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The Enduring Myths of the Headless Horsemen

Dean Traylor splits his time being a special education teacher and a freelance writer.

title: The Headless Horseman Pursuing Ichabod Crane,

title: The Headless Horseman Pursuing Ichabod Crane,

Ichabod's Dilemma

In the dead of night, Ichabod Crane heard the ominous hooves pounding the trail behind him. Normally, fearful man, Ichabod's heart raced as he perspired. The the chilly night could compete with the chattering that ominous sound made.

He heard the stories; the night belonged to a ghoul on horseback. He thought he'd get through the night without running into this hideous entity. He thought wrong.

The demon rider, dressed in a Hessian soldier's uniformed and cape charged at him on his death-black steed. He howled and raised his saber for the attack. But that was not the most horrifying thing Ichabod saw, or didn't see. This rider had no head!

More Than a Story

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, the classic Washington Irving story, is a classic. Even if one hasn't read the story, one will recognize the iconic names of Ichabad Crane and his demonic antagonist, The Headless Horseman.

Over the year, the story has been adopted for for numerous medias and theatrical genre. This includes a Disney short, made-for-TV movies, and a major blockbuster film.

By all appearance, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow created a new "mythological" deity in the Headless Horseman (also known in the story as the "Galloping Hessian"). However, it may be a surprise that he's not the only, nor the first, decapitated character in literature.

Still, such legends can be traced even further back to medieval times.

In addition, he's not the only "American" headless horseman, There are several versions. In addition, Irving’s creation has a few names of its own.

In many cases, the names of headless horsemen in America can be:

  • The Headless Horseman (as many people call him)
  • The Galloping Hessian (the name given in the Irving story)
  • El Muerto (a Southwest version of the legend)
  • The Hessian Horseman (as he’s named in the 1999 film, Sleepy Hollow)

Still, such legends can be traced even further back to medieval times. One such character that comes to mind is the Green Knight that dates back -- and is loosely part of -- the Arthurian legend of early British literature.

And, like many legends, the characters evolve. In the case of the Headless Horseman, they come to represent the perception of horror people have. Such as:

  • Irving's creation starts off as a figure that appears only to lonely night travelers, chases them, and possibly kills or possesses them.
  • Tim Burton’s 1999 Hessian Horseman , is a head-chopping demon conjured by black magic and acts like a slasher/serial killer with the modus operandi of whacking targeted peoples’ heads off (of course).

In many respects, this appears to indicate that there's a deep-seated fear of ghouls with no heads among the populous.

The Galloping Hessian

The most famous headless horseman comes from the imagination of Washington Irving, one of America’s first noted authors. In the short story “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” the protagonist, Ichabod Crane, is chased by the apparition of a hessian officer who had lost his head (literally) after being struck by a cannonball during the Revolutionary War. The story was part of a collection of interconnected short stories about the Hudson River Valley of New York called The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon (1819).

Hessians were German mercenaries hired by King George of Britain to fight the American Rebels. According to the story – as well as the legend the story spawned – the headless horseman, known as the Galloping Hessian -- was one of 51 Hessians killed in the battle for Chatterton Hill in the actual Battle of White Plains.

This particular battle would eventually become the precursor for the December 26, 1776 surprise attack on Hessian troops in the Battle of Trenton, which was led by General George Washington (and made famous by the iconic painting depicting the crossing the Delaware River).

Irving's version is presented as folklore among the town folks of Sleepy Hollow in the story. He's a character that only emerges at night. And, in many respects, the story is told as a legend involving one victim and what possibly happened to him. That person being being Ichabad Crane - a teacher new to the place (The Disney version, which has become the version the public remembers, is skinny, weak and afraid of shadows).

Tim Burton's Version

Filmmaker Tim Burton took another approach to the legend in his adaptation called Sleepy Hollow (1999). While his Hessian Horseman is based on Irving's Galloping Hessian, the similarities are few.

In this gory version, The Hessian Horseman is a serial killer that is brought back by witchcraft (another staple of colonial American mythology). As well as being headless, he collects heads and seemingly targets certain citizens of Sleepy Hollow. And, near the end, The Hessian Horseman eventually reveals his "head". Even with his head attached (by the way, played by Christopher Walken), he is up to no good and has be defeated by Ichabod Crane.

Even Ichabad Crane differs drastically in this account. He is not the scared and passive teacher. Instead, he's an industrious sleuth actively pursuing and solving the mystery behind his antagonist.

Described as a fantasy horror, Sleepy Hollow feels more like a slasher film with its overkill beheading. Although it appears the Tim Burton took a unique approach to his headless horseman, it appears that he may have drawn inspiration from another American version. This one inspiration came from Western lore.

The Tale of El Muerto

Thomas Mayne Reid’s 1865 The Headless Horsemen A Strange Tale From Texas became a popular adventure novel in its time. The story was about the ghosts of beheaded horse thieves.

Reid’s story was based loosely on folklore. The folklore, it turns outs, may have been based on a supposed true account of Creed Taylor, a veteran of the Texas Revolution, Mexican-American War, and the Civil War who had a morbid way of sending a message to horse thieves.

El Muerto rides again! Originally posted at legendsofamerica.com

El Muerto rides again! Originally posted at legendsofamerica.com

Taylor’s “ghoul” was known as El Muerto. Unlike the Galloping Hessian, El Muerto didn't start off as a ghost or demon. Instead, it was the headless body of a Mexican thief propped up on a horse. This was a meant to be message from the story's villain; anyone that opposes him will have the same fate.

True or not -- as is with legends -- this account was possibly passed down as oral tradition before being written down by Taylor (thus, giving credence that this story is older than first thought).

The tale of El Muerto gets strange. It - or he --evolves and becomes a ghostly figure that haunts the empty quarters of the Southwest. And, goes from being several thieves to one.

The Green Knight

Still, all the headless horsemen mentioned may have had a literary ancestor. In this case, it is the devious and malevolent Green Knight.

The old English epic poem “Sir Gawain and The Green Knight” features a knight with supernatural powers; he can remove or retract his head and replace it. And he does so as part of his nefarious game.

Written in the 14th century in a manuscript containing three other works by a writer known as The Pearl Poet, the Green Knight is one of many tales centered around characters of Arthurian legend. In this case, Sir Gawain takes up a challenge -- and a year- long quest -- to defeat a knight in green armor known as the Green Knight.

This “sometimes” headless adversary differs from the other. While he is a killer, he makes it into a convoluted sport.

The challenge he initiated comes after a surprise visit to King Arthur’s castle. He hassles the guest and dares them to chop off his head. While many knights refuse, much to the annoyance of King Arthur, one person in attendance, Gawain, takes up the challenge and cuts off the Green Knight’s head.

But, to the shock of everyone there, the Green Knight reattaches his head and tells Gawain that he will get a second chance to slay him a year from that moment. He also tells the hero that he must present a riddle before he arrives. If he doesn’t, then it will be Gawain who will lose his head.

The story is complex and its verses in Middle English can be tough to understand for today’s modern reader. Still, the story has enchanted and influenced many writers over the years. In addition, the story has been adopted for other mediums, as well.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (circa 14th century)

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (circa 14th century)

Green Knight's on Modern Fantasy

J.R.R. Tolkien, the creator of the Lord of the Rings series and The Hobbit, translated Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. He considered the Green Knight to be one of the most complex characters in literary history.

Despite its complexity, however, it managed to leave an indelible mark on literature, especially in the realm of fantasy. Even to this day, there are several comic book and movie versions (the latest coming out in 2021).

The stories emphasize rage and vengeance

Elements of Green Knight can be found in Tolkien's work, as well as other fantasy writers. In fact, the story can be easily placed in the mythos that he often referred to his work and to ancient European/English mythology he used to study.

By all means, the Green Knight can be seen as a huge influences on folktales and literature to come. Possibly, the headless horsemen owe a debt of gratitude this conniving knight.

What Do the Headless Horsemen Reveal?

The stories emphasize rage and vengeance. Irving’s Galloping Hessian stalked unsuspecting American travelers. It’s as if the Hessian was going after the Americans who were responsible for his demise (even if Ichabod was at least a generation or two removed from the Revolutionary War).

The Green Knight, on the other hand, appeared to be a character that used cunning skills and insidious games to challenge his victim. One could argue that knowledge and discovery (since the protagonist in this particular story, Sir Gawain, went on a physical journey to find the source of a vital riddle to help defeat the knight.

El Muerto -- at least according to legend -- may have been used as a deterrent against horse thieves in the old west.

The Galloping Hessian and Taylor’s El Muerto have threads of reality weaved into their tales, as well. In fact, the town of Sleepy Hollow was based on an actual village called North Tarrytown (now known as Sleepy Hollow when the residence decided to change its name in 1996, in honor of Washington Irving).

Ultimately, the stories can be summed up as cautionary tales. They warned the readers against doing evil or to always heed warnings. Still, another obvious use for the story is simply to entertain and scare its audience, and to give them another entity to haunt their nightmares.

Work Cited

the-myths-and-realities-of-the-headless-horsemen

© 2014 Dean Traylor

Comments

Donetta Sifford from Parrott, Virginia on August 14, 2020:

Wow, I didn't realize there were several different "headless horseman." This is intriguing. I was, of course, familiar with Ichabod Crane.

Cecil Kenmill from Osaka, Japan on December 04, 2018:

I've read the Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving recently. He did a great job of Americanizing the headless horseman legend. Great article!

Suzette Walker from Taos, NM on July 31, 2014:

I loved this hub! I am a literature major and have read Sir Gawain and Sleepy Hollow. I haven't read the one set in Texas, but I must now. This is an interesting and informative hub about 'the headless horsemen' found in literature. Love it!

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