Monday, 14 July 2014

The Assembly of the Wondrous Head

Following the slaughter of the war in Ireland, when five and seven-score districts came to revenge the beating of Branwen, the army of the Island of the Mighty are reduced to seven men with their god-king decapitated at his own instruction. Bendigeidfran (Brân), having been mortally wounded in the foot with a poisoned spear, orders his head to be cut off by his own men, which is then to be taken to London.

While the seven survivors are accompanied by Bendigeidfran’s living head they are in an apparent state of suspension between life and death, feasting and drinking in a magical island abode, where time has stopped for four score years and seven, divorced from the real world.

And yet Bendigeidfran’s head lives on after its removal from his body; it is talking and as good company as it ever was during this Otherworld adventure experienced by the seven on their journey towards the White Hill, where the head is to be buried on the site where the Tower of London would be later built.

Thus, in a subdued and Otherworldly atmosphere, ends the Second Branch of the Mabinogi, one of the most moving tales from insular Celtic literature, which tells of the Beating of Branwen (one of the Three Grievous Beatings of this Island); and of the Assembly of Bran, and about the feasting in Harlech for seven years; and (about) the Singing of the Birds of Rhiannon; and about the Assembly of the Head for four-score years.1

The Birds of Rhiannon
The seven survivors from the Island of the Mighty arrive back in Harlech with Bendigeidfran's severed living head and began a seven-year feast:

“And [as soon as]they began to eat and drink there came three birds, which began to sing a kind of song to them; and when they heard that song, every other [tune] seemed unlovely beside it. It seemed a distant sight, what they could see far above the ocean yet it was as clear as if they had been right next to them. And they were at that feast for seven years.”

In the Arthurian tale of ‘How Culhwch won Olwen', included in Guest's Mabinogion collection,
Culhwch is set forty difficult, or impossible tasks, anoethau, to complete as the price for the giant Ysbaddaden's daughter in marriage.  For one task the chief-giant demands that Culhwch obtains “the birds of Rhiannon” (Adar Rhiannon) whose singing could “wake the dead, and ease the living to sleep”.

Rhiannon is a classic figure in Celtic mythology, often associated with Epona the Gaulish horse goddess, and appears prominently in the First and Third Branches of the Mabinogi. Her name is derived from the Brittonic form Rigantona, meaning Divine Queen. As the seven survivors of the war with Ireland are subjected to the presence of the Birds of Rhiannon at Harlech, where the adventures of the Second Branch began, it is clear that they have crossed over to the Otherside; the seven have entered a realm which bears all the characteristics of the Celtic Island Otherworld tradition.

Although we are not told that the Otherworldly Birds of Rhiannon have accompanied the seven to Gwales in Penfro (possibly Grassholm, off the South West Coast of Pembrokeshire) for a further feast  that will last four-score years, it is clear they are still in the supernatural realm of the Otherworld with Bendigeidfran's living head as good a company as ever it was. They arrive at a kingly hall, high above the ocean and see two open doors but a third is closed; this is the door facing Aber Henvelen (probably the mouth of the Severn in the Bristol Channel) on the side facing Cornwall; opening this door is forbidden and to do so will bring their sojourn in the Otherworld to an end.

While in Gwales the seven are lacking nothing and completely free of care, with no memory of any grief that they had experienced or any of the sorrow in the world. They have no concept of time, having no idea how long it has been since they arrived on this island. And all the time they are accompanied with Bendigeidfran's uncorrupted head. This is The Assembly of The Wondrous Head. At this magico-religious feast even the effects of ageing and tiring of one another's company appear to be in some form of supernatural suspension. In the Second Branch of the Mabinogi the concept of the Otherworld island is totally compatible with that described in the Voyage of Bran (Immram Brain):

Without grief, without sorrow, without death,
Without any sickness, without debility,2

In The Voyage of Bran, and in other Irish texts, we are given several names for the Otherworld Islands: The Voyage of Máel Dúin lists some forty islands; The Voyage of Saint Brendan lists even more. After visiting the various Otherworld islands in the Voyage of Bran he returns to Ireland only to find that he had been away for hundreds of years. These islands are extremely difficult to access; one only reaches these islands through the invitation of Manannan or his daughters.3 Significantly, in Irish myth, these islands are ruled by Manannan mac Lír, who as we have seen above, is cognate to Manawydan fab Llŷr of Welsh mythology. Llŷr, the father of The Children of Llŷr, was a sea god. From this we can be certain that The Assembly of The Wondrous Head is a supernatural feast in the presence of the ancestors in the realm of the gods; they have crossed over to the Otherside as Bendigeidfran prophesied. 

The Cult of the Head
The motif of the severed head can be found throughout all Celtic lands. Cases have been recorded of skulls decked with gold and used as ceremonial drinking vessels, or embalmed in cedar oil, stored in chests and exhibited by Celtic chieftains to strangers to demonstrate military prowess.4 In the Celtic tradition the human head was regarded as a symbol of divinity and supernatural powers; a cult practice which although prominent among the Celts was certainly not unique to them.

The veneration of the head is indeed ancient and goes back beyond the Iron Age Celts. Special rites in connection with the head since prehistoric times include severing the head from the body after death and decorating it. Since man's earliest spiritual awareness the head has been given first place among religious symbols.5

A group of Mesolithic skulls discovered in Bavaria has been interpreted as displaying evidence for veneration of the human head; the skulls were severed from the bodies post-mortem and arranged in two groups of twenty-seven and six (the significance of the numbers is not known to us) with the skull-caps decorated with ochre and shells. Skulls from Jericho were found similarly decorated with pebbles and shells. However ancient, the cult seems to have been practised by Celtic peoples since the early Bronze Age in Europe. Human heads are found on each of the four sides of the 4th - 5th century BC Pfalzfeld stone pillar in Germany. The cult is further attested through the many sculptured representations of severed heads in La Tene carvings.6

The custom of removing an enemy’s head and then displaying it as a trophy was practised by many peoples around the world. Severing part of an enemy’s body to display as a trophy to display the prowess of a warrior is a widespread custom. Classical historians report on the collection of the heads of the slain being strung around the victor's horses then impaled on stakes around the houses of fortresses of the chieftains and placed in their temples.

The Romans were apparently disturbed by the Celts’ post-battle ritual of head collecting. After a victory the Gauls would use their swords to decapitate the enemy casualties, and would take heads as part of the victory spoils. Yet, the Romans too would take heads as battle trophies. Trajan's Column was built to commemorate the Roman Emperor Trajan's campaigns and eventual conquering of Dacia (modern Romania), during the wars of 101–102 AD and 105–106 AD. One scene on the column shows the severed head of a Dacian warrior held in the teeth of a Roman soldier as he fights on. A later scene shows Dacian heads impaled on spikes as Roman soldiers build a camp and further still severed heads are shown being presented to the Emperor. We cannot be certain the scenes on Trajan's Column attest actual events or if they were simply part of the Roman propaganda machine.

But the Celts were not mere head hunters collecting battle trophies as the accounts of the classical historians might have us believe, but no doubt possessing the severed head of an enemy, honourably reaped in battle, would add prestige to the warrior's reputation. It is often suggested that the Celts regarded the head is the seat of the soul and possession of the head allowed the owner to control the spirit of the deceased.

Veneration of the head is found throughout the Celtic lands, indicative that the head was clearly more than just a battle trophy to these people. At least two surviving pre-Roman Celtic temples, one in Britain, the other in southern Gaul, have their shrines decorated with skulls carved at their entrances.

Around 125 BC when the Roman army routed the Celtic tribe known as the Salii  (or Saluvii) at Entremont in Gaul they found a shrine with assorted statues. One pillar was found to display mouthless faces with closed eyes, a typical motif for ancient sculptures of the dead. Several adult male heads had been cut from their dried bodies, some still displaying curly head, others bearing the nails with which they had first been fixed to wooden posts elsewhere. By the mouth of the River Rhône at Roquepertuse stone pillars beneath a lintel contained skulls and severed heads of men in the prime of life, perhaps warriors, victims of battle, as one had a spear head embedded.

By decorating their homes and temples with the image attests the head was venerated as a continuing source of spiritual power. Yet there appears to be superstitious beliefs attached to the supernatural power of the head. Instances have been found in Roman cemeteries where the head has been removed after death and placed between the legs of the corpse, perhaps a similar rite as the post-mortem breaking of legs found in many Romano-British cemeteries, practised to prevent malevolent spirits walking the earth?

Recent research suggests the decapitated remains of 39 young Roman men were found in a Walbrook stream in London in 1989 are likely to represent the victims of Roman “headhunting”. The Wallbrook skulls have been interpreted as evidence of of Geoffrey of Monmouth's account of a mass beheading on the banks of the Walbrook, or evidence of the Boudiccan rebellion of 60-61 AD when, according to the Roman historian Tacitus, 70,000 perished in the three cities of Camulodunum (Colchester), Verulamium (St Albans) and Londinium.

The 39 skulls, buried between 160 and 120 AD, have been interpreted as the first ritual burial of its kind to be discovered in the city; the ages and evidence of weapon trauma suggest the Roman-era remains once belonged to gladiators, executed criminals or war captives. The Wallbrook has long been regarded as a sacred river; the remains of over 100 ceramic face-pots, one of the largest groups in the country, have been found in the Upper Walbrook valley, a reflection of the concentration of human skulls in this area, and a Mithraeum was discovered on the east bank in the 1950s.

Most of the complete face-pots from London have been found in the Walbrook valley and from local shrines as ritual deposits were mainly manufactured in the Verulamium (St Albans) area. It would appear these pots have nothing to do with food storage, but are connected to funerary activity as some have been found in cemeteries and with cremation burials.

Evidence for the Cult of the Head is found in the bog bodies of north-west England. In 1958 the severed head of what is believed to be a Romano-British Celt thought to have lived around 100 AD, was discovered near Worsley in the eastern part of Chat moss, a large expanse of bog that makes up some 30 per cent of the City of Salford, in Greater Manchester, England. 'Worsley Man' was bludgeoned over the head, garrotted then beheaded, perhaps a victim of the classic Celtic triple death. He was probably already dead when decapitated. The rest of the body has not been found. Further analysis of the CT scan results at the University of Manchester has revealed a sharp, pointed object hidden deep within his neck confirming that this Iron Age victim was ritually sacrificed. Worsley Man shares chilling similarities with the famous Lindow Man found in a nearby Cheshire peat bog.

A curious feature of a body from La Tène is the apparent defleshing of the skull, which bore a number of knife marks. At Rennibister in Orkney skulls were defleshed and displayed with apparent pride and respect. The purpose of defleshing appears to be linked to a sacrificial ritual and rejected as evidence of cannibalism.7

Recent analyses have demonstrated that the 'cut and scrape' marks created by the defleshing of the dead are quite different from bones butchered for meat. Evidence for defleshing seems to go as far back as the mid-Upper Palaeolithic, about 27,000 years ago, when individual skulls were heavily ochred and separately buried. This defleshing took place possibly after a period of excarnation, and prior to burial.

The same treatment appears to have been given to the head of a young boy, 15-18 years old, found at the bottom of a pit associated with a ritual enclosure containing a Romano-Celtic temple at Folly Lane, St Albans. Six other pits were found to contain face-pots lying face down with the face deliberately cut out. In three other pits animal skulls had been carefully placed on the bottom layer. The boy's skull showed injuries to the living bone but some 90 cut-marks to the skull made by a fine-bladed knife indicate it had been scalped and defleshed after death. Were the face-pots deliberately damaged to mirror the defleshing of the boy? Damage at the base of the boy's skull suggests it was displayed on a pole. The absence of weathering to the skull suggests it was present at ceremonial assemblies within the temple.

The special treatment given to these heads augments the evidence for the symbolic importance attached to the human head in Iron Age Europe.

Celtic Mythology
Evidence to demonstrate that to the Celtic peoples the Cult of the Head went beyond mere trophy collection is attested in the surviving Celtic mythology documented in Irish and Welsh sources, such as the Second Branch of the Mabinogi.

Irish literature is a particularly rich source for the Cult of the Head. In the tales of the Ulster Cycle, the mythological warrior Cú Chulainn is described as returning from his first battle with a collection of severed heads; three heads attached to his chariot, nine heads in one hand and ten in the other. In the epic The Cattle Raid of Cooley (Taín Bo Cualinge) after cutting off twelve of his opponents heads Cú Chulainn is said to have planted twelve stones for them in the ground and set a head on each stone. In the story of Garb of Glen Rigel Cuchulainn meets the two-headed Garb in single combat. Cú Chulainn cuts Garb's double head from his neck and impales it on a stake.

In the early tale known as Bricriu's Feast (Fled Bricrenn) Bricriu invites three heroes, Cú Chulainn, Conall Cernach and Lóegaire Búadach, to compete for the champion's portion. In a  series of tests Cú Chulainn repeatedly comes out top, but neither Conall nor Lóegaire accept the result. Cú Roí mac Dáire of Munster settles it by visiting each of them disguised as a hideous churl and challenges them to behead him, then allow him to return the blow and behead him. Both Conall and Lóegaire behead Cú Roí, who picks up his head and departs. But when it comes for Cú Roí to return and deliver his blow of the axe they flee. Only Cú Chulainn keeps to his word and submits himself to Cú Roí's axe; Cú Roí spares him and he is declared champion. This beheading challenge appears in later literature, most notably in the Middle English poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight when the green giant picks up his talking head and walks away. The theme continued into 13th century Arthurian Romance in the Life of Caradoc included in the First Continuation of Chrétien de Troyes's Perceval, the Story of the Grail. Caradoc Strong Arm (Caradoc Vreichvras) is a well known character from Welsh mythology; significantly he is called the son of Llyr Marini in the Dream of Rhonabwy. In this tale from the Mabinogion Caradoc is Arthur's chief counsellor and his first cousin. Llyr Marini is a clear reference to the sea god and father of The Children of Llŷr.

Further accounts are found throughout Irish mytholoy, such as The Destruction of Da Derga’s Hostel, in which Conaire Mor is beheaded by an enemy warrior, but his head retains the ability to speak after the battle. An oblique reference is made to the Assembly of the Wondrous Head in the Irish story  of The Battle of Allen (Cath Almaine) preserved in the 11th-century Yellow Book of Lecan. The Leinstermen fight a battle against Fergal Mac Maile Duin, who is slain. Fergal is beheaded and his head is taken to Cathal who honours it, washed it and braided and combed smooth, and a cloth of silk to be put about it, with seven oxen, seven wethers and seven pigs cooked and placed before Fergal's head.

Then there is the moving tale, also from Cath Almaine, of the Head of Donn Bo, a young man famed for his sweet singing who was slain at the battle and decapitated. Donn Bo had promised to sing that night for his lord Fergal no matter where they should be. One of the victorious Leinstermen goes out onto the battlefield in order to take a head back to the feasting-place as a trophy. As he approaches, he hears the severed heads entertaining the dead king on the field. The voice of Donn Bo is sweeter than the voice of any other head. When the warrior approaches to lift his head, the head checks him, and says it is pledged to sing for Fergal alone that night. Nevertheless he lifts the head, and taking it back to the building, places it on a pillar. It is asked to sing. It turns its face to the wall so that it is in darkness and sings so sweetly that all weep. It is finally taken back to the battlefield.

The story of Lomna's Head is a further example of a severed head speaking at a feast. Lomna was Finn's fool. By chance he came upon Finn's wife in the act of committing adultery with a warrior called Coirpre. Finn's wife begs Lomna not to betray her, but he remains faithful to his master, and refuses. Coirpre decapitates Lomna in revenge for the betrayal and takes the head away with him. Finn finds the body, and placing his finger in his mouth, divines that it belongs to Lomna. He sets out to find the head and comes upon Coirpre cooking salmon and Lomna's head is stuck on a pole beside him. Coirpre, when dividing out the fish, omits to offer any to the head. The head speaks. This happens twice and the head is put outside the door. Finally, a third distribution is made and the head speaks from outside.

And Fothad Canainne never sat down to a feast without decapitated heads before him. Fothad's decapitated head sings a long poem to Ailill's wife after she lifts up the head.

The illustrations given above is not exhaustive of the literary evidence by any means and we have not even touched on the huge repository of literature detailing the association of severed heads with sacred waters. The Head of Conaire Mor, legendary king of Ireland, is a fine example; when water is poured into the mouth of the severed head it speaks. And then there are the sacred wells that spring up at the place where many saints were beheaded, but that as they say is another story.

The Assembly of the Wondrous Head
The tale of Bran's severed head in the Second Branch of the Mabinogi is unique in verifying the representations of the Cult of the Head as seen in the literary representations above. It is a remarkable survival of an ancient cult into Medieval literature. As Anne Ross puts it, “the head of the god is  divine and has apotropaic qualities, keeping evil and ill-will at bay, it is prophetic and presides  over a divine feast.

Rachel Bromwich argues that the decapitation of Bran is probably a later rationalisation of an original cult legend about a wonderful supernatural head. In this head are combined all the powers with which the human head was accredited by the Celts; it is apotropaic (averting danger of invasion); it is prophetic (revealing future events); it is divine (presiding over the Otherworld feast at which the birds of Riannon sing). Evidently the archaic Celtic motif of the Living Head draws on elements from a distant pre-Christian past, yet Bromwich adds that the name Bendigeidfran, Blessed Raven, carries a later Christian connotation; “It is probable that originally the element Pen was present, the original name being Bran the . . . Head.8

Ross argues that the iconographic evidence, supported by the vernacular tradition, points unequivocally to the Cult of the Head as an object of worship, as a symbol of divinity and regenerative power, and as a focus of superstitious belief in the period just prior to and during the Roman occupation of Britain.9

The head was certainly venerated by the Celts but the feasting of the Assembly of the Wondrous Head is more than simple ceremonial worship. There appears to be some significance, although not always explicitly stated, to the raising up of the  severed head from the battle field or being placed on a pillar or pole and the ability to deliver oracular speech. The presence of the severed head appears to form a link with the Otherside, permitting the crossing of boundaries into the realm of the gods and the ancestors, perhaps in a similar role to the shaman as opener of the ways. The presence of Bendigeidfran's head transports the seven survivors of the army of the Island of the Mighty into a time and place between worlds, a spellbound liminal zone from which exit is only made when the door facing Aber Henvelen is opened and thus breaks the spell and ends the feast.10

In conclusion, “the image of the human head appears to stand for a kind of gatekeeper of the threshold, or even a guide to, the Otherworld regions. The motif therefore also offers a clue to the pagan and superstitious conception of where the Otherworld may be contacted...."11

See: Brân - Celtic god of Hades

Copyright © 2014 Edward Watson

Notes & References
1. Quotations are from The Second Branch of the Mabinogi, Branwen Daughter of Llyr by Will Parker, The Four Branches of the Mabinogi, Bardic Press, 2005.
2. The Voyage of Bran Mac Febal from Mary Jones Celtic Literature Collective. Source: Kuno Meyer - The Voyage of Bran, (translation), London David Nutt,1895.
3. The Otherworld from Mary Jones's Celtic Encyclopedia.
4. Anne Ross, The Cult of the Head, pp.154-175, in Pagan Celtic Britain, Chicago, 1967.
5. Ibid.
6. Ibid.
7. Miranda Green, Humans as Ritual Victims in the Later Prehistory of Western Europe, Oxford Journal of Archaeology, Volume 17, Issue 2, pp.169–189, July 1998.
8. Rachel Bromwich quoted in Anne Ross, The Human Head In Insular Pagan Celtic Religion. Proceedings Of The Society, 1957-58.
9. Ibid.
10. John Billingsley, Stony Gaze, Capall Bann, 1998
11. Ibid.

** Update: 13 February 2018 **

8,000-Year-Old Heads on Stakes Found in Mysterious Underwater Grave
The discovery of a burial containing 8,000-year-old battered human skulls, including two that still have pointed wooden stakes through them, has left archaeologists baffled, according to a new study from Sweden. During the Stone Age, the grave would have sat at the bottom of a small lake, meaning that the skulls would have been placed underwater. 

See: Live Science - Ancient Heads on Stakes

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