The Headless Horseman and Related Folklore

“…this sequestered glen has long been known by name of Sleepy Hollow … A drowsy, dreamy influence seems to hang over the land, and to pervade the very atmosphere.”

Washington Irving

Cover art “The Headless Horseman” by John Quidor

Washington Irving wrote his famous American tale of the headless horseman in the Legend of Sleepy Hollow in 1819 and possibly in inspiration of a childhood tale he’d heard from his British and Scottish parents. In fact, Irving wrote the story while he was abroad in Birmingham…

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The Legend of Sleepy Hollow

The tale begins in Sleepy Hollow, a haunted town with a legend of a restless ghost, the headless horseman who still occasionally terrorized the land after having his head shot off by a stray cannonball during the Revolutionary War. Ichabod Crane comes to visit and live and immediately senses it being a supernatural place where strange occurrences were common and the energies were mysterious and unsettling. Crane becomes the new Schoolmaster while also helping locals with cutting firewood or tending to animals. Ichabod quickly becomes favored by the local women but he soon has eyes for a young lady named Katrina Van Tassel, the only daughter of a well known wealthy local farmer. He also saw winning her affection as a ticket to being more accepted and favored by the locals.

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Ichabod becomes engrossed in a love triangle competing for Katrina’s attention with another local boy named Brom Bones. Brom inevitably plays multiple pranks on Ichabod and after failing to win Katrin’s hand after an exchange at a party, Ichabod retreats to the foggy woods to commiserate. As the past few weeks spooky tales are running through his mind, he looks up to see a monstrous man sitting atop a horse that is missing his head at the upcoming crossroads. Ichabod immediately rode for his life towards a bridge that according to rule, the horseman would vanish in a flash of fire and brimstone on attempting to cross it.

En route to the bridge, Ichabod looks back frantically just in time to see the headless horseman following closely after him and throw what Ichabod interpreted to be his decapitated head directly at him. Ichabod reached the bridge at the same moment but failed to dodge it and was thrown headfirst off his horse named Gunpowder. The horseman immediately disappeared and his pumpkin head lay shattered nearby. Gunpowder along with Ichabod’s hat were found the next morning by the townsfolk but Ichabod had seemingly disappeared without a trace. Katrina was left to marry Brom Bones and Ichabod was said to have been spirited away by supernatural means.

Gwyn ap Nudd, the Green Knight and Other Headless Horseman

The great Welsh god Gwyn ap Nudd’s role evolved to where it was said his job as a psychopomp entailed being a harvester of human souls as well as possibly a representation of the winter or darker months. Gwyn means “fair, bright or possibly, sacred or pure” although he wore a blackened face while hunting. He was a powerful and inspirational figure but nonetheless, “King of the spirits” and of the Otherworld (Annwn), so someone to be respected and feared. Legend has it that he would ride on horseback with his white hunting dogs, Cwn Annwn, collecting souls bound for the Otherworld, which further signified his connection to the “wild hunt”. To hear the sound of his hounds braying in the local dark spaces was considered an imminent threat of death to someone in the family who were witness to it.

The Green Knight is another well known headless figure in old myth. The mysterious Green Knight arrives in Camelot and challenges anyone in King Arthur’s court to strike him with a blow under the condition that in one year, the Knight will return the same strike. The great Sir Gawain takes up the task and chops the knight’s head off. However, to his horror, the knight picks up his own head, remounts his horse and rides away. Sir Gawain is tested over the following year specifically in regards to his honesty through various experiences. When the fated day arrives, Sir Gawain faces it, the Green Knight strikes Sir Gawain three times on the neck but he survives barely scathed. The Knight was ultimately testing Sir Gawain’s honor and that he was brave enough to keep his word.

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There are other folktales throughout Britain and Wales of headless men, women or horses that were signs of misfortune or impending death. The barguest, similar to bogies, boggards or brownies were said to often appear as headless or sometimes shape shifted to a headless man. Many characters were place specific such as, “Hob Headless”, a variation of the hobgoblin which haunted a specific road near the River Kent. He was said to trap passersby who rested near his rock to where he glued them down so they could not escape.

Ewen of Isle of Mull and The House of Dun

In Scottish folk legend, a great warrior named Ewen was decapitated in a clan battle at Glen More on the Isle of Mull. His father denied him property to which his son was highly angered over. He challenged his father to a mass duel between themselves and their closest comrades. It was said the day before the duel, Ewen came across a fairie, a banshee washing blood out of his clothes who predicted that if his servant did not serve him butter with his breakfast, he would be killed in the upcoming duel. Indeed, the prophecy came to pass where his servant did not serve butter with his breakfast but Ewen went through with the duel anyway. Inevitably, one of Ewen’s father’s men beheaded Ewen while he was still atop his horse. The horse sprinted away with his body still strapped to the saddle. While he was later given a respectful burial, it was said that his soul would not rest and he haunted the area thereafter.

Christopher Lovell

There is also a well known haunted house, the House of Dun in Dun, Angus. Hauntings around the mansion feature largely in Forbes Inglis’s book Phantoms and Fairies, Tales of the Supernatural in Angus and Dundee (2010). One of his informants was Mary Brownlow, house manager on site in the early part of the century. It was rumored to be haunted since a long time back specifically by a headless horseman or woman…

“This ghost cannot be definitely identified, but in more recent times there have been sightings of an woman riding a horse through the grounds; unusually, she is facing backwards on her horse. Other ghosts on the estate include a headless horseman, plus – near a certain yew tree – the spirit of a knight killed after he returned here from the east and found his lover had betrayed him. In recent years voices have been heard inside the house, plus the sound of a crying baby and an invisible harpist. More bizarrely, a phone has been heard ringing in a part of the house where there was no actual physical telephone. Diverse other phenomena include: unseen dogs, a dress floating around without a body inside, plus an array of spirits both male and female, some of whom resented modern, living intruders.”

Catherine Crowe, The Night Side of Nature, 1848

The Dúlachán

In Irish legend, the Dúlachán or Dullahan was a headless man driving a black carriage led by headless horses. The first mention of the Dúlachán appears in Thomas Crofton Croker’s book Fairy Legends and Traditions of the South of Ireland in 1828. He makes mention that the word Dúlachán was also spelled Durrachan or Dubhlachan, with all variations signifying a dark, sinister and sullen person. The Dúlachán’s appearance was regarded as a sign of death or an omen of misfortune and in this respect similar to the banshee. Many folklorists have linked it with being an embodiment of Crom Cruach or even Balor of the Fomorians collecting their soul harvest. In the Irish folk Duchas, the stories are varied between 2, 4 or 6 headless horses as well as some versions telling of the footmen or driver being old warriors fighting one another with swords on chariots verses in a coach. It was said that when a person saw a headless coach, they would die soon, and did in fact die or became permanently impaired such as being blinded. Many of the tales, people were simply scared out of their wits and were said to no longer go out at night.

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Three short stories…

“Long ago there lived a woman named Mary Sullivan. At that time the headless coach used be heard passing the road often. One night Mary Sullivan was staying down in Kilmoiley at a house belonging to Mrs. Griffin which is reduced to ruin for many years. There were other people in the house with her, and they heard the headless coach as they fancied coming from the direction of Causeway. She said she would like to go out to see who were in it. She went out very bravely, but she was struck blind on the spot and from that till the day of her death she never saw again.”

Bean Uí Ríoghbhardáin, County Kerry, The Schools’ Collection, Volume 0413, Page 303

“The old people would tell you that a headless coach was often seen around Cool. It used to travel from Cool lane to the wren’s bridge. There was supposed to be one man driving and no head on him and the horses were headless while the coach was full of people who were laughing and talking and no heads on them.”

Mary Nolan, County Kilkenny, The Schools’ Collection, Volume 0847, Page 201

“This was a coach supposed to be driven through the country at midnight. The people who were in it and the driver & footmen were supposed to have no heads The horses and coach made a terrible noise like thunder and this awoke everyone but no one was supposed to look out. If anyone were foolhardy enough to watch the headless coach some terrible misfortune was to happen to him after a short time. Anyone who happened to meet it on the road were also doomed to an early death or some other disaster would befall him.”

Mrs. Larkin, County Kilkenny, The Schools’ Collection, Volume 0845, Page 264

The German Wild Huntsmen

In German folklore, the Brothers Grimm recount various tales of a headless horseman. One occurs near Dresden where a woman goes out early one Sunday to gather acorns in the forest. She ventures to a place called “Lost Waters” where she hears a hunting horn. She turned around suddenly to see a headless man in a long gray coat sitting on a gray horse. The rider calls himself Hans Jagenteufel, asks if she took the acorns without permission, and tells the woman that when he was alive, he drank excessively and did and took what he pleased. He warned her that his life of sin led to his being condemned to an afterlife as an evil spirit and best not to have the same fate.

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In another German legend collected by Karl Musäus, a well known man named Hackelberg lived in Brunswick and enjoyed hunting like none other. He was so devoted to hunting in fact that, as he died, rather than go to Heaven, he begged God to keep him on Earth to hunt. Hackelberg then became the “Wild Huntsman”, roaming the woods with his fiery hounds on an eternal hunt for criminals so they could be given their just punishment. For Germans, to hear the Wild huntsman’s horn was a warning not to go hunting the next day as it was fortelling a bad accident of some kind, possibly even death.

2 responses to “The Headless Horseman and Related Folklore”

  1. Wow, thank you for sharing this, the Sleepy Hollow was always one of my favorites! While I sometimes thought Irving’s story unusual for it’s time, when so many were either ultra-religious or ultra-rational and most viewed anything else as Pagan superstition, I’d never really considered the roots of this story. You make some fascinating connections here!

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