Monday, August 15, 2005

Severed heads and UFOs (with a wink and a nod to Digital Medievalist)

Here's an interesting thing.

By way of background, let me just briefly explain that I've been researching a bunch of old stuff--old as in iron-age to medieval--for the next book. (A book I'll write, should I ever actually finish the current rewrite, but that's another blog entry.)

Now, if I had any sense, I'd be a bit daunted, seeing as how it's a great whack of history--2000 years-ish. I sort of figured, "hey, how much could there really be, still extant?" Quite a lot, as it turns out. Not that much of it written down. Hardly any of it written in any language I can actually read. Yet.


Months later, I'm doodling bog-bodies in the margins of notes while I'm on the telephone, and referencing Celtic saints in everyday conversation. My housemates are starting to give me strange and searching looks. I think that's probably due to the bog-body-noose doodles

I've noticed an interesting thing, however--wherever there's a lack of solid information or recorded facts, people are more than willing to make up something imaginative. If that bit of speculation is particularly fun and nifty, other people pick up the idea, quote it, and even cite it sometimes. Presto, we have something more-or-less accepted--at least by the interested layman--that's quite simply never really been established as true or real. Fun, eh?

My background is in Lit Crit. We're supposed to make creative-but-plausible shit up. That's what we get paid for. So this doesn't bother me as much as it might bother a real scholar. I do find I'm losing patience for the more outrageous crap out there masquerading as information.

A case in point: The Cult of the Severed Head.

Various sites suggest that everything from public beheadings to the portraits on modern coins can be attributed to this ancient cult. The Inquisition's prosecution of the Templars has been blamed this whole meme of severed heads, as well. Even the excellent Wikipedia takes the fact of an actual cult as given, even if the details are a bit foggy.

Some of the stuff that can be found is...urm...quite odd.

The more conservative speculation runs along the lines of, "look, they used all these heads in art, and architecture, and decoration; severed heads that speak show up in so many stories of heroes and saints; they took the heads of their enemies in battle--it all seems to suggest that human heads were quite important."

Some of this stuff seems to come from a Greek historian named Diodorus Siculus, who recorded the Celtic battle practice of collecting the heads of enemies, buying and selling various heads, methods of preserving them, and so on.

The more wild speculation suggests that the Celts closely followed some specific neolithic religion--traces of which can still be found on Easter Island and elsewhere--specifically involving bizarre rituals expressing actual worship of these heads, which may or may not have actually spoken. And probably had something to do with UFOs, too.

John Billingsley had this rather common-sense approach to the whole thing, "Any serious investigation of the subject reveals the cultic significance of the head to not only pre- and postdate the Celts, but also that the kind of stylisation encountered in Celtic circles has much wider currency. There are several reasons to question the modern understanding of the 'Celtic head' . As I have mentioned, the human head quite obviously had mystical meaning in cultures other than the Celts, occurring the world over, including pre-Celtic Europe. Thus, the religious perception of the head was not unique to the Celts, although it can be argues that they gave more intense concrete expression to the motif than it had ever had before."

Anyhoo--I think it's all terribly cool, and I haven't had such a fabulous time reading in years. It's like reading was when I was a kid, and everything was trackless and just waiting for me. For any of you feeling a bit jaded with whatever new things you're reading, I highly recommend looking for very old stuff, too.

It all goes to show, I think, that we just can't resist a good story. If the story's already got heroes, saints, and cannibals; then a few zombies and UFOs just make it all the better, right?


Lisa Spangenberg said...

Regarding the importance of heads -- there are the references to brain-balls, notably in the Middle Irish tale of "The Death of Conchobar mac Nessa." Concohobar is Chuchulainn's uncle, and the King of the Ulaid. There are two principal versions of his death-tale (a death-tale, or aided is one of the several native Irish tale genres). It goes, roughly, like this:

It was in that time, the custom on the Ulstermen to take the brains from out of the head of each warrior they slew in single combat, for to mix lime with them so that they [the brains] were formed into hard balls.

This particular brain had a prophesy associated with it--that Mesgregra would avenge himself after death. Cet, a bit of a troublemaker, takes the brain-ball of Mesgregra and carries it with him. Cet takes his sling and throws it so that the ball embeds itself in the head of Conchobor Mac Nessa. Fingen the physician says that if the ball is removed, Conchobor will die. Conchobor is told he must not fight, must not sleep with a woman, and must not become wrathful, lest his anger cause the ball to kill him. He lives this way for seven years, until he hears of the death of Christ, and grows so wrathful that he has a paroxysm and dies. He is one of the two men who believed in Christ before Christianity came to Ireland.

I'm paraphrasing, very crudely--you can find all MS. five versions in a English and Irish edition edited by the venerable Kuno Meyer, reprinted by DIA.

Mac said...

Lisa--may blessings rain down on your head the rest of your days. My you personally discover some rare and beautiful ms. or artifact that sets scholarship on its collective ear.

At the very, very least, may you finish your *%# and have it sail through review with ooohs and aaaahs from your committee...

Without you, I'd still be digging through old National Geographics, and swearing under my breath every time I fall over another neo-pagan site purporting to be scholarly.

Jill said...

I had children because why?

Just kidding. Boy, do your descriptions make me salivate for the days when I read about stuff that had so little direct connection to food, clothing and shelter.

Thanks for reminding me of great pursuits.