You regret your decision to travel at night as you plod along the road, bundling yourself tighter against the crisp fall air. The road is empty and still, and the sound of every animal or insect from the surrounding forest puts you on edge. And then you hear the steady beat of hooves, low at first and growing louder as a rider draws closer. In the moonlight, you see a big back steed thundering toward you, its rider broad shouldered and very much missing a head.
Headless horsemen pop up in a lot of European myths, with the Dullahan of Ireland probably the best well known of the bunch. These headless riders carried their decaying heads in their hand while riding through the country, stopping at the door of people marked for death. It was said that once the Dullahan called your name, death was inevitable. Luckily, the Dullahan had a very specific foil–this Irish angel of death had an intense aversion to gold, and they’ll turn tail and run at even the smallest amount.
The Dullahan is thought to have descended from stories of an even older entity, Crom Dubh. This pre-Christian Irish god is thought to have been a fertility god, and human sacrifices, usually performed by beheading, were offered to him. As Christianity spread and worship of the ancient gods abated, Crom Dubh morphed into a more sinister and physical creature trying to fulfill a quota of human death.
Stories of the Dullahan influenced Washington Irving as he wrote “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” Irving’s headless horseman has a lot in common with the Dullahan, with local American folklore and history woven into the story.
The headless horseman of Sleepy Hollow is said to ride through the countryside carrying a jack o’ lantern instead of his head. Supposedly, his downfall is his inability to cross a bridge next to a church and cemetery, but as Ichabod Crane learned, that apparently doesn’t stop him from chucking said jack o’ lantern at you and knocking you off the bridge.
Many of the characters in Irving’s short story, including Ichabod Crane, were named after or inspired by the very real residents of the very real village of Sleepy Hollow. The horseman haunting the small town of Sleepy Hollow is said to be the ghost of a Hessian soldier who had his head taken off by a cannonball during the Battle of White Plains in 1776, a detail possibly inspired by actual events. The end of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” leaves you wondering if the headless horseman is a supernatural being at all, or someone very real with very human motivations.
If you do encounter a headless horseman in your adventures, your best bet is to throw some gold at him and get out of there as fast as possible. Maybe head for the nearest bridge for good measure.
Dex Dylan is the founder and acting president of the International Society of Astrocryptozoology. For decades, Dex has scoured the skies and seas (and sometimes the land, but honestly it’s so crowded) for hints of unusual life forms, and has done extensive research into the possible existence of chupacabras on Mars.