Saturday, February 25, 2006


Big Heads

King Alfred at The Bitter Scroll has an interesting post on Egil the Melancholy Viking (Egil Skallagrimsson) and his big head. Egil's Saga 91 (tr. W.C. Green) relates:
Grim of Moss-fell was baptized when Christianity was established by law in Iceland. He had a church built there, and 'tis common report that Thordis had Egil moved to the church. And this proof there is thereof, that later on, when a church was built at Moss-fell, and that church which Grim had built at Bush-bridge taken down, the churchyard was dug over, and under the altar-place were found human bones. They were much larger than the bones of other men. From the tales of old people it is thought pretty sure that these were Egil's bones. Skapti the priest, Thorarin's son, a wise man, was there at the time. He took then the skull of Egil, and set it on the churchyard fence. The skull was wondrous large, but still more out of the common way was its heaviness. It was all wave-marked on the surface like a shell. Skapti then wished to try the thickness of the skull. He took a good-sized hand-axe, and brandishing it aloft in one hand, brought down the back of it with force on the skull to break it. But where the blow fell the bone whitened, but neither was dinted nor cracked. Whence it might be gathered that this skull could not easily be harmed by the blows of weak men while skin and flesh were on it. The bones of Egil were laid in the outer part of the churchyard at Moss-fell.
Jesse L. Byock, Egil's Bones, Scientific American 272.1 (January 1995) 82-87, speculated that Egil suffered from Paget's disease of bone, one symptom of which is increasing skull size.

This reminded me of an ancient Greek with a big head, Pericles. Plutarch, Life of Pericles 3.2-4 (tr. Bernadotte Perrin), says:
His personal appearance was unimpeachable, except that his head was rather long and out of due proportion. For this reason the images of him, almost all of them, wear helmets, because the artists, as it would seem, were not willing to reproach him with deformity. The comic poets of Attica used to call him "Schinocephalus," or Squill-head (the squill is sometimes called "schinus"). So the comic poet Cratinus, in his "Cheirons," says: "Faction and Saturn, that ancient of days, were united in wedlock; their offspring was of all tyrants the greatest, and lo! he is called by the gods the head-compeller." And again in his "Nemesis": "Come, Zeus! of guests and heads the Lord!" And Telecleides speaks of him as sitting on the acropolis in the greatest perplexity, "now heavy of head, and now alone, from the eleven-couched chamber of his head, causing vast uproar to arise." And Eupolis, in his "Demes," having inquiries made about each one of the demagogues as they come up from Hades, says, when Pericles is called out last:--

    The very head of those below hast thou now brought.
Head-compeller (κεφαληγερέτα) is a humorous modification of the Homeric cloud-compeller (νεφεληγερέτα, an epithet of the sky god Zeus), and squill-head (σχινοκέφαλος) recalls the squill's bulbous root, which can weigh several pounds.

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