Turns Out We All Love the Headless Horseman
Who doesn’t love a good ghost story, right? Ghost stories have been a part of many cultures from the very beginning of recorded history, all the way back to 1st century AD. Many well-known stories exist among different countries, all basically the same storyline with some minor changes in the details. For example, one of the first ghost stories I remember being intrigued by as a young child was “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” I can still picture the animated Disney short (from 1949!) pretty vividly in my mind. I was fascinated and slightly scared but entirely too curious to let my fear stop me from watching the fate of poor Ichabod Crane come to a potentially disastrous end.
“The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” is based on a story by American author Washington Irving, written in 1820. The origin of the headless horseman in his story is that of a soldier who lost his head to a cannonball during battle. His mates carried his body off the battlefield, but his head was obviously irretrievable, and so he returns every evening to search for his missing noggin. Tough gig, for sure.
“The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” is the American version of the headless horseman story I grew up with. What I didn’t know is that the headless horseman folklore is also a legend in Ireland, Germany, and Great Britain. In Ireland, the headless horseman is called the Dullahan. He’s an ominous character who is said to roam Ireland collecting the souls of the dead. His head acts as a lantern in his lap, lighting the dark countryside as he rides quickly and silently. It is said that when he stops riding, he calls out a name, and that person is the next to die. The only thing that can make the Dullahan retreat is the sight of gold, which makes him flee in the other direction.
The origins of the Dullahan do not stem from a wounded soldier as the American tale does, but rather from the Celtic god of fertility, Crom Dubh, whose worship was condemned in the 6th century by Christian missionaries in Ireland. Crom Dubh demanded human sacrifices, often through decapitation, so the missionaries used this information to turn him into a demonic character demanding even more sacrificial offerings. It is believed that eventually the stories of Crom Dubh turned into the stories of the Dullahan, the Irishmen’s version of the headless horseman.
In Germany, the headless horseman is more of a judge, out to warn those who have committed crimes or wrongdoings. The belief is that the headless horseman is someone who has done wrong in his life and his penance is to ride around without a head and warn others of their fate. So, not quite as foreboding as the Dullahan in Ireland, but an ominous headless presence nonetheless.
And in Scotland, the tale of the headless horseman is based on a man named Ewen of the Little Head, who was decapitated in a clan battle over land. He was decapitated while on horseback, and it’s said that his spooked horse took off running with Ewen’s headless body still on its back. It is now said that Ewen, the headless horseman specter of Scotland, wanders the roads of Moy and gallops furiously when death or tragedy threatens his clan.
This is just one example of how the folklore of spirits has been with us across cultures and lands and time, and though it might have a different slant in one way or another, it seems to hold true that we are all fascinated by tantalizing stories of spirits possibly still roaming the earth.