Headless horsemen have long been icons of horror and fantasy, from the creepy Washington Irving tale to current TV shows such as ‘Lost Girl’ and ‘Sleepy Hollow’. However, Ireland’s own headless horseman, The Dullahan is by far the most chilling of all. ANN O’REGAN tells us why.
For centuries the Celts have believed the head to be incredibly powerful, both the sacred and physical resting place of the soul. Warriors would take the heads of their enemies and keep them to ward off evil and gain more power, so it is little wonder then, that one of Ireland’s most terrifying unearthly beings encompasses all the fears and beliefs pertaining to the head.
The Dullahan is a part of the ‘Unseelie court’ of the fairy realm. The Unseelie fairies are those deemed the most evil and malicious of all the otherworldly entities.
Also known as Gan Ceann, meaning without a head, The Dullahan hunts the souls of the dying in the night.
He is believed to be an incarnation of the sacrificial god Crom Dubh. The god did not want to be denied human souls following the introduction of Christianity and so disguised himself as the one without a head, a tribute to the sacrifices through decapitation that gave Crom Dubh his power.
Head carried in the crook of his arm, The Dullahan has black eyes that continually dart from side to side, in search of his next victim. His mouth is contorted into a hideous, rictus grin and his mottled, decaying flesh clings menacingly to his skull.
He rides through the darkness on the blackest steed with glowing red eyes, breathing flame and sparks from its nostrils. The Dullahan carries a whip made from the spine of a human corpse as he stands on his wagon, with wheel spokes of thigh bone and covered with dried human skin.
The headless horseman lights his way with candles embedded into skulls, his own incandescent head a beacon in the dead of night. He has supernatural vision and when he senses a soul for the taking he holds his head aloft, seeing for miles across fields and forests, through windows and into the darkest and dingiest of rooms.
The creature does not stop for anyone but his prey and all locks and gates fly open at his insistence, no one is safe. If you get in his way, at best your eyes will be whipped out or most likely, The Dullahan will throw a bowl of human blood upon you. The stain will not be washed away and you are marked as his next target.
Certain festivals increase the power of The Dullahan and this is a time to stay in and draw your curtains tightly. If you find you need to be out, there is no protection from the Agent of Death, but a piece of gold will give you the only known distraction for the headless horseman. His fear of the same may be enough to scare him off for a short time and may be the only thing that will save you.
The Dullahan is only permitted to speak once on each ride and that is to utter the name of the person who is going to die. When the horseman stops, he has found his quarry and speaks their name aloud, bringing forth their spirit to be devoured.
Unlike the Banshee, The Dullahan does not bring a warning of death and does not haunt specific families. He is death and he has no master other than Crom Dubh. He will not be stopped and his malevolent call to the dying is a summoning of their very soul.