In Dante‘s Divine Comedy (Canto 28) the poet meets the spectre of the troubadour Bertrand de Born in the eighth circle of the Inferno, carrying his severed head in his hand, slung by its hair, like a lantern; upon seeing Dante and Virgil, the head begins to speak.
The speaking severed head appears memorably in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.
The motif Head in Stith Thompson‘s Motif-Index of Folk Literature reveals how universal is the anomaly of the talking severed head. Aristotle is at pains to discredit the stories of talking heads and to establish the physical impossibility, with the windpipe severed from the lung. “Moreover,” he adds, “among the barbarians, where heads are chopped off with great rapidity, nothing of the kind has ever occurred.” Aristotle was doubtless familiar with the story of the singing disembodied head of Orpheus and Homer‘s image of heads severed so rapidly they seemed still to be speaking, and Latin examples could be attested. A link between Latin poets and the Middle Ages in transmitting the trope of the speaking head was noted by Beatrice White, in the Latin poem on the Trojan War, De Bello Troiano by Joseph of Exeter. Hector whirls in the air the severed head of Patroclus, which whispers “Ultor ubi Aeacides“, “Where is Achilles [Aeacides], my avenger?” Some modern authors link the legends of cephalophores miraculously walking with their heads in their hands to the Celtic cult of heads.
Random bit of trivia! Did you know that one of the first erotic stories I ever wrote involved a talking severed head?
Hmmm. It’s moments like this that make me realize … [Whispers] I’m not like other people.
And … if I’m not on at least three government watch lists by now, I soon will be!
Maniacal laugh. Maniacal laugh.
“The genius of clowning is transforming the little, everyday annoyances, not only overcoming, but actually transforming them into something strange and terrific. It is the power to extract mirth out of nothing and less than nothing.”
― Karl Adrien