Cephalophore: A Word You'd Think I'd Remember

Why should I remember this word? Because it's something I've been fascinated by since I was a child - stories where the character picks up his/her decapitated head, and then goes merrily on his/her way - or has a chat with bystanders.

Cephalophore: (from the Greek for "head-carrier") is a saint who is generally depicted carrying his or her own head; in art, this was usually meant to signify that the subject in question had been martyred by beheading. Handling the halo in this circumstance offers a unique challenge for the artist. Some put the halo where the head used to be; others have the saint carrying the halo along with the head. [all of that via wikipedia]

Which is why it was weird when I bumped into the word yesterday and couldn't immediately remember what it meant. Because it's been in a lot of books I've read - but wait, first, a photo...


I was particularly fascinated by this sculpture when I was on a trip to Paris as a teenager (not my photo btw, it's via wikipeida, info linked below):



Saint Denis and his head, at Notre Dame de Paris. See much larger version of this image on wikipedia here - it's currently what I'm using as my desktop background. Love the expressions on the angels' faces. Wikipedia captioned it (on this page): "St. Denis's [head] has angelic companions showing him polite concern."


This "head carrying" seemed to happen quite a bit with Christian saints, though it also seems to be a story that comes up in other cultures - and in non-saint situations like Gawain and the Green Knight.


On the topic of saints, if you're a fan of horror you should check out some of the various books on lives of the saints, because those stories have all sorts of gruesome bits, besides the walking headless - humans being skinned alive, being cooked on a griddle, carrying their eyeballs or breasts (removed under torture) on plates, etc. (You really have to wonder about the people who wrote all this stuff down because, yeek, serious torture porn in there.) Yes, I was the kid who was too squeamish to read Stephen King, but was fascinated by Foxe's Book of Martyrs (I skimmed a lot to get to the weird/gross bits) - not the first time that my reading choices aren't entirely logical.


[Yes, I should have a helpful book link here, but I can't seem to find the version of Foxe I read - here's the Gutenberg link to another one. However if you want to read a more humorous version of all the saint hooha, I did enjoy Saints Preserve Us! Everything You Need to Know About Every Saint You'll Ever Need - short summaries of all the saints, in alphabetical order, focusing on all the weirder bits of the legends. You can read the excerpt at that Amazon link to see if it's your kind of thing. It's not into the Heavy Christian Message thing, or proselytizing, but again, read the sample.]

[I could totally go off on a tangent here about how I do not get how gross-out stories of gory deaths and sadism was ever supposed to work as "rah rah, conversion time!" material - I've always thought of it as historical campfire stories or perhaps true crime type gossip - but since I haven't read any books on that aspect, and this is long enough already - tangent squelched!]


Randomly if anyone comes across a book of cephalophore ghost/horror stories let me know - doesn't it sound like there should already be an anthology like this?!


More links:


Wikipedia's Cephalophore Category page, 31 examples


Winner of the Best Multiple Cephalophore Example: Felix and Regula (and Exuperantus) (wikipedia), photo of nice stone carving and more info here (Felix and Regula are patron saints of Zurich)


Shrine o' Dreams blog post: Cephalophores has many photos of art  - paintings, illuminated manuscripts, and statuary


Humorous MetaFilter post on Cephalophores from 2012 which I feel fairly certain I read back then, and from which I snagged a few of the links here, such as...


They Might Be Giants song You Probably Get That A Lot, which I own, but did I remember the Cephalorephore part? Nooo! Lyrics (at TMBG wiki page):

Do you mind, excuse me

I saw you over there

Can I just tell you

Although there are millions of

Cephalophores that wander through this world

You've got something extra going on

I think you probably know

You probably get that a lot

I'll bet that people say that a lot to you, girl



And to end all this - here's a song I usually listen to around Halloween - about Anne Boleyn:


With Her Head Tucked Underneath Her Arm (wikipedia)

YouTube: link! (3 min)


[Note: cheesy images in this video, but hey, it's a comedy/music hall song. Also this was the version that had the best audio.]