With Their Heads in Their Hands, Literally: Cephalophoric Saints and Biblical Violence

I feel like I’ve written a lot so far about bodies in a way that’s very explicit and concrete — skeletons, decomp, mummies — and so, in an effort to not write about dead bodies all the time, I spent a good few days thinking of something I could write about that’s more cultural/historical as opposed to physical/biological. After musing on it for a while, I remembered that I recently came across the (to me) intriguing concept of the cephalophore: a saint or religious figure who is depicted as carrying their own head, usually after having been martyred via someone else lopping it off. Folklore, death, supernatural weirdness? I’m so there. 

The first example of a cephalophore that I came across was Saint Saturnina, a virgin martyr from France. For reasons that I forget now, I was looking up the etymology of the word ‘saturnine’ (literally translates to “born under the influence of Saturn”, and means ‘gloomy’, for those of you who may be wondering), and that somehow led me to the story of Saturnina, and then down a Wikipedia-hole to cephalophores in general.

“St. Denis Bearing his Head and Halo” – 1896 (from the New York Public Library Digital Collection)

As I mentioned above, cephalophores are always depicted as carrying their own heads, and in fact, the word literally means “head carrier,” derived from the Ancient Greek ‘kephalḗ’ (head) + ‘-phoros’ (bearing/to bear). The most famous cephalophore is usually considered to be St. Denis, the patron saint of Paris, who upon being beheaded, picked up his head and walked seven miles with it — continuing to preach all the while — to his place of burial. You will notice, if you care to look into it, that being French appears to be a common attribute of these headless saints — France is apparently home to 134 of them, so maybe wear some form of neck protection next time you visit, just in case.

Most articles that come up when you search for cephalores will talk about St. Denis, and mention that, apparently, painters and sculptors had mega issues with figuring out where the halo should go when trying to depict him in works of art. Around his actual head? Around where his head should normally be? draw him with holding his head up to his neck-stump so that the question becomes moot? Who cares? Not me — in fact, I’m going to talk about something else entirely!

I noticed as I was researching this topic that the stories surrounding female cephalophores tend to be extremely similar. For example, the stories of Saints Winifred, Saturnina, and Valerie of Limoges all share the common features of a chaste woman being forced into marriage/sex, and subsequently being beheaded by their male suitors as punishment for their refusal. In the cases of Winifred and Saturnina, the suitor is also immediately struck dead, presumably as divine retribution for their crimes. Details about Valerie of Limoges and Saturnina are sketchy at best — both of them are generally thought to be legendary figures rather than real people who actually lived. Given that they’re both French, I wonder if they are perhaps just different regional or temporal versions of the same legend (and indeed, how many of the other 132 French cephalophores are actually just the same legend with slightly different details depending on the place and time in which it was told?).

While Valerie/Saturnina are probably not real, there is evidence that Winifred was a real, verified, living person, and this probably explains a weird detail that seems unique to her legend: the fact that her head was reattached after being cut off. In the story, Winifred decides to become a nun, which means she can’t marry her suitor, Caradog. His response to this, naturally, is to fly into a rage and cut off her head BUT, Winifred’s uncle Bueno also happens to be a saint, and he miraculously reattaches her head to her body and brings her back to life while also calling on the wrath of heaven to deal with Caradog, which it does by making him drop dead on the spot. It’s pretty intense.

Stained glass panel at Castell Coch, Cardiff, depicting Winifred, complete with decapitation scar. (via Wikipedia)

Unlike with the other two, who are maybe-probably-definitely just legends, there actually was a real nun named Winifred in 7th century Wales who became the abbess of a small village called Gwytherin, and a lot of the writings concerning her life mention a scar on her neck. As well, her brother, Owain, is reported to have killed a man named Caradog as revenge for an unmentioned crime. So it’s possible that there’s definitely an element of truth to Saint Winifred’s legend; she may really have been attacked by Caradog –leaving her with a scar that made it look like she had survived being decapitated — and Caradog was then subsequently killed as a direct result of his actions. The fact that she was pledged to God as a nun no doubt helped to perpetuate the idea that her survival was due to divine intervention, and the story probably grew from there.

There are two major, somewhat intertwined, themes that we can explore with female cephalophores: the symbolism related to the head and decapitation in general, and the ambiguous position of female sexuality in religious narratives. The head is generally thought of as the centre of a person’s personality and soul, and in some cultures the head is considered a powerful talismanic object — the Celts for example, are widely thought to have kept and venerated the heads of their enemies, and English folklore is full of headless boogymen and disembodied, screaming skulls. As well as being a quick and reliable way to kill some, the act of beheading in the context of martyrs is also a powerful representation of the silencing of dissent, as these saints were often beheaded as punishment for preaching Christianity in an environment that was hostile to the religion.

However, the act of picking up one’s head and continuing about your business rather than dropping dead as expected is also symbolically powerful, representing the ultimate dismissal of the silencing authority and the assertion of one’s spiritual autonomy. In the case of the female saints, whose beheadings are also tied up with notions of sexual ownership and propriety, it can also be read as an assertion of bodily autonomy, especially in stories where the (always) male attacker is immediately dealt a fatal punishment. It also speaks to the idea of courage, in that these figures believe so strongly in their right to their faith, and their right to say no, that they continue to stand up to their attackers even after being killed for it.

When talking about ideas of feminine courage, virtue, and sexuality in a religious context, you can also draw an interesting parallel between headless women, like Winifred, Saturnina, and Valerie of Limoges, and certain other female biblical figures who instead commit violence against men rather than having it committed against them by men. The most obvious one here is Judith, famous both for beheading Holofernes, and for this scene being frequently depicted in Renaissance art. In the story, Judith, a widow, frustrated by her countrymen’s reaction to being conquered by the Assyrians, takes it upon herself to resolve the situation. She does this by infiltrating the enemy camp and allowing the general, Holofernes, to become infatuated with her. Having gained his trust, she is allowed to enter his tent one night, where she waits until he passes out in a drunken stupor and cuts off his head. Left without a leader, the conquering force falls apart and leaves, making Judith the saviour of Israel. Hooray!

Judith, probably: “Eat it, losers”          Judith’s Maid: “Judith what the fuck.”  (image: Judith with the Head of Holofernes by Cristofano Allori, 1613)

The most obvious difference in this story is the role-reversal, with Judith as the beheader rather than the beheadee. However, there are also certain details that parallel the other women’s stories: Judith is a virtuous woman (though a widow rather than a virgin), who gains the trust of Holofernes thanks to his sexual desire for her, and her act is ultimately seen as courageous and noble. In this sense, if you were to come up with a sort of scale of religious/biblical/scriptural violence involving women, you might put the female cephalophores at one end, and Judith and similar figures (Jael, for example; and Tomyris in Greek/Classical histories) at the other. The theme of sexuality isn’t exactly at the forefront of these stories, but it’s there, lurking below the surface.

For the cephalophores, their virginity is central to the fact of their sainthood. They die to keep their purity before God intact. Likewise, Judith, although a widow and thus presumably not a virgin, nevertheless pledges to remain unmarried for the rest of her life. It’s also Holofernes’ sexual desire for her that is centered in the story, and which leads to his downfall; Judith’s motives are depicted as pure and protective. Her violence is justified both by Holofernes’ violence towards her country and people as well as his, presumably unwanted, sexual attraction/advances towards her.

Naughty, sexy Judith, reveling in some nude murder (image: “Judith” – Franz Stuck, 1928)

What’s also interesting with regard to Judith in particular is the relationship between depictions of her as a sexualized figure and the associated implications about the justifiability of her act. In early Renaissance depictions, Judith is a fully clothed, triumphant figure, while later works add elements of both eroticism and violence, with more sexualized versions of Judith being simultaneously depicted as more violent, more threatening, more bloodthirsty; with the associated implication being that she used her sexuality deceitfully against Holofernes, and is perhaps, therefore, less deserving of praise.

There’s a lot more to be said on basically all of the subjects I’ve covered here and their various intersections: religion, martyrdom, violence, sexuality, femininity, etc. For example, the implied dangerousness of female sexuality seen in changing artistic depictions of Judith is just one example among many of how that particular religious anxiety reveals itself. Likewise, if you look at any given saint in more detail, you’ll often find some form of violence in their backstory, because martydom — a common path to sainthood — necessarily requires suffering, which typically occurs through violence. I wish there was more written about these mysterious, female cephalophores that I could direct you to, but as far as I can tell, there isn’t much more information out there about them than what I’ve covered here. Then again, I’m not a biblical scholar, so if you know of any resources for further reading on the subject, feel free to throw them my way in the comments!


2 thoughts on “With Their Heads in Their Hands, Literally: Cephalophoric Saints and Biblical Violence”

  1. Used to go to Holywell a lot with your gran and grandad when I was little, which is also known as St Winifred’s well. There is also a welsh Winifred who is a nun that features a lot in fiction surrounding King Alfred, wonder if it’s the same one? After reading about Judith though, we had better be nice to your sister😉


    1. Brillant and funny Kath, love the caption under the Cristofano Allori depiction of ‘Judith with the head of Halofernes’ Female sexuality and religion have always had a dodgy relationship… all that celibacy I guess 😀


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