Decapitation is something that vexes me. It has immense occult significance, as does the closely related severed head and the skull, in various traditions, yet it is rarely discussed in the literature. I'm written several mediocre blogs on this topic before, such as this and this, in an attempt to illuminate both myself and my readers. Hopefully this one will fair a little better. I will cover a lot of material I've used in prior blogs in an attempt to bring much of the data I've gathered together in a single place. So, let us begin.
The ritualistic removal of the head is one of the oldest practices in human history. It appears in various cultures the world over as both crucial aspects of their myths as well as an actual practice. In fact, it predates even human beings.
"We have already viewed the earliest unmistakable archaeological evidence of man's religious thought, in the burials and bear sanctuaries of Homo neanderthalensis. We now add, to complete the picture, the observation that a number of the Neanderthal skulls found at Krapina and Ehringsdorf provide evidence also of his ritual cannibalism. They had been opened in a certain interesting way. Furthermore, every one of the unearthed skulls of Neanderthal's Javanese contemporary, Solo Man (Ngangdong Man), had also been opened. And finally, when skulls opened by the modern headhunters of Borneo fro the purpose of lapping up the brains are compared with those of Solo and Neanderthal -the skulls having served, handily, as the bowls for their own contents -they are found to have been opened in precisely the same way.
"Remarkable indeed -we might observe in passing -how far cultural patterns can survive beyond the periods of the races among whom they first appear!
"What rites were associated with the early headhunt we do not know; but that its spirit was comparable to the head-worship of the bear is likely -particularly in view of the fact that at the five-chambered grotto of Guattari near San Felice Circeo, on the coast of Italy, some eighty miles southeast of Rome, a Neanderthal skull was recently discovered that had been treated much like the skull of a sacrificed bear. The head having been removed, a hole had been tapped in it for the removal of the brain; the remains of sacrificed animals were preserved in receptacles round about the grotto, and the skull itself, placed on the floor of the cave, was surrounded by a circle of stones."
(The Masks of God Primitive Mythology, Joseph Campbell, pg. 373)
|a Neanderthal skull used as a ritualistic bowl|
Skull cults flourished in the earliest high civilizations based around the equator.
"The first plantings should be sought... in the broad equatorial zone where the vegetable world has supplied not only the food, clothing, and shelter of man since time out of mind, but also his model of the wonder of life -in its cycle of growth and decay, blossom and seed, wherein death and life appear as transformations of a single, superordinated, indestructible force. Today we find throughout this immense area a well-developed style of village life based on a garden economy of yams, coconuts, bananas, taro, etc., as well as a characteristic culture assemblage including rectangular gabled huts, drums made of split logs and a way of communicating by drum beats, a galaxy of distinctive musical instruments, secret societies of a particular kind, tattooing, a type of bow and feathered arrow, such forms of burial and skull cult as have just been described for South or East Africa, bird-, snake-, and crocodile-worship, spirit posts and huts, particular methods of making fire, and a way of fashioning cloth of palm fiber and of bark.Of these secret societies centered around agriculturally based civilizations, Campbell writes:
(ibid, pg. 137)
"... the ceremonials of these secret lodges are to be distinguished radically from those of the hunting-tribe initiations, their psychological function being different and their history different too. Admission to them is through election and is generally limited: they are not for all. Moreover, they tend to be propagandist, reaching beyond the local tribe, seeking friends and members among alien people... As already noted, a particular stress is given in these secret men's societies to a skull cult that is often associated with the headhunt. Ritual cannibalism and pederasty are commonly practiced, and there is a highly elaborated use made of symbolic drums and masks. Ironically (yet by no means illogically), the most prominent divinities of these lodges are frequently female, even the Supreme Being itself being imagined as a Great Mother; and in the mythology and ritual lore of this goddess a lunar imagery is developed..."
(ibid, pg. 321)
For more on the history of this particular style of skull cult, check here, here, and here. Keep them in mind dear reader for we shall consider them again in this piece a bit later. But I digress for now, so let us return to the ritualistic aspects of the head and the severing of it. Traces of the association of the decapitation and vegetation appear in Greco-Roman myths such as the one concerning Lityerses:
"...Lityerses was a bastard son of Midas, King of Phyygia, and dwelt at Calaenae. He used to reap corn, and had an enormous appetite. When a stranger happened to enter the cornfield or to pass by it, Lityerses gave him plenty to eat and drink, then took him to the corn-field on the banks of the Maender and compelled him to reap along with him. Lastly, it was his custom to wrap the stranger in a sheaf, cut off his head with a sickle, and carry away his body, swatched in the corn stalks. But at last Hercules undertook to reap with him, cut off his head with the sickle, and threw his body into the river. As Hercules is reported to have slain Lityerses in the same way that Lityerses slew others (as Theseus treated Sinis and Sciron), we may infer that Lityerses used to throw the bodies of his victims into the river."It is not just at the equator or the Classical world that we find the ritualistic use of decapitation, however. The Americas are littered with traces of this custom. The Aztecs are primarily known for removing the hearts and skins of the victims used in rituals of human sacrifice, but several of the more significant sacrificial rites involved beheading. For instance, the festival of Toxcatl, dedicated to the god Tezcatlipoca, climaxed with a beheading of the sacrificial victim.
(The Golden Bough, James Frazer, pg. 436)
"Like the Mexican temples in general, it was built in the form of a pyramid; and as the young man ascended the stairs he broke at every step one of the flutes on which he had played in the days of his glory. On reaching the summit he was seized and held down by the priests on his back upon a block of stone, while one of them cut open his breast, thrust his hand into the the wound, and wrenched out his heart held it up in sacrifice to the sun. The body of the dead god was not, like the bodies of common victims, sent rolling down the steps of the temple, but was carried down to the foot, where the head was cut off and spitted on a pike. Such was the regular end of the man who personated the greatest god of the Mexican pantheon."
(ibid, pg. 609)
|Tezcatlipoca, one of the main Aztec gods who decapitations were offered to|
One of the more curious uses of the head in ritual occurs in several of the burial mounds of the Adena peoples, one of the most mysterious North American tribes. They were one of the earliest mound builders and by several accounts, a literal race of giants (quite a few skeletons have been found from individuals who would have been over eight feet tall). More on the Adena can be found here. As to their burial practices, consider:
"No one knows where the Adena came from, or what happened to them. It is believed that they were either exterminated by the later Hopewell culture, or were assimilated into the Hopewells through intermarriage and the gradual erosion of their own culture. Their only legacy rests in the proliferation of mounds. In some of these, strange burial patterns were observed, such as the twelve people buried at the Kiefer Mound in Ohio, in a circle with their heads on the inside of the circle and their feet pointing outwards 'like spokes in a wheel.' This same arrangement was reported in the Wheeling Gazette -a body on an altar, head facing 'west of north' in the direction where there was evidence of a fire, the body covered by a foot of ashes. The body as found to be 'remarkably perfect, and was mostly preserved. Around this body were twelve others with their heads centering towards it, and feet projecting. No articles of art were found, except a polished stone tube, about twelve inches in length.' The alignment of the body implies an astronomical orientation consistent with many Hopewell and Adena sites. In this case, it possible that the 'west of north' alignment was toward Ursa Major, but this is pure conjecture since we don't know when the site was constructed or the bodies interred. The fact that there were twelve other bodies with the central, altar-lain body indicates that these twelve were killed, sacrificed, in some sort of ritual. The stone tube might ave been a pipe, or it could have served some function of which we are not aware; such is the state of knowledge of American prehistory... At the Kiefer mound, three of the twelve corpses had been decapitated, with the skulls placed between the thigh bones. This odd placement of the skulls also exists in other Adena sites in Kentucky. Engraved tablets were found buried in these mounds with the artistically arranged bodies, and Adena experts William S. Web and Charles E. Snow believe that this 'constitutes a very import Adena trait.'"
(Sinister Forces: Book One, Peter Levenda, pgs. 52-53)
|the actual skull of an Adena|
Conversely, the ancient Celts were fixated on removing the head, not for burials, but during battle.
"In the Celtic world, the head was the focus of practices and beliefs which differed in detail, but possessed an overall homogeneity. The most important custom was war like: the Gauls used to cut off the heads of their conquered enemies, tie them to the necks of their horses and bear them home in triumph. These trophies were carefully preserved, in cedar-oil if need be... The decapitated head is a regular motif of Gailic coinage and the Gallic and Gallo-Roman plastic arts. Irish custom was identical with Gallic and insular heroic literature contains countless examples of the warrior carrying off the head of the enemy he has killed in single combat. The head would thus symbolize the enemy's strength and warlike virtues that his conqueror had acquired, and decapitation would also ensure the death of the enemy. According to Celtic notions, death did not occur until the cerebral membranes were destroyed."
(Dictionary of Symbols, Jean Chevalier & Alain Gheerbrant. pgs. 476-477)
Oddly, the severing of the head was associated with the earliest European and American myths concerning the slaying of vampires as well.
"This [decapitation] is also a method known to European and early American cultures as a means of ensuring the corpse does not come back to life, i.e. become a vampire."Presumably this is where the tradition of damaging, or removing, the head of a zombie as a means of sending it back to the dead, also derives. Many cultures seem to have shared the belief that the head was the key to ensuring death.
(Sinister Forces: Book One, Pete Levenda, pgs. 75-76)
"In various primitive religions, decapitation derived from ritual and belief. Since the head was the home of the spirit, it needed to be preserved or destroyed, according to whether it belonged to a friend or to an enemy."
(Dictionary of Symbols, Jean Chevalier & Alain Gheerbrant, pg. 281)
In other words, the head can be used as a kind of talisman. In such circumstances, one of the powers seemingly associated with the severed head is prophesy.
"The Celts had a tradition of bewitched heads, but more pertinently, there was a severed head kept at the Osirian temple of Abydos that was believed to prophesy. In another associated myth, the head of that other dying-and-rising god, Orpheus, was washed upon Lesbos, where it began to predict the future."
(The Templar Revelations, Lynn Picknett and Clive Prince, pg. 358)
|the head of Orpheus|
I'm going to shift gears a bit now and focus on the legacy of severed heads in the Grail myths.
"The first of the Grail romances was Chretien de Troyes' unfinished Le Conte del Graal (c. 1190)...There is much to discuss in this passage. The last section concerning the heads of Kings and Queens reminds me of a section from the Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz, a key text in the Rosicrucian movement, as well as amongst alchemists. I've discussed the scenes of decapitations in the Chymical Wedding before here.
"In Chretien's version of the story there is no mention of the Grail being a cup nor is any connection with the Last Super or with Jesus ever explicitly described. In fact, there is no obvious religious connotation at all, and it has been said that its overall ambiance is, if anything, distinctly pagan. Here, however, the Grail object was a platter or dish -which, as we shall see, is highly significant. In fact, Chretien had drawn on a much older Celtic tale that had as its hero Peredur, whose quest involved encountering a gruesome and apparently highly ritualistic procession in a remote castle. Carried in this were, among other things, a spear that dripped blood and a severed head on a platter. A common feature of the Grail stories is the critical moment when the hero fails to ask an important question, and it is this sin of omission that leads him into grave danger. As Malcom Godwin says: 'Here the question which is not asked concerns the nature of the head. If Peredur had asked whose head, and how it concerned him, he would have known how to lift the enchantments of the Wasteland.' (The land had been cursed and made infertile.)
"Even without an ending, Chretien's story was a runaway success and it gave rise to a huge number of copycat tales -most of which were explictly Christian...
"One of these Christianized versions was Perlesvaus, which was, some say, written by a monk at Glastonbury Abbey in c. 1205, while others believe it was the work on an anonymous Templar. This tale is really about two quest that are interwoven. The knight Gawain searches for the sword that beheaded John the Baptist, and which magically bleeds every day at noon. In one episode the hero encounters a cart containing 150 severed heads of knights: some were sealed in gold, some in silver and some in lead. Then there is a bizarre damsel who carries in one hand the head of a king, sealed in silver, and in the other that of a queen, sealed in lead.
"In Perlesvaus the elite attendants of the Grail wear white garments emblazoned with a red cross -just like the Templars. There is also a red cross that stands in a forest, and which falls prey to a priest who beats it 'in every part' with a rod, an episode which has a clear connection with the charge that the Templars spat and trampled on the cross. Once again, there is a curious scene involving severed heads. One of the Grail guardians tells the hero, Perceval, 'There are the heads in silver, and the heads sealed in lead, and the bodies whereunto these heads belong: I tell you that you must come thither the head both of the King and Queen.' "
(The Templar Revelation, Lynn Picknett and Clive Prince, pgs. 117-118)
Another interesting aspect of this passage is the appearance of the Knights Templar in the Grail legends. Several of the Grail myths feature an order of knights guarding the Grail that seem to have been loosely based upon the Knights Templar. This is most evident in Wolfram von Eschenbach's Parzival in which the Grail knights are referred to as 'templeise.' The Knights Templar also have interesting connections to severed heads.
"As several commentators have pointed out, the charge that the knights worshipped a severed head -which was believed to be called Baphomet -has resonances with the Grail romances, in which, as we have seen, severed heads figure largely. The Templars were charged with ascribing Grail-like powers to this Baphomet: it could make the trees flower and the land fertile. In fact, not only were the Templars accused of revering this idol head, but they also owned a silver reliquary in the form of a female skull which was labelled simply caput (head) 58."
(ibid, pg. 121)
|a common depiction of Baphomet, a severed head the Templars were said to worship|
Picknett and Prince go on to speculate that the Grail was originally a severed head on a platter rather than a chalice. This is a pretty good theory. There is ample evidence that in Celtish culture skulls were used as sacred chalices in rituals.
"Livy records that when, in 216 BC, the Cisalpine Gauls ambushed and destroyed the army of the Roman ex-consul Postumius, they carried off this magistrate's head with the rest of the spoils with great pomp. 'They adorned his skull with gold according to their custom. And it served them as a sacred vessel from which to pour libations at festivals and at the same time as a drinking cup for the priests and keepers of the temple...' The symbolism of the skull is related to that of the head, regarded as the spoils of war, and that of the chalice. In this context one should mention the skulls found in a number of Celtic shrines in southern Gaul."
(Dictionary of Symbols, Jean Chevalier & Alain Gheerbrant, pg. 888)
|the actual Grail?|
We have now seen that heavy religious significance has been placed upon the head, and the severing of it, since before the Dawn of Man. The Neanderthals had customs associated with the head, as did the Celts, the Adena, the Aztecs, and the Knights Templar. This significance was adopted into Christianity in the figure of John the Baptist, who was beheaded by Herod Antipas on behalf of his stepdaughter, Salome. Thus, the head of the Baptist is the most well known decapitation in Western culture.
|Salome displaying the head of John the Baptist during Herod's feast|
The Baptist is of course hugely important in Western occult tradition. He is the patron saint of both the Knights Templar and the Freemasons. He has been credited as the 'Father of the Gnostics.' Indeed, one of the only surviving gnostic sect, the Mandaeans, consider the Baptist to be their chief prophet. All kinds of legends have sprung up around the legendary head of the Baptist. One of the most enduring is that the Knights Templar came into possession of it and that this head was the idol that they worshipped as Baphomet.
A detailed account of John the Baptist and the various occult traditions surrounding him is beyond the scope of this article. What's more, it would be misleading for I suspect the figure of John the Baptist was simply a stand in for a more ancient tradition. The great occultist Aleister Crowley came up with as compelling an explanation for the ritual use of decapitation as I've come across. I shall allow his disciple, Kenneth Grant, to break it down:
"Knowledge derived from qabalistic analysis of the names of ancient deities enabled Crowley to restore rituals which were of vital importance in his own initiation. The names of deities being nothing less than magical formulae, their restoration supplies the key to their invocation, or evocation, as the case may be. The most important rite that Crowley restored is the Preliminary Invocation of the Goetia, a mediaeval rite stemming from much earlier phase of magick which Crowley succeeded in redeeming from unintelligibility by transforming it into a powerfully thaumaturgic machine.
"The Invocation is based upon a translation by C.W. Goodwin of a Graeco-Egyptian Work on Magic. It is known as the Invocation of the Bornless One, or as Goodwin translated it, the Headless One. (The Headless One was a name given by the Gnostics to the Sun in Amenti, i.e. the Light in the Underworld. This concept was represented anciently by a decapitated figure, and it is paralleled by the Egyptian image of the lioness, or maneless lion, which represented the sun in its 'feminine' phase of passivity and darkness, the lion shorn of its mane, yet fierce with concealed force and hidden heat. In other words, the headless one typified the hidden god submerged below the horizon; in terms of psychology, the subconsciousness, the subliminal Will.)"
(The Magical Revival, Kenneth Grant, pg. 101)
In the glossary, under 'Sirius', Grant is more forthcoming in regards to what exactly this 'hidden god' is that the Headless One represents.
"The Dog-Star. In the Arcane Tradition, the vast star, Sirius, symbolizes the sun behind the sun; i.e. the true father of our Universe. Sirius was the primordial star of all time, as the duplicator or renewer (of time cycles). He was known in Egypt as the Doubling One, therefore a Creator or reflector of the Image. Sirius, or Set, was the original 'headless one' -the light of the lower region (the South) who was known (in Egypt) as An (the dog), hence Set-an (Satan), Lord of the infernal regions, the place of heat, later interpreted in a moral sense as 'hell'.
(ibid, pgs. 226-227)
|the Dog Star|
In this context, the Baptist would make a fine stand in for the Headless One. In esoteric circles Sirius is viewed as the true sun, the hidden power behind the actual sun. In similar circles John the Baptist is seen as the true messiah behind the usurper, Jesus, who is closely associated with the sun.
What then are we to make of all the ritualistic forms of decapitation that I've chronicled earlier in this post? Is it possible that they are a kind of homage to the Headless One? In the case of the Aztec rituals, this seems extremely possible as apparently a decapitated figure was a kind of stand in for the hidden god. This would also seem to be the case concerning the myth of Lityerses, whose beheading was closely associated with the growth of vegetation. It would also seemingly be the reason behind the appearance of various severed heads in the Grail myths.
But what of the traditions that associated the removal of the head with permanent death, i.e. various vampire and zombie myths? Sirius was associated with the renewal of time cycles, where as time would seemingly come to an end in this case. Was their a seperate tradition concerning decapitation outside of the various Sirius cult that have appeared the world over and seemingly have close overlap with the aftermentioned skull cults?
And I thought this piece would be definitive of decapitation but clearly there is still much to uncover.