The Headless Horseman is one of my favorite supernatural beings to read about, so I decided to finally write about him. If you thought the Headless Horseman was first thought up by Washington Irving, then you'd be wrong. Legends surrounding a Headless Horseman date back to Celtic folklore where the being was called a Dullahan. The Dullahan was an Unseelie fairie who appeared as a headless rider who rode a black horse, usually with its head being carried around under its arms. I know what you're thinking. "Unseelie? Fairie? That sounds a little confusing!" Let me clarify something. While we in America generally associate fairies with beings that are non-threatening and fancy-free, ancient culture and most of the rest of the world associates them with powerful creatures that may or may not want to carry you off into the night. There are two courts that fairies belong to: Seelie and Unseelie. Seelie Court fairies are mischievous creatures, but will often seek out help from humans, warn those who accidentally offend them, and offer favors when kindness is given to them. So, not really dangerous unless you piss them off. Fairies of the Unseelie Court are not so forgiving. They are the creatures you read about that murder people outright, or take them away into the darkness. Not all members of the Unseelie Court are maleavolent, as some can grow attached to certain humans, though it is purely in the sense of a powerful being feeling attached to a pet. So, the Dullahan is a malevolent creature that most likely can't be reasoned with. The creature's black eyes dart about like flies, while the mouth is permanently in a grin, spreading from ear to ear. It would often ride a ghostly carriage with a human spine operating as its whip. When the Dullahan stopped in front of you and called out your name, you perished on the spot. I guess you can think of it more as a personification of Death than anything else. If you've ever seen Darby O'Gill and the Little People, then you've seen an example of the Dullahan. There is no way to protect against a Dullahan except for gold. They hate gold for some reason and will ultimately ride away if you have some on you. Otherwise, don't try to mess with them while they're trying to do their job, or you might get a bucket of blood thrown on you. Sounds pleasant!
In German folklore, the stories of a Headless Horseman is recounted by none other than the Brothers Grimm. The first story is set near Dresden in Eastern Germany. The tale tells of a woman who goes out to the forest to gather acorns. She hears a hunting horn blow once, than again, and when she looks up, she sees a headless horseman on a gray horse in her path. In another German tale, the Headless Horseman, or "wild huntsman" blows his hunting horn to warn the living not to go out hunting the next day, for they will suffer an accident if they do. The Headless Horseman shows up several other times in German folklore, sometimes as a villain, and sometimes as a vengeful spirit, seeking out perpetrators of capital crimes.
In America, the Headless Horseman is a character in a short story by Washington Irving. This version of the Headless Horseman is not a fairie, but a vengeful spirit. In life, the Horseman was a Hessian soldier helping the British fight the colonists in the American Revolutionary War. During the battle of Chatterton Hill, the unnamed Hessian soldier had his head taken off by an American cannonball. His body was buried in a graveyard nearby a church and that was supposed to be the end of it. The town that grew out of that area, called Sleepy Hollow, remembered the tale of the decapitated soldier, and it eventually turned into a legend. The legend went that travelers on the road at night would meet up with the Headless Horseman, an undead creature that was now looking for a replacement head. If you wanted to escape the Horseman, all you had to do was make it past the covered bridge by the church. Going past the bridge apparently put you out of the boundaries of the spirit. We all know the rest of the Irving story. The interesting point is that it is completely ambigious in the end whether there really was a Headless Horseman or not. Could it have been Brom Bones in disguise, or had the Headless Horseman actually spirited Ichabod Crane away. One question I always get from this story is why a Hessian soldier for the Horseman and not a British one? Well, Hessian soldier were contracted mercenaries mostly from Germany, and they were pretty brutal. Brutal, as in they would usually take no prisoners and they scared the living daylights out of the colonists. The Hessian involvement actually helped bring Loyalist over to the Revolutionary side. With a reputation like that, it just makes sense that Irving would make the ghost of the tale a brutal Hessian.
The legend of the Headless Horseman continues to this day, as people have claimed to have seen headless figures on horseback on those chilly Fall nights when no one else is around. Whether it's a vengeful spirit, a bringer of death, or a warning of ill-events, the Headless Horseman always spells out bad news. I think the reason I like the Horseman so much is because we really don't have many spirit stories left over from the early days of our nation. Our folklore doesn't seem to dwell as much on the spirit world as other countries, but I do feel like the Headless Horseman is probably the father of all American ghost stories.