." However, after disobeying one of Bran's instructions, one of his men breaks the spell of good omen, the Welsh become miserable, and they are forced to pick up Bran's head and rebury it in London, where its miraculous powers cease.


The early medieval scientist Roger Bacon was often alleged to have worked with a "brazen head," which he left in the care of his apprentice. Gifted with oracular powers, it was able to speak and to answer questions, although it only managed to answer "Time is," "Time was," and "Time's past" before shattering, due perhaps to the poor keeping of Bacon's apprentice.

Within Greek mythology, one legend suggests that the singer Orpheus was torn apart by maenads after refusing their sexual advances, and his body parts thrown into the river Hebrus. His head kept singing its beautiful songs until it reached the island of Lesbos. The head uttered prophecies at a cave in Antissa, luring pilgrims and truth-seekers away from Apollo's shrines, until finally Apollo ordered the head to be still. While it maintained Orpheus' gifts of music, and a newfound gift of prophecy, it was not Orpheus.

In these instances, the head seemingly channels a greater wisdom into the world, bringing divine power and allowing it to speak through the organs of speech. It's almost as if, by removing the rest of the body, what remains is purified and given the ability to be a conduit into a higher realm.What is missing is an idea that the consciousness of the original thinker remains in the head. Some sort of power clings, still, but it's not the power of the original person. (A similar idea motivates Tanith Lee's "The Thaw.")

Of course, the ancients (and the native peoples discussed earlier) did not have a conception that being resided in the head. Early theories suggested that life resided with the pneuma, or breath; or perhaps in the heart. Descartes, famously, linked the soul with the pineal gland, within the forehead -- and his idea, and those of others like him who linked consciousness with the head, allowed a subtler, more existential horror to evolve.

The consciousness of the severed head

Most of the modern fascination with heads comes from the guillotine.

The guillotine is the emblem of the French Revolution. While the French government refuses to allow guillotines to be filmed in France, choosing to project a different image of the Revolution (the liberte, egalite, fraternite part), in most people's heads the guillotine remains the image that describes the entire revolutionary period.

Fewer people died by the guillotine than died in the earlier St. Bartholomew's day massacre. But the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre is boring; I can only remember one piece of fiction that mentions it, D. W. Griffith's didactic Intolerance. The guillotine is much more exciting. It was held up for years as the be-all and end-all of revolutionary violence; the example which damned the entire enterprise of the French, rather like the Canaanites sacrificing their kids to Moloch, or the Greek tendency to pederasty.

The guillotine produced its own fictional hero: the Scarlet Pimpernel, who rescued aristocrats from their deaths by donning disguises for feats of derring-do. Dickens' Tale of Two Cities also mines the guillotine for its force, as does Sandman #29, "Thermidor," where Neil Gaiman links the Jacobin orator St. Just and the severed head of Orpheus -- the scientific/political view of the head and its earlier prophetic, mythical significance -- in a very unsettling way.

Why was it so shocking, startling, and titillating?

Partly, I think, because the guillotine also led to a public and heated discussion of whether or not those severed heads retained sensation. The presence of so many severed heads naturally led to amateur experimentation as well as more rigorous testing. A famous example involved Charlotte Corday, the young woman who stabbed Marat to death. After Corday was guillotined, her head was displayed to the crowd, and the executioner proceeded to slap both of her cheeks. Members of the crowd claimed that she blushed, and that her face assumed an indignant expression at the affront.

The guillotine was held up as a scientific marvel which would painlessly end the existence of evil-doers, and if it in fact did cause pain and suffering, if the heads retained sensation after being shorn by the "revolutionary razor," then the whole project was a bad idea.

In the end, the scientists of the day were unable to come to consensus on the subject of whether the heads could feel after their death. Many heads did show some sort of response to stimuli, whether it be blushing or moving the lips, or something more complicated. Doctors were occasionally able to get heads to respond to their names by focusing their eyes and blinking. However, the heads proved unable to communicate in any way to show they understood what was being asked of them. In 1836, for instance, the murderer Lacenaire promised to close one eye and leave the other open once he was beheaded, and proved unable to do so. Eventually, experiments like these were stopped, considered "torture" on the bodies of those already killed.

But with the French revolution came the idea of the severed human head as an item of intense observation and scientific experimentation, and its horrific possibilities became manifest. Its consciousness was suddenly in doubt, and the guillotine, along with the scientific forces at play here, forced an evaluation of the severed head, making it a potent image for exploration in fiction.

Donovan's Brain

This obsession with the consciousness of the head, which may or may not survive death, became the impetus for the classic science fiction tale Donovan's Brain. The original novel Donovan's Brain, published in 1942, was made into three different movies: The Lady and the Monster, Donovan's Brain, and The Brain. It was the first novel to feature the cliché of the brain in a vat, which rapidly began to spread through the movies. Late author Curt Siodmak was better known for his film work than for his novels: he wrote the screenplay for the horror classics I Walked With A Zombie, The Beast With Five Fingers, and The Wolf Man. Thus, the novel, though it includes elements of science fiction, fits more within the horror tradition, and indeed it's not the science that matters here, but the loss of humanity that's the hallmark of horror.

Donovan's Brain features a noted scientist, victim of a car crash, who's been taken in and kept alive through a special treatment. As the plot of the movie develops, the brain, absent from its body, develops both a malignant, dark streak and tremendous psychic powers, which allow it to control others within the laboratory, including Nancy Reagan. By remaining alive as a brain in a vat, Donovan loses his soul, and becomes an inhuman monster with no regard for human life.

The influence of Donovan's Brain can be seen today in movies like City of Lost Children, with its brain which cannot dream, and in Futurama, which features brains-in-a-vat every week. While on a pragmatic level it allows the writers to feature contemporary celebrities in a cameo role, a technique perfected in the Simpsons, it also serves as yet another sarcastic reminder of science fiction gone awry.

Even philosophical inquiry has been infected by these games with severed heads. One well-known thought experiment in philosophy is the "Brain in the Vat" scenario, first proposed by Hilary Putnam in Reason, Truth, and History. The Brain in the Vat is a Matrix scenario, where real life may really just a simulation: if we were really just brains, hooked up to computers which could transmit electrical impulses to us that were identical to those a regular body would transmit, how would we know we were just brains in a vat?

While knowledge of neurochemistry and behavior have no doubt contributed to the framing of this problem, so has the powerful image of a brain in a jar. There's an idea that the brain-in-jar would somehow be inferior or less than the original; its isolation and differentiation makes it seem like a poor choice to our embodied existence. Here's an example of Donovan's Brain feeding into the popular consciousness.

How important this head imagery has become can be considered through the development of something like Frankenstein. When Frankenstein was written, for instance, there was no specific discussion of brain surgery. The mind of the monster is not inherent in the brain, but rather seemingly created by the genius of Victor Frankenstein; its mind is described as unformed, a blank slate, and its acquisition of language and reason is lovingly described by the author. In the film versions, the acquisition of a brain requires much effort and confusion, and the monster is clearly affected by the criminal's brain that is inserted into it -- similarly, in Young Frankenstein, a joke about a brain marked "Abbie Normal" can be made with the audience getting all the humor, and understanding that the brain transplant is crucial to the mental state of the finished creation.

Trading heads: Dr. Robert White

I want to end this article with a discussion of a man described as a "modern day Frankenstein," Dr. Robert White. On March 4, 1970, Dr. Robert White performed the first successful head transplant, attaching the head of a recently-decapitated rhesus monkey to the body of another recently-killed monkey. The head, as soon as it regained consciousness, attempted to bite the finger of the experimenter (perhaps understandably!), leading him to proclaim the experiment a success. White's original transplanted heads were unable to achieve any control over the rest of their bodies, but a newer round of experiments, performed in 1997, have been able to establish respiration within the brains and their adopted bodies, keeping them alive for a lengthy period of time. Unable to reattach the spinal cord to the transplanted brains, White hasn't yet managed to create a monkey which could control its new body; but he remains hopeful.

White has offered for many years now to perform a head transplant on humans, but hasn't yet found any takers (that we know of). He prefers to call the procedure a "body transplant," since in his belief his technique would be extremely useful for paraplegics and those with no functioning in the lower body. A medical adviser to the Pope, and deeply involved with questions of ethics, White nevertheless grants interviews to tabloids, and enjoys posing for pictures in lab coats with weird medical equipment around him. He's living out his Frankenstein fantasy, and not afraid to adopt some of the trappings of the myth to make his point.

White's head transplants have provoked outcry and shock from animal-rights activists and bioethicists, which have been used by supporters as evidence that the environmental movement is bankrupt and anti-progress. Indeed, his research holds out hope one day for serial immortality: shifting heads around onto younger host bodies. He conducted some pioneering experiments in preserving brains at low temperatures, endearing him to cryonics supporters. However, his ideas remain shocking and extreme to most, probably because of the heads.

The severed head is a profound image. It provokes ideas of sacredness and horror, prophecy and mystery.


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