Heads You Lose

‘The Queen turned crimson with fury, and, after glaring at her for a moment like a wild beast, screamed `Off with her head! Off–’

The ‘sport’ of chopping off heads has a long and colourful past. It is as much a horror story as it it a political statement which has been used to great effect throughout the ages right up to the present day.

The execution of Louise King of France.

The execution of Louise King of France.

What got me thinking about this morbid subject are the spate of beheadings carried out by the ISIS crew, who, have used this method of execution to great propaganda effect. Not that its an unusual form of execution, even in the modern era, especially in that part of the world. Our ‘allies’ in Saudi Arabia for instance, carry out public beheadings for a range of different crimes including adultery (which would mean an awful lot of grisly executions here if we had Sharia Law) & apostasy (that’s me – headless). In fact, since January, 59 people have had their heads lopped off in the kingdom, where “punishment by the sword” has been practiced for centuries.

A public beheading will typically take place around 9am. The convicted criminal walks into the square and kneels in front of the executioner. The executioner uses a sword known as a sulthan to remove the criminal’s head from his or her body at the neck. Sometimes it may take several strikes before the victim is decapitated. After the criminal is pronounced dead, a loudspeaker announces the crimes committed by the beheaded criminal and the process is complete. This is the most common method of execution in Saudi Arabia because it is specifically called for by Sharia Law. Professional executioners behead as many as ten people in a single day. The severed head is usually sewn back on, and sometimes put on crucifixes for public display. In 2011, an Indonesian maid’s dead body was hung from a helicopter for display. Wikipedia

According to reliable sources the crimes accredited to the victims who incur such retribution are dubious at best, patriarchal and based on medieval interpretations of the Koran but nevertheless we are happy to be friends and allies with people who practice such barbarity…apparently so oil prices remain stable and the US has a base from which to bomb Iraq etc. Ho hum. Public beheadings are the only form of public entertainment in Saudi Arabia, aside from football matches. Such brutality has always had a willing audience.

The picture of the Earl of Stafford’s execution (left) is astounding because of the enormous crowd gathered to watch it, even in 1641. There are easily as many people as a modern day football final or the Melbourne Cup and all in the hope of seeing something so gruesome that we would probably regurgitate our sushi if it were on TV today! Yet even for the censorship that western media provide we are all still fascinated by the practice of beheading to the degree that you can be sure would make television ratings soar if it were allowed on our evening news reports.

It’s not been different for thousands of years; the lopping, chopping, hacking and slashing has been used to great effect as propaganda for every part of society. The aristocracy have used it to keep the people in their place, the people have used it to keep the aristocracy in their place, the clergy for sinners and the sinners for the clergy. Every human being relates to it as a form of death that is somehow really ghastly because it presents the possibility that there is conciousness after the head is separated from the trunk.

David with the Head of Goliath, Caravaggio (the severed head a self portrait)

David with the Head of Goliath, Caravaggio (the severed head a self portrait)

In 1791, the French National Assembly decreed that all those condemned to death should die by means of decapitation. This was decided on upon the advice of Dr Joseph-Ignace Guillotin, a man who petitioned for this method of execution on the grounds that it was more humane than traditional methods of strangulation. Ironically, the good doctor’s name would soon become associated with the very thing he wished to abolish: the death penalty. As soon as the guillotine was put into use, debates broke out over how ‘humane’ decapitation really was. When Charlotte Corday’s head was sliced off with a guillotine in 1793, witnesses observed that she blushed after being slapped by the executioner. One spectator wrote:

‘The eyes seemed to retain speculation for a moment or two, and there was a look in the ghastly stare…which implied that the head was aware of its ignominious situation. Another wrote to Dr Guillotin asking: ‘Do you know that it is not at all certain when a head is severed from the body by the guillotine that the feelings, personality and ego are instantaneously abolished…?’

Others soon took an interest in this question and set out to find an answer. The first to reportedly do so was a Dr Séguret, who subjected a number of guillotined heads to a series of experiments during the French Revolution. In several instances, he exposed their eyes to the sun and observed that they ‘promptly closed, of their own accord, and with an aliveness that was both abrupt and startling’. He also pricked one of the severed head’s tongue with a lancet, noting that the tongue immediately retracted and ‘the facial features grimaced as if in pain’.

There is absolutely no doubt that the probability of some degree of consciousness is there at the end no matter how your head is separated from the rest of your body. There is also no doubt that capital punishment is not for the feint of heart no matter which method is used, and it is a political tool of enormous horror.

Frances last executioner M Meyssonnier said,“When the blade fell, pfffft,” said M Meyssonnier, slicing the air. “The blood shoots out, like two glasses of wine.”  He would always be left holding the head. “Holding a head in your hands after the fall of the blade makes a big impression on you that you can’t really explain.”

By Leo O’Hagan

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