The Dullahan is a headless horseman from the Unseelie Court of the Irish fairy realm. Although in “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” the mysterious rider is implied to be only a man in disguise, the early American short story’s antagonist is modeled from legends of the Dullahan.
The Dullahan carry their grotesque, rictal heads with them, either aloft in their hands or in their saddlebags. (They in fact see through the heads’ eyes, though their sight extends vastly farther than human eyes, and through the pitch black of night). Unlike Death itself, the Dullahan rides a steaming stallion of jet black. The Dullahan maintain classic hallmarks of a Death Omen—if it bears a lantern, it is made of human skull. If it wields a crop, it is the spine of a corpse. In some parts of Ireland the Dullahan is seen in a drawn coach rather than on horseback, with a carriage of skin and wheel spokes of bone. Whatever the conveyance, it is surely a terrifying sight.
Appearing at midnight, most particularly on Irish festival or feast days, the Dullahan is a harbinger of death. Where the rider stops, someone will die. Although limited in the ability to speak, it can nevertheless wail, and call the name of the person about to leave the land of the living. Its intent is to call forth the dying person’s soul.
There is little defense against the Dullahan, and simply observing one as it passes may cause it to throw a basin of blood at the watcher, possibly marking her as the next to die. For this reason it is advisable to stay indoors with the curtains drawn on Feast nights. No roadblocks will slow its passage; locked gates will open before it. However, it is also said that unlike most creatures of the fairy realm, who fear cold iron, the Dullahan is instead averse to gold. A small trinket of gold may be enough to ward the Dullahan from your path, should you have the misfortune to see one.
Washington Irving. Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. 1821.
W.B. Yeats, Ed. Fairy & Folk Tales of Ireland. 1892.
T. Crofton Crocker. Fairy Legends and Traditions of the South of Ireland. 1844.