Firstly, let’s look at a creature most everybody knows from Halloween. You probably know it as the Headless Horseman, and your first thought might be American tradition, namely “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.”
But what I’m going to look at is the Dullahan, a headless rider of a particular sort.
There are plenty of headless rider legends all around the world, but I’m going to focus on the Irish one, rather than Scottish, English, Japanese, or any of the other varieties, or the one in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.
Dullahan, meaning “dark man,” is also called Gan Ceann (”without a head”). According to some, he is the embodiment of a god called Crom Dubh, a Celtic deity. Others say he’s considered a kind of fairy, or that he’s both.
Something to bear in mind: fairies in folklore were very much not the cute flitting little winged pixie girls we see in a lot of popular culture today. They were actually very freaky and absurd, most of them. Much more on that and the Seelie and Unseelie Courts later, perhaps, though. The cute winged fairy girls were largely a Renaissance/Early Modern period invention.
I homed in on the dullahan in particular for a short story I wrote for an upcoming short story collection. I’m hoping to publish it sometime this year; not sure exactly when. The story is called “Samhain,” set in my fantasy world of Wulfgard. It’s available now in the book Wulfgard: The Hunt Never Ends on Amazon.com, and also available to read for free on Wattpad and Royal Road.
Who or what the dullahan is, as mentioned, varies a lot depending on your source. Sometimes the dullahan is a god, sometimes a fairy, sometimes an angry spirit, sometimes all of the above. Whatever the case, it always holds true: he’s missing his head, he comes out at night, and he prefers to come out during feast days and other holidays or days of celebration.
The dullahan is quite a scary thing – much scarier than the Legend of Sleepy Hollow – and here’s just a few reasons why:
Firstly, his horse breathes fire from its nostrils and leaves a trail of flaming hoof prints, some sources say. Secondly, all locked gates and doors burst open when he approaches. Thirdly, he’s likely to be carrying his own severed head.
Also, if you look at him, you immediately go blind. Not because of magic: because he’ll whip your eyes out with a whip made of a human spine (hardcore, right?), or else he’ll blind you by throwing a bucket of blood at you. That might not sound very scary out of context, but picture that actually happening. Oh, jeez. Disgusting.
If that still isn’t enough, someone dies the moment he stops his horse and calls the name of his victim.
So what do you do about all that? Well, if you’re out after dark, carry some gold around. Gold apparently scares this guy. Even a single gold coin will send the dullahan running off.
I can’t actually fully confirm some of the other things you can read about the dullahan, like him riding in a carriage – pulled by six black horses – sometimes instead of on a horse, or all these things you hear associating him with coffins. But maybe some of that was also in the various legends. I’d need more good sources to say that with confidence, though.
So if you’re ever out on Halloween night, remember: carry some gold. Maybe it’ll be a dullahan instead of one of the other varieties of headless riders.