Tricephalic Head
Corleck, Co. Cavan, Ireland
Stone Sculpture
Iron Age 1st Century CE

 

The tricephalic head (tricephalos) from Co. Cavan is a stone sphere carved with three faces dated based on stylistic terms as a work of the Iron Age. The features of the three faces are characteristically abstract. All of the necessary elements are present but the closely set eyes, elongated nose and thin slash for a mouth are more stylized than naturalistic. The tricephalos also features a hole on its underside which is an indication that it was once placed on a pike or a pillar of some sort, much in keeping with Celtic rituals of the cult of the head.

Although this particular example has three distinct faces of the same size, others of the same genus vary in this respect. A tricephalos from roughly the same period from La Pouquelaie, Geurnsey has not only three faces but three heads connected to each other at the back and sides. A second example from Ireland (Nat. Museum, Dublin) has two larger faces and one smaller face cut on the left side of one of the other faces. Our tricephalos doesnít fall into this category, but unusual features such as a single shared ear or slots where the ears of animals might have been placed are often part of the design of these artifacts as well.

Much of the evidence surrounding the spiritual associations of these objects points away from any connection to the goddess Brigid; the faces are generally male and sometimes even have mustaches, not to mention the obvious phallic symbolism of the head on a pike. Regardless, to totally dismiss the tricephalos as insignificant to Brigidís cult would be naïve. The fluidity and ambiguousness of Celtic religion in general makes it nearly impossible to make distinct classifications, rather the degree of separation must be deciphered. Within the same family of Iron Age or Celtic-Romano sculptural heads, both single and multiple, there are examples of female heads. Examples such as the Towcester head (Dumfrieshire), which may actually be a representation of Brigid (Brigantia), indicate that female types, although less frequently, were also used symbolically (229, Ross).

As infrequently as the female is represented in the visual arts, the scales are righted in this arena when we consider the triadic symbolism in the literature of the Celts, especially in Ireland. Brigid is by no means the only goddess to appear in triple form. The Morrigna, for example, were a set of three war goddesses who were separate, although only one existed as an actual entity. This particular goddess was sometimes depicted alone and sometimes as three deities, " but there was only one identity, one character, and one personality (Green, triplism). These war goddesses are important to mention because they represent a possible link between Brigid and the tricephalic head. Janiform, or two-faced heads from the same period are very similar in conception and design to the tricephalos and are much more commonly found. Often what we find in these sculptures is that the two faces are connected by birds. Birds, especially crows or ravens, like the sacred cow of the goddess and the saint Brigid, are the symbolic animals of the Morrigna. Not only does this show that a connection can be made between goddesses and male representations, but birds are also involved in the mythology of Brigid. Apparently, a ritual for her appeasement was to sacrifice a fowl by burying it alive at the meeting of three waters.

The propitiation myth of Brigid brings up another issue whereby these heads can be associated with female as well as male energies. Triplicate heads and human heads in general are often found in conjunction with holy wells, most of which also date from the Iron Age or the Romano-Celtic period. Archaeological evidence shows that the surrounding areas of wells places of heightened ritual practice and in early Irish tales they are often the setting for significant supernatural happenings (Ross, 104). The importance of venerated waters to goddesses has already been discussed in detail (Cat. 2, Brigidís Well). An actual severed head was found at the bottom of the well of Coventina at Carrowburgh. She was firstly a water personification but scholars believe that a number of pins thrown into her well were offerings given by women for safe child birth. Miracles similar to those told of Brigid/St. Brigid with regard to holy waters are also part of the stories recorded in Insular literature about the Morrigna.

Later, in a manner characteristic of Irish practice when mythology is confronted by Christianity, the severed head stories became associated with saints and particular tales of martyrdom. The tricephalos, although incomparable in style, even made its way into the church in the form of three-headed representations of the holy trinity, later banned because of their inherent paganism.

Without digging into the literature of the Celts and early Christians, and without surveying a wide range of related art work and artifacts of the same period , it would be easy to say that the only reference to Brigid was in the triplism of the figure. Indeed, it is difficult to disagree with the fact that first and foremost the tricephalos "belonged to a group of benevolent Celtic gods whose main concern was blessings of abundance and prosperity", but it seems that like everything else we know about the Celts the boundaries are blurred, mystery abounds, and there is always more to the story than first appears.

 

Sources:

O Cathasaigh, 79

Ross, 61-129, 229.

Miranda, Green. The Dictionary of Celtic Mythology, entries on triplism, Brigid, and the Morrigna