Thursday, December 8, 2011

Where Are All The Famous Severed Heads?


You've heard about all the famous decapitations, sure -- John the Baptist, Marie Antoinette and the like. But what happened afterwards? After they were done waving the head in front of a crowd or displaying it on a platter? Where'd they stow the thing? Where did it end up?

Confusing - John the Baptist
Salome got her wish and the martyr met his end, and then his head became a blazing-hot commodity, with churches all over Europe and the Middle East each claiming they had it. "Muslims believe his head lies inside the Umayyad Mosque (left) in Damascus, Syria, while Christians believe that a head on display at Rome's Church of San Silvestro in Capite is that of John the Baptist," according to Time. "Still others believe it is buried in Turkey or even southern France." The photo above is from Rome, and this is a wonderful, creepy picture from Amiens. And in 2010 archaeologists claimed to have found his remains in Bulgaria.

Boring - Marie Antoinette
Although her reign and execution were feature-film-dramatic, the aftermath was pretty straightforward. And the head didn't wander.

When the guillotine sliced off her head at 12:15 p.m., thousands of spectators erupted in cheers. Her body was placed in a coffin and tossed into a common grave in a cemetery behind the Church of the Madeleine. This is from an article in Smithsonian which you can read here.

Bizarre - Blackbeard
After killing the pirate, a British officer sailed back to Bath, North Carolina with his head hanging from the bowsprit's end, according to Jolly Roger by Patrick Pringle. From there the story gets gruesome and weird. There is a legend that people engraved the skull with "Death to Spotswood," in reference to the governor of Virginia who was behind his death. Then they brought it to the Raleigh Tavern in Williamsburg, VA, where it became a drinking goblet. And this 1997 article documents the reappearance (maybe) of the skull in a museum in Newport News.

Mysterious - Adolf Hitler
I bet you didn't even know the head was separated. But that's because for decades no one in the west knew what happened to any of Hitler's parts. But it turns out that the KGB boxed his skull and kept them in their State Archives. German forensic scientist Mark Benecke was able to identify them because Hitler had distinctive bridgework (and really, really bad dental hygiene). Read all about it here.

Tasty - Dracula
When Vlad the Impaler was decapitated by Turkish soldiers in a forest just north of Bucharest sometime around late December 1476, his countrymen hastily buried the body in his homeland. But the head was shipped off to the sultan. A book about Dracula by this Bibeau fella has more. It quotes a Texan expat living in Istanbul - a woman named Kathy Hamilton, who is familiar with local lore.

"Heads were usually displayed in front of the Topkapi Palace, the sultan's residence," she told me. "It is on the other side of the old walled city from Yedi Kule, which is about a mile from the palace. In those days it would have been easily conceivable that the head, once it started to get a little funky... would have been taken to Yedi Kule and thrown down the well there."

Yedi Kule is a neighborhood in Istanbul. Unfortunately, according to Hamilton, no one knows which heads got thrown into which wells. Some of them have been filled in. Some lead out to sea. It's a mess. But there would be a clue. The Turks packed heads they were shipping in honey to preserve them. Dracula's noggin' will smell like a musty pile of 500 year-old Golden Grahams. There you go. Shoot me an email if you find it!

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The Magical Foreskin of Jesus


The work above is a depiction of the circumcision of Jesus, and it appears in a monastery in Bulgaria. At this time of year when we think about Jesus the baby, we should remember that one thing they did to him, and how it produced what might be the weirdest relic in all of medieval Christendom.

Here is the passage from An Underground Education by Richard Zacks:

If relics depended on the saintliness of the deceased, then the ultimate faith-healing relic would be the actual body of Christ. There was a problem, though. The New Testament clearly stated that after his resurrection, Jesus traveled with the disciples to Bethany and "while he blessed them, he was parted from them and carried up to Heaven."
If Jesus was transported to heaven, then no part of his body remained on earth. That is, until some astute scholar realized that Jesus - as a faithful Jew - had been circumcised. Where was the foreskin? Who had the foreskin of the Savior?
Thus began a frantic search, a kind of twisted Holy Grail saga, that yielded not one, but a dozen competing ringlets of holy flesh.


Zacks adds that French monks in the abbey of Charroux (whose name derives from the phrase "Red Flesh," which is almost definitely going to be the title of the next Rob Zombie film) claimed that Charlemagne gave them the relic. But there were other claimants scattered across Italy, France and other parts of Europe. Pope Innocent III refused to issue a ruling on which was the real "holy prepuce," saying that "only God could know the truth about something so delicate."

I know what you're wondering. How can this possibly get any more disturbing?

According to Christ and Culture by Graham Ward, St. Catherine of Sienna claimed to be betrothed to Christ, and was said to have worn the thing as an engagement ring.

He went to Jared? No. No, he didn't.

The Toronto Star has an article here about a writer's search for this relic in Italy. And Slate has a piece (ha) about how the Vatican may have swiped it to avoid embarrassment. But if you really must have the absolute weirdest piece of insanity that the internet can provide on this matter, know this:

Some say it ascended to heaven and became the rings of Saturn.

Look up in the sky, Billy! That's Jesus. Well, part of him anyway.
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