Imagine that you are a Roman officer involved in treaty negotiations with a local Celtic tribe. Your commander would like nothing better than to have the Chief's consent to a "small" troop of soldiers stationed in his village. You know that the subsequent military build-up will be so gradual that by the time these savage warriors figure it out, the tribe will be completely at Rome's mercy. And the deceit will work because of the grand luxuries that you are prepared to give the Chief in return for his cooperation in the enslavement of his people. It's a good plan, one that has worked well for the Empire in the past.
You have suddenly received an invitation to dine with the Chief. No doubt he will try to impress you with his barbarian finery and quaint customs. This "diplomatic" dinner is your opportunity to make a swell impression and further Rome's cause. Dressed in your finest, you fearlessly set out for the village, boldly leaving your escort at the gates of the circular fort. You enter the large round feast hall with the blazing fire in the middle. There in the glow of the firelight sits the Chief, surrounded by his warriors, their hair bleached and spiked with lime. Women with their long dark hair streaming behind them greet you in their strange harsh tongue and draw you to a place near the Chief. They offer you water to wash and a plate of bread and salt. You proffer the gifts you have brought -- small gold items for the men and women around you, and a large gold armband for the Chief. He nods his thanks and puts the band aside.
The evening moves gracefully. The Bard, accompanied by a harp, sings a martial piece praising the tribe in general and this chieftain in particular. A young man, assigned to serve as interpreter, can only give you a taste of the song's deep meaning. Well, anyway, nice music. You applaud at the song's end, only to notice that men around you are smiling appreciatively, fire sparkling in their dark eyes. A roasted pig is served and the warriors fall to a ritualized bragging competition, each declaring why he should receive the "Hero's Portion." You enjoy an excellent meal of roast meat, bread, stew, heather ale, and raucous laughter. Then the Bard sings again, this time a haunting lament. The men fall silent and even wistful. You try to listen respectfully, but the ale is ruining your concentration.
The song ends and the Chief rises to speak of his own prowess in battle. The men seem expectant, eager. You foolishly yawn at this continued display of barbarian bravado, even as a stream of servants appear with dark wooden chests, ornately carved and smelling strongly of cedar.
Yes, it is time for the formal presentation of the Chief's personal head collection.
Uggh! You think, hey, we Romans chop off heads and stick them on poles to rot, but we don't keep them preserved to be used as an apertif. By the Gods, what's the Chief doing now? Oh, no, more bragging. He's reciting -- and your interpreter is translating brilliantly -- the complete history of each head: whose, where, when, why. He even has some from his father's time. Most are the heads of rival chieftains ... but wait, the last three had Roman names. And now every eye in the hall is focused on you.
Okay, you say, I'm impressed -- a little grossed out, but impressed. You're thinking, as soon as I get back to the camp I'm going straight to the Commander and tell him to bring in reinforcements now. Don't bother seducing this bloodthirsty lot. Just kill 'em. Politely you express your appreciation for the evening's entertainment and will convey the Chief's messages to Commander Cassius as soon as you reach his tent.
"Why wait?" whispers the interpreter as the Chief laughs. "He's here already," and the Chief pulls from the last chest the dripping head of Commander Cassius.
Early Celtic warriors were not so much head hunters as head collectors. Their beliefs encompassed the idea that the sum of an opponent -- his skills and achievements -- were contained in his head. Take the head and all that he was passes to the taker (yes, very like in Highlander). Heads of lesser opponents were suitable for decorative purposes, such as hanging from the chariot or to adorn the door posts of the warrior's home. The best heads, those of the greatest opponents, were carefully preserved in cedar oil and used to impress one's dinner guests.
And, of course, the guests should not only be impressed, but should consider themselves honoured by such a display. After all, it might betoken a further invitation -- that you, my honoured guest, might someday be considered worthy enough to join my collection.
The "Cult of the Head" permeates early Celtic art, history, and literature, and remains in one form or another for centuries. See Tobar nan Ceann for a 17th century account.
I even have my own head story which I relate with all due apologies to faithful Irish Catholics everywhere.
In 1992 while on holiday in Ireland, my seven year old son Ian and I entered the church in Drogheda, repository of the relics of the Blessed Oliver Plunkett. At the back of the nave I explained to Ian that Plunkett was a 17th century Bishop of Armagh, persecuted for his Catholic faith and brutally executed by the English. What could be salvaged of his body was enshrined in this church, where faithful Irish Catholics come to pray for his intercessions.
Ian listened patiently, but said nothing. We rounded the corner into a large well-lit side chapel with a scattering of nuns saying rosaries and others in silent prayer. And there, on the altar, in a clear glass box, was the dessicated head of Oliver Plunkett. I was half expecting this, based on previous experience with reliquary rooms, but Ian was not. Very quietly, my awe-struck little boy approached the altar and stared wide-eyed.
And then, in a voice that could only be heard over a three block radius, he announced, "Mommy, he looks yucky!"