Five Things You Don’t Want To Know: Off With His Head!

Caitlin McLaren - 3T Chemical
Posted on: June 18, 2016

The whole world seems to be losing its head these days. Still, we should count our blessings; we have made some headway from the past, in which people frequently lost their heads in a much more literal way. We’ve all heard of the guillotine, and other political beheadings, but severed heads in history get even weirder.

Just a heads-up: the following stories are rather grisly and contain head-based puns.

Celts Collected Severed Heads, Used them for Interior Decorating

The ancient Celts were a tough bunch. A loose collection of tribes living in modern-day Britain and Northern Europe, they were nearly always at war and were proud of their battle prowess. To show off how good they were at being warriors, they liked to collect the severed heads of their enemies and keep them in temples, or just at home. Particularly impressive heads, such as those of famous enemies, might be preserved in cedar oil and taken out to show off to guests. The Roman writer Diodorus Siculus recorded that Celtic warriors would boast about turning down offers of the head’s weight in gold. It is not clear why there was a market in heads, or how it would be affected by inflation. Would it result in the warrior getting a swollen head?

Shrunken Heads, and they may be Counterfeit

Shrunken heads are not just a myth – they are made by Jivaroan tribes in Peru and Ecuador. These people traditionally believed that souls have an expiry date, and if you haven’t killed someone in a few years, your soul will start to wander around at night and might get stolen. You have to keep killing people to get new souls, and of course any self-respecting warrior will keep his enemies’ heads.

Since heads tend to be big and cumbersome, you can shrink them this way: Remove the skin from the skull, get rid of all the fat, sew the eyelids shut and pin the mouth shut. Put a wooden ball inside to keep it round, boil the flesh in water containing a solution of herbs, and dry it with hot rocks. Coat it in ash to prevent the vengeful soul from escaping.

When Western countries found out about this, they said “Cool!” and tried to buy as many shrunken heads as they could. Unlike the Celts, the tribespeople had a good head for business and began killing as many people as they could to sell their heads. By the 1930s, the Peruvian and Ecuadorian governments made it illegal because, come on. The killing raids didn’t entirely stop, but many people started making them out of things like monkey heads or goatskin instead, and nowadays most shrunken heads you see will be fake. What a shame.

Suspicious Package

Before you start saying “Ha! Our civilization is so far ahead of theirs!”, keep in mind that there is still a thriving trade in severed heads. These, of course, are medical specimens, and it happens frequently that a box of severed heads is found in some airport or shipping depot, scaring the employees and causing the media to go off its head. Whichever medical institution is responsible promptly pulls out their paperwork and goes “Nothing to see here!” The shipping companies then give them the go-ahead, and the story trends for a while. This happened in 2010, and again in 2013.

While this all sounds entirely legit, there is in fact a black market in these medical specimens. It is not clear where these are coming from (besides, you know, necks). Personally, I suspect the Jivaroan tribespeople.

Henry IV of France (Or Is He?)

During the French Revolution, many members of the royal family and the nobility were executed by guillotine. While it is said that many of the heads lived for a few moments after being cut off, some definitely did not: those of the deceased heads of state who were disinterred and decapitated, just to make sure. The bodies of state were then dumped into a mass grave. How rude.

However, one head may have escaped: that of Henry IV, known as “Good King Henry.” In 1919, a head said to be his turned up, and a random guy bought it for just three francs (presumably, the salesman was not a Celt). It was sold a few more times, and turned up again in 2008 in the attic of a retired tax collector. I suppose all government workers have a few skeletons in their closets, but most are not quite so literal.

Facial reconstruction and distinctive features suggest it was Henry IV, but experts disagree. For one thing, the brain was not removed, which the royal embalmers should have done, and furthermore the DNA did not match Henry’s living descendants. Still, there are a lot of royal bastards, so the mystery is not solved by any means. Since the French are still arguing about this one, the head isn’t going to be buried any time soon and it was last seen in a Parisian bank vault.

Oliver Cromwell’s Head was Basically a Hot Potato

Oliver Cromwell was a military dictator who ruled England in the 1650s. He was a fundamentalist Puritan who famously would not allow people to celebrate Christmas. After the monarchy was restored, Charles II became king. He didn’t like Cromwell much, partly because he loved partying, but mainly because of the whole “military dictatorship forcing him into exile” thing. Fortunately for Cromwell, he was dead by that point, but Charles wasn’t about to let that stop him. The king had Cromwell’s body hung in public and afterwards put his head on a pole.

Years later, the pole broke in a storm and was dashed onto the ground. A guard found it and took it home, hiding it in his chimney for some reason. The head got passed around for a bit; at first it was in a museum, which makes some sense, but it ended up in the hands of a sketchy actor who liked to pass it around at drunken parties, and it got damaged. He didn’t want to sell it, though, as he thought Cromwell was his ancestor (or maybe the man was going back to his Celtic roots?) but eventually it was seized by a creditor and sold again (seriously, who are all these people buying heads?). In 1960 everybody finally said “What the hell are we doing?” and buried it. The head was laid to rest in a secret place to prevent anybody else from messing with it. Now that’s what I call thinking ahead.