I love October guys. It’s such a perfectly spooky time of year, with foggy mornings, crisp evenings, and all the leaves turn orange. The smell of wood smoke and apple crisp… it’s truly my favorite time of year. I do recognize some morbid irony in the fact that as the leaves are dying, I feel my most alive.
Every year in October, I do a quick piece about a famous Halloween-esque figure. In previous years, I’ve used this time to talk about Mary Shelley, the legend of Dracula, and Stephen King… this year, I want to look at the Headless Horseman. The most famous iteration of the Headless Horseman is in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, but he’s a figure that floats down through mythology and pop culture.
The furthest we can trace the figure of the headless horseman is Celtic mythology and the god Crom Dubh, or “Black Crooked One”. Like most stories passed down through the ages, this one seems to have changed a bit as we get further from its origin. Crom Dubh is actually associated with August, and Crom Dubh’s Day included a pilgrimage to a sacred hill. Confessions of a Hedge Witch does a really great job of discussing Crom Dubh and the mythology behind him, so I will point you over there to get to the nitty gritty. As with much Celtic mythology and ancient pagan traditions, we can only speculate as to the actual events of the day, but it is believed that as far back at the 6th century, Crom Dubh’s Day (more modernly known as Lughnasa) was a pilgrimage and day of worship that may have included sacrifice, and perhaps games.
Because, you know, those two always go hand-in-hand, right?
This all doesn’t sound like a headless horseman, though. This is just a Celtic god, right? Well the funny thing in particular about Celtic mythology is how often their gods have been demonized. Greek, Roman, and Egyptian gods are largely shrugged off. People love talking about the Norse Gods (and that’s some wonky mythology too), but the Celtic Gods? You may hear about the Great Hunt. So how exactly does Crom Dubh relate to the Headless Horseman?
Another name for Crom Dubh is Cenn Crúaich… and when you ask Oxford University Press what that means, you get:
[OIr., bloody crescent, crook], also known as Cenn Crúaich, etc. [bloody head, chief (?); lord of the mound (?)].
The chief idol of pagan Ireland as described in Christian accounts of pre-Patrician history. It was thought to stand in Mag Slécht [the plain of adoration or prostrations], in Co. Cavan, near the present village of Ballymagauran; often associated with the Killycluggin Stone from Cavan, now in the National Museum, Dublin. The central idol was gold, surrounded by twelve others of stone. First worshipped by a shadowy king known as Tigernmas, Crom is described as the principal god of every Irish people before the coming of St Patrick. To him was sacrificed on each Samain the first-born of every family and the first-born of every livestock.
And now it makes more sense. So we have a Celtic God whose name literally means “bloody head” to whom the first born of every family and every livestock were sacrificed on Samhain? This is starting to sound like we’ve at least got the “headless” part of Headless Horseman.
There are other mythological connections to the headless horseman in the Celtic world. For example, we have the dulachán, who is a Fairy (not like Tinkerbell) who rides a black horse, wields a whip made of spinal cord, and carries his head between his thighs. Basically the Grim Reaper of Celtic mythology. But the headless demon character appears in multiple western mythologies. A version appears in two separate Grimm brothers tales, and various stories are common in the Netherlands – more on that later.
In England, we have one of the more memorable stories from Arthurian legend – Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. I remember reading this one in high school, but if you are unfamiliar, you can read it free online. I will warn that it’s a translation from the original Middle English and is a bit dense, but the basic premise of the story is that this giant offers to let anyone try to chop off his head if they promise to come back in a year and a day. King Arthur is in immediately, but his youngest knight, Gawain, gallops off instead and chops the giant’s head off… fully expecting the guy to be dead. But, nope, he picks up his head, reminds Gawain to come back in a year and a day, and rides his green horse off into the sunset.
The most famous, most recognizable story is The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. This is where the stories from the Netherlands come in, as well as a mixture of local folklore from the Dutch settled New York and America ~50 years after the Revolutionary War. In Washington Irving’s version of the story, the headless horseman no longer carries around his head, because the head is lost. Instead, he carries a pumpkin and wields it like a weapon.
Irving’s character combines a Headless Horseman character similar to the dulachán and mixing it with the local history of the Revolutionary War battles fought in and around Tarrytown (renamed Sleepy Hollow in 1999) created a character that is memorable nearly two centuries later. It is just the sort of story that manages to fully embrace the chill of the season adn makes you wonder if you hear a rustle in the woods or a clip-clip-clopping of a horse nearby… ah… or maybe that’s just a trick of the ears. Folklore Thursday did a great article about the inspiration behind Irving’s tale that I highly recommend.
Disney’s adaptation in The Adventures of Ichabod Crane and Mr. Toad inserted the Headless Horseman into pop culture again, and we see him in early drafts of the Haunted Mansion’s planning (cut, unfortunately), and well as leading their parade. For you Disney nerds *waves enthusiastically* here’s a video of this year’s Boo To You Halloween parade at Walt Disney World in Orlando… led, oh course, by the Headless Horseman himself.
It’s good luck to catch him in the temperamental Florida autumn – he can only ride when the walkways are dry, for the safety of his mount. We caught him last year and it was such a cool experience. I remember him being a bit spookier than the camera shows.
His most recent reincarnation in pop culture was Fox’s Sleepy Hollow television series, which brought the Horseman as Crane’s friend-turned-enemy Abraham whose fate is supernaturally entwined with his own. They go through the Horseman’s arc in the first season and it’s fantastic, I highly recommend it if you missed the show while it was on air.
From Celtic mythology to cheesy supernatural television shows, the Headless Horseman feels like an imprint in human cultural history… and I think he’s here to stay.
What is your favorite headless ghost figure in stories or myths? The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is my favorite and remains a re-read for me every year. Tell me yours in the comments!