Tuesday, August 16, 2005

More About Heads

So I keep turning all this over in my own brain. What is the appeal of heads? Especially heads that continue to talk and eat and laugh, after being violently separated from their bodies?

The heads in the stories that continue to talk and eat and drink just as if still alive--what's that about? Does this serve as a slightly gruesome metaphor for an individual living on in the memory of his loved ones? The predominately celtic stories I've been reading treat the subject in a particularly literal way, though. Lisa's story about Conchobor Mac Nessa living on for seven years with the brain-ball of an enemy king, Mesgregra, embedded in his head, for example. Now--it could very probably be read as a sort of sociological observation about the lasting scars and damage created by feuding. The tale seems somewhat more literal that that, though. Here are some links to different online versions of the story, and further resources. They seem mostly adequate.

Also, they really did preserve the brains of vanquished foes, just so.

I think it has to do with faces: expressions, familiar features, and voices. How do we know the one we love, from all others? How do we identify our enemy? How do we discern who fathered whom, who takes after his or her mother, how do we recognize a friend or sibling we last saw months or years ago?

What do we think of, when we're picturing someone, wondering about them, or missing them? Faces are integral to remembrance.


Ms M said...

I've been following these posts on traditions of head severance and worship without knowing much about the history or mythology of this very interesting topic. It struck me though that there are some striking similarities between the modern practice of photography - the act of taking shots of people and collecting and organising them into albums - and the Celtic act of removing the head and organising it neatly into a chest. Particularly when you consider the role of close ups which frame out the body in a way not dissimilar to a type of technological severance. The album too operates a bit like a chest and is often opened up for strangers on special occasions to display cherished ones - family, friends and sometimes foe.

Mac said...

I've thought of the same thing, Ms M--the fact that we frame pictures of our loved one's heads, and set them out for people to see...and how many hours we spend watching heads talking from the frame of the television.

Lisa Spangenberg said...

It's worth mentioning that trepanning was not unknown in most, and probably all, these early I.E. cultures; certainly we've seen Celtic burials with skulls that have been trepanned, and we've also found surgical instruments.

So yes, they did know that the head was the seat of consciousness. And I leave you now with Another Talking head, though a slightly different one:

Cenn Faéledd was injured in battle, his most grievous wound being to his head. It was discovered that the injury was such that "he lost his brain of forgetting."

Unable to forget anything, he is said to have been the first to learn all the brehon laws, and to go on and found schools to teach all the branches of knowledge. There's a good article on this by Proinsias Mac Cana, and then one on related issues by Nagy (Nagy and Ford both are big on Severed Heads and I suspect have infected all of their students):


Proinsias Mac Cana, "The Three Languages and the Three Laws," Studia Celtica 5 (1970), 62-78

J. F. Nagy, "Close Encounters of a Traditional Kind in Medieval Irish Literature," in Celtic Folklore and Christianity, ed. Patrick Ford (Berkeley, 1983), pp. 129-149.

And now go find out about Donn Bó ;)

Dawno said...

I'm sorry - this is a serious scholarly discussion and I do so appreciate it as someone who thinks of herself as a lifelong learner...but...I can't help but take a little mental sidetrip to "Futurama" when one starts speaking about disembodied heads.

I'll go now and have a little lie down.

Lisa Spangenberg said...

You know the fake commercials that Saturday Night Live used to do? Remember the one about the chicken restaurant and its spokes pullet, the disembodied severed head Clucky? My Old Irish professor showed it to us in class . . . oh, and autophagia is also big in Celtic myth.

Mac said...

I've been noticing the autophagia thing, also the shape-shifting stuff. There seems to be this conciousness about identity, self, and relationships that's fairly universal. Some of this kind of stuff shows up all over, fairy-tales, bible-stories, and other places.