7. Severed heads were particularly sacred body parts.
Heads seemed to be particularly relevant to the Celts, judging by the regularity that they appeared as artistic embellishments on their metalwork. Some experts argue that severed heads had no particular religious significance and were just a popular decorative motif. However, there is plenty of evidence from classical sources and surviving Celtic traditions that suggest that the head had a sacred significance to the Celts- not just in Europe but also on the island of Britain too.
Strabo, Julius Caesar and Diodorus Siculus reported how the Gaulish warriors cut off and collected the heads of dead enemies after battle. They would proudly display the majority of these heads outside their houses. However, those of the most distinguished warriors became more than grizzly trophies. These heads were carefully embalmed and carefully stored in chests. Sometimes families kept them for generations and would not part with them for any amount of gold. This practice stemmed from the Celtic belief that the head was the seat of the soul.
By preserving and keeping the head of a valiant foe, a warrior could draw upon the deceased’s entrapped qualities and talents. The trapped soul could also become a guardian spirit. The position of skulls found in Celtic era earthworks suggests the people displayed them on the entrances of hill forts. In Britain, people have discovered some iron age decapitated heads in bodies of water. One of the most recent finds was in 2017 when a dog walker found the decapitated skull of an iron age woman washed up on the banks of the River Sowy in Somerset.
Archaeologist Richard Bunning believes the head was deliberately separated from the rest of the body and then deposited in the water of the river as a protective totem for a nearby settlement. This interpretation fits in with British Celtic mythology, particularly the story of Bran the Blessed, the gigantic ruler of Britain. After Bran was fatally wounded in battle, the giant asked his comrades to cut off his head and return it to Britain and bury it in the white mound at London- the spot later known as tower hill- so he could continue to guard his former kingdom. All the way home, even though Bran’s body was dead, his preserved head continued to speak and eat- a metaphor for the continuation of his soul.