The kiddos will be out and about on Halloween night dressed in costumes, knocking on doors, and asking for treats. For some, it is a favorite holiday. For others, it is a nuisance.
I spend a great deal of my time with horses now and writing histories. It’s Halloween season, so it makes sense to combine horse and Halloween history.
Horses and Halloween have quite a history together? The headless rider variety!
The headless horseman, as a supernatural entity, represents a past that never dies, but always haunts the living. Stories of headless horsemen can be traced back to the Middle Ages.
Some of the history you may know, some you may not?
It seems as if most tales of headless horsemen originate during the sixth century from the Netherlands. Pagan religions were being driven out of the region by Christian missionaries and the transition to Christianity was underway.
The Christian missionaries forbade the worship of the Celtic God of Fertility who demanded human sacrifices every year. Preferably by decapitation. Since the worship of this God was forbidden, locals adapted stories changing the god into a spiritual being that still craved corpses.
It is said that after sunset, on certain festivals and feast days, one of the most terrifying creatures in the spirit world appears. It is Dullahan.
The Dullahan legend originated from Ireland. The ancient Irish believed that when and where the Dullahan stops riding, a mortal dies.
The Dullahan is a sinister being riding upon a magnificent black horse. The rider, man or woman, has no head and is carrying it under its arm. The whip used is that of a human spine. The Dullahan would lift its severed head, which possesses supernatural sight and looks into the houses of the dying, high into the air. The Dullahan would call out the person's name, drawing away the soul of its victim. That person would immediately drop dead.
There is a headless horseman associated with King Arthur. That horseman was a giant green knight who came to Camelot to test the king’s knights’ loyalty and honor.
The green knight dared the knights of the round table to chop off his head. But there was a condition. The knight who swung an axe and chopped off his head would agree to meet him again one year and a day later. The purpose: he must willingly bend his own head in front of the green knight and receive an axe blow in return.
According to the legend, Arthur was the first to volunteer. But his nephew Sir Gawain swung first and chopped off the green giant’s head.
Instead of dying, the giant picked up his bleeding head, reminded Sir Gawain of the pledge, fixed his severed head on the pommel of his saddle, and rode off on his green horse.
There were headless horsemen sightings in Germany too. Many were represented as hunters on horseback. Their ghostly hunting expeditions in mostly forest environments were blamed for sudden windstorms accompanied by loud or mysterious sounds. They were known as “The Wild Huntsman”.
Many of these stories do not explain how the wild huntsman lost their heads. Perhaps because back then it was commonly believed that if one committed a crime worthy of losing the head, they would. But if punishment was escaped during their lifetime, they would be condemned after death to wander about with their head under their arm.
Of course, you know the story, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” by Washington Irving. The story of Ichabod Crane and the menacing Headless Horseman. It probably is the most famous of all headless horseman stories.
Irving’s book was first published in 1820. The fictional character of Ichabod Crane is usually portrayed as a tall, lanky individual with a scarecrow effect. He is the local schoolmaster, and has strong beliefs in all things supernatural, including the legend of the Galloping Hessian of the Hollow, otherwise known as the headless horseman. Crane and another local man got involved with a local heiress. Trouble ensued. According to the story, after Crane proposes to the woman he is headed home alone at night when the headless horseman appears. Crane is never seen again.
The author drew upon real-life events that took place around Tarrytown, NY. Irving’s story takes place in the late 1700s in a city called Sleepy Hollow which is near Tarrytown, New York.
That Hudson River Valley community has a large Dutch population and much of the area’s folklore finds its way into the stories of Washington Irving. In fact, there is a German legend of a Headless Horseman called “The Wild Huntsman”. It chases people who committed terrible crimes through the woods at breakneck speeds.
The area residents did not care much for the German mercenaries who lived there. The residents told tales of ruthless German horsemen who killed without discretion. According to one folktale, a headless corpse of a Hessian soldier was found in the area and later buried by a local family in an unmarked grave in the Old Dutch Burying Ground.
There was, though, an actual Ichabod Crane. He was a career military officer who served in the War of 1812. Washington Irving met the real Colonel Ichabod Bennet Crane in 1814 and was immediately inspired by his name and character. But unlike Irving’s character, the real Crane died while on active duty after a long career of service. He was beloved and respected by everyone who knew him.
Supposedly, the colonel resented the use of his name in the popular Halloween story and disliked Irving for doing so.
There are, of course, more stories of the supernatural riding on the back of a horse carrying its head.
So be careful this Halloween night. And watch out for those supernatural entities.