Severed Heads & Sacred Castrations

Medusa, Freud and the Decapitated Goddess

Guestpost by Costanza De Cillia

Dākinī and Varṇinī, hungry handmaids, beg the Goddess, their lady, to grant them nourishment: pitiful, she brandishes a scimitar and cuts off her own head, thus releasing a triple gush of blood which falls into the mouth of her assistants… and into her own. After this watering ritual, she puts her head back on, bearing a slight pallor as the only sign of self-mutilation: she has become Chinnamastā, the Decapitated.

Perseus, in order to defeat Medusa with her petrifying gaze, approaches her, peering in the reflection of his shield, and decapitates her. Pegasus, a winged horse, and the giant Chrysaore emerge from the neck of the Gorgon; the monstrous severed head, with its hair composed of snakes, falls to the ground, still able to turn those who return her gaze to stone. The hero then takes possession of the terrible weapon, which he will then use to render his enemies inert statues.

The first story, which tells the origin of one of the most disconcerting, terrifying deities in which the divine feminine principle is incarnated in the East, comes from the Hindu religion — where, among the many examples of divine beheadings, it stands out as the main example of salvific meaning, of violence according to Tantric thought.
The second, on the other hand, was born in Greek mythology, but in 1922 it was invested with a new, epochal value: with the essay The Head of Medusa by S. Freud, in fact, it also became the metaphor of the origin of human sexual development, based on the puzzling equation decapitating = castrating.

The beheading of the Gorgon by Perseus might be a symbolic substitute for the primitive emasculation from which castration anxiety arises in the male: this demonic severed head, condensing in itself the absence of the penis and the multiplicity of penises (symbolized by snakes), would in fact be an icon of the “mutilated” maternal vagina. This traumatic discovery would convince the child that the women around him have been deprived of the virile member (as a punishment for indulging in masturbation), as it might happen to him one day; the little girl, on the other hand, would develop the idea of having been made deficient due to this mutilation. The only comforting side effect of the petrifying vision would be an erection, which confirms a male person the persistence of his own member.

We therefore have two cases of beheading, both of which occurred in ancient times, in the suspended time of the myth, one drawn from Indian culture, the other from Greek culture. The first tells of a self-inflicted amputation, while the second refers to a lethal wound inflicted on another being; in the first, it is a creative act, because it is a means of survival, a gift granted by a deity to her mortal followers, while the bloody gesture of the second is destructive, not only to those who are deprived of their heads, but also against those who will have the misfortune of subsequently encountering such a severed head.
In comparing them, a disparity of views emerges regarding the cutting of the head, at the basis of the analogy between head and penis, which seems to be widespread; from this cornerstone of archaic physiology, therefore, derives the equivalence of the separation of the head from the rest of the body with emasculation, which in psychoanalysis takes the name of the Freudian equation.

In fact, ancient anatomy established an explicit connection between the brain, the creative organ that gives rise to the idea and holds, in the highest part of the body, the vital fluid, and the penis, seat of the sexual and generative power of the male. Thus follows the automatic equation of the removal of the (male) genitals with the cutting of the head; however, if the amputation of one, or the other, part of the body in the West figures above all as a humiliating punishment, in India instead it constitutes an indispensable impairment that the voluntary victim must undergo in order to be reborn to a new condition, finally achieving a full identity .
Castration and beheading are both punitive measures and drastic forms of social exclusion which — at least until the beginning of the modern age — allow the community to be purged of those who somehow threaten it, but also have a paradoxical positive value that ennobles those who suffer it. Like beheading, castration can also be seen as a process of transformation that removes what, within the body, symbolizes the great human faults (pride, lust), which prevent the individual from accessing spiritual purity.

In both cultures, then, the loss of the head and virility are irreversible rites of passage, which, marking the end of the identity, allow access to a different stage. In the West, the vision of the separation of the head from the torso felt like a catastrophe, which deprived the victim of their humanity, transforming them into a disassembled object made of two residual pieces. The East, on the other hand, proposed a paradoxically positive view of beheading, which stemmed from the meaning of sublimated and sublimating self-destruction: in Hindu mythology, cutting off a faithful’s head marked their transition to a higher status, to which he or she would open up, deprived of the symbols of one’s own ego, towards a state of total impersonality, free from the fictitious dualisms forged by human reason. The materiality of the body, with all the violence imposed on it, in the West makes the cutting of the head the utmost abjection, while in India, it is crucial for the ascent to a higher state.

The tragic vision of beheading in the West has its roots in the common war ritual that required taking over the head of the defeated opponent, to be exhibited as tangible proof of one’s triumph for pedagogical, intimidating purposes, and to assimilate its power, acquiring the best qualities or even and the vital energy of the slain enemy. Once deprived of the head (which was often nailed in nodal points of inhabited centers, for apotropaic purposes, or inserted into real collections of skulls), the dead were rendered harmless, helpless for eternity and unable to return to persecute the living.
Outside of military practice, beheading is also known, in European history, above all as a death penalty. Reputed since ancient Rome the most painless capital punishment (by virtue of the swiftness with which, in theory, it led to death), it was seen as the most honorable of the types of execution; it was reserved for the condemned of higher lineage who, raised as tableaux vivants, underwent a sort of “reversed” sacred investiture which has been even compared to a mass, where the dying man appears in the guise of a penitent kneeling in prayer, and whose crown (icon of abused power) is lifted and returned to the Lord.

Between the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, however, severing the head became an atrocious annihilation of the identity of the person: initiated by the Italian “mannaia”, together with the Maiden of Edinburgh and the Halifax Gibbet, mechanical automation reached its apex with the guillotine of post-revolutionary French Terror. With this highly efficient machinery, death was imparted by a bureaucrat in the pay of the state (the executioner) to a citizen like any other, condemned as an opponent of the people, to preserve the health of the social body. Every sacral aspect disappeared: death became the sequential removal of the opponents of the secular Trinity of Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité. Since then, beheading has been perceived as a cruel barbarism that arouses horror, and no longer pious thoughts; precisely for this reason its spectacular, degrading power thrives in contexts of asymmetrical warfare, where it is still used as a means to shut the mouth of the adversaries. .

In the Hindu religion, the severed head is instead one of those human remains that serve as an amulet and a focus for meditation. As evidence of the disintegration and dissolution of what once lived, these “leftovers” are in fact essential tools in the process of detachment from the world, especially according to Tantric thought, according to which the faithful, in order to prove themselves a hero worthy of the divinity they worship, must isolate themselves in the middle of the night where demons and ashes triumph, that is, the cremation ground.

Here, surrounded by the revolting phenomena that accompany the decomposition of organic matter, the practitioner strips the taboos of their value, and overcomes, while alive in the midst of the dead, the fictitious dichotomies of pure/impure and sacred/profane, which previously deluded him into thinking that the world was fragmented into dualisms. The cremation ground then becomes the arena where, struggling against his own limits — which are revealed in the disgust felt towards the revolting and ungovernable aspects that Hindu culture considers most contaminating, that is, blood and death — he achieves liberation, emulating Śiva, the god who is the creator, protector and destroyer of the universe.

This ambivalent figure is one of the many characters of Hindu mythology to participate, as author and/or victim, in beheadings and exchanges of heads; often these gods also show off skulls and necklaces made of severed heads as ornaments, macabre jewels whose meaning, for the adept, derives from the reflection on sacrifice. At the basis of the violence required by the bloody form of this ceremony, there is the belief that life cyclically arises from death, chaos and destruction, the symbol of which is the surplus of the offering that remains after all oblations are perfomerd: burning seed that contains the germ of the new existence. The shedding of blood and the lethal amputation that causes it are therefore necessary for the sacrifice to be successful, and the offering of the devotee to be reciprocated by the divinity. Thus the severed head, being a remnant of the decapitation, indicates the symbolic effect of this severing: the surrender of the seat of the mind as an expression of limited personal existence, in exchange for which one can open oneself to universal transcendent consciousness.

Śiva — itiphallic god, venerated by mortals in the form of lingam, a pillar that represents a stylized erect member — best illustrates, among all the gods and heroes, the symbolic relationship established by Hinduism between the removal of the penis and that of the head. Śiva, both when he beheads someone and when he castrates him, carries out an act of violence that is punishment against excess; it may be a sexual transgression, such as that of the incestuous god Brahmā, but also a manifestation of excessive ascetic rigor, contrary to procreation. In the depictions of this erotic ascetic, the severed head and the severed penis reveal themselves as “bodies of crime”, indeed residues discarded from the physical body, whose limits they have violated, threatening the social body with the sins they symbolize.

Chinnamastā even allows to “solve” the Freudian equation, reinterpreting the beheading as a horror inflicted and at the same time suffered by the very offerer who is also a sacrificial victim: if for Śiva beheading is a sacrifice, an obligatory penance for those who want to be regenerated from the gods, for this goddess the punishment is no longer suffered but acted upon. It is no longer the divinity that destroys the unity of the body of the faithful, but it is the faithful himself who willingly renounces his own individual integrity, returning to the Goddess that blood, vehicle of life, which she has infused in him, in order to join back the indiscriminate Whole.

Śiva represents the divine male principle, deus otiosus and quiescent who substantiates reality by giving it Essence; he is accompanied by the Goddess, the Maha Devī, who constitutes the dynamic power (Śakti), the matrix and driving force that instead confers Existence on reality.

Even the Goddess, like her male counterpart (to whom she is linked by a symbiotic interaction which, in a continuous creative tension, gives rise to everything that exists), is a triumph of contrasts. The ambivalence towards the feminine present in Hindu culture is also reflected in her, where the woman is both wife and mother, and cruel stepmother: source of life, benevolent mother and prodigal wife, but also a terrible and fearful force whose anger only the offerings of meat, blood and alcohol can appease. She seems to be a projection of those male fears that the practitioner tries to overcome by applying the teaching of the Tantras; thus these teachings re-evaluate the role of woman by proposing her as a ritual partner or at least as an image of the divine principle present inside the practitioner (in the form of Kuṇḍalīni, energy that flows up the spine to join in an ecstatic embrace with Śiva, at the top of the head).

She manifests herself in countless personal forms, divided between the faction of the placid and benign “breast goddesses” (sometimes identified as “cold”, and tamed with vegetable offerings) or in the warlike and subversive faction of the “tooth goddesses” (often perceived as “hot”, because they are associated with the most vehement passions, accidental deaths and pustular diseases). In the latter category of incarnations — which are usually village deities worshiped by the lower social strata, outside of regular temples — the Goddess gives shape to an enthralling energy, at the same time liberating and enslaving, which destroys the cosmos but forges everything that exists. She therefore appears to the faithful as a tremendous and benevolent source of everything, whose generosity is substantiated in the blood of the offerings she receives. There are therefore only two ways to demonstrate one’s enslavement to her: becoming a child or castrating oneself, in a self-mutilation which constitutes the maximum identification with her and which is equivalent to self-decapitation, as we discover with Chinnamastā.
She is one of the ten incarnations of the Goddess as the source of all knowledge; these incarnations are called Mahāvidyā, and among them there is also the most ferocious Kālī, grim image of death and of the triumph over death, who tears away life in order to feed on it and generate it again. If from Kālī the practitioner learns not to fear the inevitable end, with Chinnamastā instead he discovers that the death he can give to himself (metaphorically or not) is the means to transform himself into a sacrificial offering pleasing to the Goddess, who self-decapitates to provide him with an example to follow.
The female figure, especially from a Tantric point of view, is therefore fundamental for a constructive reading of the Freudian equation, with which the individual can welcome the gaze of Medusa without being petrified.

In the common imagination of male and patriarchal societies, such as the fin-de-siècle European one in which the Freudian equation was outlined, a woman who violates the ideal of female submission is feared and represented as a mantis, a black widow or a succubus demon; this cliché, which we still suffer from, sees her as a treacherous femme fatale who can only be rendered harmless by separating her mind from her body, in order to bring her back under the paternal control of the “stronger sex”. As scholars of the caliber of E. Showalter, W. Doniger and R. Janes explain, this beheading of the woman surprisingly recalls castration: precisely because the female face bears on it an inverted vagina dentata, the mouth, a symbol of hypersexuality that makes the human female so dangerous. Like a vampire, the woman can only be annihilated by removing the head, assimilated to the sexual organ but even more formidable because it is the source of words.

A woman’s self-beheading is then a salvific detachment of Reason from her most visceral sexuality: the only way she can save her soul, abandoning her gloomy existence as a she-devil. The man, on the other hand, being an unaware prisoner of libido and feminine charms, always in danger of falling into the trap of the female body — whose anatomy, between lust and death drive, evokes the geometric shapes of the guillotine —, runs the risk of losing his head for a woman, remaining trapped/castrated while penetrating her.
Overcoming the stereotype of the woman who humiliates a man with castration, depriving him of virile strength, we come to the ideal of the Goddess who elevates the mortal to true existence through beheading, freeing him from petty individuality in exchange for giving up his own body.
This is why losing the penis, like losing one’s head, in Hindu mythology and in the Tantric ritual is a supreme humiliation, just like in the West, but also a sacred moment that definitively untangles the Self from the meshes of māyā, in communion with the Universal which every soul yearns for — perpetual orgasm of ascent to full reality, which confers final salvation on the practitioner.

Medusa’s head can remain in its place, because whoever she meets does not need to kill her in order to become a hero, but only himself.

Costanza De Cillia is a Doctor of Philosophy and Sciences of Religions. Her main fields of research are the aesthetics of violence and the anthropology of execution.

Criminal Heads

Two dissected heads. Color plate by Gautier D’Agoty (1746).

Starting from the end of the Middle Ages, the bodies of those condemned to death were commonly used for anatomical dissections. It was a sort of additional penalty, because autopsy was still perceived as a sort of desecration; perhaps because this “cruelty” aroused a certain sense of guilt, it was common for the dissected bodies to be granted a burial in consecrated ground, something that would normally have been precluded to criminals.

But during the nineteenth century dissecting the bodies of criminals began to have a more specific reason, namely to understand how the anatomy of a criminal differed from the norm. A practice that continued until almost mid-twentieth century.
The following picture shows the head of Peter Kürten (1883-1931), the infamous Vampire of Düsseldorf whose deeds inspired Fritz Lang’s masterpiece M (1931). Today it is exhibited at Ripley’s Believe It Or Not by Winsconsin Dells.

Cesare Lombroso, who in spite of his controversial theories was one of the pioneers and founders of modern criminology, was convinced that the criminal carried in his anatomy the anomalous signs of a genetic atavism.

The Museum dedicated to him, in Turin, retraces his reasoning, his convictions influenced by theories in vogue at the time, and gives an account of the impressive collection of heads he studied and preserved. Lombroso himself wanted to become part of his museum, where today the criminologist’s entire skeleton is on display; his preserved, boneless head is not visible to the public.

Head of Cesare Lombroso.

Similar autopsies on the skull and brain of the murderers almost invariably led to the same conclusion: no appreciable anatomical difference compared to the common man.

A deterministic criminology — the idea, that is, that criminal behavior derives from some anatomical, biological, genetic anomaly — has a comforting appeal for those who believe they are normal.
This is the classic process of creation/labeling of the different, what Foucault called “the machinery that makes qualifications and disqualifications“: if the criminal is different, if his nature is deviant (etymologically, he strays from the right path on which we place ourselves), then we will sleep soundly.

Numerous research suggests that in reality anyone is susceptible to adopt socially deplorable behavior, given certain premises, and even betray their ethical principles as soon as some specific psychological mechanisms are activated (see P. Bocchiaro, Psicologia del male, 2009). Yet the idea that the “abnormal” individual contains in himself some kind of predestination to deviance continues to be popular even today: in the best case this is a cognitive bias, in the worst case it’s plain deceit. A striking example of mala fides is provided by those scientific studies financed by tobacco or gambling multinationals, aimed at showing that addiction is the product of biological predisposition in some individuals (thus relieving the funders of such reasearch from all responsibility).

But let’s go back to the obsession of nineteenth-century scientists for the heads of criminals.
What is interesting in our eyes is that often, in these anatomical specimens, what was preserved was not even the internal structure, but rather the criminal’s features.

In the picture below you can see the skin of the face of Martin Dumollard (1810-1862), who killed more than 6 women. Today it is kept at the Musée Testut-Latarjet in Lyon.
It was tanned while his skull was being studied in search of anomalies. It was the skull, not the skin, the focus of the research. Why then take the trouble to prepare also his face, detached from the skull?

Dumollard is certainly not the only example. Also at the Testut-Latarjet lies the facial skin of Jules-Joseph Seringer, guilty of killing his mother, stepfather and step-sister. The museum also exhibits a plaster cast of the murderer, which offers a more realistic account of the killer’s features, compared to this hideous mask.

For the purposes of physiognomic and phrenological studies of the time, this plaster bust would have been a much better support than a skinned face. Why not then stick to the cast?

The impression is that preserving the face or the head of a criminal was, beyond any scientific interest, a way to ensure that the memory of guilt could never vanish. A condemnation to perpetual memory, the symbolic equivalent of those good old heads on spikes, placed at the gates of the city — as a deterrent, certainly, but also and above all as a spectacle of the pervasiveness of order, a proof of the inevitability of punishment.

Head of Diogo Alves, beheaded in 1841.

Head of Narcisse Porthault, guillotined in 1846. Ph. Jack Burman.


Head of Henri Landru, guillotined in 1922.


Head of Fritz Haarmann, beheaded in 1925.

This sort of upside-down damnatio memoriæ, meant to immortalize the offending individual instead of erasing him from collective memory, can be found in etchings, in the practice of the death masks and, in more recent times, in the photographs of guillotined criminals.

Death masks of hanged Victorian criminals (source).

Guillotined: Juan Vidal (1910), Auguste DeGroote (1893), Joseph Vacher (1898), Canute Vromant (1909), Lénard, Oillic, Thépaut and Carbucci (1866), Jean-Baptiste Picard (1862), Abel Pollet (1909), Charles Swartewagher (1905), Louis Lefevre (1915), Edmond Claeys (1893), Albert Fournier (1920), Théophile Deroo (1909), Jean Van de Bogaert (1905), Auguste Pollet (1909).

All these heads chopped off by the executioner, whilst referring to an ideal of justice, actually celebrate the triumph of power.

But there are four peculiar heads, which impose themselves as a subversive and ironic contrappasso. Four more heads of criminals, which were used to mock the prison regime.

These are the effigies that, placed on the cushions to deceive the guards, allowed Frank Morris, together with John and Clarence Anglin, to famously escape from Alcatraz (the fourth accomplice, Allen West, remained behind). Sculpted with soap, toothpaste, toilet paper and cement powder, and decorated with hair collected at the prison’s barbershop, these fake heads are the only remaining memory of the three inmates who managed to escape from the maximum security prison — along with their mug shots.

Although unwittingly, Morris and his associates had made a real détournement of a narrative which had been established for thousands of years: an iconography that aimed to turn the head and face of the condemned man into a mere simulacrum, in order to dehumanize him.

The Carney Landis Experiment

Suppose you’re making your way through a jungle, and in pulling aside a bush you find yourself before a huge snake, ready to attack you. All of a sudden adrenaline rushes through your body, your eyes open wide, and you instantly begin to sweat as your heartbeat skyrockets: in a word, you feel afraid.
But is your fear triggering all these physical reactions, or is it the other way around?
To make a less disquieting example, let’s say you fall in love at first sight with someone. Are the endorphines to be accounted for your excitation, or is your excitation causing their discharge through your body?
What comes first, physiological change or emotion? Which is the cause and which is the effect?

This dilemma was a main concern in the first studies on emotion (and it still is, in the field of affective neurosciences). Among the first and most influential hypothesis was the James-Lange theory, which maintained the primacy of physiological changes over feelings: the brain detects a modification in the stimuli coming from the nervous system, and it “interprets” them by giving birth to an emotion.

One of the problems with this theory was the impossibility of obtaining clear evidence. The skeptics argued that if every emotion arises mechanically within the body, then there should be a gland or an organ which, when conveniently stimulated, will invariably trigger the same emotion in every person. Today we know a little bit more of how emotions work, in regard to the amygdala and the different areas of cerebral cortex, but at the beginning of the Twentieth Century the objection against the James-Lange theory was basically this — “come on, find me the muscle of sadness!

In 1924, Carney Landis, a Minnesota University graduate student, set out to understand experimentally whether these physiological changes are the same for everybody. He focused on those modifications that are the most evident and easy to study: the movement of facial muscles when emotion arises. His study was meant to find repetitive patterns in facial expressions.

To understand if all subjects reacted in the same way to emotions, Landis recruited a good number of his fellow graduate students, and began by painting their faces with standard marks, in order to highlight their grimaces and the related movement of facial muscles.
The experiment consisted in subjecting them to different stimuli, while taking pictures of their faces.

At first volunteers were asked to complete some rather harmless tasks: they had to listen to jazz music, smell ammonia, read a passage from the Bible, tell a lie. But the results were quite discouraging, so Landis decided it was time to raise the stakes.

He began to show his subjects pornographic images. Then some medical photos of people with horrendous skin conditions. Then he tried firing a gunshot to capture on film the exact moment of their fright. Still, Landis was having a hard time getting the expressions he wanted, and in all probability he began to feel frustrated. And here his experiment took a dark turn.

He invited his subjects to stick their hand in a bucket, without looking. The bucket was full of live frogs. Click, went his camera.
Landis encouraged them to search around the bottom of the mysterious bucket. Overcoming their revulsion, the unfortunate volunteers had to rummage through the slimy frogs until they found the real surprise: electrical wires, ready to deliver a good shock. Click. Click.
But the worst was yet to come.

The experiment reached its climax when Landis put a live mouse in the subject’s left hand, and a knife in the other. He flatly ordered to decapitate the mouse.
Most of his incredulous and stunned subjects asked Landis if he was joking. He wasn’t, they actually had to cut off the little animal’s head, or he himself would do it in front of their eyes.
At this point, as Landis had hoped, the reactions really became obvious — but unfortunately they also turned out to be more complex than he expected. Confronted with this high-stress situation, some persons started crying, others hysterically laughed; some completely froze, others burst out into swearing.

Two thirds of the paricipants ended up complying with the researcher’s order, and carried out the macabre execution. In any case, the remaining third had to witness the beheading, performed by Landis himself.
As we said, the subjects were mainly other students, but one notable exception was a 13 years-old boy who happened to be at the department as a patient, on the account of psychological issues and high blood pressure. His reaction was documented by Landis’ ruthless snapshots.

Perhaps the most embarassing aspect of the whole story was that the final results for this cruel test — which no ethical board would today authorize — were not even particularly noteworthy.
Landis, in his Studies of Emotional Reactions, II., General Behavior and Facial Expression (published on the Journal of Comparative Psychology, 4 [5], 447-509) came to these conclusions:

1) there is no typical facial expression accompanying any emotion aroused in the experiment;
2) emotions are not characterized by a typical expression or recurring pattern of muscular behavior;
3) smiling was the most common reaction, even during unpleasant experiences;
4) asymmetrical bodily reactions almost never occurred;
5) men were more expressive than women.

Hardly anything that could justify a mouse massacre, and the trauma inflicted upon the paritcipants.

After obtaining his degree, Carney Landis devoted himself to sexual psychopatology. He went on to have a brillant carreer at the New York State Psychiatric Institute. And he never harmed a rodent again, despite the fact that he is now mostly remembered for this ill-considered juvenile experiment rather than for his subsequent fourty years of honorable research.

There is, however, one last detail worth mentioning.
Alex Boese in his Elephants On Acid, underlines how the most interesting figure of all this bizarre experiment went unnoticed: the fact that two thirds of the subjects, although protesting and suffering, obeyed the terrible order.
And this percentage is in fact similar to the one recorded during the infamous Milgram experiment, in which a scientist commanded the subjects to inflict an electric shock to a third individual (in reality, an actor who pretended to receive the painful discharge). In that case as well, despite the ethical conflict, the simple fact that the order came from an authority figure was enough to push the subjects into carrying out an action they perceived as aberrant.

The Milgram experiment took place in 1961, almost forty years after the Landis experiment. “It is often this way with experiments — says Boese — A scientis sets out to prove one thing, but stumbles upon something completely different, something far more intriguing. For this reason, good researchers know they should always pay close attention to strange events that occur during their experiments. A great discovery might be lurking right beneath their eyes – or beneath te blade of their knife.

On facial expressions related to emotions, see also my former post on Guillaume Duchenne (sorry, Italian language only).