Co-editors: Seán Mac Mathúna • John Heathcote
Consulting editor: Themistocles Hoetis
Field Correspondent: Allen Hougland


The Sacred Cult of the Severed Head
John Heathcote

History is made by he who wields the sword;

History is written by those that hold the pen

The Amen Corner: Theatre review by John Heathcote

Working for the Golden Cow


The Sacred Cult of the Severed Head is one of the reminders of the true history of the peoples who live in these islands. By following the slender threads of cult and tradition through the undergrowth of folklore we can begin to reveal what has been buried and supressed.

During research I was engaged in for a small antiquarian quarterly, I became aware of the Cult of the Severed Head. My assignment had taken me to the wild parts of Derbyshire, where the nights still hold the depth of darkness, unaffected by the light pollution, the sirens, the constant babble and hum of the city.

The accepted view of history in societies is written by the dominant tribe, the conquerors.

To ensure that the culture remains the servant of the power structure, rather than its engine, it becomes necessary to subsume or destroy all reminders of the previous inhabitants. The results of this process can be seen in most areas of the world where, since mankind first emerged, he has spread ever further from his points of origin in great waves. As various parts of the world became more isolated by the process of continental drift and climate change, others became melting pots of tribes and peoples always on the move. The islands of Britain were far enough from the mainland of Europe to provide sanctuary, but close enough to reach, for those willing to risk rough seas or the often treachorous coastline. Once here, new arrivals would find the islands covered by great forests; and working their way into the interior, would often be able to settle at a distance from any other inhabitants. The inevitable pressures of population growth and further waves of incomers began to merge these peoples together into tribes with distinct cultures which drew from both newly arrived, and older traditions. Philosophies developed their own explanatory and evocative rituals, and many of these have survived to the present day, despite the last thousand years of suppression, or submersion within the dominant belief system.

Within these islands there were at least two great waves of people within the mists of prehistory who predated the Celts. The people of the Mesolithic age ( or Middle Stone Age) probably arrived here from the frozen tundra of the Siberian plains. These people were responsible for the magical paintings of animal spirits, gods and rituals in cave systems deep within the Earth. Both Fire and The Bow became venerated as a sacred gifts, which ensured survival through the seasons. These people would follow the great herds of reindeer and elks, making temporary bases from which they would fan out, and hunt until the animals moved on. Although they have left us no permanent memorials or recorded histories, it was probably these people who first discovered the mysteries of music. Using the bones and hides of the animals they had killed to make drums, and the twang of the bow as the melodic precursor of the harp, they would call on the spirit of the animal to sacrifice it's kind for the good of the tribe.

As the climate became more temperate and hospitable, these hunters were followed by the Iberian tribes, travelling down from the African mainland, via Spain and Portugal. These peoples, described as Beaker People were the builders of the great stone circles, barrows and dolmens that have been regarded as sacred ever since. We shall see how the culture and beliefs of these peoples have never disappeared; and that the fruits of conquest often become poisonous on the lips of the conqueror.

The Iberian peoples never disappeared, either in this country or in the rest of Europe.The only place in mainland Europe where they have survived as an integral tribe is in the Basque country; and the language of the Basques is the only non-Indo European language. However, their identity in this country has merged into that of the people who followed them, and we can find the clearest traces of their culture, and history as a separate people within the the Celtic Mythos.

One of the earliest Celtic legends recounts the tale of the mythical hero Bendigeidfran. His name which means Bran the Blessed, or more literally The Blessed Raven, is a reminder of the importance to our ancestors of totemic names, and totems able to mediate with animal spirits. After being mortally injured in battle in Ireland, Bran commanded his men to sever his head after his death, and take it across the sea to Britain. There it was be buried beneath the White Mount in London, facing France to defend Britain from invasion. The story is first recounted in the Mabinogi of Branwen, daughter of Llyr; the original Cordelia of King Lear, Shakespeare's epic drama. Today, the White Mount is the present site of the White Tower in the Tower of London.

Whilst it remained there, the Island of the Strong Door, or Ynys Prydein as these islands were known by the Celts, would be safe. Bran's head would be protected by the Ravens of the Tower, a legend persisting to this day. However, since Bran's head was removed by Arthur for safe-keeping in the last days of his reign, it presumably now rests with the magical king, along with the Sword, the Cauldron and the Sangrael.

Today the ravens' wings are clipped to "encourage" them to stay.

This myth alone explains various pertinent facts concerning the geo-political position of Britain and Ireland (and the other smaller islands, all of which I will henceforth refer to as the Western Isles). These islands are positioned on the western-most edge of the European mainland. Their size and temperate climate allow them to support a fairly large population in stable circumstances, and they are strategically positioned in the ideal place for any ventures to the continent that lies even further to the West, which has come to be home to the most dominant Empire on the planet. It is becoming increasingly clear that not only were the people of previous ages aware of the existence of this great land-mass far across the ocean, but that various cultures made contact, traded, and probably even settled in areas of the Americas.

A recent television documentary investigated the apocryphal links between a tribe of Native Americans and a settlement on the North American coast, by an exiled Welsh prince and his followers.

Another programme recently investigated the background to the results of post-mortem toxicology tests on mummified Pharoahs reported in a recent copy of The Lancet that had shown the high incidence of cocaine and cannabis use amongst Egypt's ruling family (- so, what's new?). Although the other drugs found in the bodies (opiates and cannaboids) were always known to have been available within the trade zone of Egypt's empire, the coca plant is of strictly South American origin. The mummified bodies also seemed to be wrapped in leaves closely resembling those of the tobacco plant.

The Pharoah's, it was claimed by their historians, had a secret source of gold, far to the West; and modern historians make quizzical comparisons between the temple architecture of the great South American civilisations, and the construction of the pyramids, but always seem to leave this question hanging in the air.

The Phoenicians, who were another great North African trading nation were known to regularly visit Cornwall and the West Coast of Britain - which gives some credibility to the Cornish legend of how an original disciple of the Prophet Jesus, Joseph of Arimathea landed in Cornwall and travelled to Glastonbury. The Cornish claim that it was Joseph who taught them about the cult of Christianity, and indeed built the first chapel. He also apparently taught them the skills of tin-mining.

Whatever the details, it is becoming apparent that most seagoing cultures from Europe to the Middle East were aware of the existence of this land mass we now call America.(Maps ref.) The main difference between those cultures, and post-Colombian world Empires was that instead of meeting the inhabitants of those lands as equals, and thus being able to trade with them and live amongst them; the Europeans of the 16th century onwards regarded the inhabitants with little more respect than they gave the flora or fauna.

It is apparent then that the name Ynys Prydein was given to the Western Isles as an indicator of their position between two continents. The people of these islands have always been a mixed strand of exiled travellers who had left, or been forced off the continental mainlands. A principle of the story may well have been a wish to demonstrate the interdependence of the islands; that they are destined to live or die together.

During the period of the Druidic theocracy, the islands were linked not only to each other, through the Druidic College, but to Brittany and large areas of France and Spain as well. The reputation of their magical knowledge (both natural and philosophical), and of their cultural power over this vast confederation of tribes was known as far as Greece. It is fair to assume that much of their esoteric learning was developed in the light of other systems, which they would approach with as much respect as their own, unlike their imperial descendants. It is also fair to assume that this knowledge included that of world geography, both mythical and historical.

Although the best known sites of great natural magic were centred in the western parts of what is now called England, we can find a concentration of power, demonstrated by nodes and ley lines, around London - the site destined to be the centre of the future Empire. Even now we are reminded of the predominance of these sites, and the common belief in their sacredness by the continuation of names which are either explicitly pagan (like Herne Hill) or Celtic (the Pen in Pentonville being derived from Pen, meaning head). Although we will not go into great detail here, as this subject deserves more investigation, it is interesting to note that Greenwich, where Josef Conrad begins his narrative in this book of imperial destruction is named in respect of the Green Man, the wild man of the woods. The people of these islands witnessed the two great imperial invaders (the Norman and Roman) destroying the forest to gain control of the land and the people; the people and thence the land.

For it was only these two invasions which claimed the land from beneath the feet of the people, who had previously regarded the land as a sacred entity, which they were linked to through their dead ancestors, the totem spirits of the animal realm, giving them a sacred connection with the earth itself. For these tribal peoples, including the Saxon and Norse, land was held in trust for the yet unborn children, and had both a receptive intelligence and perceptible inherent power. Much like the native tribes who inhabit what we now -ironically - call The New World, the earth and all that grew there was sacred.

Although Man could find a use for everything that grew or lived there, nothing was created without its own integral spirit, which would demand propiation for any sacrifice demanded by Man.In perhaps the most obvious examples of these laws of propiation, we could cite the cases of the "bog-people", and finds such as the Gundestrup Cauldron.

In a tradition which was prevalent throughout the whole of Europe as well as the Western Isles, sacrifices were made to the spirits of the Earth at the last remaining areas of the ancient rainforests.Vast amounts of treasure were sunk into the swamps and bogland, a lot created purely for the purpose of sinking it into the gorge of wet earth; returning something of the earth to the Earth that we had taken and recreated with our conscious aesthetic. The majority of new examples found today come from the Scandinavian countries, which never came under the hegenomony of the Roman Empire. The sacred groves of the Druids and Iberian peoples of Southern Europe were drained and despoiled by the Romans; in a form of religious suppression familiar to the English Church under Henry. The resulting booty was auctioned off, to swell the depleted coffers of the greedy Empire.

However, corpses not having the same monetary value as silver and gold, bogs in the Western Islands still occasionally reveal the withered but well-preserved form of human compensation. Amongst its scenes of Love and Death,the Gundestrop cauldron depicts the progress of sacrifice, with the twisted band of strangulation worn as a band of honour around the brow. It is thought that the Cauldron was captured by the Germani of Himmerland, where it was re-discovered, from people in the Eastern Celtic area. It was later broken into pieces by the Germani and sunk in sacrifice into the sacred bog in an attempt perhaps to reverse the fortunes of their wars of expansion. Within the details on the vessel we have perhaps the best picture-book description of the culture existing in Celto-Iberian Europe at the time.(See pg 98., Bog People)

In short, the concept of a king who claimed the land itself as belonging to only him and his lineal descendants, as William of Normandy did in England, was as strange to the Celtic clans and Saxon tribes (who had shortly before voted the kingship to Harold Godwin through the Witan) as the claims to King George's ownership of North America were to the Native Americans.

It is worth noting the speed with which William tried to seal off the forests from the "common" people, and that much of the friction between the subject races and the Norman overlords was a direct result of this policy of internal curtailment. It is due to the emnity aroused by this 'royal' sequestration that we are told William Rufus, Duke William's flame-haired son was executed by the unhappy rebellious people. Another theory {Marg. Murray} intimates that Rufus, not entirely convinced by his father's version of Imperial Roman Christianity, had willingly or unconsciously been drawn to his fate in the New Forest. The arrow which spilt his blood on the green turf came from a sacred bow; and every drop nourished the land; which was now scarred with roads over bare hills between great grey castles pressing down on the people and the land.

For the Celtic areas, and even those areas where Celts were a minority, this sudden regime had a disastrous effect. (It is worth noting that even in the Doomsday book, Celtic families living in predominantly Saxon areas were still referred to as Welshmen.) The Celtic families in these areas usually were left the more menial work, which did not involve owning land; but ironically offered more freedom. They would often live in or on the edge of the great forests; a fact recorded by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles in the story of the Woodwose (a.k.a. Green Man); or commonly be employed as shepherds. (Even now shepherds in Suffolk call their dogs in an old dialect of the language we know today as Welsh)

Apart from the social effect, which was common to both Celts and Saxons, of depriving the people of a continual source of food and fuel, which could always protect them from the worst ravages of Winter, the reservation of remaining forest as Royal territory had an enormous cultural impact. The Celtic religion saw trees as the manifestations of the spirits of the land. Their magical writing system used an alphabet named primarily after the trees in the forest. Their worship of the Oak tree, as a natural manifestation which could withstand a thousand years was well-known, with its symbolic importance - along with the Mistletoe, a tradition now only dimly remembered at Christmas.

Much as in aboriginal pantheistic religions elsewhere, the Druidism was aware of the necessity of respecting and maintaining the forests for the welfare of the people of these islands; and this could be ensured by the correct and ritualistic observance of the totems - the Oak, the Stag, the Salmon and so on. The idea of hunting for pleasure or money would have been regarded as sacrilege, as would the destruction of the oaks and the sacred groves at the heart of the forests. Ironically, these forests later became the lifeblood of the Empires shipyards; and their ancestors the fuel of the Industrial revolution.

However, the first Norman kings were content to drive roads through them, and clear most for castles controlling towns; or to make this a land of peasants tilling the soil to increase the wealth of their feudal masters as far as the eye could see.

To kill a stag became a capital offence, and to be caught within a Royal Forest was proof enough of outlaw status, deserving of death.

Within the Celtic areas, where Christianity had been incorporated within the framework of Druidic mysticism, the Kings Law now spelled cultural devastation. Sacred sites which had been maintained from time before memory were now out-of-bounds. Ceremonies to ensure the smooth running of the natural cycle, which would maintain the link between Man and what was of the Earth, were in danger of being indefinitely curtailed. This belief can be found echoed in cultures as far away as Australia, and the Aboriginal belief in the Songlines.

It is hard to imagine now in an urbanised England, criss-crossed with concrete, just how much of the land was covered in forest, much of it impenetrable to any force majeur. The forests offered perfect cover for outlaws and rebels, both Celtic and Saxon, along with a possibility of maintaining customs nearly forgotten in the cities, and only half-remembered in the rural rituals of the peasantry, and the gargoyles on the Church.

It has become clear in the last few decades when historians have begun to throw off the shroud of Puritan ignorance, that the Old Religion was not only maintained, but that it was an integral part of the struggles within the Plantaganet kingdom.

There are suspicions of course that the son of the Conqueror himself was sacrificed in the forest with the consent of his Norman court; but is also possible that he offered himself up as a practising pagan king, or was ordered to do so by some secret priesthood.

However, by the time that the most famous of recent legends concerning this largely unrecorded conflict of belief took place, that of Robin Hood and Maid Marian, Catholic Christianity in Britain (and most of Europe) had been forced to produce a synthesis which included many aspects of the older, natural religions and cults. There is an unspoken secret at the heart of the Robin Hood story which has more relevance to the freedom of the forest than just the freedom to kill and eat deer.

The most obvious connection with the old religion is the importance of the colour green. The central importance of Maid Marian, a real woman as opposed to a semi-divine.; the wearing of the hoods, the use of hunters' bows as opposed to the knights' swords, and the gathering around an oak tree at the call of a horn are also signs of the pagan element involved in the story.

We should not forget the presence of Alan A' Dale, who as one of the troubadours, was preserving the Celtic mythos through the art of storytelling, singing the story. The pagan element in a typical minstrel story like Gawain and the Green Knight is obvious. It is also notable that it was through the Arthurian Myths, retold as romantic legends to the Norman Courts, that the Celtic history and culture could crystallise itself into a pure form, to prevent it disappearing as the memories dissolved.

The influence of this older, more reflective tradition on the warrior culture of the Normans produced the strange etiquette of Chivalry. There was also a corresponding rise in the Marian Cult in Catholic Europe, which was the re-emergence of the White Goddess under a different name.

The influence of Celtic culture on the perceptions of the medieval are inestimable. The Monastic Orders, so popular in the Celtic Church, began to achieve increasing power. Although many were notoriously corrupt; monks (and in particular travelling friars) became the teachers of the poor, their monasteries the only source of welfare, and quite often criticising the prevailing social order.

Many well-known peasant leaders in Britain were clerics , and in France they were involved in at least two major attempts to bring about social reform through revolution. On the whole though, the central authorities of the Roman Church were determined to exercise as much power over the spiritual lives of their flock as possible. However, most of their energy was directed against the so- called heretics in their own ranks, and the consolidation of the New Rome within the secular world of Courts and Kings.

The Church was aware of the sub-culture of paganism which was present in both country and city. In the countryside, rituals common to European fertility cults were observed side by side with the Catholic Holy Days. Some were even absorbed into the church, such as the Christianised Harvest Festival, in an attempt to subvert the older rituals. Many saints, especially of the more local variety were updated versions of legendary Celtic myth-figures or mystics. In the cities and towns rituals involving the Green Man and the May Queen would still be performed at sacred sites that now lay within the city walls, albeit in ways that maintained the illusion of meanings then only half-remembered.

It is interesting to note, as well, the continuation of human sacrifice to propiate the earth for the weight it had to bear when a large building was constructed. Most large churches, bridges and buildings of the early middle-ages still have the bodies of the victims in the foundations, often buried alive. This custom has connections of belief with the Severed Heads, and must have been sanctioned by the authorities themselves - unless secretly perpetrated by the masons themselves.

Many medieval churches bombed during the World War II were revealed to have had small dolmens, or fertility stones upright beneath the altars. This was something the medieval congregation at prayer would have known about.

The Robin Hood stories' traditional setting in the reign of the brothers Richard and John, and their central part in the plot, perhaps point to a fundamental difference within the Norman Establishment of the time, as to what extent they should be magical, or secular kings.

Their forefather, Henry, it has been suggested by the learned Dr Margaret Murray was such a strong believer in the sacrificial element of kingship, he persuaded his arch-Priest Thomas A Beckett to make the substitution and save him for another seven years. And although St.George, the knight who slew the serpent of mystical consciousness, was chosen as the patron saint of the Plantagenet kingdom, they were by no means untouched by the dragon's influence.

Their worship of the stag hunt was perhaps an attempt to capture the natural magic of the old rituals. The forests stretched as far as Eltham in South London, where the remains of the royal hunting lodge are now covered by a Tudor palace.

This site is also-reputedly- linked to the massive cave system starting in Chislehurst, known as Merlin's Caves. Although ancient even before the Celts had arrived in this country, it is clear that they understood the sacred power of the caves, and their altars can be seen within the subterranean system to this day. As with the ritual of burying the clay heads to whisper secrets to the Earth, being within it brings one closer to its elemental power.

The midsummers day line in London can be drawn between Parliament Hill and the the White Tower: On midsummers day, the sun rises along this line, known as a Azimuth. Tracing this line south it passes near a old cave system known today as Jack Cade's Cavern in Blackheath. This was possibly renamed because Cade, as leader of the Kentish rebellion in 1450, was paying his respects to the effigy of the Horned God which stands inside. It is likely that many of his rebel army would have been no more believers in the Roman Church than the Norman King.

The resumption of large-scale beheading in a place of ancient Celtic ritual, strangely seemed to occur during the reigns of the Welsh Tudors. The victims, usually aristocrats or churchmen would often find themselves quite suddenly falling out of favour and being dispatched off up the river and through Traitors Gate. There they would be held in the Tower awaiting their execution on the mound outside the window. The White Tower stands on the ancient sacred hill of the White Goddess, who was guarded by the menhir, the two giants Gog and Magog. Watched over even now by the totemic ravens, messengers to the underworld, the site has a dark and heavy power.

It is on this hill that the Great Witch, Elizabeth I , dispatched so many of her suitors with the true ruthlessness of a tribal Queen. It was during her reign that the ancient magic was reversed. With the help of her sorcerers Francis Bacon and Dr. John Dee (not forgetting his apprentice Patrick Kelly), the great oaks were torn down to provide a pathway of ships to the Western Continent, and the blood began to be transformed into gold.

During this time, the rise of the Protestant Establishment plunged the Western Islands into a frenzy of witch burning and icon smashing. Anything which smelt even vaguely of superstition or the Old Religion was purged and destroyed. Churches which had to some extent held the parallel beliefs of the medieval community side by side were emptied of the relics, the icons, the synthesised symbols of the two beliefs. Gargoyles were smashed as representations of demons, when in fact they were nature spirits guarding the building, and the community.

Far from being devout Christians the Establishment were involved in a conspiracy to draw all magical knowledge, and therefore power to themselves. The Union of England and Scotland had less to do with the Stuarts than the final triumph of Templar Masonry which had retreated to the Scottish Court after the destruction of the Order in mainland Europe by the alliance of Pope and French King.

Masonry, although informed by the theosophical roots of Druidism, was a philosophically humanistic system divorced from the primal earth-magic systems which composed such a large element of the Celtic religion.

The imposition of a strictly Old Testament Christianity on the large mass of people, the eradication of any secret traditions outside the magical system of Masonry allowed the Establishment to begin its imposition of a secular class system. Unrestrained by moral imperative or obligation to the Earth itself, and with a population increasingly ignorant of the true history of these islands, the Norman ruling class could govern by illusion.

The people in forgetting their culture would forget their history. The break with natural religion would allow the rulers to make the ruled complicit in a destruction of the environment which reached fruition in the Industrial Age and still inspires this Age of Consumerism.

Spiritually, people were forced to be suspicious of anything that was inexplicable, outside the parameters of the Bible. The ecstatic element of Natural religion was regarded as the most dubious, being the most liberating - especially in a social way. The secret cult rituals which often needed the fruits of the forest, as well as its protection, slipped into folk-memory in most places. Any hint of sexuality was regarded as heathen; a fear of the power of the fertility cults and the power of women within them. (It is worth noting the Norman aristocracy's ideas on "breeding", a peculiarly caste-based belief, and one that must have been pertinent in Norman Britain, and compare it to the Celtic traditions of adoption and clan.)

Kings and Queens would now find the divine prerogative of life and death executed in their name, but they themselves would not have any obligations to the people they were set over. Popular demand cannot remove them, and the one chance of a people's revolution in the Western Isles was hijacked by an alliance of Christian Fundamentalists and the upper middle class.

At the time, the Parliamentarian forces considered the Civil War to be the long-awaited rejoinder of the Saxon people to the Norman aristocracy; but the struggle was soon compromised by the bourgeoisie, who had found it useful to instill the idea of a vengeful capitalist God into the minds of the working folk. The Government of Cromwell in fact left an indelible mark of cruelty and wanton destruction in Eire, a policy pursued with zest by all that followed him, and eventually enlarged to take in the last independent Celtic areas in Scotland, where the people were slaughtered or exiled, and replaced with sheep, stag or grouce. The forests were cleared out of the Scottish uplands except for a few private estates, and the Clan system finally destroyed.

Elizabeth Tudor was monarch when the system was on the cusp of change, and was not averse to using magic from whatever source she needed. This, despite her treatment of the Celtic Irish, and the final acts in this era banning the use of Celtic or Gaelic languages, as well as the final seizure of Cornwall to the British Crown.

England has been saved from imperial invasion twice. The first time was at the time of the Armada, when the Witches of England were called to repel the overwhelmingly superior Spanish Fleet. A storm ensued which was so bad that very little fighting had to take place. Descendants of the many unhappy sailors washed ashore that fateful night still live in the West Country (England) and Ireland, proudly bearing their old Spanish names.

The second Great Coven was called to repel the Nazi invasion in 1941. Subsequent to the request for the British witches (including the occultist Crowley) to concentrate on Hitler's mind and disturb his strange rationale, he launched the campaign against the Soviet Union, his crucially tactical mistake.

Britain, totally unprepared for the possibility of invasion due to the appeasement mentality of the Establishment until 1939, was able to gain a valuable breathing space.

Tudour, which strangely means 'Two doors' in the old language, had in fact opened the Strong Door two ways. The oppression of the Irish was suddenly seen as a paramount necessity, to secure the route to the pot of gold. It was perhaps an ironic consequence of this history, that as the Celts saw their culture disappearing, it was becoming in diluted form the language of the new world.

© JH 1998