Halloween Decorating Project: In Praise of the Halloween Turnip and Brazen Heads



History geeks among us will know that the traditional carved vegetable of the Halloween season was not–as it is commonly seen today–the pumpkin, but rather the humble turnip. While some cite the practice to the legend of Stingy Jack, the mythology behind the turnip goes much farther back into the Celtic age.  According to some historians, it is believed that the Celts, on Samhain–the holiday from which our modern Halloween stems–placed carved turnip heads on their windows to ward off ghosts passing through. And heads to seem to feature rather wildely during Halloween, don’t they?

(As an aside: What got me thinking about this topic, actually, was killing the Headless Horseman something like four times last night with my guild–in World of Warcraft there’s a great series of Halloween quests going this year that my husband has been obsessively completing, and I went along for the ride on this one. At one point during the fight, I had my head turned into a pumpkin and, as a gnome, the result was rather hilarious. Then I remembered something about the turnip–thinking the proportions would be a little better than a pumpkin–and decided to delve a little deeper.)

Well, let me tell you. While carved pumpkins don’t generally frighten me, there’s something altogether terrifying about turnips. Instead of the neat triangles and gap-toothed grins there’s a certain mournful horror that comes out in the turnip. And I want to harness that horror.

So this year, I’m going to be carving some turnips instead of pumpkins. But can I just leave it there? Of course not. Come to find out, there are a series of rather curious legends in Wales, Ireland, and England about Brazen Heads. What, you may ask, is a Brazen Head? Well, basically, it’s a fortune-telling head, usually from an actual person at one point of another, sometimes cast in bronze (hence: brazen). Some famous brazen head owners include Boethius, Faust, Bacon, and Virgil.

I decided to turn the heads on those brazen head owners and carve turnips in their likenesses (or close approximations) and likely bronze them with paint, then hang them for the party. Because brazen heads traditionally answer yes or no questions (and the fact that divinity plays a big role in Halloween) I’m going to put slips of paper inside with answers to the questions and have my guests reach into the awful heads to divine their futures! I will be posting the final result.

[Image Source: Rann?áirtí anai?nid, from the Museum of Country Life in Ireland; CC]

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