This Week’s Prompt:90. Anencephalous or brainless monster who survives and attains prodigious size.
The Resulting Story:
Anencephalous is a creature that lacks a head—the connection that has with brainless should be obvious. The notion here seems to be that a creature is not born brainless, but rather executed or in some other way rendered brainless/inert/headless. Decapitation, however gory it may be, is a common theme in myth and legend however—just as surviving is.
The first creature this reminded me of is Xingtian, a man who made war on the Yellow Emperor Huangdi. As is the case with most men who make war on Heaven, he failed and was executed for his rebellion—his head was buried underneath a mountain for good measure. Nonetheless, his body lived on. He formed eyes where his nipples were, a face where his belly button was, and took up his shield and ax to dance in defiance of the emperor still.
In Hinduism, we have a Rakshasa named Vishvavasu, who began life as a celestial musician—a role he shares with Xingtian, who in one account composed music for the workers in the field. He preformed rituals to earn a boon from Vishnu, and asked for immortality. He then made war on Indra, convinced that he couldn’t possibly loose. Indra struck him with a thunder bolt, sending his head into his body. He was cursed to remain such, until Rama cut off his arms. Some versions say before warring with Indra, he delighted in seducing maidens and attacking monks, drunk on power. He is described as “as big as a mountain, dark as a black cloud, with pointed hairs all over his body and looked fierce with a voice as loud as thunder. He had an eye on his stomach, round and yellow, emitting a glare like a fire-name. Looking wicked he thrust his big tongue out of his huge mouth licking the sides”. After he is freed from his curse, he provides counsel to Rama on the proper direction to take his war with Ravana.
A dread asura had a similar fate. Named Svarbhanu, at the churning of the cosmic ocean he managed to acquire some of the Amirta of the gods. Before he was noticed, he drank it in the darkness and became immortal. While an Avatar of Vishnu was informed by the sun and moon, and with a chakram blow cut Svarbhanu in two—his head and his body. Rahu and Ketu, as they are now known, lived on nonetheless. Rahu in particular became the diety of solar eclipses and meteors, an inauspicious force in astrology.
Connected to Rahu is Kirtimukha. Once, Rehu was sent to demand that Shiva give up his bride, Parvati, to his immortal master Jalandhara. Jalandhara’s own life is a fascinating story, but the relevant part is his end. Shiva in a rage set forth a bolt from his third eye, that manifested as a terrifying and hungry lion. Rehu begged for mercy, and Shiva acquiesced—the lion was told instead to devour itself. It did so, until only it’s face remained, to be the head of glory outside temple walls.
Continuing our story of vast growth and wars against the gods is Ullikummi. Deaf and blind, Ullikummi was placed by the god Kumarbi to overthrow the storm god Teshub. Ullikummi grew without being noticed, rising off the back of the world supporting giant. This genderless pillar of volcanic material does their job well—Teshub’s thunder cannot harm them as they continue to grow. He abdicates his throne, and descends to Ea, who dwells in the dark waters of the underworld. There, a great and primal cutting instrument or knife is acquired, and used to chop off Ullikummi’s feet, sending him toppling down. Thus the senseless growth of the volcano is curbed before reaching all the way unto Heaven.
Ullikummi’s war with a thunder god and his apparent invincibility, as well as the importance of a cutting weapon in his defeat and volcano symbolism, has lead to parallels with Tyhpon, a regular feature on our discussions. Typhon does on some occasions lose one of his heads—but this is usually a self inflicted injury, as the head becomes a terrible dragon with which to guard Zeus’s wounded body.
Among the Aztecs, we have a more famous beheading. After the moon and stars were born, the Earth Goddess Coatlicue became pregnant again by a ball of feathers. The moon goddess, Coyolxahqui, became convinced that this sudden and miraculous birth was a dishonor on the family name, and with her four hundred brothers she came to slay the her mother. One of the stars, however, went out and warned the unborn child of the coming battle. The newly born god, Huitzilopochtli, emerged fully armed and armored. He slew his brothers and sister, scattering them in every direction. More than one later narrative specifies that the head of the moon goddess was thrown upward, into the sky where it stays to this day—chasing her brother sun to devour him.
In Northern Europe, we have other headless creatures. We can consider, for example The Green Knight who’s head game has been mentioned before (here and here). The Celts had a reputation as head hunters in the Mediterranean but the exact meaning of their decapitations is still disputed.
There is also the recurring image of the saint who carries their own head (a Cephalophore). Some simply walked off with their lost heads. The most famous, St. Denis, picked up his own decapitated head and wandered off—he preached for a time about the nature of penance, before finally moving on. Many more saints followed suit—most went to a local church or holy site, preaching as they went. A few mounted a horse or camel and spoke with lost relatives one last time, before finally leaving. This form of decapitation survival calls to mind the final fate of Orpheus—Orpheus, who was decapitated by the Maneads, and sent down the river. He sang the whole way down, until passing into death. Like the Saints, parts of Orpheus were stored in temples.
The beheaded seem to have a knack for disturbing the existing order then—in some cases for good cause, in other cases for their own wicked ends. For instance, we can consider Chhinnamasta, another Hindu goddess, beheaded herself to feed two of her starving handmaidens while they were bathing in the river. In another instance, her beheading was after a battle with demons, ripping her head off to sate her rage and drinking her own blood.
A slightly stranger bodiless head is that of Hun, father of the Maya Hero Twins. When a princess of the dead spoke with him, Hun impregnated her with spit. When later on, the Hero Twins descend to deal with the lords of the dead, they have a more comparable experience. Here, one of the tests is to stay in the Bat House—and they succeed almost the entire night in their shelter, until Hunpahu peaks out. His head is removed by a passing bat god, but all is well—it is replaced with a gourd. The two go out and have their ball game match the next day, retrieving Hunpahu’s head before it can be used as the ball.
And there is the most famous of the Talking Heads, Mimir. Mimir is a Norse god of wisdom of the Aesir family. During the Aesir-Vanir war, he is beheaded but stays alive and gives Odin secret counsel. Some versions specify that Mimir and another god were sent as hostages to the Vanir. However, when it was discovered that the strong and handsome Hoenir needed Mimir to be of any use, the Vanir beheaded Mimir in rage. Odin then embalmed the head of Mimir, worked magic on it so that it could speak, and kept it for counsel. Mimir is recorded elsewhere as drinking deep from his name sake well of wisdom, at the root of the world tree.
There is also, as we discussed at length in a patreon article, the Brazen Head. These contraptions are replicas of heads without bodies, powered by occult machinery and able to answer any question asked of them. A number of scholars have possessed one—but few have finished them or made use of them.
We can also consider that lacking a head is of course a sign of death—in Journey to the West a dragon holding his own head serves as a frightening image to the Emperor, when the Emperor failed to ensure the dragon’s safety. In Ireland, the Dullhan carries its own head as a lantern and the spine of a human being as a whip. On it’s black horse, it rides until it finds someone doomed to die. Calling their name out, their soul is pulled from their body. The Dullhan thus acts as something of a horrific pyschopomp…although one that according to some accounts can be kept away with a flash of gold. In Germany, some versions warn away hunters from their accidents, while others hunt capital offenders with fire tongued hounds.
A more noble headless horseman comes from India—Jhinjhār. These warriors often lose their head when fighting off cattle rustlers—but fight on anyway. A lotus springs from their neck, and eyes grow on their chest like our other earlier immortal warriors. Sadly, after freeing the cows and returning home, he is still in the grips of fury. The woman of the town therefore must scatter indigo dust over him, sending him at last to death’s waiting grasp.
The miraculous power to stave off death then, is connected with is an almost senseless nature. Our champions are warriors, but often ones who pursue the impossible or are trapped in a state of violence. They are something like a human being, without the guiding mind, often lost in rage—yes, they lost their head, get the pun out of the system.
Our story then is about a creature of singular appetite who never ceases to grow, then. In some respects, this resembles our discussions of a mindless and senseless creator. Something large and unreasonable, that seemingly cannot stop. It is note worthy, I think, that those who don’t replace their head perish in a reasonable manner—the Saints, for instance, live without their head but not indefinitely. The many warriors and the hero twins either replace the head with another object, or convert their chest into a head. I think that what we have here is…interesting.
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