Of Humans and Their Obsession with Heads

By Ashleigh Brilliant   |   July 8, 2021

The practice of making an “either/or” type of decision by flipping a coin has a surprisingly long history. The Romans had coins with a ship on one side and the emperor’s head on the other, so their equivalent of “heads or tails” was “ship or head” – in Latin, “navia aut caput.” 

It has always made sense to have the head of the current potentate on the official currency. But at least one such ruler, a King of France, lived to regret it.

That King was Louis XVI and the year was 1791. The French Revolution was in full swing, and Louis, with his Queen, Marie Antoinette, and their family, were attempting to escape, supposedly incognito, from Paris, where they’d been virtual prisoners of the insurgents. They were in a coach, heading for the Eastern frontier, where they hoped to recruit the aid of a Loyalist army. On the way, they stopped at a town where they were seen by the local postmaster – who recognized the King. How? Well, from his head on the French money. This led to the capture of the whole party, and their ignominious return to Paris, where both royal heads eventually fell victim to the guillotine.

But long before that, in Greek mythology, the heads of gods and goddesses had been ascribed remarkable powers. There was the head of Medusa, with its corona of snakes, so hideous that it was reputedly capable of rendering any onlooker into stone. And, even more astonishing, we’re told of the birth of Athena, who is said to have sprung fully armed from the head of Zeus!

However, the ancient world has bestowed upon us at least one authentic rendering of the head of a genuine identifiable human being — and one regal, female, and widely considered beautiful. No doubt, you’ve seen her colorful image in some form. She was Nefertiti, a Queen of Egypt, wife of the Pharaoh Akhenaten, who ruled about 3,300 years ago. This sculptured head was discovered as recently as 1912, in the ruins of the artist’s workshop.

Then we have the mysterious stone heads of Rapa Nui (also known as Easter Island) — almost 1,000 of them — not carved in anyone’s image, but of monumental size. I have visited that remote island, and what most impressed me was to see the “quarry” in which more heads were actually in the process of being carved out of the rock, whence they would have been laboriously trundled to some designated spot — when the whole project was for some reason abandoned.

But in our own culture, the fascination for sculpting giant recognizable stone images found its most celebrated expression in the heads of four American Presidents carved on an eminence called Mount Rushmore in the Black Hills of South Dakota. I’ve never been there but have seen the Hitchcock movie North By Northwest enough times to have a good idea of what it would be like to scramble about on those famous faces.

Of course, the human head has played its role in many other spheres besides portraiture. One is the realm of sport, in which, however, there are not many games in which the head is allowable as an instrument of play, while the hands and arms are not. I’m thinking particularly of soccer, in which the only team member allowed to use his whole body on the field is the goalkeeper. All the others can use only their feet and heads, the art of “heading” the ball thus being an important part of the game. Recent studies, however, have found that, in soccer, there is danger of concussion from repeated heading, even more than from accidental collisions with other players.

In the much grimmer pursuits of actual warfare, especially the primitive varieties, symbolic abuse of a vanquished foe’s head has ranged from scalping to boiling and shrinking. It was in fact the latter practice which led to the jocular reference to psychiatrists as “head-shrinkers,” which itself, over time, has been boiled down to the custom of calling a member of that profession a “shrink.”

But let the poet Shelley remind us that even the solidity of stone does not guarantee any kind of immortality. His poem about a forgotten stone head in the desert concludes:

“And on the pedestal, these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”


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