The Headless

Picture via Wikipedia

Picture via Wikipedia

Turicum, the Romans called Zurich. And they did not bother to fortify it, just to use it for tax purposes. Plus ca change. They set up a tax point upstream of Lake Zurich, and merrily taxed goods coming to and from Italy, and life was good for almost 500 years.

Until the Christians came.

A megalomaniac Roman emperor ordered an entire Roman legion of men, six thousand, six hundred and sixty six men, to worship him and make sacrifices to him.

They called them the Theban legion, and at Agaunum – Saint-Maurice to you – the whole lot of them said to the emperor Maximillian: don’t be daft. You’re not God.

So being a powerful man, Maximilian ordered decimation. Every tenth man was slain. And then they rounded them all up, and every tenth man was slain again, and so on, in an agony of fear, until there were none left.

A few fled. Amongst them, the soldier Felix and his sister, Regula. How she came to be dressed as a Roman soldier in a legion is never made quite clear, and thereby must surely hang a novel; but together, as the blades came closer, and the confusion mounted, they managed to slip away .

They fled from Agaunum all the way to Turicum, and it seemed as though Felix and his sister had left the madness behind. The air was clear and fresh and the stench of blood was fading from their nostrils, and they found a well by the side of the lake and gave thanks, choosing here to be baptised as Christians, far from the madding crowd.

Decimation. Of course, Romans count. And they realised grimly that two of the legion were missing. The bodies didn’t add up. Soldiers were dispatched swiftly through the night, following the trail of the young man and his sister and coming, all too soon, to Turicum.

The two were rounded up. They were tried and  executed, their heads hacked from their bodies.

A lifeless body : the light and animation are suddenly absent. And the people of Turicum stood and watched the remains with great compassion, and inwardly cursed their Roman rulers.

When one of the hands moved, an observer put it down to death-twitches. they happened; he had seen executions before, though they never ceased to shake him to the core.

But his heart turned to stone in his body as the hand steadied itself, and what was so recently a young, vital woman began to pull herself to her feet.

Without her head.

Her brother was doing the same. the disjointed inelegance of death had given way to a rather ghastly order. What had been Felix was pulling itself to its feet, yet without the aid of his head.

In fact, the heads were the last to be considered. The two corpses bent down carefully to retrieve their heads, though how they located them we will never know; and they began to walk up the hill to a Christian burial site.

A grotesque little procession, it was, with the people of Zurich walking as if in a trance, unable to believe the evidence of their own eyes, as the two headless creatures took themselves off to be buried on consecrated ground. Once there, they lay obediently down.

And never moved again.

These days, they are saints; Felix, and Regula, and their servant Exuperantius. The story of what happened to their bones after their death in 286AD is strange in its own right, and must wait until another day.

Legend places the two headless creatures at the centre of Zurich folklore, and the Grossmunster- the great two-towered church by the river – is built on the site of their graves.

And in every picture you see of them, they are depicted headless.

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49 thoughts on “The Headless

  1. Wasn’t this made into a movie in 1952 with Peter Ustinov, Robert Taylor, Deborah Kerr, Richard Burton, Jean Simmons, Kirk Douglas–oh wait, those were The Robe, Quo Vadis, and Spartacus. What a Cecil DeMille production it would have made back when Hollywood made those big budget Christian-Romans-lions movies, with scantily clad dancing girls, cruel Romans and handsome Christian converts with big muscles bulging out of their togas. Seriously, it is a good story. Regula would have been played by Jean Simmons or Susan Hayward with low-cut togas and elaborate hairdos.

  2. I read on Nancy’s blog that a head could live for close to a minute after being removed. It was said that Mary Queen of Scots continued to pray, mouth moving, after she was decapitated. This tale certainly beats that one.

  3. “The story of what happened to their bones after their death in 286AD is strange in its own right, and must wait until another day.”

    Torture comes in many forms, and the sentence above is one of them. While the story waits, I wait too, and waiting for strange stories is painful.

  4. Dear Kate, I relish these old tales of saints and their martyrdom. Many years ago–back in the late ’90s–a Catholic publishing house in Texas asked me to do a series of stories about saints for their website. I was to do something like a saint a month. I was also to tell the story in three different ways: one for primary school children, one for the middle grades, and one for the 7th and 8th graders. They gave me the list of saints that wanted covered and I wrote stories, not really articles, but stories although I tried to weave the two together as you do so well in this posting.

    I had so much fun researching the stories and trying to make the ridiculous and the incredible into some semblance of sanity and reality. I tried to figure out what truly might have happened to have given rise to the stories I found in the hagiographies. The important thing of course was to get to the essence of the story. What about this person brought forth such stories? I learned a lot about human nature while doing this writing for that publisher. And, of course, as with all writing, I learned a lot about myself and my own willingness to search for and to settle within wonder. Peace.

    1. Ah, and you have me wondering if you are a Robertson Davies fan at all, Dee: this feeling that all myth and story is not so much untrue, but a way of telling something essential about the human spirit. I could spend a very long time discussing the saints and their odd stories. I would have given anything to talk with Mr Davies about it.

      1. Dear Kate, I’ve not heard of Robertson Davies before and so I’ll go to Wikipedia/Goggle/Library website and see what I can find. I don’t remember who helped me realize that stories–tall tales–grow up about a person because of who she/he was at heart as seen through words and actions. But I think the first saint that came to my mind whenever I did begin to do that was St. Francis of Assisi. Surely the fact that he’s always shown with animals tells us a great deal about how he must have been when he lived all those centuries before. Peace.

  5. I’m wondering about Tandy’s comments and if this isn’t truly the beginning of the Swiss wealth? Fascinating tale. I love that you plucked these two out of a picture and went on to discover their story.

    1. Tammy, I have asked myself that many times. You probably have heard of the Swiss system of training its soldiers as mercenaries and hiring themselves out to all and sundry. That created huge wealth, but as the gold bowl from the last post shows, riches were in the blood of the Swiss from well before Christ. They just have a knack…

  6. Great if overly pious tale. It’s extraordinary how often this motif of the headless martyr walking off with its head to a site where a church or basilica eventually gets built is found recycled in another place with another saint. Most famously Saint Denis of France walked off with his decapitated head to where the Abbey of Saint-Denis now stands north of Paris, and there are no end of obscure Dark Age saints who had the same happen to them, in Britain as well as on the continent.

    I wonder if a common factor underlying this repeated if gruesome motif is the memory of an annual procession with the saint’s head in a reliquary from their place of martyrdom to a more suitable building site, perhaps away from a river or marshland to a drier, slightly higher eminence. Just speculation I know, but possibly plausible, hein?

    Must research this… I knew someone who was preparing a book on this subject — he even had a special very scholarly name for this phenomenon which I’ve now forgotten. Some interesting points about saintly severed heads are made here: http://people.bath.ac.uk/liskmj/living-spring/sourcearchive/ns5/ns5jr1.htm

    1. Chris, apologies, I read this and started thinking about it as soon as you posted but life is hectic. How interesting that there is such a thread running through stories of this time.Thanks for the illuminating addition to the whole severed heads debate!

      1. You’re welcome — I’m always impressed by your ability to stimulate reflection as well as throw new light on familiar topics. It’s your particular forte!

      2. I’ve recalled and chased up the ‘very scholarly name for this phenomenon’ that I mentioned above, Kate: a person who carries their own head is called a cephalophore or head-bearer, a term coined, I think, or at least popularised by Tristan Gray Hulse.

        I should have remembered this term from my own name, Christopher (‘Christ-bearer’) which has the same second element as cephalophore.

        Anyway, here’s yet another link, to a Breton legend typical of the whole genre of holy cephalophore stories: http://greekamericangirl.com/2013/07/06/st-noyala-aka-nouala-aka-newylinthe-cephalophore-or-head-bearer/
        But I second what Madhu says, that your recounting of such tales is usually more engaging than the originals!

      3. Oh, and this is my final word: you’ll recall, of course, the famous example of the importance of correct punctuation —
        King Charles walked and talked half an hour after his head was cut off…

  7. They were obviously not the only ones in the world Kate! Saint Denis of Paris is also supposed to have risen and walked uphill with his head under his arm,quite like these two! But that tale wasn’t recounted to me quite as well as this 🙂

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