Friday, January 10, 2014

Colonial Pagans and Sleepy Hollow Part II

Welcome to the second installment in my examination of Tim Burton's 1999 opus Sleepy Hollow. Sleepy Hollow was of course an adaptation of Washington Irving's legendary short story The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, which first introduced the American public to figure that would eventually become a pop culture staple: the Headless Horseman. As was briefly addressed in the first installment of this series, the Headless Horseman is in fact a very old figure with origins in ancient European mythology and fairy tales.

Also noted in that installment were several compelling archetypes (including the Triple Goddess, the Wandering Prince and the Evil Stepmother) that appear in the film as well as an underlining spiritual dilemma Burton's Ichabod Crane (Johnny Depp), a character deeply scarred by both fundamentalist Christianity and modern rationalism, finds himself confronted with. I also briefly touched upon the paganistic trappings of the inhabitants of Sleepy Hollow, especially the women folk, and its historical basis in Colonial America.

With that out of the way I shall begin to examine the film's plot line. It opens in New York City in 1799 where Depp's Ichabod Crane is depicted as a rationalist attempting to reform the city's legal system, which in many ways is still mired in Medieval precedent. After running afoul of his superiors Crane is dispatched to Sleepy Hollow, a largely Dutch settlement in upstate New York in which a series of bizarre murders were recently committed, to put his "scientific" methods to the test.

Depp as Ichabod Crane
Upon arriving there Crane is immediately confronted by the town's power brokers as well as Katrina Van Tassel (Christina Ricci) at a party being held by her father, Baltus Van Tassel (Michael Gambon), Sleepy Hollow's wealthiest citizen and largest landholder. Amusingly, Crane first encounters Katrina while she is playing a game in which she is blindfolded and intoning "Whose got a kiss for the wickedy witch?" As was noted in part one, not only is Katrina a witch, but she is also a personification of the Maiden aspect of the Triple Goddess archetype.

When Katrina finally latches onto a passerby it is of course Crane, who informs her that he is a stranger. This does not stop Katrina from giving him a kiss from the wickedy witch, much to the chagrin of another of her suitors, Brom Van Brunt (Casper Van Dien). Before a confrontation develops Crane is rescued by Baltus Van Tassel, Sleepy Hollow's proverbial king. Thus, Crane is firmly established as a Wandering Prince by this series of events. It is a good fit as Burton's Sleepy Hollow liberally draws upon fairy tales and older myths and the Wandering Prince figure is an archetype that frequently appears in such.
"... the Matriarchal (and exogamic) Age, to the time when succession was not through the first-born son of the King, but through his daughter. The king was therefore not king by inheritance, but by right of conquest. In the most stable dynasties, the new king was always a stranger, a foreigner; what is more, he had to kill the old king and marry the king's daughter. This system ensured the virility and capacity of every king. The stranger had win his bride in open competition. In the oldest fairy-tales, this motive is continually repeated. The ambitious stranger is often a troubadour; nearly always he is disguised, often in a repulsive form. Beauty and the Beast is a typical tale. There is often a corresponding camouflage about the king's daughter, as in the case of Cinderella and the Enchanted Princess. The tale of Aladdin gives the whole of this fable in a very elaborate form, packed the technical tales of magic. Here then is the foundation of the legend of the Wandering Prince – and, note well, he is always 'the fool of the family.' The connection between foolishness and holiness is traditional. It is no sneer that the family nitwit had better go into the church. In the East the madman is believed to be 'possessed', a holy man or prophet. So deep is this identity that it is actually embedded in the language. 'Silly' means empty – the Vacuum of Air–Zero – 'the silly buckets on the deck.' And the word is from the German selig, holy, blessed. It is the innocence of the Fool which most strongly characterizes him..."
(The Book of Thoth, Aleister Crowley, pgs. 54-55)

To some extent this element was already present in the Washington Irving short story. There Crane was depicted as a Connecticut Yankee deeply at odds with the residents of Sleepy Hollow, who were largely of Dutch and German ancestry. This led many of the town residents to perceive of Crane, a schoolmaster, as an eccentric or even foolish figure. Nonetheless he vyed for the hand of Katrina Van Tassel, daughter of Sleepy Hollow's leading citizen, along with local prince Brom Van Brunt.

Norman Rockwell's depiction of the eccentric Crane character
Burton's take on Sleepy Hollow further enhances these elements. Depp's interpretation of Crane at times borders of camp, with the actor reportedly using Angela Lansbury's performance in Death on the Nile as inspiration. The delicate, effeminate nature of Crane is about as stark a contrast to the rugged menfolk of Sleepy Hollow as one can imagine. Needless to say, the townsfolk perceive Crane as a buffoonish figure on multiple occasions.

Beyond this, there is an odd spiritual quality to Crane. Despite being a staunch rationalist he is haunted by memories of his mother, a practitioner of folk magic. She was tortured and murdered by Crane's minister father for her beliefs, sending Crane reeling toward the siren song of secularism. Upon arriving in Sleepy Hollow Crane begins to experience intense nightmares in which he relives the darker aspects of his childhood, memories that he had suppressed as an adult.

Crane's mother was put in an iron maiden by his father
Naturally Crane tries to deny the supernatural aspects of the Headless Horseman but is forced to undergo a painful reassessment after being confronted with the being. As was addressed in the first installment, the symbolism of initiation was present when Crane witnesses Magistrate Philipse's (Richard Griffiths) death. After this event Crane teeters on the edge of a total nervous breakdown before emerging with startling insights into the nature of the Horseman. From that point on Crane accepts the high weirdness he has been thrust into and is even able to make sense of it all. This would seem to indicate that Crane had achieved a bit of the prophet nature Crowley assigned to the Wandering Prince archetype.

And while Crane ultimately ends up vying for the king's daughter in Burton's Sleepy Hollow, it is not her father that he must overcome, but the Headless Horseman. This is an interesting variation on the "killing of the divine king" ritual that appears the world over. The Horseman himself is symbolic of another of humanity's most ancient religious practices: the skull cult and the headhunt. In point of fact, the skull cult and headhunt may be humanity's oldest ritual practices, possibly even predating homo sapiens.
"... in Central Europe the earliest dependable evidence found anywhere of an establishment of myth and rite: ceremonial burials with grave gear, and bear-skull sanctuaries in high mountain peaks. Professor Weckler has suggested that Homo neanderthalensis may have come from the Oriental zone, pressing west across the tundras in Europe, where he was the first use fire. Sinanthropus, it will be recalled, who had already captured fire as early as c. 400,000 B.C., was a cannibal; so also was Neanderthal Man: we have mentioned the evidence of the open skulls at Krapina and Ehringsdorf. But in Java too a number of such open skulls have been found among the remains of Solo (Ngandong) Man, Neanderthal's oriental contemporary; and these were open precisely in the way of the skulls of the present-day headhunters of Borneo. Neanderthal and Solo Man, therefore, may have practiced some form of ritual cannibalism in connection with an early version of the headhunt; and if so, the formula should perhaps be carried back even to the period of Plesianthropus, who killed and beheaded men as well as beasts – in which case, this grim cult might reasonably be proposed as the earliest religious rite of the human species."
(The Masks of God Volume I, Joseph Campbell, pg. 394)

Burton's Headless Horseman is engaged in some type of headhunt throughout the film. In flashbacks he is depicted, as he also is in the Washington Irving short story, as a Hessian mercenary who fought on the side of the British during the American Revolution. But while Irving's Headless Horseman lost his head via a cannonball Burton's version, dressed in almost Medieval battle garments, charges into American battle lines atop a jet black steed and hacks off the heads of Minutemen with glee. Eventually he is hunted down by the Colonial army in the woods near Sleepy Hollow where his head is lobbed off with his own sword by his pursuers. His position was betrayed by a curious pair of identical twin girls dressed in matching pink dresses who will come to have a great bearing on Sleepy Hollow's plot line.

Twins are of course highly symbolically loaded.
"Twins also symbolize the ambivalent state of the mythic universe. Primitive peoples always regarded them 'as being charged with particularly strong power, which might either be both harmful and protective, or else simply harmful or simply protective.... Twins were both feared and worshiped, but always endowed with extreme properties. The Bantu put them to death, while in West Africa they were warship as sorcerers'... In all traditions, twins, whether gods or heroes, either helped one another or quarreled among themselves, emphasizing the ambivalence of their position and symbolizing the position of every individual divided within him-or-herself..."
(Dictionary of Symbols, Jean Chevalier & Alain Gheerbrant, pg. 1048) 
Romulus and Remus, the mythological twins credited with founding ancient Rome
I'll delve more into the twin aspect of Sleepy Hollow in just a moment, but for now let us briefly consider other skull cult/headhunt elements that appear in the film: Upon his return from the dead, the Horseman stalks his victims, cuts off their heads and seemingly takes them as trophies. It is later revealed that the spirit of the Horseman is summoned using his own skull, which was stolen from the mercenary's grave. The possessor of this skull is Lady Van Tassel (Miranda Richardson), Katrina's stepmother. She is also the film's obligatory wicked witch as well as a prototypical evil stepmother archetype. Naturally, she is revealed to be one of the two twins who encountered the Horseman on the day of his death, also making her an evil twin.

Lady Van Tassel is also strongly associated with the Triple Goddess as well. Her family name is revealed to be Archer towards the end of the film. The Greek goddess Artemis (Diana to the Romans), one of the numerous Maiden personifications of the Triple Goddess in Greco-Roman mythology, was commonly depicted as an archer.
"She was the Lady of Wild Things, Huntsman-in-chief to the gods, an odd office for a woman. Like a good huntsman, she was careful to preserve the young; she was 'the protectress of dewy youth' everywhere. Nevertheless, with one of those startling contradictions so common in mythology, she kept the Greek Fleet from selling to Troy until they sacrificed a maiden to her. In many another story, too, she is fierce and revengeful. On the other hand, when women died a swift and painless death, they were held to have been slain by her silver arrows.
"As Phoebus was the Sun, she was the Moon, called Phoebe and Selene (Luna in Latin). Neither name originally belonged to her. Phoebe was a Titan, one of the older gods. So too was Selene – a moon-goddess, indeed, but not connected with Apollo. She was the sister of Helios, the sun-god with whom Apollo was confused.
"In the later poets, Artemis is identified with Hecate. She is 'the goddess with three forms,' Selene in the sky, Artemis on earth, Hecate in the lower world and in the world above when it is wrapped in darkness.Hecate was the Goddess of the Dark of the Moon, the black nights when the moon is hidden. She was associated with deeds of darkness, the Goddess of the Crossways, which were held to be ghostly places of evil magic..."
(Mythology, Edith Hamilton, pgs. 31-32)

According to Robert Grave in The White Goddess, Hecate was also the chief deity of witch cults (the existence of which being highly debatable) in Europe. A death goddess, she was the "crone" aspect of the Triple Goddess. Her frequent association with sorcery stems from longstanding traditions that post-Menopausal women are endowed with supernatural powers. Such traditions were carried over into the New World and were present in regions as rural as Appalachia, whose "granny women" developed their own American mythos.

In Sleepy Hollow Lady Van Tassel appears as two phases of the Triple Goddess --as a maiden (and twin) at the time of the Horseman's death and as a mother in the Van Tassel household. Meanwhile, her sister becomes a kind of Lady of the Beasts and soothsayer in the dreaded western woods. The film's credits list her as "crone". It is she, after being possessed by a familiar spirit after inhaling vapors a la the Oracle of Delphi, who directs Ichabod Crane to the Tree of Death where the Horseman's grave resides. While it was likely unintentional, there is a Kabalistic concept of Tree of Death that is apt for Sleepy Hollow's version.
"The Kabbalah also mentions a Tree of Death. It provides the leaves with which Adam covered his nakedness and the Zohar regards it as a symbol of the black arts, which were one of the consequences of the Fall. It is linked to the existence of the psychic body deprive the body of light..."
(Dictionary of Symbols, Jean Chevalier & Alain Gheerbrant, pg. 1033)
Sleepy Hollow's Tree of Death
Sleepy Hollow's Tree of Death is certainly involved in the black arts and is the place from which the specter version of the Headless Horseman emerges. When Ichabod Crane hacks at the trunk of the Tree with a hatchet he finds the heads of the Horseman's victims within its recesses. At the film's end, when Crane returns the Horseman's skull to him, the Hessian (who is played by the great Christopher Walken when sporting a head) brings Lady Van Tassel with him as he gallops into the Tree, which is ultimately a portal into the Otherworld. Before his return there and after placing his head back on his body, the Horseman bites off lady Van Tassel's tongue with his fang-like teeth. Strangely, the tongue itself was symbolically linked to the head in Celtic mythology.
"A digression in the Irish tale, The Madness of Cuchulainn, makes human tongues, the equivalent of heads, since it tells how the heroes of Ulster, when boasting of their heroic deeds, would produce the tongues of the enemies whom they had killed in single combat. In a number of Breton folktales, the hero keeps the tongues of the many-headed hydra or dragon which he has killed. He uses them to make good his claim and to confound the villain or traitor who has unfairly gained possession of the heads..."
(ibid, pg. 1015)

This is certainly appropriate in the case of Lady Van Tassel. As a child, she was shunned by the pious Christians of Sleepy Hollow after her father died because of the rumors surrounding her mother's practice of magic (despite the fact that many of the inhabitants of Sleepy Hollow, especially the women, seem to dabble in magic on some level or another). She and her sister ended up living as outcasts in the western woods where the girls were taught the magical arts. Life is hard there, however, and Lady Van Tassel's mother dies less than year latter. Thus, she shares a similar background as Crane in that both lost their mothers in part due to religious intolerance. But Lady Van Tassel choices a much different path than the secular one of Crane, namely to offer her soul to the devil at the time the Horseman's death for his services as her champion in a bid to avenge the injustice she has sustained.

Needless to say, this does not work out so well for her. So it goes with selling ones soul, especially for strictly material gains. Crane, by contrast, goes through a total spiritual initiation with little effort on his part. When its all said and done he defeats the mythical monster and claims the king's daughter. The overcoming of a monster has long been used a symbol of initiation.
"Monsters are also related to rites of passage, they swallow the old individual so that the new individual may be born. The world which such monsters guard and of which they are the gateway, is not the external world of fabulous treasure, but the internal world of the spirit, which can only be entered after an inner transformation. This is why every civilization provides examples of man-eating monsters, conductors of souls, symbols of the need for rebirth. What is generally regarded as the 'monstrous' aspect of revolutions, for example, takes on quite a different meaning in the light of this explanation. It means that revolutions aim to go so far as radically to transform mankind and to fit humanity for a life in the new world. 'Let the old man die and the new man live,' summarizes the symbolism of the monster."
(Dictionary of Symbols, Jean Chevalier & Alain Gheerbrant, pg. 668)
by contrast Lady Van Tassel descends into the fever of the headhunt, which leads to the murder of her own sister (among others)
Crane is thus transformed. And so to is the United States, heart of the New World, at the dawn of change as the nineteenth century, the pinnacle of the Age of Reason, sets in during Sleepy Hollow's final scene. This is especially apt as Crane has overcome a monster with its roots firmly in the Old World, as noted in part one. And in a sense he has also succeed in the killing of the divine king, as some types of monsters are associated with father figures. This is especially true of the ogre.
"Ogres are an image of self-begetting, self-destroying time; or exaggerated caricatures of the father anxious to preserve his dictatorial power indefinitely, unable to bear the thought of sharing it or giving it up, and readier to see his children die rather than grow up and one day take his role from him. While ogres may perhaps be distorted and aberrant father-figures, used to frighten children, they are also images of the state, taxation, tyranny, and war.
"The ogres symbol is therefore connected with that of the monster which swallows and regurgitates its victims in a metamorphosis from which they emerged transfigured..."
(ibid, pg. 714)

The Horseman is of course not an ogre, but he shares some of the same characteristics. He is a kind of stand in for Crane's own intolerant father as well as the irrational impulses that have always terrified the constable. By confronting and overcoming this creature he is transformed.

And so to to is the figure of the Horseman. With Washington Irving's The Legend of Sleepy Hollow Old World folklore was given a nominally American coating. And with Disney's adaptation of the short story, Burton's version of the tale and now and the TV series, the Horseman has been further transformed. In the digital age the mythos surrounding this ancient being have possibly become more prevalent now than ever.


  1. I learn/connect so much from this site. What fun it is to open the doors to perception and finding beauty/understanding. Dennis

  2. I enjoyed this, especially since, as a former English teacher, I taught Irving's story to my class and coupled the lesson with Burton's film, as part of a unit on Early American Literature. Of course, Hawthorne's Scarlet Letter was included as part of this, as was a Jonathan Edwards sermon ("Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God") and Miller's "Crucible."

    As I am sure you and your readers may be aware, Hawthorne's grandfather, Judge Hathorne was one of the presiding judges at the Salem witch trials. Nathaniel added the "w" to his name to avoid association with his ancestor.

    Finally, if you have not already seen it, I think you might be interested in Werner Herzog's "Antichrist, " (not what you may think), which touches on many of the themes you are concrened with in this post. For a much earlier, primal vison of the New World, check out the film "Valhalla Rising" (again not what you may think), it is an awesome movie. As a fan of Conan, you will enjoy it.

  3. Dennis-

    I'm glad you enjoyed the post and this blog.:) Thanks for your readership.


    That sounds like a great lesson plan.

    I haven't seen Herzog's "Antichrist" but have always wanted to. I have seen "Valhalla Rising", shortly after it was released on DVD in fact. If I remember correctly, I was having a lot of personal problems at the time and struggled to finish the film (it took me four or five times to make my way through). All I remember about it at this point is that it was visually striking and that I got really, really depressed every time I put it on.

    Needless to say, I don't think I was in the proper state of mind to appreciate it at the time. I'd been meaning to go back and watch it again for some time. Now that you've recommended it, I'll be sure to put it at the top of my Netflix list.