Friday, October 17, 2014

Cranium Not Included

Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” may be the birth of American fiction but the lore of a headless horseman roaming the woods of upstate New York was not his original creation. Mind, we do not begrudge Irving for taking an urban legend and running with it toward lasting fame. Shakespeare himself re-purposed myth and legend for many of his great works.

Headless horseman folklore varies slightly from region to region. One German variant (there are several) casts the specter as a benign force, whose appearance warns hunters to take the day off, lest tragedy befall them.

Most Celtic stories lean on more sinister depictions of the rider from the great beyond. By far the most gruesome of these is the Irish dulachán (dark man) who carries his own head tucked under his arm and wields a whip made from a human spine. A human spine!

Irving perhaps combined some of these iterations to arrive at his famous Hessian soldier who died in an unnamed battle during the American Revolution. And thanks to numerous paintings, illustrations and a really terrific Disney cartoon, most of us Yankees envision a black-caped, barrel-chested horror on a sturdy black steed, ready to lob a flaming Jack-o’-lantern at timid Ichabod Crane.

That’s pretty much what’s happening in the U.S. Postal Service stamp from 1974:

Designed by Leonard Everett Fisher

For no extra charge we offer two more artistic interpretations of the Headless Horseman:

By Abigail Larson

Cover art by Gil Kane and Ernie Chan

[Tip o' the jack-o'-lantern to Weird Tales for the Larson and Kane/Chan artwork.]