- These make fine trophies; they are easy to preserve and mount, and convey well the characteristics of the living animal. A skull, especially of a horned or antlered beast, is equally impressive. Finest of all is the head or skull of a human enemy, killed in battle or executed, and publicly displayed. From the antlers on the gables of Heorot in Beowulf to the fox-mask in a huntsman's study, from the stag's head paraded in As You Like It to the reindeer skulls of *Abbots Bromley, from the heads of traitors on Tower Bridge to human *skulls preserved in old houses, from *horse skulls under buildings to those used for *hobby horses, English traditions are full of heads.There is ample evidence that Germanic and Celtic peoples used heads as sacrifices and believed they had magical powers, which may mean that English head customs are pagan survivals. Yet one can also argue that the intrinsic qualities of a head make it a natural symbol (of knowledge, vigilance, power, honour, etc.), not tied to any specific religious system. Similar ambiguity attends images of heads or faces on buildings, armour, pottery, etc. Many cultures have considered them magical protections, but they also make effective ornamental motifs. So were the monster-heads, gargoyles, and grimacing faces on medieval churches just amusing decoration? Or were they aggressive guardians, keeping demons away?The problem recurs in modern contexts. In West Yorkshire and Derbyshire, crudely carved stone heads and faces can be seen on capstones of bridges and arched gateways; over doors and windows and on gables of farmhouses; on the surrounds of springs and wells; or set in drystone fieldwalls. The main period of production seems to have been the 17th century, but local stonemasons in the 19th and early 20th centuries made many too. From verses left by one carver in 1828, it appears they were called 'the old man's face'; sometimes they were regarded as protective and luck-bringing, sometimes just made for fun. They are still being made. In 1971, the landlord of the Sun Inn at Haworth (Yorkshire) had one put over the main door to end a haunting, explaining: 'There is a local tradition that these were put on buildings when a workman had been killed on the site before the work was completed, and they are supposed to ward off evil spirits. I feel now that I have quashed any ideas of ghosts for good' (Yorkshire Evening Post (21 Oct. 1971)). Recent writers often explain this tradition by the importance of severed heads in *Celtic belief; a few go further, claiming some extant heads are prehistoric artefacts reused in modern contexts. Current interest in them is reflected in anecdotes which have sprung up over the last 30 years or so, often strongly believed, of ill luck and menacing presences dogging those who remove one from its proper place; even when the supposedly evil head turns out to be modern, as happened in at least two cases, the story persists.See also *skulls.■ The major discussion of the Celtic head-cult is in Anne Ross, Pagan Celtic Britain (1967), 94-171; briefer accounts appear in most subsequent books on Celtic religion. For the stone heads, see Brears, 1989: 32-44; Sidney Jackson, Celtic and Other Stone Heads (1973); John Billingsley, Stony Gaze (1998).
A Dictionary of English folklore. Jacqueline Simpson & Steve Roud. 2014.
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