Cephalophores, the head-carriers
March 10, 2012 12:54 PM   Subscribe

Walking down Zürich's Lindenhofstrasse, you might stop in surprise by a relief depicting two men and a woman, draped in gauzy robes, each one calmly carrying their own severed head. There is no explanatory sign. Don't worry, though: Felix, Regula and Exuperantius are just the city's cephalophoric patron saints.

The three are part of Zürich's interesting religious history but by no means unique in survivng their own decapitations. Perhaps the most famous saintly cephalophore is St Denis, of whose two-league post-mortem walk Madame de Deffand said, "The distance is nothing; it is only the first step that is difficult." Other mediaeval saints rode on horseback with their heads or even threw them into rivers.

The cephalophore is not only found in Christianity. Both the Hindu goddess Devi and the Tibetan Buddhist goddess Vajrayogini have headless forms, Chhinnamasta and Chinnamunda (scroll right down) respectively. Unlike the Christian martyrs, both goddesses decapitated themselves, symbolising a complex mixture of ferocity, self-sacrifice and sexual energy.

Finally, the idea of the cephalore has of course inspired musicians, from Angelo Branduardi (mentioned in the horseback link above) to the Utah ambient/experimental/industrial outfit Cephalophore. For something much more upbeat, try They Might Be Giants' single, You Probably Get That A Lot.
posted by daisyk (16 comments total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
It is so great that the wikipedia link regarding the three cephalophore martyrs says that they picked up their heads and walked away, and there is no [citation needed] annotation.
posted by idiopath at 1:10 PM on March 10, 2012 [8 favorites]

Also worth mentioning: the Headless Hunt in the Harry Potter books (about which Nearly Headless Nick was quite bitter), although that may not count since they're ghosts and I get the feeling that true, still-corporeal cephalophores would look down on them (although not quite from the same altitude that they used to).
posted by Halloween Jack at 1:16 PM on March 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

...by no means unique in survivng their own decapitations.

Well, metaphorically, anyway. And by contrast, losing an i is nothing.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 1:35 PM on March 10, 2012 [2 favorites]

Well I would not expect a Swiss national to so irresponsible as to leave theirs behind.
posted by sammyo at 2:23 PM on March 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

I don't doubt that decapitation isn't any fun, but Agatha of Sicily still makes me wince more.
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 2:39 PM on March 10, 2012

I said cod-piece face!
posted by Sys Rq at 3:06 PM on March 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

Didn't Beetlejuice do this?
posted by cjorgensen at 3:13 PM on March 10, 2012

The legend cannot be traced beyond an 8th century account, according to which the story was revealed to a monk called Florentius.

If you were literate in the 8th century you could make any shit up and centuries would take it as, well gospel.
posted by mattoxic at 4:12 PM on March 10, 2012

What's the point of literacy if you can't make shit up and record it for posterity?

But seriously, I'm embarrassed I didn't know there was a word for "saint who carries their own head" until now. This is great.
posted by Tesseractive at 6:10 PM on March 10, 2012

I learned the word "cephalophore" from They Might Be Giants, and I'm glad the song was included in the post.
posted by Faint of Butt at 6:20 PM on March 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

Thanks! I'll be on Wikipedia all night!!
posted by swooz at 6:34 PM on March 10, 2012

St. Bart was skinned alive, so that's something.
posted by Nomyte at 6:36 PM on March 10, 2012

I sort of want to do a Suvudu match-up between these folks and the Headless Horseman of Sleepy Hollow now.
posted by Sidhedevil at 6:58 PM on March 10, 2012

After reading this post, I ended up on Wikipedia looking at patron saints for illness, danger and so on which led to me posting a question on AskMetafilter about interesting lists of things.

There are a few and many are excellent.
posted by sciencegeek at 7:56 PM on March 10, 2012

It's funny, I only recently learned this word because of that TMBG song. I listened to it about a dozen times before I stopped and went 'wait, what does that even mean?' I was expecting it to have something to do with whales.
posted by whitneyarner at 8:59 PM on March 10, 2012

I've walked down that street more than once, and missed this entirely.
posted by Goofyy at 1:22 AM on March 11, 2012

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