The Horseman Rides Again!

Headless Horsemen throughout the Ages

"The dominant spirit, however, that haunts this enchanted region, and seems to be commander-in-chief of all the powers of the air, is the apparition of a figure on horseback, without a head. It is said by some to be the ghost of a Hessian trooper, whose head had been carried away by a cannon-ball, in some nameless battle during the Revolutionary War, and who is ever and anon seen by the country folk hurrying along in the gloom of night, as if on the wings of the wind. His haunts are not confined to the valley, but extend at times to the adjacent roads, and especially to the vicinity of a church at no great distance.  Indeed, certain of the most authentic historians of those parts, who have been careful in collecting and collating the floating facts concerning this spectre, allege that the body of the trooper having been buried in the churchyard, the ghost rides forth to the scene of battle in nightly quest of his head, and that the rushing speed with which he sometimes passes along the Hollow, like a midnight blast, is owing to his being belated, and in a hurry to get back to the churchyard before daybreak. Such is the general purport of this legendary superstition, which has furnished materials for many a wild story in that region of shadows; and the spectre is known at all the country firesides, by the name of the Headless Horseman of Sleepy Hollow."

Washington Irving, "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow"

The Headless Horseman of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” became a universally iconic character in the United States virtually as soon as Washingon Irving penned his famous tale.  Less well-known, however, is the fact that headless riders are not unique to American folklore; to the contrary, they've been quite common for hundreds of years in the storytelling of Scotland, Ireland, Germany, Scandinavia and elsewhere around the world, and Irving's version of the spectre represents yet another renewal of this character for the enjoyment of a new generation in America. 

In my estimation, these are the most compelling monsters of ancient legend.  In this essay, I've collected accounts of headless horsemen from a variety of storytelling traditions, most of which come down to us from Europe.  Because I've found that internet sources often get the facts mixed up about these very peculiar beings, I've tried to shun online resources whenever possible, in favor of printed publications that I can cite with greater confidence as a reference to legitimate folklore collected by scholars in that field of study.  Although headless horsemen have appeared in legends from locales as exotic as India and Malaysia, I've confined my observations to America and Europe, since the literature on my own bookshelf deals exclusively with these more familiar cultures.  Although the horsemen display a variety of forms and habits from one country to another, the basic premise is always quite similar.


The Dullahan and The Death Coach
(Scotland, Ireland)

In Ireland or Scotland, this thing is called a Dullahan (spelled Dubhlachan in the traditional Gaelic).  The Dullahan is a vision so wonderfully and gruesomely preposterous that it could not possibly fail to captivate the imagination.   Sleepy Hollow’s horseman would seem justified in claiming kinship to the Dullahan, since both are night-riding, headless fellows dressed in dark attire; but while Washington Irving’s horseman was said to gallop along New York’s country lanes in a vain search for his missing head, the Dullahan is fortunate enough to maintain possession of his own severed noggin, but simply can’t reattach it.   Therefore, he’s obliged to carry his head about with him wherever he goes.

This is not a pretty sight. The head is said to glow with a sort of phosphorescence, resulting from a perpetual state of decay, and this affords the Dullahan with a convenient but hideous lantern with which to illuminate the dark back-roads of the Irish countryside. On the other hand, the light of a full moon might render such guidance unnecessary, in which case the Dullahan simply plants his unwieldy head on the brow of his saddle. Of course, the Dullahan restricts most of his public appearances to those darkest and loneliest hours of the night - honoring a long-held tradition among supernatural terrors of all kinds, it would seem. This is just as well, since the Dullahan does not appreciate being stared at, and is said to reward this offense with a bucket of blood thrown into the face of any unwelcome witness to his nightly rides. How it always manages to have a bucket of blood at the ready for such mischief remains a mystery, but ours is not to question such things.

The Dullahan is properly recognized as a Celtic fairy, although very different from the Tinkerbelle type commonly represented in Disney films.  To the contrary, many of the Celtic fairies are large, monstrous and malevolent beings; most of this sort, like the Dullahan, belong to the class of "solitary" fairies, since they typically travel alone and are quite distinct from the more gregarious "trooping" or "sociable" fairies, who reside in social groups. 

The solitary fairies include familiar favorites such as the Leprechaun and the Banshee, and their sort tend to be characterized by an unpleasant disposition.  Even among these, however, the Dullahan is an especially gloomy and menacing figure, serving as the Celtic equivalent of the Grim Reaper - his appearances coincide with the death of an individual, whose name is called out by the Dullahan's severed head, this being the only form of speech which it is permitted to utter.  He may be encountered riding a single, dark horse, but is just as likely to be seen driving the "Death Coach," a black coach drawn by six horses, all of which are likewise headless.  An Irish legend known as "Hanlon's Mill" describes a typical encounter with this surreal apparition:

" was Mick astonished at finding, close along-side of the car, a great high black coach drawn by six black horses, with long black tails reaching almost down to the ground, and a coachman dressed all in black sitting up on the box.  But what surprised Mick the most was that he could see no sign of a head either upon coachman or horses. It swept rapidly by him, and he could perceive the horses raising their feet as if they were in a fine slinging trot, the coachman touching them up with his long whip, and the wheels spinning round like hoddy-doddies; still, he could hear no noise..."

Thomas Crofton Croker - "Fairy Legends and Traditions," 1825.


The Headless Horseman and Charley Culnane

Quite a different horseman appears in a singular Irish tale, appropriately entitled "The Headless Horseman."  Its richly detailed description of the character is often erroneously applied to the Dullahan, but an excerpt from this colorful story reveals that this is actually a very distinct being in the Celtic tradition.  The hero of the story, Charley Culnane, is riding home across the Irish countryside on a rainy night, when...

"...his attention was arrested by an object so extraordinary as almost led him to doubt the evidence of his senses. The head, apparently, of a white horse, with short cropped ears, large open nostrils and immense eyes, seemed rapidly to follow him. No connection with body, legs, or rider, could possibly be traced as the head advanced - Charley's old mare, too, was moved at this unnatural sight, and snorting violently, increased her trot up the hill. The head moved forward, and passed on: Charley pursuing it with astonished gaze, and wondering by what means, and for what purpose, this detached head thus proceeded through the air, did not perceive the corresponding body until he was suddenly started by finding it close at his side. Charley turned to examine what was thus so sociably jogging on with him, when a most unexampled apparition presented itself to his view. A figure, whose height (judging as well as the obscurity of the night would permit him) he computed to be at least eight feet, was seated on the body and legs of a white horse full eighteen hands and a half high.

...Charley, being a keen sportsman, was naturally directed to this extraordinary body, and having examined it with the eye of a connoisseur, he proceeded to reconnoitre the figure so unusually mounted, who had hitherto remained perfectly mute. Wishing to see whether his companion's silence proceeded from bad temper...Charley endeavoured to catch a sight of his companion's face in order to form an opinion on that point. 

But his vision failed in carrying him further than the top of the collar of the figure's coat, which was a scarlet single-breasted hunting frock, having a waist of a very old fashioned cut reaching to the saddle with two huge shining buttons at about a yard distance behind. "I ought to see further than this, too," thought Charley....However, see further he could not, and after straining his eyes for a considerable time to no purpose, he exclaimed, with pure vexation, "By the big bridge of Mallow, it is no head at all he has !"

"Look again, Charley Culnane," said a hoarse voice, that seemed to proceed from under the right arm of the figure.

Charley did look again, and now in the proper place, for he clearly saw, under the aforesaid right arm, that head from which the voice had proceeded, and such a head no mortal ever saw before. It looked like a large cream cheese hung round with black puddings: no speck of colour enlivened the ashy paleness of the depressed features; the skin lay stretched over the unearthly surface, almost like the parchment head of a drum.  Two fiery eyes of prodigious circumference, with a strange and irregular motion, flashed like meteors upon Charley, and to complete all, a mouth reached from either extremity of two ears, which peeped forth from under a profusion of matted locks of lustreless blackness. This head, which the figure had evidently hitherto concealed from Charley's eyes, now burst upon his view in all its hideousness."

"The Headless Horseman," recorded by Thomas Crofton Croker in "Fairy Legends and Traditions." 

As the story continues, Charley holds a conversation with this strange phantom, and ultimately even receives magical assistance from him after winning the Horseman's favor; but these are traits entirely foreign to the more malignant Dullahan, who does not converse and does not grant favors.  Their physical descriptions are also quite distinct, since this new horseman rides a white horse and wears a scarlet coat, in stark contrast to the exclusively black presentation of the Dullahan.  The red-hot, glowing eyes of this horseman - flashing "like meteors" - are also a unique trait not described elsewhere.  So we have at least two very unique horsemen to contend with in Celtic folklore.


The Wild Huntsman
(Germany, Scandinavia)

Despite the popularity of headless riders in Ireland and Scotland, some online sources suggest that Washington Irving derived the character of the Headless Horseman not from Celtic tradition, but rather from the work of Karl Musäus, a German writer who collected folktales of Germany (and apparently embellished them quite heavily).  This is plausible enough; Irving apparently did learn some rudimentary German during the several years that he spent in Europe, where he was introduced to German folklore by the Scottish author Sir Walter Scott. 

Headless horsemen are indeed quite common in German tradition, and throughout Europe generally; outside of the Celtic world, headless riders were most often represented as hunters on horseback, and their spectral hunting expeditions in the forest were often blamed for sudden windstorms, and were thought to be accompanied by loud or mysterious sounds.  Known universally as "The Wild Huntsman," this phantom may appear with or without a head, but his backstory is generally the same from one country to another.  From "German Legends of the Brothers Grimm," a detailed account of the basic story explains his origin:

Hackelberg, the Wild Huntsman

"Many years ago in the lands of Brunswick there lived a master huntsman by the name of Hackelberg. He was said to have been so devoted to the hunt that when he lay on his deathbed he couldn't bear to take eternal leave from it. He begged God to allow him to exchange his place in Heaven for permission to engage in the chase in Soiling Forest until Judgment Day (no doubt because he had led a God-fearing, Christian life). He also asked that he be buried in the wilderness of Soiling, and the request was granted.

His irreverent, even diabolic wish was evidently also granted, for four times every night the terrifying echo of the hunting horn signaling the chase and the baying of hounds can be heard in the wilderness. One time the sounds will ring out from here, another time from there. All this was reported to me by those who have heard these threatening sounds themselves. It is also said that if someone hears these sounds during the night and still goes hunting the following day, he will invariably suffer a broken arm or leg, even a broken neck or some other terrible misfortune.

....I was told that no one would ever be able to find this grave - whether from inquisitiveness or from a sense of purpose - no matter how determined and adventurous he might be. But if someone should chance upon the site, he would find a pack of frightful black dogs next to it."

"German Legends of the Brothers Grimm" Legend 172, told by Hans Kirschhof.

While the Wild Huntsman appears to retain his head in this telling, he can just as often be found without it in other variations of the legend - as in an example from Scandinavian folklore, where the story is virtually identical to that of the German character Hackelberg.  In this case, the headless apparition of "good King Waldemar" haunts his beloved forest of Gurre:

"There he hunts night and day in fulfillment of a wish...that 'God may keep His Heaven, so long as I can hunt in Gurre for evermore.'...the crack of his whip is heard as he rushes through the forest on a white horse, sometimes with his head under his left arm, and preceded by coal-black hounds with fiery tongues hanging from their mouths."

"The Forest in Folklore and Mythology," Alexander Porteous

A very similar Wild Huntsman appears again in German lore, in a tale known as "Hans Jagenteufel":

"In the year 1644 a woman of Dresden went out early one Sunday morning into a neighbouring wood for the purpose of collecting acorns. In an open space, at a spot not very far from the place which is called the Lost Water, she heard somebody blow a very strong blast upon a hunting-horn, and immediately afterwards a heavy fall succeeded, as though a large tree had fallen to the ground. The woman was greatly alarmed, and concealed her little bag of acorns among the grass. Shortly afterwards the horn was blown a second time, and on looking round she saw a man without a head, dressed in a long grey cloak, and riding upon a grey horse. He was booted and spurred, and had a bugle-horn hanging at his back.

As he rode past her very quietly she regained her courage, went on gathering the acorns, and when evening came returned home undisturbed.

Nine days afterwards, the woman returned to that spot for the purpose of again collecting the acorns, and as she sat down by the Forsterberg, peeling an apple, she heard behind her a voice calling out to her—

"Have you taken a whole sack of acorns and nobody tried to punish you for doing so?"

"No," said she. "The foresters are very kind to the poor, and they have done nothing to me—the Lord have mercy on my sins!"

With these words she turned about, and there stood he of the grey cloak, but this time he was without his horse, and carried his head, which was covered with curling brown hair, under his arm.  The woman shrank from him in alarm, but the spirit said—

"Ye do well to pray to God to forgive you your sins, it was never my good lot to do so."

Thereupon he related to her how that he had lived about one hundred and thirty years before, and was called Hans Jagenteufel, as his father had been before him, and how his father had often besought him not to be too hard upon poor people, how he had paid no regard to the advice his father had given him, but had passed his time in drinking and carousing, and in all manner of wickedness, for which he was now condemned to wander about the world as an evil spirit.."

"Folklore and Legends: Germany" - Anonymous (published by W.W. Gibbons, London, 1892)


How Did they Lose Their Heads?

The Wild Huntsman's story varies from place to place, and often neglects to explain how he lost his head - perhaps because, to an audience in ancient times, this might have been a matter of common knowledge.  But for those of us in the modern era, the opening sentence of the German tale "Hans Jagenteufel" offers a helpful explanation:

"It is commonly believed that if any person is guilty of a crime for which he deserves to lose his head, he will, if he escape punishment during his lifetime, be condemned after his death to wander about with his head under his arm."

In the case of the horseman of Sleepy Hollow, it's said that he lost his head to a cannonball during the American Revolutionary War.  And in another example from the Celtic tradition, the horsemen explains the circumstances himself:

"A hundred years it is since my horse and I broke our necks at the bottom of Kilcummer hill..."

"The Headless Horseman" - Thomas Crofton Croker in "Fairy Legends and Traditions." 



From tradition to tradition, the appearance of the horseman changes slightly:

- The Wild Huntsman of Germany wears a grey coat and rides a grey horse.

- The Wild Huntsman of Scandinavian rides a white horse, but his apparel never seems to be described. 

- The Celtic Dullahan is most often represented as dressed entirely in black, and riding an equally black horse; however, a more colorful character, wearing a scarlet hunting coat and riding a white horse, is also known from this part of the world.  Curiously, the Celtic horsemen are the only ones that I've encountered whose own horses are often likewise headless.

- The Horseman of "Sleepy Hollow" is typically represented as riding a black horse, and dressed in dark attire, although his clothing is highly variable from one source to another; an 1859 painting by John Quidor quite accurately depicts the horseman wearing the green of a Hessian mercenary's uniform, but with the addition of a reddish-brown cape, while Tim Burton's 1999 film depiction presents the character in a black leather outfit with a cape that's black on the outside and red within.


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