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Monday, November 8, 2010

The Shadow of Samhain: The Headless Horseman

What's that you say? It's the second week of November? Pshaw! The Shadow of Samhain lives on in The Vault, with a look at the enduring legend of the Headless Horseman, from Jeanette Laredo of Monsterland...

“Ichabod was horror-struck on perceiving that [the horseman] was headless!—but his horror was still more increased on observing that the head, which should have rested on his shoulders, was carried before him on the pommel of his saddle!”

--Washington Irving “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”

Mention the Headless Horseman and most people will recall a larger than life specter that is a staple of Halloween lore and stories told around the campfire. A Hessian decapitated by a cannon ball during the revolutionary war, he wanders the back roads of town called Sleepy Hollow, searching for his head and spiriting away any traveler unlucky enough to cross his path.

The figure of the ghostly Hessian comes to life in Washington Irving’s 1858 spine-tingling tale of an awkward schoolmaster who encounters the supernatural. In it, the horseman pursues Ichabod down dark country lanes, while Ichabod comically tries to escape on his trusty steed, Gunpowder. The chase culminates at the town bridge, where Ichabod believes once he has crossed it he will be safe from the violent spectre, but this part of the old wives’ tale fails Ichabod, as the horseman flings his head across the bridge and knocks Ichabod from his saddle.

The next morning no trace of the schoolmaster can be found, save for his hat and next to it a shattered pumpkin.

While Irving may have given us the most recognizable version of the headless horseman according to Dutch lore, the galloping Hessian can be traced back to other instances of the headless rider in myth and folklore.

In Northern India there is a creature called the “Dund” that rides with his head tied to the pommel of his saddle. He appears before the doorways of villagers, a sword in each hand, and calls the name of the inhabitant within. If the owner of the name answers, he is sure to die from fever or some other malady.

This creature, like the famed Hessian of Irving’s story, has its own fabled backstory. In life his name was Kharak Singh and he continued to fight for his lord after being beheaded in a vicious battle. In order to defeat the spirit, local lore says he must be thrown over a piece of dirty cloth.

The Dund also has an Irish cousin, the Dullahan, an unseelie spirit that prowls the countryside. He is a figure of death, and in addition to holding his disembodied head under his arm, he carries with him other macabre trappings, including a whip made of a human spine. Wherever he stops, someone is due to die and he will call out his name. Like the victims of the Dund, the poor soul will drop dead on the spot. There is no way to stop this dark spirit except for gold. Apparently the Dullahan is afraid of the precious metal and very small amounts can drive it away.

The folkloric versions of the headless horseman give rise to other, more literary versions of the ghost in the 14th century tale of “Sir Gawain and the Green Night” and “Der Wilde Jager,” in 1777 by the German poet, G.A. Burger.

In “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” the massive figure of the Green Knight intrudes on King Arthur’s court during New Year’s with a challenge for the new King. He demands to receive a blow at the hands of the King, one that he will return a year and a day from now. Sir Gawain, the youngest of King Arthur’s knights, steps in to accept the challenge. His blow lops off the Green Knight’s head. Instead of dying, the Green Knight simply scoops up his noggin and rides away with instructions that Gawain meet him at the Green Chapel a year and a day from now to receive his equal blow.

In Burger’s poem, a cruel huntsman is condemned to be chased by devils for his inhumane treatment of man and beast on earth. Burger’s poem is one of many versions of the German folktale where the pursued horseman appears headless.

Though Irving thrills and chills us to this day with his timeless tale of the headless horseman and the hapless schoolmaster, he is definitely not the first to dream up the nightmare of a headless spirit, hell bent on revenge and destruction.


The Vicar of VHS said...

Excellent stuff! The legend of the headless rider lives on today--in fact, we have one right here in central Arkansas. It's known as the Woodson Lateral Light, or the Woodson Lateral Ghost, named for the road on which it makes its appearance, a few miles outside my hometown of Little Rock. It manifests as a round yellow or orange light, that will allegedly follow cars and sometimes even pass right through them and disappear in the distance. Legend has it that this is the spirit of a motorcycle rider who had an accident on Woodson Lateral Road and was decapitated. The light is his motorcycle headlight as he travels up and down the road, searching for his lost head.

Of course none of this can be verified, but I did have several high school friends who swear to this day that they've seen the Woodson Light. I went out a few times, but wasn't so lucky. :)

B-Sol said...

My great uncle encountered a similar legend while in France during World War II. He and some buddies even staked out the spot late at night, in search of the headless ghost in question. Never found it...

Angela Pangela said...

I love love love this series so glad you are writing about this stuff!

B-Sol said...

You're quite welcome, Angela! I've been enjoying it as well!

Unknown said...

I think the 'The Sleepy Hollow" movie is based from this film.

Anonymous said...

I watched the movie with johnny dep and I read the book ! The movie was a horror movie and I got pretty scared! See, my dad and I watched it together and my dad Is a real joker so when he sAid he wanted to play with my dog for a little while, I got so scared because I came to see if he was ready about five minutes later and he wasn't there!!!! I thought he was trying to scare me so I got in my robe, and grabbed my moms stick thingy. Then, I went back out to see if my dad was trying to scare me. I got ready to fight until my dAd came up the stairs with my dog and said "what are u doing!" I foun out he wasn't trying to scare me at all!!!! Lol!

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