“Man as an individual is a genius. But men in the mass form the headless monster, a great, brutish idiot that goes where prodded” – Charlie Chaplin
Monsters exist. Not in the sense that one is waiting under your bed, lurking beneath a nearby bridge, or judging American Idol. I hope. Rather, monsters, tangible or intangible, occupy a transitional boundary between the noumenal and phenomenal. Find your nearest pointy-headed, Kantian philosophical type. He’ll be flattered that you’ve taken an interest and consequently will fall madly in love with an idealized version of you, but in between the salutation and the stalking, he will explain that a “noumenon” is an object that is known through the world of ideas vs. a “phenomenon”, that is, an object known through the senses.
You see, we like to think we’re not just mean spirited little animals. That is, after all, why we invented psychology, on the assumption that other people find us as interesting as we find ourselves. Consider the average wolf. Sure, he likes to snuggle with his mate on a cold night, hang with the pack, and get a little lupine nookie now and again, but for him life consists largely of the physiological base of psychologist Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (breathing, food water, sex, sleep, homeostasis, excretion). He’s not busy obsessing over the existential nature of wolfishness. The rest of Maslow’s hierarchy is exclusive to humans, and once you have your physiological needs met, the next rung on the proposed ladder of stuff to be worried about is safety (security of body, employment, resources, morality, the family, health, property). Now, the wolf doesn’t believe in safety. His is a daily struggle to get fed and not get killed. He doesn’t have a job. He can’t get a mortgage. He’s just trying to get by. If the psychologists are correct (and they make their living thinking about this stuff, so they need to be right more than say, flipping a coin), man is the only animal that thinks he has some sort of divine right to safety, and gets all spastic when the universe turns out to be an unpleasant place. Monsters originate in the weird boundary between physiological needs and safety needs. Monsters dwell in the margin that tells us how to feel secure in society. In short, monsters are moral.
Monsters map the edge of the unknowable. Ghosts define the edge of life. Bigfoot defines the edge of the species. Lady Gaga defines the edge of good taste. Rush Limbaugh defines the edge of reasonable political discourse. Monsters provide the boundary where we can no longer rely solely on our senses, yet must give shape to the shapeless. Obviously these boundaries are fluid and culturally dependent, but societies widely separated in space and time often ascribe oddly similar characteristics to their fearsome critters, although the cultural embedding can also account for the emergence of the uniquely bizarre and twisted incarnations that often cuddle up against the more mundanely monstrous. While monsters contain moral lessons, the lesson is never a simple one. In fact, it is much more akin to an electrical fence that short circuits your brain as you blindly grasp at the edges of polite society. Children believe in monsters because they are coming to terms with the fabricated nature of social life, still feeling out the edges. Thus, a vampire or zombie is not a facile lesson in not eating other people or treating your fellow man as prey. The lesson is the far more obscure idea that death has consequences. Thou shalt not kill is too pedestrian, compared to the much more morally ambiguous stricture that has actually been the real guide for mankind, which is to be careful who, how, when, and why you kill someone. Lest they come back.
With this in mind, consider the common acephali (not a scientific name – taxonomists are too busy naming 300 species of Amazonian beetles to trifle with monster names, and would name them all after Angelina Jolie if they could get away with it). Acephali is the Greek term for “without a head”, and if ever there was a universal monster it is the acephali. Pick a culture, any culture and I will find you a headless monstrosity: The Greeks had the Acephali, the Romans had the Belmmyes, Medieval and Rennaisance Europe liked the Blemmyes so much that they talked incessantly about the People of Caora in South America, the Ewaipanoma, and the headless tribes of Guiana, the Celts had Coluinn Gun Chean, China had the Hsing T’ien, and India had Kabandha. Now, we’re not talking about beheaded ghosts that are busy chasing near-sighted and ectomorphic schoolteachers across New England, although we can find some insights into the nature of the acephalous in the symbolic significance of beheading, rather about mythological creatures that specifically have no head, but nonetheless sport eyes, nose, and mouth on their chests. Once you’re mentioned by Greek “Father of History” Herodotus (484-425 B.C.) you’ve pretty much hit the monster big leagues in the West, and he places the Acephali in Libya (the interior of which would have constituted the frontier of the Greek world).
Here are also the Cynocephali, as well as the Acephali; who, if the Libyans may be credited, have their eyes in their breasts (Herodotus, Histories, Book IV, CXCI).
Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder (23-79 A.D.) referred to the acephali as Blemmyae, and confirmed the anatomical description provided by Herodotus.
The Blemmyae are reported to have no heads, their mouth and eyes being attached to their chests (Pliny the Elder, Natural History, Book VII, viii. 45-ix).
Since both Herodotus and Pliny mentioned the Blemmyes, the authors of all the hip Medieval bestiaries followed suit, and included accounts of our headless friends, exemplified by the writings of Archbishop (and later, Saint) Isidore of Seville (560-630 A.D.). Acephelous humanoids were also a popular motif for the marginalia of medieval maps, particularly important in denoting inhabitants of terra incognita.
People believe that the Blemmyans in Libya are born as trunks without heads, and having their mouth and eyes in their chest, and that another race is born without necks and having their eyes in their shoulders (Isidore of Seville, Etymologies, XI.iii.17).
The Middle Ages were frankly, downright medieval, particularly when it came to punishing people for crimes (merrily removing appendages, up to and including the noggin), in their regard for physical deformity (fun at parties, but a sign of some inherent inadequacy or failure as a human being, in short, deformity was regarded as monstrous), and their keen, albeit somewhat disturbing sense of morality (largely everything that didn’t involve obeying the King or a priest was a sin). Therefore, something that is otherwise humanoid, but grossly deviates from appropriate anatomical positioning suggests not just biological abnormality, but carries with it the weight of moral depravation. Art Historian and Medievalist Asa Simon Mittman gives a succinct account of the significance of headlessness during the Dark Ages, observing, “Returning to the blemmye, I would argue that we are able to read in his most severe bodily mutilation, his decapitation, the mark of deep-seated moral failing. The exact nature of his crime is not relevant, nor is its location to flesh, bone or gristle. In a society that would cut the nose from a thief, the appearance of a man whose head has been removed, not by a potentially fallible legal system but by the perfect God who formed him, would be the very definition of the disgusting” (Mittman, 2003, p9). When you live in a society with a lot of unruly folks who carry sharp, pointy things, one would think that people would take missing appendages and horrible maiming in stride, but irrational creatures that we are, we tend to allow disgust to morph into stigma, and stigma implies a moral judgment about how someone got disfigured. Contracted an illness? Obviously you weren’t pious enough. Missing a hand? What did you steal? Missing a leg? Tough luck. Get a job. We can express our horror at this sort of medieval unfairness, but in truth we haven’t come very far, given modern attitudes towards epidemics like AIDS, for instance. In the early days of HIV/AIDS, the disease was considered a “homosexual” problem (thus was largely ignored and stigmatized). Later, when it became apparent that AIDS knew no boundaries regarding sexual preference, intravenous drug users got lumped into the mix, and this still entailed moral condemnation. It took the “human face” of Ryan White, a child who contracted AIDS through a blood transfusion in treatments for his hemophilia to wake people up to the larger public health problem, and to stop automatically applying moral judgments to those who suffered from the disease. You see, we’re generally uncharitable, and it matters to us how you get a disease or are disfigured. Our empathy is conditional on our version of moral innocence. This is not all that different from equating dismemberment, disfigurement, or deformity with divine disapproval. This suggests to me that as a species we’re only ever a reality TV show away from rebooting the Inquisition and hauling our keisters off to the Holy Land for an infidel-bashing Crusade.
What does all this have to do with acephali? Well, before Google Maps, the world had to rely on the reports of brave travelers to different lands, in order to know anything about what was going on out there in parts unknown. Traditionally, every culture regards the people at its frontiers as barbarians, and there is really only two ways to deal with barbarians, that is, wipe them out so that you don’t have to worry about them anymore, or subjugate them. The corollary to this is that you also intend to take their land and resources and put it to a more civilized use. Now maybe you have the nagging sense that bashing your neighbor over the head and stealing his stuff is in the realm of the morally questionable. It’s not like all those conquistadors were interested in establishing a fair exchange rate for New World gold. They were there to knock some heads and plunder some cities. Unfortunately, they were inconveniently burdened with an ostensible set of Judeo-Christian ethics, which suggested in passing that blatant rape, pillage, and robbery were not exactly kosher. When you come from a society that deals with deformity and dismemberment by pointing and laughing (and occasionally throwing a crust of bread), you tend not to dwell on the finer points of morality. All those new lands out there to be discovered have these pesky native populations that tend to resent a mugging and things are so much simpler when they are monsters rather than people. What I’m getting at, is that the boundary between the “civilized” and “uncivilized”, for the lion’s share of human history, has been extremely blurry, in fact the entire concept of civilization is culturally dependent, and dare we say, noumenal, rather than phenomenal. And where we see ambiguity, we find monsters, monsters that not only define the edges of our maps, but also fill in the noumenal space between the civilized and uncivilized. You really don’t get much more uncivilized than wandering about without a head, as long as your simplified cognitive model is firmly rooted in the idea that missing appendages has something to do with a lack of morality. Remove the head, and you can add in a lack of rationality. Humanity ends at the border, so to speak.
It also helps if the headless are also quite fearsome, although I’d be a little unnerved by the approach of a band of acephali, even if they were bearing gifts. It’s hard to get around the missing head thing. I mean, I’ve dated a few people where their head was not particularly pronounced, but never completely absent (okay,maybe there was one). English writer and promoter of New World colonization Richard Hakluyt (1552-1616 A.D.) gathered contemporary stories of adventurers in South America, and expressed great confidence in the reality of a headless set of natives in the neighborhood of Guiana, noting that locals regarded them as the fiercest of tribes.
There is also another goodly river beyond Caroli which is called Arui, which also runneth through the lake Cassipa, and falleth into Orenoque farther west, making all that land between Caroli and Arui an island, which is likewise a most beautiful country. Next unto Arui there are two rivers Atoica and Caora, and on that branch which is called Caora, are a nation of people whose heads appear not above their shoulders, which though it may be thought a mere fable, yet for mine own part I am resolved it is true, because every child in the provinces of Aromaia and Canuri affirm the same. They are called Ewaipanoma. They are reported to have their eyes in their shoulders, and their mouths in the middle of their breasts, and that a long train of hair groweth backward between their shoulders. The son of Topiawari, which I brought with me into England, told me that they were the most mighty men of all the land, and use bows, arrows, and clubs, thrice as big as any of Guiana or of the Orenoqueponi, and that one of the Iwarawaqueri took a prisoner of them the year before our arrival there, and brought him into the borders of Aromaia, his father’s country. And, farther, when I seemed to doubt of it, he told me that it was no wonder among them, but that they were as great a nation and as common as any other in all the provinces, and had of late years slain many hundreds of his father’s people, and of other nations their neighbours, but it was not my chance to hear of them till I was come away, and if I had but spoken one word of it while I was there I might have brought one of them with me to put the matter out of doubt (Hakluyt, Divers Voyages Touching the Discovery of America, 1582).
The Elizabethan equivalent of James Bond, Sir Walter Raleigh (1554-1618 A.D.) similarly noted a set of acephalous natives in Guiana (actually the Venezuelan region of Guayana), after his 1592 trip there, but his book, the full title of which was The discovery of the large, rich, and beautiful Empire of Guiana, with a relation of the great and golden city of Manoa (which the Spaniards call El Dorado), was actually intended to convince people that heaps of gold were just laying about in the region for the taking. Of course, Raleigh had pissed off Queen Elizabeth by secretly marrying one of her ladies in waiting, got himself tossed in jail, and was looking for a way to ingratiate himself with her, and since nothing pleases a Queen like more gold, scholars are a little skeptical about his motivations. Nonetheless, he does not hesitate to include a bunch of acephalous locals.
And upon the head of Caroli, and on the lake of Cassipa, are the three strong nations of the Cassipagotos. Right south into the land are the Capurepani and Emparepani, and beyond those adjoining to Macureguarai (the first city of Inga) are the Iwarawakeri. All these are professed enemies to the Spaniards, and to the rich Epuremei also. To the west of Caroli are divers nations of cannibals, and of those Ewaipanoma without heads (Raleigh, Discovery of Guiana, c.1595).
The Western Scottish highland boasted their own acephalous monster, but keep in mind that there was a time when the Scottish highlands also constituted a frontier of sorts (somewhat like West Virginia in the United States – and look what supernatural creatures keep turning up there). Interestingly, the Coluinn Gun Cheann or “Headless Trunk” was a very personal kind of monster, closely associated with a particular family.
COLUINN GUN CHEANN, The Headless Trunk; Coluinn Gun Cheann was a very celebrated Bauchkan, who favoured the family of the Macdonals of Moran, for ages immemorial, and was frequently seen about their residence, Moran House; which is situated on the main land, opposite the point of Slaate, in the Island of Skye. Though a protector of the family, he was particularly hostile to the neighbourhood, and waged war, especially with all the strong men he could meet with; for this purpose, he particularly haunted the “Mile Keith,” or ” Smooth Mile,” one end of which was not above 200 yards from the Mansion (I know the place well); the other end of the Mile terminated at a large stream, called the River Moran, famed in history for salmon fishing; after sunset, people did wisely to avoid that part, for then the “COLUINN GUN CHEANN” was sure to keep his vigils; and any stray man who passed was sure to become a victim, the bodies being always found dead, and in the majority of instances mutilated also. As he took care never to appear, except to a solitary passenger, it was in vain to send a party against him. He was seldom, if ever, seen by women, and did no harm either to them or to children (Campbell, 1860, p89).
In China’s “Long Sheep Range” of mountains, traditionally sited somewhere in the northeastern frontier of China dwelled a headless people, reportedly descended from a culture hero who had a spat with the Gods, and not only got banished to Central Asia, but condemned his ancestors to live without heads, migrating their faces to their chests. The lesson of course, is when you fight with authority, authority always wins.
The Headless People inhabit the Long Sheep range, to which their ancestors were banished in the remote past for an offence against the gods. One of the said ancestors had entered into a controversy with the rulers of the heavens, and they in their anger had transformed his two breasts into eyes and his navel into a mouth, removed his head, leaving him without nose and ears, thus cutting him off from smell and sound, and banished him to the Long Sheep Mountains, where with a shield and axe, the only weapons vouchsafed to the people of the Headless Country, he and his posterity were compelled to defend themselves from their enemies and provide their subsistence. This, however, does not in the least seem to have affected their tempers, as their bodies are wreathed in perpetual smiles, except when they flourish their warlike weapons on the approach of an enemy. They are not without understanding, because, according to Chinese notions of physiology, “their bellies are full of wisdom” (Werner, 1922, p387-388).
The legend of the headless people of the Long Sheep Range seems to be rooted in an earlier mythology derived from the Shan Hai Jing (4th century B.C. “Classics of the Mountains and Seas” that describes the fate of Hsing-T’ien (“He who was punished by Heaven”).
Xingtian fought against Ti. Ti cut off his head, and the head was buried in the Changyang Mountains. But Xingtian, with his breasts as eyes, and his navel as mouth, continued to fight with his axe and shield (Shan Hai Jing, Chapter 7, 4thCentury BC).
Kabandha, literally the “Headless Torso”, of Hindu mythology, was originally granted immortality by the creator god Brahma, but got a big head, and attacked another god named Indra in a fit of pique. Indra put the hurt on him, smashing his head into his shoulders, and thighs into his torso in true World Wrestling Federation style. This made eating a bit difficult, so Indra had mercy and gave him two long arms to grab food and a mouth on his stomach. The Ramayana (4th Century B.C. Sanskrit epic) gives a description of the scene from the point of view of Kabandha.
How can I live,” I cried, “unfed,
With shattered face and thighs and head?”
As thus I spoke his grace to crave,
Arms each a league in length he gave,
And opened in my chest beneath
This mouth supplied with fearful teeth.
So my huge arms I used to cast
Round woodland creatures as they passed,
And fed within the forest here
On lion, tiger, pard, and deer.
Then Indra spake to soothe my grief:
“When Ráma and his brother chief
From thy huge bulk those arms shall cleave,
Then shall the skies thy soul receive.”
Disguised in this terrific shape
I let no woodland thing escape,
And still my longing soul was pleased
Whene’er my arms a victim seized,
For in these arms I fondly thought
Would Ráma’s self at last be caught.
(Ramayana, Canto LXXII. Kabandha’s Tale, trans. Griffith)
It’s fairly clear that most humans like to think of themselves as civilized. The problem with such a conceit is that the boundaries of civilization keep shifting, and since the concept of civilization is a platonic ideal of some sort in the first place, we keep inadvertently wandering into the noumenal edge of our notions about morality, proper behavior, and relations with our fellow man. Once you’ve stumbled into the world of pure ideas, you have nothing but the models in your mind to work with, and when you start encountering phenomena that plainly don’t agree with your philosophy, Lucy got some explaining to do. You need monsters. Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness captured the idea that to internalize the monster is to recognize that he is not so different from you, writing “It was unearthly, and the men were–No, they were not inhuman. Well, you know, that was the worst of it–this suspicion of their not being inhuman. It would come slowly to one. They howled, and leaped, and spun, and made horrid faces; but what thrilled you was just the thought of their humanity–like yours–the thought of your remote kinship with this wild and passionate uproar. Ugly. Yes, it was ugly enough; but if you were man enough you would admit to yourself that there was in you just the faintest trace of a response to the terrible frankness of that noise, a dim suspicion of there being a meaning in it which you–you so remote from the night of first ages–could comprehend”. We create our monsters. Then we kill our monsters. And then we reset the noumenal boundaries of civilization. And create new monsters in an endless cycle that pulls us farther and farther away from our humanity. When men make their monsters, so that they may embrace their own monstrosity with a clear conscience, rather than pushing it to the edges, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s prediction that “the end of the human race will be that it will eventually die of civilization” creeps ever closer to fulfillment.
Campbell, J. F. 1822-1885. Popular Tales of the West Highlands. Edinburgh: Edmonston and Douglas, 1860.
Hakluyt, Richard, 1552?-1616. Voyages of the Elizabethan Seamen to America: Thirteen Original Narratives From Th Collection of Hakluyt. London: T. De La Rue & co., 1880.
Herodotus. Herodotus. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1839.
Mittman, Asa Simon. “Headless Men and Hungry Monsters”. Sarum Seminars, Standford Univeristy, March 13, 2003.
Pliny, the Elder. Natural History. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1938.
Raleigh, Walter, Sir, 1552?-1618. The Discovery of Guiana, And the Journal of the Second Voyage Thereto. London: Cassell, 1887.
Vālmīki. The Ramayan of Valmiki. Benares: Lazarus, 1915.
Werner, E. T. C. 1864-1954. Myths & Legends of China. London [etc.]: G. G. Harrap & co., ltd, 1922.