Anyone who’s read The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving will recognize the iconic spirit of the Headless Horseman. Seen all over Europe, this unfortunate rider seems to be at his wit’s end as he desperately searches for his lost noggin. Yet The Legend of Sleepy Hollow wasn’t the first time this poor man was seen in the midst of his search. The oldest two stories about a horse and his headless rider come from Arthurian and Irish legends.
Perhaps the scariest version of this legend, the Irish Dullahan is no laughing matter. A faerie from the Unseelie court, they appear on a black horse, whose hooves kick up sparks, carrying their head under their arm (a Dullahan can be both male and female). A version of the grim reaper, at times the Dullahan is said to draw a wagon adorned with funeral items as they travel to collect a person’s soul. When they reach the house of the soon to be deceased, they call their name, causing the person to die immediately. But woe to anyone who happens upon this faerie while out on a dark night. If one watches them work, they’ll either have a basin of blood tossed on them (marking them as the next to die) or the Dullahan will remove their eyes with a whip made from a human spine. Don’t bother trying to lock your door against it, doors and gates fly open as they approach.
The Green Knight
My all time favorite King Arthur story is the tale of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. During a New Year’s party in Camelot, a strange knight wanders into the castle. Everything about the knight is green, from his giant axe, to his hair, to his skin. He challenges the knights to a simple trial: one knight could strike him with his axe, if he could return the blow in a year and a day. Sir Gawain is the only one who steps forward, beheading the knight in one fell swoop. However, this hardly deters the Green Knight, who simply picks up his head and rides off. A year later, Gawain sets off to carry out his end of the bargain. After a series of adventure, the Green Knight delivers his blow, causing a small wound to the back of Gawain’s neck. In this story, the knight was an ordinary man enchanted by Morgana le Fay, not actually a spirit, and Gawain’s actions broke the curse.
There are a couple legends of headless horseman in Germany. The Grimm brothers recount to sightings, as well as other legends. The sightings, which take place in Saxony, are heralded by the sound of a hunting horn. One witness describes the horseman to be dressed in a long grey coat on a grey horse, while both say that the hunting horn is a warning not to go out hunting for fear of tragedy. In other versions, the horseman punishes the perpetrators of horrible crimes.