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Skulls in Folklore

Skulls
by Sabine Baring-Gould.


SkullIn medieval churches, castles, and mansions where there is a parapet rising from the wall and obscuring a portion of the roof, this parapet is supported at intervals by corbels, that usually represent heads of either men or beasts, very frequently grotesque. These corbels are not of any great structural importance, though they add to architectural decoration. They are, in fact, a perpetuation of a traditional usage earlier than the construction of buildings of stone. When buildings such as halls were erected of wood, and even later, when the walls were of masonry, the lye beams of the roof projected beyond the supporting walls. These tye beams sustained the principals and the king-post, and rested on the wall-plate. Such was the earliest and simplest form of roof, and it is one that remained in use till Norman times. The stability of the roof depended on the tye beam, which, where it protruded beyond the walls, was sawn off against the grain, and was there most vulnerable, subject to the drive of the weather, and liable to rot. For its protection skulls were hung upon these extremities; and when stone buildings came to be erected with parapets upon them, then under the string--course that marked the wall--plate corbels were added, and the place of the skulls was supplied by stone figures representing the heads of men or beasts. This was not the case only in Gothic architecture; the same adaptation or modification may be seen in that of Greece and Rome, where the skull, mainly of an ox, forms a principal feature in the ornament of an external cornice, and seems to indicate that in early days the heads of the victims sacrificed were thus employed.

Nowadays the sportsman nails up the skulls and antlers of the stags he has shot, or the masks of foxes he has hunted, in his hail; but in Bavaria and Austria they still decorate the exterior as well as the interior of the shooting-lodge. There exists naturally in every sportsman an ambition to bring home and exhibit some trophy of his exploits; and as at the present day his energies and barbarous instincts are confined to the slaying of wild animals, it is only the heads of wild animals that he can display to his own satisfaction and that of admiring friends.

But it was otherwise when war was the great occupation of man and his great enjoyment. Then he preserved the heads of his enemies killed in fair fight; and after they had been efficiently dried, he hooked them onto the ends of the tye beams of his house, or dangled them inside against his walls, and was able to yarn to his comrades over each, and tell all the incidents of the fight, and display his superior courage or adroitness. Every single head provided a theme for a story on a winter's evening, and every head pointed out proved conclusively that the story was fact and not fiction.

The head-hunting of the Dyak of Borneo is but a degraded and despicable survival. A girl will not marry a native till he has some heads to show. Accordingly he lurks among the rushes till the girls come down to the riverside for their ablutions, when he dashes among them and cuts off as many heads as he can secure victims. Such trophies are worthless as evidences of his heroism, but they pass and are accepted.

"I have cut off four heads," said a Dyak to his fellow.

"I seven."

Thus a missionary in Borneo overheard two natives conversing. And a few weeks later the second was dead. His village friends hooked his body out of the river. But it was now headless. Then they knew, and the missionary also knew, that now the other owned five heads.

The reason why only the skulls are preserved is that this is comparatively easy. The body itself decays and moulders, and is thus not only difficult to preserve but also has the repulsive properties of soft corrupting flesh, whereas it is always easy to keep the skull. But even that may be felt too cumbrous, and the North American Indian contented himself with a scalp as a trophy; and the ancient fish chief extracted the brain of his slain enemy, mixed it with chalk, rolled it into a ball, and so preserved a trophy of his prowess.

Jehu had the seventy sons of Ahab beheaded in Samaria and set up in two heaps at the entrance of the palace of Jezreel, and I have seen a photograph of such piles before the doorway of the Bey of Tunis. The last exhibition of heads as a decoration was over Temple Bar, when those of the Jacobite rebels of 1746 were set up there on iron rods. They remained there till 1772, when one of them fell down in a storm, and the others soon followed. Previous to the Rebellion of 1745, for about thirty years, Temple Bar exhibited the head of a barrister named Layer, who had been executed for a Jacobite conspiracy soon after Atterbury's plot.

The stone balls that adorn the gateposts into a manorial park actually, it is believed, represent heads, and were set up to show that the lord of that manor possessed right to pronounce capital sentences. But now they are on the gateposts of every petty suburban villa. At Görlitz, north of the Riesen Gebirge, in the marketplace above the town hail, are iron rods or spikes; halfway up each is a ball, to represent a head that has fallen under the sword of the city executioner. When I was a boy at Pau, in the South of France, there was a house in the Grande Place that had been erected by a retired executioner who had had lively times during the Reign of Terror. Along the front was a balustrade for a parapet, and at intervals stone balls, and these were said to represent the number of heads that he had cut off with the guillotine.

Although among the Aryans human sacrifice was not common, I do not find any evidence that the heads of the victims were made use of as ornaments. This was a privilege reserved for warriors who had fallen in battle. Nor were slaves decapitated for this purpose, though very frequently sacrificed.

It is, however, other in Africa. In certain tribes a man's dignity depends on the number of heads of slaves he has had decapitated and which he can show.

In the North-West Congo, a rich man of the Babangi tribe endeavours to send forward a number of his attendants as outrunners to provide comfortable quarters for himself and to minister to his convenience when he arrives. He calls together all his attendants to a great feast of palm-wine and fish. But eating and drinking are only the preliminaries to the real business that has to be transacted--the sacrifice of a slave. The actual victim is not announced beforehand, the essential reason being that he has to be taken out of the midst of the revellers and then and there consigned to death.

Before the residences of well-to-do Babangi are tables laden with skulls, some blanched, others still with the skin about them and in a condition of putrefaction. The black gentleman conducts his admiring and envious guest about the table and points out to him what a large retinue he will possess in the other world. He fully understands that, when he is dead, his legal successors will grudge sending human victims after him. Their view rather is: "Why should we send slaves to the man in the other world, when we ourselves shall want them to provide for our comfort hereafter?"


The custom among the Scandinavians and others of the Aryan race of drinking out of skulls of their enemies is but another instance of disregard of the human frame, a purposeful exhibition of contempt for the skull.

The earliest instance is in the Eddaic lay of Viglund or Veluni, the same as the English Wayland the Smith. That the story was familiar to our Anglo--Saxon forefathers we know, because Alfred the Great refers to it. It was also well known in Germany.

Viglund was a smith who lived by the side of a lake in the realms of Niduth, King of Sweden. Hearing of his great skill, Niduth and his men visit the hut whilst the smith is absent, and find a number of gold rings strung together. They take one. On Viglund's return he finds that one is missing; nevertheless he goes to sleep, but on waking he is surrounded and taken prisoner. The queen, mistrusting the man, has him hamstrung. The king sets him on an island in a lake, and bids him make gold and silver ornaments for him and fashion steel weapons. Niduth had two sons, whom he strictly forbade going near the forge. They were, however, inquisitive, and did visit it, and persuaded Viglund to show them what he had made.
Viglund dazzled their eyes with his work, and promised to give them of it if on the following day they would return with the utmost secrecy. They agreed and went, whereupon Viglund murdered them both, sunk their bodies in a morass, but chased their skulls in silver and formed out of them two drinking--bowls for the king. He set the boys' eyes in gold and sent them to the queen as brooches, and the teeth of her brothers he made into a necklace for their sister. The story is extremely barbarous, and, as it can be traced even to Greece, it probably forms part of a legend told prior to the Aryan dispersion. The necklace of teeth is a specially early trait.

Should love and devotion, and the effort to maintain relations with the departed, triumph over fear, then the reverse process to the getting rid of the dead ensued. The dead were preserved at least in part. As, however, the children of Nature are always wavering between fear and respect for the dead, so also all burial rites oscillate between the destruction and the preservation of the body. Thus it happens that extremely opposite sentiments give rise to most complicated practices and conceptions, which are frequently in flagrant contradiction with one another.

Be that as it may. I think that what we shall see in Europe of inconsistencies is due to there having been in it the Aryan race, which placed little value on the body, but esteemed the soul as the essential quality of personality; and on the other hand, the Rude--Stone--Monument Builders, who had no conception of the soul as apart from the body, and whose religion consisted not in animism at all, but in ancestor worship, this is to say, of the ancestor buried in his cairn or dolmen.

We know that periodically a family or tribe opened the ancestral tomb and scraped and cleaned the bodies of their forebears. We know this, because we can trace the scratches made on their bones with flint scrapers, as also, because not having a perfect knowledge of anatomy, they sometimes replaced the bones wrongly, as the tibia of the right leg placed on the left side. We know also, from actual finds, that a loving widow would occasionally secure the skull of the late lamented and suspend it round her neck; or if not the entire skull, yet a portion of it, prized as an inestimable treasure, as it kept her in some relation with him whom she had lost.

It is remarkable how completely the Roman Church has surrendered to the usages of the primeval man in the cult of relics. I have seen repeatedly above altars in Switzerland and Tyrol grinning skulls under glass forming the most conspicuous object of adoration above an altar. The builder of megalithic monuments has passed away, or been absorbed by nobler and more intelligent peoples, but his worship of the dead remains intact; the only difference being that the devotion is no longer offered to the skull of an ancestor, but to that of a more or less fictitious saint. I suppose that the officials are in some places becoming a little ashamed of this, for at St Ursula's, Cologne, where a few years ago the space above the arches and below the clerestory windows was crowded with small boxes containing skulls, they have of late years been placed under curtains. But the sacristy still maintains the appearance of a charnal-house.

It is significant how the cult of images and relics disappeared out of England and Scotland without leaving a trace, or only the faintest.
At Llandeilo, under the Presilly Hills, in South Wales, is a holy well of St Teilo; and in the farmhouse hard by, Mr Melchior, the tenant, preserves the brainpan of the skull that was shown and used before the Reformation as that of the saint. He is the hereditary guardian of the relic. Unhappily for its genuineness, the open sutures prove that it must have been the head of a young person, and as Teilo died at an advanced age, it could not have belonged to him. Moreover, a part of the superciliary ridge remains, and this is of slight elevation, so that it seems almost certain to have been a portion of a young woman's head. Patients drank water till quite recently from the well out of the reputed skull, and many cures are recorded.

At Skaiholt, in Iceland, was preserved and venerated the supposed skull of St Thorlac, till on examination it proved to be a cocoanut that had been washed up in one of the fjords.

But if there remains but the most meagre trace of the worship of saintly relics in England, there remain tokens of what appears to have been at a remote period a veneration for the heads of ancestors or founders of houses.

Near Launceston is the ancient house of Tresmarrow that belonged to Sir Hugh Piper, Governor of Launceston Castle under Charles I. By the marriage of Philippa, daughter and heiress of Sir Hugh, the house and property passed into the Vyvyan family; then it passed to a Dr Luke, whose wife was a Miss Vyvyan. He sold it to an old yeoman farmer of the name of Dawe, and it remained in the Dawe family till about five years ago, when it was again sold.

Now, in a niche in the old buildings for centuries was to be seen a human skull. All recollection of whose it was had passed away. One of the Dawes, disliking its presence, had it buried, but thereupon ensued such an uproar, such mighty disturbances, that it was on the morrow dug up again and replaced in its recess. The Dawe family, when they sold Tresmarrow, migrated to Canada, and have taken the skull with them.

There was a "screaming skull" at Waddon, in Dorsetshire, about fifty years ago, kept respectfully in a recess on the stairs; but as it was liable to be fractious and cause disturbances in the house, it was given to the Dorchester Museum, where it now is. The story about it is that it was the head of a Negro, and it bore on it the mark, of a cut from a sword. The black man went to his master's room at night, and the latter, believing him to be a burglar, killed him by mistake. He was killed in the bedroom over the dining room. The owners of Waddon were the Grove family of Zeals, in Wiltshire. When Miss Chafyn Grove died some years ago, her cousin, Mr Troyte Bullock, inherited, but with the property had to take the name of Chafyn Grove.

A few miles distant from Waddon is Bettiscombe. Here also is a "screaming skull". The house was rebuilt in Queen Anne's reign, but the richly carved wainscoting and fine old oak stairs pertain to the earlier house that was pulled down when the present mansion was built. This was done by Azariah Pinney, who had joined Monmouth's forces, and was exiled to the West Indies, he being one of those who escaped sentence of death by Judge Jeffreys at the "Bloody Assizes", held at Dorchester, after the Rebellion. His life was spared through the influence of a friend at the Court of James II. He remained in the West Indies for a period of ten years, and then returned with a black servant, to whom he was much attached; and then the man died; but whether the skull be his, or, if so, why it was preserved above ground, none can say. It would seem probable, however, that it was taken along with the wainscoting out of the earlier house.

The prevailing superstition is that, if it be brought out of the house, the house itself will rock to its foundations, and the person guilty of the sacrilegious act will die within the year. The house had remained uninhabited for some years until, about 1760 or 1770, a farmer came into occupation. Finding the skull, he declared with an oath that he would not have the thing there, and he had it thrown into a pool of water. During that night and the next the farmer heard some uncanny noises, and on the third day he said he would have the skull back. He did so, and then, as the story goes, all the noises ceased. It has been carefully preserved since, and kept in a kind of loft under the roof in a cigar box.

In Looe Island, off East and West Looe, is still, or was a few years ago, a skull preserved in a cupboard in the sittingroom, behind glass. I have not been able to find any tradition connected with it. Looe Island was at one time a great resort of smugglers, till a coastguard station was established on it.

At Warbleton Priory, near Heathfield, in Sussex, were two skulls preserved till some few years ago, when they were stolen, greatly to the wrath of the proprietor. Legends were told, in the usual way, of the hideous cries and wailing that would ensue were they disturbed. But there has been no trouble in the house since. Very vague traditions remain as to their origin.

Near Chapel-en-le-Frith, in Derbyshire, is a farmhouse where the skull of one called "Dickie" is preserved. A skull in perfect preservation is at Higher Chilton Farm, in the village of Chilton Cantelo, Somerset. This is the headpiece of one Theophilus Brome, who died in 1670, and was buried in the north transept of the church. Collinson, in his History of Somerset, referring to Chilton Cantelo and Brome, says:--
There is a tradition in this parish that the person here interred requested that his head might be taken off before his burial and be preserved at the farmhouse near the church, where a head--chop--fallen enough--is still shown, which the tenants of the house have often endeavoured to commit to the bowels of the earth, but have as often been deterred by horrid noises portentive of sad displeasure; and about twenty years since (which was perhaps the last attempt) the sexton, in digging the place for the skull's repository, broke the spade in two pieces, and uttered a solemn asserveration never more to attempt an act so evidently repugnant to the quiet of Brome's Head.

The truth of the story that the skull preserved in the house is that of Theophilus Brome was proved during the restoration of the church, some forty-five or fifty years ago, when Brome's tomb was opened and the skeleton discovered minus the head.

Now, we may ask, Why did Brome desire his head to be kept in the house? He was assuredly possessed with a traditional idea that it would be good for him, or for the household rather, td have his head as its guardian and overlooker of the household. Thus the head of Bran the Blessed was taken to London and buried where now stands the Tower; and it was foretold that so long as it remained there no invasion could be made of Britain. In a fit of vainglorious temerity King Arthur dug it up, saying that he chose not to hold the island except by his own prowess; and I have heard of a Black Forest farmer who desired to be buried on a hill commanding his whole land, so that he might see to it that the labourers did their work properly. [Precisely the same thing occurs in an Icelandic saga.]

Ivar the Boneless, King of Northumbria, when dying, ordered his body to be planted in a great mound, where he might watch and protect the confines of the kingdom, and he declared that Northumbria would not be subdued so long as he remains therein. It was said that one reason why King Harald Hardrede fell in the battle of Stamford Bridge was that Ivar the Boneless was engaged against him. It was further said, later, that William the Bastard, when he proceeded north to quell the turbulent spirit of the Northumbrians, disinterred the incorrupt body of Ivar, had a mighty pile of wood collected, and burned the carcass to ashes, after which he set to work in most ruthless fashion to devastate Northumbria.

In Wardley Hall, Lancashire, is preserved the skull of Father Ambrose, that is to say, Alexander Barlow, one of the Papist martyrs. For saying Mass on Sunday April 25, 1641, he was seized by an infuriated mob, led by a Puritan minister, and was hanged, drawn, and quartered on September 10. His head was impaled on the tower of the old church, Manchester, but was afterwards removed and taken to Wardley Hall, where the skull is likely to remain in its accustomed place so long as Wardley Hall stands, for a clause is always inserted in leases of the house forbidding its removal. Some years ago, when the old house was let out in tenements to colliers, an attempt was made to get rid of it, but it was said that no peace ensued in the house till it was restored. Once it was flung into the moat, which had to be drained to recover it.

And now I come to a case that, if I mistake not, lets in light on the subject of these screaming skulls, and explains the reason why they exist.


Burton Agnes is situated in the East Riding of Yorkshire, and the hall is a noble structure. The estate, which was anciently owned by the De Somervilles, passed in the reign of Edward I to the Griffith family, which died out in three co--heiresses, sisters, in the last years of Queen Elizabeth. As they were very wealthy, they resolved on rebuilding the family mansion in the style of the period, and the youngest sister, Anne, took the keenest interest in planning and furnishing the hall. When it was complete, the ladies took up their abode in it; but one day soon after, Anne was murdered on her way to visit some friends by ruffians, then called wood-rangers. for her purse and rings. She had been stunned by them by a blow over the head with a cudgel, and was carried back to Burton Agnes; but although she lingered during five days, she never recovered, and finally died. In her last conscious intervals she besought her sisters, when she was dead, to sever her head from her body and preserve it in the house that had been her delight and pride.

The two surviving Misses Griffith thought this an absurd request, and did not comply with it. But the noises in the house, of things falling, of doors slamming, cries and moans, so scared them that they had the family vault opened, the head of the sister Anne detached and installed in the hall, whereupon the noises ceased.

The Boyntons of Barmston inherited Burton Agnes by right of descent from Sir Matthew Boynton, who married the last surviving of the three sisters, and was created a baronet in 1618. The Boyntons had the skull buried in the garden; but no luck attended the house and family till it was returned to its accustomed place.

Now, here we have the foundress and fashioner of the house, at her particular desire, requiring her skull to be for ever preserved in it; undoubtedly like that of Bran, who watched for the interests of Britain. When Bran had been wounded in the foot by a poisoned arrow in Ireland, he bade the seven survivors of his party cut off his head and take it back with them to Wales. He told them that they would sit long at dinner at Harlech, where the head would converse with them and be as entertaining as it had ever been when attached to the trunk. From Harlech they were to proceed to Greshoim, and remain there feasting in company with the head so long as they did not open a door that looked towards Cornwall. Should they open that door, then they must set out for London, and there, on the White Hill, bury it with its face towards France; so long as the head remained undisturbed in this position, the island would have nothing to fear from foreign invasion.

There is an fish story also concerning a speaking head. Finn had his hunting--lodge in Jeffia. Whilst he was absent, his fool Lomna discovered Finn's wife engaged in an intrigue with one Cairbre, and he divulged the fact to Finn. Next time that Finn was abroad, Cairbre returned to see the lady, and, discovering who had betrayed what he had done, cut off Lomna's head and carried it away with him. Finn, in the evening, found a headless body in the booth, and at once concluded that this was Lomna's, and that Cairbre had been his murderer. He went in pursuit, and tracked Cairbre and his party to an empty house, where they had been cooking fish on a stone, with Lomna's head on a spike by the fire. The first portion cooked was evenly divided by Cairbre among his followers; but not a morsel was put within the lips of the head, which thereupon chanted an obscure verse of remonstrance. The second charge cooked was distributed in the same manner, and again the head sang a verse expressive of indignation. Cairbre then said, "Put the head outside; it has but evil words for us." No sooner had the order been obeyed than the head outside sang a third verse, and Finn and his party arrived on the spot.

In Scandinavian mythology Odin had the head of Mimir, that had been cut off, ever by him as guide and adviser.


In the Arabian Nights is the story of the Greek king and the physician whom he has condemned to decapitation. The latter gives the king a book, and bids him question his head as to what he wants to know after it has been cut off, and it will answer him. In the medieval story of Friar Bacon, it is a brazen head that the friar and Bungey fashion, and which is to instruct them how to wall England round with brass. Through the dullness of the man Miles set to watch it, the favourable moment is lost.

That at some time in the remote past the skull of the ancestor was regarded as oracular is possible enough, but we have no evidence to that effect. What we have seen has been the survival of the preservation of the skull, presumedly of an ancestor, at all events of a founder, as a protecting relic, not genius, for no thought of spirit enters into it. It is the osseous mass of bone that is the guardian, not any soul that once inhabited it.

I may instance the usages of the natives of the Torres Straits. Here the corpse is first laid upon a horizontal frame sustained by posts at the corners. The moisture is pressed out, and then after a long time, when the bone is everywhere exposed, the head is detached, and the rest buried or thrown into the sea, after which some funeral feasts ensue. The important part of the ceremony consists in the solemn delivery of the skull to the survivors. Sometimes the head is placed at night on the old bed of the deceased, so that he seems to be sleeping with the family as in his lifetime, till at last. the head of the family, or the chief, puts the skull as a pillow under his own head. Thenceforth it is treated with great respect and is given a sort of hutch in which to rest. One such from the Solomon Islands may be seen in the British Museum.

The few "screaming skulls" in the country may be regarded as the last lingering remains of a custom once general, at a still earlier date universal. But it is a custom that goes back into the darkest ages of mankind--at all events, to that of the Dolmen Builders, who used stone weapons, and had not as yet acquired the knowledge of bronze.


Reverend Sabine Baring-GouldReverend Sabine Baring-Gould was born in Exeter in 1834. His early education was erratic, but he managed to get through a degree at Cambridge. He took holy orders, and after time as incumbent in a Northern industrial parish, where he met his wife. He became Parson and Squire of the parish of Lewtrenchard, his family home, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  He is best known as the writer of the hymn "Onward Christian Soldiers" but, apart from hymn writing, he was renowned as an antiquarian and writer of great repute in many fields including archaeology, biography, theology, folklore and travel guides. A natural story teller, he was ranked the 10th most important novelist of his time. In 1888 he began a mission to collect the folk songs of Devon and Cornwall before the old people who were believed to be their principal carriers should all be dead. He was to become one of the pioneers of the folk song revival.


Extract taken from "A Book of Folklore", Sabine Baring-Gould, 1913

Article updated Sunday 12th September 2010