Heads and Tales

Well the Apocalypse that wasn’t predicted by the ancient Mayans didn’t arrive. But it won’t be long before the End Times industry picks another date for the end of the world and starts spreading the word.

Some stories are just too good to be allowed to die and the Hexham Heads is another one of them (see my posts, Twilight of the Celtic Gods and Celtic Curse Tested?). I’m on record as describing the legend of the two small evil-looking stone carvings dug out of a garden in Northumberland by two children in 1971 as ‘a classic in the supernatural field that remains an unsolved mystery to this day’, so here’s why.

Paul Screeton's Quest for the Hexham Heads

Paul Screeton’s Quest for the Hexham Heads

In Quest for the Hexham Heads (CFZ publications) Paul Screeton has produced an almost definitive account of the legend, pulling together three decades of lore into an entertaining romp through one of the weirdest stories in the Fortean literature.

Almost definitive because the author’s personal quest referred to in the title – to discover the current whereabouts of the heads – is ongoing. This lingering element of mystery adds to its power and longevity.

My friend, the archaeologist Dr Anne Ross, who died after a long illness this summer, played a central role. Back in 1972 she was drawn into a series of events that would not be out of place in a story by M.R. James when the two ‘Celtic style’ heads arrived at her Southampton home for examination.

During their stay Anne was tormented by the appearance of a terrifying apparition in the form of a werewolf that was seen and heard by other family members. Her youngest son, Richard Charles, gives his own account of the creature in a postscript to Screeton’s book.

In 1994 his mother told me that she was unaware at the time that similar hauntings – including the appearance of a creature half man, half sheep – had occurred near the place of their discovery.

Anne had made the mistake of going on record to say she believed the head’s baleful influence may have been absorbed from a Celtic shrine at their place of discovery in Hexham.

The joker in the pack was lorry driver Des Craigie who popped up shortly after her story was published to claim he had made the heads from artificial stone for his daughter to play with when he lived at the house in Rede Avenue, Hexham, years earlier.

I could appreciate the dilemma she faced because in 1990 I became the part-owner of a ‘haunted stone head’ from Ryshworth Hall in West Yorkshire that had been the subject of similar lurid tabloid headlines. This artefact became the centre of much attention when Andy Roberts and I put it on display following our talk on ‘cursed heads’ at the 2011 FT Unconvention.

Like the Hexham heads, our head was just a lump of stone carved with a face, according to one version in 1978, and buried by a former owner of the hall who was ‘sitting on his cloud rocking with laughter.’ So what is going on?

Are these artefacts really imbued with an ancient Celtic curse or are all these stories just creations of over-active imaginations? Well the answer to such questions is rarely cut and dried. My view is pretty much the same as that articulated by Doc Shiels in a letter quoted by Paul:

‘I really don’t think it matters too much when the heads were made, or who made them, the things worked and that’s what matters.’

The power of ‘cursed’ artefacts, whether they be ‘Celtic heads’ or Egyptian mummy cases, ultimately emanates from the enchantment generated in the minds of those who handle and write about them, as the content of this book amply testifies.  Paul’s background as a journalist and his amiable and eccentric writing style helps the reader navigate through quite a bit of padding – including diversions into speculation about ‘window areas’, wulvers, the stone tape theory, exorcism, Celtic mythology and much else – before we reach the meat, as it were.

By p172 he suggests the movement of the heads, whatever their provenance, may have ‘allowed a portal to open and release a daimonic reality hybrid.’ This simple act, he adds, may have generated ‘a warp in the time continuum whereby the carved head industry of [Celtic Britain] inspired a concrete plant worker and later a schoolboy…to follow suit via a subliminal level.’

At this point I wondered if the author was either pulling my leg or about to fall into the same elephant trap that snared Anne Ross. But then in his conclusion Paul appears to snap out of the spell woven by the heads and admits he may have failed to see ‘the larger picture.’  The larger picture being?:

‘…there’s no denying those artefacts’ provenance was essentially irrelevant to the mayhem and mystery they caused. Essentially they belong to myth.’

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