In Irving’s tale, a ghostly rider without a head appears one night and pursues superstitious schoolteacher Ichabod Crane. The wild chase ends with Ichabod disappearing from the village, never to be seen again.
But the story of the headless horseman didn’t originate in Sleepy Hollow! And it’s not alone…
These dark faery beings have been known since Celtic times in Ireland and Scotland. Referred to as “The Dullahan” or Gan Ceann, meaning "headless”, they are clothed in black, and may be male or female. Each one carries its own glowing head under its arm – but the head is very much alive with a wide and wicked grin. The Dullahan’s dark eyes are said to cast back and forth continually searching for prey. Often the head is held aloft in one hand to gain a better view, and legend says it can see for many miles! The head can also speak, but only a single word: the name of its next victim.
The Dullahan’s mount is usually a wild black stallion with red eyes. The horse strikes sparks with its hooves as it gallops, and flame spurts from its nostrils. No reins are needed as horse and rider are one in purpose. And while the Dullahan carries its head in one hand, the other hand wields a long whip made of a human spine!
In some stories this faery creature may drive a dark carriage – the Cóiste Bodhar, or Silent Coach - pulled by black horses. In Scotland, this vehicle is sometimes known as Hell’s wain (wain means cart or wagon), and is able to fly through the night sky! It is said that once the Silent Coach has entered the mortal realm, it cannot return without a soul.
Whatever way the Dullahan may choose to travel, its victims are not random. Like the Black Dogs or Grims of the British Isles, the Dullahan is a herald of death. When it rides out, its mission is to summon the soul of someone already destined to die. It may stop in front of the house where the person lives or it may appear at the site of their impending demise.
People who catch sight of a Dullahan will often clap their hands over their ears so they cannot hear their name being called. Locks and bars cannot stop it – the faery and its mount can sail through any gate as if it wasn’t there. There is only one possible defense: to throw a piece of gold. Even the tiniest item made of gold is sufficient to send the horseman away. In one story, a traveler drops a gold-headed pin from his clothing and the creature disappears. Curiously, the Dullahan doesn’t take the gold – perhaps it is repelled by it.
Although the Dullahan may be encountered any time of the year, some seasons are more dangerous than others. In late August and early September, for instance, folklore advises staying home! Keeping the curtains closed at night is important – not only does it block the Dullahan from peering inside with its disembodied head, but this prevents you from accidentally witnessing the creature. Apparently, the horseman doesn’t like to be watched as it works, even if it’s not after you. This dark faery has been known to blind onlookers in one eye with its bony whip!
According to the Celts, the most dangerous time of the year is Samhain, which falls on November 1st and signifies the beginning of winter. The veil between all the worlds is thinnest at this time. Ghosts and faeries and all manner of supernatural creatures can walk freely – and so can the REAL Headless Horseman!
If you’re planning to stay out late on Halloween night, it wouldn't hurt to carry a token made of gold ... just in case.