“I don’t stop eating when I’m full. The meal isn’t over when I’m full. It’s over when I hate myself.” – Louis C.K.
Human history is about what’s on the menu. Hunter-gatherers spent their time on the trail of dinner. The invention of animal husbandry was about having ready access to relatively sedentary raw materials for good barbecue. The development of agriculture meant you could get fresh salad without a high probability of being eaten by a bear. Civilizations rise and fall based on changes at the grocery, when ecological changes put pressure on the food supply, and folks accustomed to a steady traditional diet fail to adjust to new environmental realities (e.g. Mesopotamia, Egypt, the Maya, the Western Roman Empire, the Greenland Norse, and countless other examples). Obviously, food is pretty important to us from a perspective of straight-up biological necessity, but it is humans alone among our mammalian cohort that have made obtaining basic sustenance into an art form, so much so that it’s a wonder we are not morbidly obese as a species. A measure of success in society has often involved exercising the option to eat until you drop. This is no doubt why gluttony frequently rises to the level of mortal sin cross-culturally, and gluttonous monsters seem to be a universal motif, “for the monster pleasures as well as polices, although we rarely talk about the pleasure. The monster-face is a mask placed on someone whose offense is obliquely desirable to us (Ingebretsen, 2001, p30). I would humbly suggest that this is why there are a plethora of monsters out there from a variety of cultures that are simply voracious, big giant heads. Pure unabashed oral fixation sans digestion. In short, it’s all about the mouth, my friends.
Walk into most any southern Indian or Southeast Asian Hindu or Buddhist temple, and you will likely encounter a fearsome, bodiless head replete with fangs and frozen in the act of swallowing named Kala or Kirtimukha (Sanskrit. “Face of Glory”). “Face of Glory” might seem an odd appellation for a monster best known for eating his own body, but since he did it at the behest of Hindu deity Shiva, he got divine props for what would otherwise be considered a pathological act of auto-cannibalism. What can we say except that Shiva was a complex dude (alternatively a destroyer, benefactor, ascetic, householder, and yoga teacher) with a strange sense of humor. The 11-12th Century Hindu religious text called the Skanda Purana (the largest of the 18 Mahapuranas) describes the somewhat bizarre and self-destructive origins of Kirtimukha, who’s insatiable hunger could only be temporarily quelled by eating his own body, when he was denied the opportunity to gnaw on a messenger from one of Shiva’s enemies, an arrogant jerk trying to steal Shiva’s lady.
There was a very powerful king of the Daityas named Jalandara. He had conquered all the three worlds. At that time, the great Lord, Siva, had intended to wed Parvati, the daughter of the king of the Himalayas. Jalandara, incensed with pride, sent a messenger to Siva and contemptuously commanded the latter to give up his claims for Parvati’s hand. For, the beggar-Siva, so thought Jalandara, was not a proper match for the lovely princess who could but be a spouse of such a great king as himself. When the courier, Rahu, delivered the message to Siva, the great god became so angry that a terrible being shot forth from between the eye-brows of the Lord. The being was roaring like thunder, and had a face like that of a lion, a protruding tongue, eyes burning with fire and its hair raised upwards. Though it had an emaciated body, it seemed like another Narasimha, the man-lion incarnation of Vishnu, in strength. The terrible being ran up to eat Rahu, whereupon the latter prayed to Lord Siva to save him. Siva dissuaded the being from eating up Rahu, but the being complained to Siva of intense hunger and begged him for food. Siva ordered the being to appease its hunger by eating its own flesh; and the being forthwith did the same, leaving only its face intact. This pleased the Lord Siva, very much; and he addressed the terrible face which had saved his honour that thenceforth it would be known as ‘Kirtimukha.’ Further, it was ordained that the ‘Kirtimukha’ should always remain at the doorways of Siva temples, and that whosoever failed to worship the ‘Kirtimukha’ would never acquire Siva’s grace. That is the reason why the ‘Kirtimukha’ has had a permanent place on the doorways of Siva temples (Skanda Purana, Chapter 17, “Siva Kanda”).
Now, this is tough to deal with theologically. The primary lesson seems to be to do whatever Shiva tells you and you will end up as iconographic adornment for Hindu temples for the rest of eternity. Of course, since Kirtimukha was created by Shiva’s uncontrolled rage, there seems to be a message in here about control, in so far as being so hungry that it seems like a good idea to eat oneself is probably counterproductive. A little control over one’s appetites might be required, and in fact later interpretations suggest that the Kirtimukha in fact embodies the monstrous, self-consuming nature of life itself. This would be the Hindu version of “Life’s a bitch, then you die”. May as well eat something along the way.
Where the Hindus have Kirtimukha, the Iroqouis have Kanontsistóntie, more commonly known as “The Flying Head”. The Flying Head was believed to be a horrible, hairy head with wings (origins rooted in the decapitation of some elders during a famine, according to legend) that inhabited the Adirondacks. Interestingly, most Iroquois mythological monsters are either humanoid or animal spirits, which has led some scholars to speculate that the Flying Head is either a reference to an unknown tribe, or given the description of the Flying Head (huge head, bat wings, fur-like feathers, and claws at the ends of its wings), cryptozoologists have speculated that it is a cultural memory of a remnant pterosaur called a Dimorphodon. At any rate, the Flying Head is busy scouring the countryside looking for women and children to eat.
There were many evil spirits and terrible monsters that hid in the mountain or caves when the sun shone, but came out to vex and plague the red men when storms swept the earth or when there was darkness in the forest. Among them was a ﬂying head which, when it rested upon the ground, was higher than the tallest man. It was covered with a thick coating of hair that shielded it from the stroke of arrows. The face was very dark and angry, filled with great wrinkles and horrid furrows. Long black wings came out of its sides, and when it rushed through the air mournful sounds assailed the ears of the frightened men and women. On it’s under side were two long, sharp claws, with which it tore its food and attacked its victims. The Flying Head came oftenest to frighten the women and children. It came at night to the homes of the widows and orphans, and beat its angry wings upon the walls of their houses and uttered fearful cries in an unknown tongue. Then it went away, and in a few days death followed and took one of the little family with him. The maiden to whom the Flying Head appeared never heard the words of a husband’s wooing or the prattle of a papoose, for a pestilence came upon her and she soon sickened and died (Cornplanter, 1902, p125-126).
China is a little more explicit about the gluttony thing with the T’ao t’ieh, frequently referred to as the “Monster of Greed”, or “Covetous Creature which-eats-till-Exhausted, a creature which is very gluttonous. It loves food and therefore is put on various vessels, as cover, handle, etc., as a warning against gluttony (Ayscough, 1925, p294). Clearly it’s a step down from decorating the foyer of a Hindu temple to a cooking pot, but it certainly is a more efficient way to communicate a real-time message about not overeating. The T’ao t’ieh clearly appears on Shang Dynasty (1600-1046 B.C.) pottery, but Neolithic jade carvings dating to roughly 3000 B.C. seem to indicate a corresponding design. The Zuo Zhuan (compiled roughly 389 B.C.), one of the earliest Chinese historical texts, mentions T’ao t’ieh as insatiably greedy, and the 3rd Century Lüshi Chunqiu encyclopedia comments, “The taotie on Zhou bronzes has a head but no body. When it eats people, it does not swallow them, but harms them”. Being swallowed, but not digested is only slightly more appealing than being swallowed and digested, the only clear advantage being that you don’t ultimately wind up as a pile of excrement. Come to think of it, that’s a pretty big plus.
‘[The officer] Jinyun [In the time of Huangdi] had a descendant who was devoid of ability and virtue. He was greedy of eating and drinking, craving for money and property. Ever gratifying his lusts, and making a grand display, he was insatiable, rapacious in his exactions, and accumulating stores of wealth. He had no idea of calculating where he should stop, and made no exceptions in favour of the orphan and the widow, felt no compassion for the poor and exhausted. All the people under heaven likened him to the three other wicked ones, and called him Glutton (Zho Zhuan, Book 6, “Duke Wen”, trans. Legge).
In Malaysian folklore, the Penanggalan spends the day as a normal human woman, but when night falls, detaches its head (and stomach) from its body and flits about the countryside looking to munch on the blood of pregnant women and young children, essentially a floating head vampire. While unattractive, there is a certain brutal efficiency to such an arrangement. If you’re going to be a blood-sucking flying head, you may as well bring along your stomach, otherwise you’re missing out on the nutritional value of your meal. Also, as the mythology would have it, you can perch in a tree and dangle your stomach like bait. The Penanggalan is said to arise from a midwife seeking demonic powers that involve a pact not to eat meat for 40 days, breaking the pact, and getting cursed to life as a vampires with a detachable head. Those demons take their pacts seriously.
We now come to the spirits which are believed to attack both women and children at childbirth. These are four in number: the Bajang, which generally takes the form of a pole-cat (musang) and disturbs the household by mewing like a great cat; the Langsuir, which takes the form of an owl with long claws, which sits and hoots upon the roof-tree; the Pontianak or Mati-anak, which, as will be seen presently, is also a night-owl, and is supposed to be a child of the Langsuir, and the Penanggalan, which is believed to resemble a trunkless human head with the sac of the stomach attached to it, and which flies about seeking for an opportunity of sucking the blood of infants (Skeat, 1900, p320).
Even the Vikings, not commonly associated with restraint, as much as mead-soaked debauchery, destruction, and healthy appetites, had their own disembodied head named Mimir. When not being carried around by Odin for consultation, Mimir’s head guards the Well of Wisdom beneath a root of the world tree Yggdrasil, from which he drinks continuously. According to legend he was wise before he got his head chopped off, but it seems like he just couldn’t get enough. As far as I can tell, Mimir is the only big giant head with a job.
The Aesir and the Vanir made peace, and reciprocally gave hostages. The Vanir gave to the Aesir Niord the Rich, whom the wise powers had created in Vanaheim, together with his children, Frey and Freyia. The Aesir, on their part, gave Hoenir, and sent him with Mimir, for whom in return they received Kvasir, the most prudent among the Vanir. Hoenir was raised to the chieftainship over the Vanir; but in all assemblies where good counsel was required, Mimir was obliged to whisper to Hoenir everything he should say; and in his absence, Hoenir constantly answered, “yes, consult now ye others.” The Vanir hereupon, thinking themselves deceived, slew Mimir, and sent his head to the Aesir, which Odin so prepared with herbs and incantations, that it spoke to him, and told him many hidden things (Thorpe, 1851, p14-15).
The ubiquitous giant heads of mythology are rarely crazy-smart craniums floating around discussing the mystery of life and sharing the secrets of the universe with us (Mimir is a bit of an exception to the rule, but he just gets toted around in a bag by Odin most of the day to answers stupid questions about Ragnarok, so we’ll overlook that). Generally, the big giant heads are about devouring everything that crosses their path in a mindless attempt to consume more, which is made doubly fruitless by their frequent lack of an accompanying gastrointestinal system. Early in our attempt to become civilized, no doubt some savvy priest looked around and surmised that if human beings weren’t restrained we’d wind up inventing vomitoriums, indulging in gut-bursting 20 course meals, and starting entire industries based on selling tasty, but marginally food-like products to the masses as a basic staple. Oh, wait. I guess it didn’t work so well. I’m not saying we are a bunch of greedy little hominids, rather that the entire history of the human race has revolved around food (just like most critters out there), but we alone among the animals have discovered a myriad ways to find transcendental pleasure in the act of consumption, a pleasure that can rapidly devolve into the outright gluttony of a big giant head. Far be it from me to criticize the habits of others, as I have a deep aesthetic appreciation for overindulgence, but as Italo Calvino once said, “In love, as in gluttony, pleasure is a matter of the utmost precision”.
Ayscough, Florence Wheelock, 1878-1942. A Chinese Mirror: Being Reflections of the Reality Behind Appearance. Boston & New York: Houghton Mifflin , 1925.
Cornplanter, Seneca chief, 1732?-1836. The Legends of the Iroquois. New York: A. Wessels Co., 1902.
Ingebretsen, Edward. At Stake: Monsters and the Rhetoric of Fear in Public Culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001.
Legge, James, 1815-1897. The Chinese Classics. Hongkong, 1861.
Skeat, Walter William, 1866-. Malay Magic, Being an Introduction to the Folklore And Popular Religion of the Malay Peninsula. London: Macmillan and co., limited , 1900.
Thorpe, Benjamin, 1782-1870. Northern Mythology: Comprising the Principal Popular Traditions And Superstitions of Scandinavia, North Germany, And the Netherlands. London: E. Lumley, 1851.