The legend of the headless horseman has been a traditional tale told in Western European communities as far back as oral histories go. The most common headless horseman tales come from the Netherlands and are most likely a relic of the pagan religions that were driven out of the region by Christian missionaries sometime in the sixth century. The history of the headless horseman can be traced back to this time period and the transition to Christianity.
Dutch Headless Horseman
In the traditional tales heard by a young Washington Irving, the headless horseman was a Hessian soldier that waited by graveyards to claim the heads of unsuspecting travelers. This is a far cry from the oldest versions of story. The black clad rider was known in native Dutch territory as the “dullahan” or “Gan Ceann.” He was always seen riding a black horse and carried his head under his right arm or held it aloft in his right hand. In some stories, the horse is also headless but in most cases, it has a large head and breathes fire. The horseman’s head was grotesquely disfigured with a grin that was said to stretch from one ear to the other and huge darting eyes (perhaps this is why it is depicted as a jack o’lantern in current versions).In some versions of the story the head glows like a watchman’s lantern and is used to light the way for the horseman as he travels through the dark countryside.
The earliest form of the headless horseman story comes in the sixth century just after Christian Missionaries forbade the worship of Crom Dubh. Crom Dubh was the Celtic god of fertility who demanded human sacrifices each year. The preferred method for these sacrifices was decapitation. With this god being forbidden, the local population quickly adapted the stories to make the god into a spiritual being that still had a craving for corpses. The stories slowly grew and changed to virtually eliminate all reference to Crom Dubh. Instead, they called this horseman “the dark man” and the dark man eventually became the dullahan.
In the most traditional stories, a banshee accompanies the dullahan. They ride on the coach together and wherever the coach stops someone will die. The dullahan will call out a name and take the soul of that person away. If the dullahan is spied upon or watched by anyone during the performance of his duty, he may choose to whip out his or her eyes with his whip or toss a basin of blood on the watcher (this was often an omen that the watcher would die soon).
The dullahan is said to be able to open all locks and cannot be barred passage in any way. The only known deterrent is gold. For an undisclosed reason, even a small amount of gold is enough to turn the dullahan from its path.
Actual Dullahan vs. Sleepy Hollow Version
While the horseman in the Sleepy Hollow stories is a Hessian soldier who carries a large sword, in the traditional story the dullahan is much more closely related to our current understanding of the Grim Reaper. He is often a skeletal figure who carries a whip made from a human spine. Instead of being a vengeful spirit, the dullahan is a more of a messenger or harbinger of death. He is often seen driving a black coach headed by six black horses. This coach is made from human skeletal remains including human skull headlamps and wheel spokes that are human thighbones. The coach travels so quickly that the friction created by the wheels on the undergrowth sets fire to bushes along the sides of the road.
In the Washington Irving story, the headless horseman can’t cross water, which is why Ichabod Crane thinks he is safe when he crosses the bridge, but this is not derived from the story of the dullahan. This can most likely be attributed to the incorporation of a story about witches and warlocks chasing down a drunken bar patron who is saved when he crosses a bridge because witches and warlocks can’t cross running water.
Another change that has been made is that in Ichabod Crane’s story there is no mention of a severed head. The only mention of anything of that type is the shattered remains of a Jack O’Lantern beside the hat that Ichabod was wearing the night he disappeared. This, though, may be a plot device to implicate Brom Bones as the perpetrator of a hoax to drive Ichabod from town and take Katrina van Tassel for a wife.
In any case, the headless horseman tale has been told in several variations from the popular Washington Irving tale to a piece by the Brothers Grimm and even a Texas version by Thomas Mayne Reid. The legend of the headless horseman is a wonderfully scary tale that evokes the fear of death and gives it an embodiment that can be easily accessed by even the youngest of listeners.
Welsch, Charles. Irish Fairy and Folk Tales. In Irish Literature, ed by Justin McCarthy. Volume III, pg 19.
The Dullahan, https://dullahan.com/
Irving, Washington. The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”, Penguin Group, 1999.
Image courtesy of dougtone @ FlickR, https://www.flickr.com/photos/dougtone/5588153929/sizes/m/in/photostream/