Is Saint Denys in the Headless Hunt? Martyr Legends and Nearly Headless Nick’s Fate

In the great Cathedrals, art is hidden everywhere in plain sight. At the Chester Cathedral yesterday morning, I was able find tiny busts and secret gargoyles and subtle shades of art in every alcove. Even below my feet in the paving stones, I saw that someone had scratched into the stone a compass that suggests (controversially) that the cruciform shape of the cathedral does not sit on a perfect North-South axis (Google Maps also makes this suggestion). The cathedral quire is filled in intricate wood carvings, and one can find etchings, carvings, paintings, sculptures, and living arts of music and ecology everywhere.

And there are, of course, the stained glass windows. A feature of most old churches, this ancient art creates a story for the community in brilliant colours, often drawing on biblical themes and Christian history for the edification, education, and entertainment of churchgoers. This past Sunday one of Chester’s cloister unwindows stopped me up short.

There was St. Denis of Paris in Bishop’s robes attended to by angels and … carrying his own head.

Like I’m sure everyone working on postgraduate studies in religion, I immediately thought of the Headless Hunt in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. Just that day I happened to be reading of Nearly Headless Nick’s continued woes. Readers will remember how Sir Nicholas de Mimsy-Porpington faced continued persecution by the truly beheaded undead. Despite being “hit forty-five times in the neck with a blunt axe,” Sir Nicholas’ head failed to fully vacate his torso, leaving a small bit of skin that held his head in place.

As a result, in his afterdeath Sir Nicholas was forever known as “Nearly Headless Nick.” And because he was only partially decapitated, Nick’s application to join the Headless Hunt was continually denied. The eighth chapter of Chamber Secrets includes the letter of Nick’s most recent rejection:

We can only accept huntsmen whose heads have parted company with their bodies. You will appreciate that it would be impossible otherwise for members to participate in hunt activities such as Horseback Head-Juggling and Head Polo. It is with the greatest regret, therefore, that I must inform you that you do not fulfill our requirements.
With very best wishes,
Sir Patrick Delaney-Podmore

This was the scene that was running through my head as I looked at the window of “Saint Denys” (Brits love substituting y-s when a perfectly good i will do). Next to the window was a large pencil sketch, what the original artist of the window called a “cartoon” (perhaps an unintentionally clever choice of words, given the etymological links of “cartoon” with the root of “cartography”). The sketch was used as the guide for glaziers to proportion the window, no doubt a delicate procedure. In its ongoing outreach in arts and history, Chester Cathedral has made a little exhibit to show the process of creating such a longlasting work of art (all of the pictures are at the bottom of this post).

This artistic gem led me to discover an entire category of martyr that I had no idea existed, cephalophores, literally “head-bearers.” St. Denis’ story of martyrdom is pretty peculiar. Pressed by the Romans to cease his preaching, the bishop of Paris was finally made an example of in Rome’s typically delicate way of dealing with problems. After refusing to be silent, Denis was decapitated on Montmartre (that is Mars Hill, not Mount of Martyrs). Then–and usually after being decapitated there is not a “then”–then Denis picked up his head and walked six miles to his burial place, preaching a sermon of repentance as he went along.

Beyond the convenience of having the corpse deal with his own transport–Jesus’ admonition to let the dead bury their own dead comes to mind–Denis’ homiletic headless journey had a dramatic effect. A whole class of cephalophoric martyrs have appeared, head in hands, in Christian history.

It stricks me, then, that J.K. Rowling’s Headless Hunt and Sir Nicholas’ sad exclusion has an interesting history behind it. Within the great cloud of witnesses are the martyrs who have gone before us, men and women whose lives were so patterned on the cross that they protected not even their own lives. Yet within the company of martyrs is a special class of saints, the cephalophores, who found that their inauspicious beheading turned out to be a minor interruption in the prayer, psalm, sermon, or prophetic warning that was on their lips as they died.

So there seems to be good historical reason to exclude Nearly Headless Nick from the Headless Hunt. The Hunt is made up of cephalophores and (if I can coin a term) cephalagons, people who use their heads (quite literally) in the field of action. Clearly Nick doesn’t fit. But I do feel a little badly for Sir Nicholas, who isn’t a bad house ghost after all.

The Headless Hunt Appears at Nearly Headless Nick’s 500th Deathday

Nearly Headless Nick now drifted toward them through the crowd.
“Enjoying yourselves?”
“Oh, yes,” they lied.
“Not a bad turnout,” said Nearly Headless Nick proudly. “The Wailing Widow came all the way up from Kent. … It’s nearly time for my speech, I’d better go and warn the orchestra. …”
The orchestra, however, stopped playing at that very moment. They, and everyone else in the dungeon, fell silent, looking around in excitement, as a hunting horn sounded.
“Oh, here we go,” said Nearly Headless Nick bitterly.
Through the dungeon wall burst a dozen ghost horses, each ridden by a headless horseman. The assembly clapped wildly; Harry started to clap, too, but stopped quickly at the sight of Nick’s face.
The horses galloped into the middle of the dance floor and halted, rearing and plunging. At the front of the pack was a large ghost who held his bearded head under his arm, from which position he was blowing the horn. The ghost leapt down, lifted his head high in the air so he could see over the crowd (everyone laughed), and strode over to Nearly Headless Nick, squashing his head back onto his neck.
“Nick!” he roared. “How are you? Head still hanging in there?”
He gave a hearty guffaw and clapped Nearly Headless Nick on the shoulder.
“Welcome, Patrick,” said Nick stiffly.
“Live ’uns!” said Sir Patrick, spotting Harry, Ron, and Hermione and giving a huge, fake jump of astonishment, so that his head fell off again (the crowd howled with laughter).
“Very amusing,” said Nearly Headless Nick darkly.
“Don’t mind Nick!” shouted Sir Patrick’s head from the floor. “Still upset we won’t let him join the Hunt! But I mean to say — look at the fellow —”
“I think,” said Harry hurriedly, at a meaningful look from Nick, “Nick’s very — frightening and — er —”
“Ha!” yelled Sir Patrick’s head. “Bet he asked you to say that!”
“If I could have everyone’s attention, it’s time for my speech!” said Nearly Headless Nick loudly, striding toward the podium and climbing into an icy blue spotlight.
“My late lamented lords, ladies, and gentlemen, it is my great sorrow …”
But nobody heard much more. Sir Patrick and the rest of the Headless Hunt had just started a game of Head Hockey and the crowd were turning to watch. Nearly Headless Nick tried vainly to recapture his audience, but gave up as Sir Patrick’s head went sailing past him to loud cheers

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About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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41 Responses to Is Saint Denys in the Headless Hunt? Martyr Legends and Nearly Headless Nick’s Fate

  1. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Inspired by this, I went to check, and find that the English Wikipedia has a jolly article, “Cephalophore” (as “last edited on 23 July 2018, at 22:34 (UTC)”), much more detailed than the French, German, Spanish, Italian or Dutch ones (I didn’t check the other 4 languages) – though some of them have different details, and perhaps list different martyrs – as it notes “the folklorist Émile Nourry counted no less than 134 examples of cephalophory in French hagiographic literature alone” – ! I am surprised to read there that such a useful technical term seems only to have been “first used in a French article by Marcel Hébert” in 1914, and heartily welcome your ‘cephalagons’! (The only Greek dictionary I have checked so far does indeed lack anything like ‘kephalophoros’ – but tells me Plutarch coined ‘kephaloegeretes’ to describe Pericles as a ‘collector of heads’!)

    Something I had never thought about till reading this was the contrast between Nick’s inescapable fortitude in suffering being “hit forty-five times in the neck with a blunt axe” and his fear of going further in his afterdeath – and all these boisterous members of the Headless Hunt apparently having the latter in common with him (and the Fat Friar, though having presumably dedicated his life in taking some kind of monastic vows, also having this fear in common with all of them). The martyr cephalophores presumably contrast with this, again, though it would be interesting which ones are reported to ‘hunt with the Hound of Heaven’ (so to put it), appearing to some still in their earthly life to their good if possible. (Ellis’s modernization of Caxton’s Golden Legend translation, as transcribed on the Fordham University website, includes reports of several early afterdeath appearances of the Apostle Paul, but none, on my quick read-through, suggesting his head was obviously detached.)

    The Wikipedia article says “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, and some split the difference.” I’m not sure what that last phrase means, but your welcome photos of window and cartoon nicely show Frederick Charles Eden’s splendid solution – head haloed, and “where the head used to be” haloed and rays of golden light streaming up, too.

    Liked by 1 person

    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      Alice P. Kenney has an interesting article, “The Mythic History of a Severed Head,” in
      Modern Fiction Studies (1969), which (if I recall correctly) concerns not only Iris Murdoch’s novel but also Lewis’s That Hideous Strength.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Those are some cool reflections, David. It amazes me that I never made a CSL That Hideous Strength connection! Wow. That’s what I love about today’s scholarship era: one cannot know everything, so one must rely on others. The result is an increase in knowledge and possibility.
      Do you have a PDF of that article?

      Like

  2. danaames says:

    On my way home from my college study year in Germany, I had a stop in Paris for most of the day. One thing I did was take the Metro out to Saint-Denis (a *very* sketchy part of town in those days) to see the Cathedral marking the Saint’s burial place, as well as that of many royals and nobles of France. It was also where Joan of Arc finally laid down her armor. The light was beautiful, and everything in the building soared upward. I was practically the only one there. It was peaceful in a way I have experienced in few buildings, even church buildings. It was not easy to leave.

    Dana

    P.S. The commemoration of Saint Denys’ martyrdom is 9 October on the Orthodox calendar (Russian). Perhaps he is praying for you…

    Like

    • Perhaps Denys was speaking to me!
      Very cool story, Dana. That’s lovely. I think the cathedral is in the background of this window art.

      Like

      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        Two little notes I did for a Chaplaincy newsletter:

        3 October: Dionysius the Areopagite and Damaris (Acts 17:34): he is reported by Eusebius in his Church History to have become first Bishop of Athens, and both are traditionally considered martyrs. An influential body of works about God, the Angels, and the Church appeared in his name several centuries later.

        9 October: St. Denis, sent, according to Gregory of Tour in his History of the Franks, with other missionary bishops from Italy to Gaul, where he was martyred by beheading among the tribe of the Parisii. He was later confused with St. Dionysius the Areopagite and the author of the writings attributed to him. The great abbey, burial place of the kings of France, was built over his tomb.

        Liked by 1 person

      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        When I was studying Art History in High School, I remember being introduced to the selections from Abbot Suger, On the Abbey-Church of St.-Denis and its Art Treasures, edited, translated, and annotated by Erwin Panofsky (1946) in Elizabeth Glimore Holt’s A Documentary History of Art, Volume I (1957). In 1122, Holt notes, Suger (1081-1151) “was ordained Abbot of St.-Denis and devoted himself to reforming the monastery, rebuilding the church, and enriching the treasury.”

        In The Royal Abbey of Saint-Denis in the Time of Abbot Suger (1981: scanned in the Intenet Archive), Jane Hayward notes that because of that identification of St. Denis with St. Dionysius the Areopagite and the attribution of the writings to him, the philosophy of the latter can be found pervading “Suger’s writings and physically manifested in the luminosity of the new windows”, as, in his work On the Celestial Hierarchies, “he established light as the primary source of faith and inspiration” (p. 65).

        And here Charles Williams enters the picture, with The Place of Lion (so enjoyed and admired by Lewis), and perhaps with his characterization of Paris in Gaul in his Arthurian poem, “The Vision of the Empire”, and the endpaper map, in Taliessin through Logres.

        Like

        • Thanks for sharing your history and training and reading David. Context matters, and I wonder what comes of haunting libraries and vestries and cathedrals, whereas in our world we haunt Starbucks, city corners, and malls. I think it shows in our writing.

          Like

          • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

            I have delighted, when and where permitted, in crawling around on the floor in choir stalls, getting a closer look at the ‘misericord’ carvings… That wasn’t fully permitted on our recent visit to the ‘Great’ Church of Dordrecht, but by way of more than compensation a wonderful book about them was inexpensively available, the author of which, Herman A. van Duinen, modestly describes it as, not a scholarly study but a run-away hobby, in his preface. (Amazing to think of them impressively there in the background at the first meeting of the Synod of Dort, the 400th anniversary of which is less than a month away!)

            Liked by 1 person

  3. Yewtree says:

    There’s a good etymological reason why St Denys has a y and not an i in his name.

    The name Denys is derived from the Greek god Dionysius, and as I’m sure you know, ypsilon and iota are two different letters.

    Not to mention, while we are on the subject of an iota of difference, that the difference between homoousis and homoiousis nearly caused a schism.

    Headless chaps also remind me of the Green Knight in the story of Gawain and the Green Knight.

    Enjoyed this blogpost, thank you!

    Like

    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      Unlike C.S. Lewis, I have never worked my way carefully through the Tolkien & Gordon edition of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, but the more I think about its major elements, the more astonishing it is.

      Liked by 2 people

    • Sorry I haven’t been able to keep up with this entire conversation, but this point is good for me. If Denis was DENUS, that makes great sense.
      Gawain’s on the list!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yewtree says:

        LOL. But ypsilon is usually transcribed as a Y rather than a U, iirc

        Like

        • I don’t know what IIRC is, but yes about the transcription. I use “u” because of my version of Greek pronunciation (as I teach it at a local college). But we do like the “y” as in “hypocritic” and hyper words.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Yewtree says:

            IIRC = if I recall correctly.

            Was there a vowel shift between ancient and modern Greek, like there was in the 14th century for English? That might explain a bit.

            Though actually the Great Vowel Shift of the 14th century might account for our change in the pronunciation of the transcribed Ypsilon.

            Like

            • Hmmm, dunno. Greek pronunciation is a bit controversial and I am in a school of pronunciation that is hated by some and embraced by others. I suspect that u/y as upsilon is between our soft i and soft u, another sound.

              Liked by 1 person

              • Yewtree says:

                Sounds like a schwa or a Welsh y or a German u.

                Ah, a controversy, like Veni, vidi, vici as opposed to Weeny, Weedy, Weaky. (See “1066 and all that” by Sellar and Yeatman)

                Like

              • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

                Makes me (too lazily) once again wish I were a philologist! As I learned German, the ‘y’ in, for example, ‘Egypte’ was pronounced like a u-with-umlaut – so, when I started learning Dutch, I assumed that would be the case there, as well: but no, the ‘y’ in ‘Egypte’ in Dutch is like the English short-i sound in ‘Egypt’! (However, English ‘Egypt’ has a ‘j’, German ‘Egypte’ a hard ‘g’, and Dutch… the velar fricative depicted here with a lower-case gamma:

                https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/IPA_pulmonic_consonant_chart_with_audio

                which – more fun controversy! – is how I was taught to pronounce Old English ‘g’, as in ‘Grendel’!)

                Like

  4. Yewtree says:

    Oh and should probably mention that there’s a very rich folklore of the Wild Hunt, from which the Headless Hunt May be partially drawn.

    The Wild Hunt folklore is found in India and all across Europe, so it’s ancient and pre-Christian, though Christianity has added some extra layers to the concept (such as the idea that the souls who ride in the Wild Hunt were too good for Hell and not good enough for Heaven).

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yewtree says:

      * may be partially drawn (darn autocorrect)

      Like

    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      Any good studies, or fictional uses, to recommend? (I have a vague sense of having read something trying to connect the Wild Hunt with St. Nicholas and Father Christmas lore, but I may be muddled about that!)

      Liked by 2 people

      • Yewtree says:

        Yes there’s an excellent book called “In search of Herne the Hunter” by Eric Fitch, and I covered the topic in my book, The Sacred Grove: Mysteries of the Forest (Yvonne Aburrow).

        Liked by 1 person

        • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

          Great – thank you!

          I love Masefield’s The Box of Delights – without really knowing any ‘Herne’ lore as such. (I was also in a production of The Merry Wives of Windsor: the other ‘buck-basket servant’ and I took turns as to who had one line and who had two….)

          Pretty tangentially, but the title of your book reminded me of a delightful story (though ‘realistic’ as I remember it, yet atmospheric), Lord of the Forest (London: Methuen, 1975) – the imagined 673 year biography of a Sussex oak tree written by another Denys – Denys Watkins-Pitchford, who, I have just learned, for whatever reason(s), wrote as ‘BB’ but illustrated under his own name – and whose Carnegie Medal-winning book (14 years before Lewis’s) I see is more folklore-rich – as are many other of his, from the look of it… (Why have I never tried to follow him (as it turns out) up before? – time to remedy that…)

          Liked by 1 person

          • Yewtree says:

            Oh yes, BB, aka Denys Watkins-Pitchford, was a very big deal in our house: Little Grey Men, Brendon Chase, and his beautiful art.

            Brendon Chase is right up there with the Swallows and Amazons books in my opinion, yet it seems to have sunk into obscurity.

            I recently checked to see if I could get a copy of Little Grey Men, but sadly the price was prohibitive.

            Thank you for telling me about Lord of the Forest: I didn’t know about that book.

            And yes, I never did find out why he wrote as BB (intriguing as it’s a Wiccan greeting).

            So glad you mentioned him. Squee! Day made.

            Like

          • Yewtree says:

            So excited about BB that I forgot to say that Box of Delights is fun. Have you ever seen the British TV adaptation? — with music by Hely-Hutchinson too.

            Like

          • Yewtree says:

            Ha! I checked his Wikipedia entry. He was an art teacher at Rugby for 13 years — probably didn’t want to be teased by the oiky little toffs, hence the pseudonym.

            BB was his favourite gauge of shotgun cartridge… oh well.

            And it turns out that there was a TV adaptation of Brendon Chase.

            https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Denys_Watkins-Pitchford

            Liked by 1 person

            • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

              Lord of the Forest is in a Methuen series called ‘Beaver Books’, and, never having encountered him otherwise, I thought his ‘BB’ might be indebted to that – but perhaps it’s the other way round (contrive a series you can abbreviate ‘BB’, in his honour)!

              Whew – searching a Dutch online book service for ‘BB’ I get some sort of Asian eBook porn! Ah, but searching for The Little Grey Men finds a 2012 OUP paperback for 10.99 euro – and the fact they list him as B.B., which leads to a 2005 OUP paperback of Down the Bright Stream for 8.99 euro. (Maybe second-hand shopping on- and offline will lead to more.)

              Meanwhile, I find that the director of that BBC Brendon Chase dramatization (and who sadly passed away on 25 March) has it on his own YouTube channel – with lots of other interesting-looking things!:

              https://www.youtube.com/user/bigdavidcobham/videos

              Liked by 2 people

              • Yewtree says:

                Ooh, good to know, thank you. Sad that the maker of the TV series died.

                I found and ordered some of the books, either on kindle or as actual paperbacks 🙂

                Like

        • That makes sense to me in Mark Williams’ hilarious Arthurian story, Sleepless Knights, which has Herne in it.

          Liked by 1 person

      • Yewtree says:

        Hi again David,
        I just wrote a blogpost inspied by this conversation.
        https://dowsingfordivinity.com/2018/11/09/the-folklore-of-the-wild-hunt/

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Pingback: The folklore of the Wild Hunt | Dowsing for Divinity

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