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The Dullahan – Headless Horseman of Celtic Mythology

4 min read

Exploring Celtic folklore, chances are you’ll run into the Dullahan pretty frequently. Considered one of the most terrifying figures in Irish mythology, he is literally something you definitely want to stay away from.
The Dullahan (meaning something like Dark Man) is considered a character particularly active in remote parts of Ireland.
According to the legend, he is a harbinger of death.

Traditionally, he is depicted as a headless horseman, with his decomposing head in one arm and a whip fashioned out of a human spine in the other.
His eyes are said to be lit by a hellish fire, his cloak and horse are darker than darkness itself.
Although the Dullahan is most often illustrated as a headless horseman, sometimes appears as a headless man riding in a creepy black coach, known as a cóiste bodhar (or silent coach), which often accompanies a Banshee (link to).
The carriage is pulled by 4 (sometimes 6) black horses and some claim it even has a coffin mounted in the back, or that it’s even made by coffins.

While other creatures of the same family (Banshees, for example) only warns people of their death, it’s said that the Dullahan is the one doing the killing, and can condemn virtually anyone to death.
As story goes, Irish villagers ran to hide in their homes when they heard the sound of horse hooves making their way through the forest. They also made sure to draw the curtains, because the sight of the Dullahan was blinding, as he’d use his trusty spinal whip to whip their victim’s eyes.
The Dullahan is said to have limited speech capacities: he can only speak once on his journey, and this is to say the name of the person he’s going to kill. Once the name has been spoken, there’s no going back, that person has been marked for death.

The exact origin of this dark legend is unknown but sometimes he’s viewed as the incarnation of the Celtic god Crom Dubh, regarded as an evil deity in ancient times.
The ancient King Tigernmas (1621 – 1544 BC) was known for worshipping Crom Dubh.
As part of his worship, it’s believed that he normalized the decapitated human sacrifices that the God demanded.
He was the god of fertility and, after the sacrifices were made, he provided bountiful harvests and plenty of healthy cattle.

When Christian missionaries came to Ireland during the 6th Century, they unsurprisingly banished the Isle’s pagan practices.
This caused human sacrifices to wane, until eventually disappearing forever.
Deprived of his offerings, legend has it that Crom Dubh found a solution.
He took on the form of a headless horseman and began to claim the lives he was denied and, with this transformation, the dark god became the embodiment of death itself.
If you happen to stumble upon this cursed figure, he’ll hunt you down before proceeding to go take the life he meant to take in the first place.

So how do you defend yourself?
Once the Dullahan speaks your name, you are marked for death, and nothing can stop his command.
It’s said that carrying a gold coin in your pocket or wearing a piece of gold jewelry will send the Dullahan back where he came from, but this will only work if you’re not the one he was after, though.

Either way the Dullahan figure has inspired many tales and books, from the middle English of Gawain and the Green Knight to the stories of the Brothers Grimm. Headless horsemen abound, haunting the highways and byways of remote locations and even occasionally marauding our city streets.
And there is also the very popular Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Although the book is set in New York, it still represents certain aspects of Celtic tradition.
And don’t worry if you are thinking your next trip to Dublin might be ruined because of the Dullahan.
This mythological creature is commonly tied to Northern Ireland, particularly County Sligo and County Down.
This Halloween, celebrate like it’s your last day on Earth. You never know, you might be the next name on the Dullahan’s list….

Images from web – Google Research

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