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Last European Headhunters July 27, 2011

Author: Beach Combing | in : Contemporary, Modern , trackback

Beachcombing has been trying to keep up with decapitation this summer by looking at late examples of head-hunting. Go back to the Celts, the Germanic tribes and even the Romans and there are several striking examples of head-hunting in Europe well into historic times. Then, of course, if you cross the Atlantic there is scalping: a sport Beach examined on a previous occasion with reference to the unpleasant end of a young German soldier. But when, to get down to business, were the last instances  of European warriors cutting off neighbours’ heads just for the hell of it?

If someone were to put a gun to Beach’s head and ask the question: ‘in which European region did the last head-hunting take place?’, he would answer instinctively ‘the Balkans’. And, on the basis of some reading Beach indulged in today it looks as if he would be right. The following description dates to the early 1920s and the author’s Christian name was Edith. Edith was one of those extraordinary English matrons of another era, who once stopped a Montenegrin biting another Montenegrin’s nose off ‘on the road between Cattaro and Njegus’ as ‘the blood dripped freely from the ends of his enemy’s long moustache’. But we digress. For present purposes Edith confides that:

Head-hunting, studied usually in distant lands, flourished in Europe well into the middle of the nineteenth century and is not yet quite extinct. When I travelled in Montenegro at the beginning of the present century all the elderly men could, and did, tell tales of the heads that they or their friends had taken. My guide confessed, with shame and humiliation, that he had not taken a single one in the war of 1877, pleading that he was only seventeen, and was severely told that others, even younger, had done better.

Every man in earlier days went to war or to a border fray intending to take as many heads as he could. The short heavy hanzhar was used for the purpose. Never for stabbing. An expert severed the head at one blow. If two Montenegrins both wounded the same man, the head ‘legally’ belonged to the man who took first blood. I was told of cases in which a dispute followed about the head and that the rival claimants have been known to fight each other for it to the death.

The reasons for head-taking were given as ‘show’ how brave you are’ and ‘to shame the enemy’. I gathered that it was also supposed to affect the future life of the enemy [i.e. in the other world?]. But whether it would prevent it altogether I could not learn. That it was formerly believed to do so seems probable, as I heard grisly tales of heroic women who crawled over the border at night and, with danger and difficulty, brought back their husbands’ heads in order to bury them with the bodies.

Edith correctly understands that the Montenegrins were great trophy takers and here the nose biting recurs.

The desire to take a trophy was so great that a wounded Montenegrin whose hands were disabled would sometimes seize his enemy’s nose with his teeth and try to bite it off. A Montenegrin gendarme told me how, in the war of 1877, he had thus made a supreme effort, had been cut down, and on recovering consciousness in a Russian field hospital found, to his intense joy, the nose in his breeches pocket, a friend having generously cut it off for him!

And when were the last Balkan heads collected?

The last heads that I heard of as being cut off were those of three Montenegrins killed in a border fight just preparatory to the first Balkan war in August, 1912. I spoke with a nephew of one of the decapitated. He took it very calmly and seemed to think it might happen to anybody’s uncle. During the war which followed nose-taking was substituted by the Montenegrins for head-taking and a great deal went on. I saw nine of the victims. The nasal bone was hacked right through and the whole upper lip removed as well as the nose. The trophy was carried by the moustache. It is only fair to the Turks to say that I did not see or hear of a single case of a mutilated Montenegrin. The practice was to go round the battle-field and cut the nose, and in some cases also castrate, the wounded, who usually died of the additional shock and haemorrhage.

This blog has taught Beach humility and he fully expects to learn that the last European headhunting actually took place in the Alps or somewhere outside Slough: serial killers and the schizophrenic need not apply,  drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com Or alternatively it is difficult to believe that there was no headhunting in the First World War and perhaps even in the Second in Montenegrin territory, long after Edith had put down her pen.

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27 July 2011: Invisible has some modern cases of head-hunting: ‘Do honor-killings count in the head-hunting category? As an impressionable student I saw a book in the library called (I think) Faces of Death (I believe it was made by the same people who later did a series of notorious videos of the same name). In it was a photo of the head of a young Indian woman wrapped in plastic. It had been found on a British railway line. She had been decapitated by her father either for refusing the marriage arranged for her or for having a boyfriend. This would have been in the very early 1970s. I have never forgotten it.’ And, of course, earlier than Edith’s account of the Balkans, the heads of traitors exposed on London Bridge COULD be considered a kind of headhunting, if you want to stretch a point…. I have read (and I have no wish to go in search of visual sources) that shrunken heads of prisoners were found in German concentration camps. Lawrence Douglas, ‘The Shrunken Head of Buchenwald: Icons of Atrocity at Nuremberg,’ Visual Culture and the Holocaust, (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2001) p. 275.’ Thanks Invisible!

28 July 2011: Comfortably Numb writes in with some personal memories though from outside Europe: ‘I lived in East Timor for two years, while working in a UN Mission there (2000/1). Head chopping is a common struggle tactic in East Asia, and many corpses in East Timor were found without their heads (some heads were never found). In Indonesia, it is common to read news about head chopping in the Mollucas islands, for instance. In Papua, I was told that head shrinking is still practiced in some areas, and so on. I bet my money that those heads are involved in ritual practices. I think in Africa it won’t be that different. Just think of the bad luck that albinos experience in some African countries.’ And Mad Monk Andy remembers head-hunting among US troops in Vietnam. Thanks CN and Andy!