A to Z Challenge Folklore

The Nightmare Steed #folklore #AtoZChallenge

N is for Nightmare

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Stories involving headless horsemen are prevalent throughout folklore, myth and legend. The scariest one, though, is the Dullahan. It is said that none can ignore his call to death for he is the herald of Death itself.

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Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry Edited and Selected by W. B. Yeats, [1888]

An omen that sometimes accompanies the banshee is the coach-a-bower (cóiste-bodhar)–an immense black coach, mounted by a coffin, and drawn by headless horses driven by a Dullahan. It will go rumbling to your door, and if you open it, according to Croker, a basin of blood will be thrown in your face. These headless phantoms are found elsewhere than in Ireland.

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Encyclopedia of Fairies in World Folklore and Mythology by Theresa Bane

Dark Man

Variations: Dullahan, Durahan, Durrachan (“Malicious Anger”), Gan Ceann

In Irish lore the Dark Man (“Far Dorocha”) is the physical and solid embodiment of death. Exclusively serving the fairy queens, the Dark Man of the Unseelie court is sent out on his black horse to abduct a human and take them to fairyland. Some sources claim he is headless. Never speaking to his victims they always understand his intent; unable to resist, they mount up behind him, a willing passenger. Although many have been taken to fairyland very few have return; those who do are warned never to betray fairy secrets they learned, traitors will be visited by the dark man a second time; he will remove an eye or wither a limb. Some lore says if a person sees him as he rides down a road he will use his spinal-cord whip to lash out an eye or toss a basin of blood in their face.


Variations: Dulachan, Dullaghan, Durahan, Far Dorocha, Gan Ceann, Headless Horseman

Before the Irish potato famine began in 1845 no such fairy being as the dullahan existed, but once the famine had begun people started to claim a Banshee was being accompanied by a headless man riding upon a horse at midnight.

The being travelling with the Banshee was described as carrying his head, a smile on its face from ear to ear. The head was said to be the colour and texture of mouldy cheese. Sometimes the horse was headless as well. Other times the dullahan was described more like the death coach, made of human thigh bones and was pulled by six black horses with skull heads, their eyes lit by candles in their sockets. No matter its appearance, the dullahan races down roads spreading disease and causing households to fall ill.

*More can be read in the book.

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The Encyclopedia of Celtic Mythology and Folklore by Patricia Monaghan


Irish folkloric figure. The headless horseman of Irish tradition, the dullahan was sometimes described as the driver of the death coach; elsewhere he was a phantom who rode a horse that had lost its own head. A masculine and lesser-known form of the banshee, the wailing fairy that predicted death, the dullahan carried news of impending death to anyone who saw him riding past – though they may have seen nothing after he struck out their eyes with a flick of his whip.

*More can be read in the book.

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Further Reading:

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Folklore in a Nutshell by Ronel

Dullahan: the headless horseman from Irish folklore. This faery rides a black horse with flaming eyes, galloping across the dark countryside with his head under his arm. Once he stops riding, someone will die. In some versions of the legend, he throws basins of blood at people while in others he just calls out the name of the person about to die.

In most stories, his head is the colour and consistency of mouldy cheese, with his grin stretching from ear-to-ear. In some legends, he uses his head as a lantern as it is phosphorescent. All stories, though, say that the dullahan is male.

When he doesn’t ride his horse, he has a wagon drawn by skeletal horses – or headless horses, depending on the tale. He uses a human spine as a whip and his wagon is made of the bones of humans – even the wheels are made of thigh bones. If the wagon has a covering, it is made of human skin. It is covered with candles so it can easily be seen by humans. Though, if you peek out your window, you’re likely to lose an eye from that vicious whip.

The dullahan is aligned with the Unseelie Court. In some tales he is a soldier beheaded in battle, brought back to life by the Unseelie to seek his revenge. In some tales, a banshee accompanies him on his nightly travels.

No locks or gates can bar him: everything flies open when he wishes to enter. His only weakness: gold. He has an irrational fear of the substance. Even a tiny bit is enough to drive him away.

Whether you believe he rides a horse or travels by wagon, just stay inside and don’t look outside or you’re likely to be covered with blood, lose an eye or die.

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Dullahan in Modern Culture

Back in 2016, I saw this during #FolkloreThursday tweeting when the community was still small and very interactive with each other’s tweets.

The headless horseman is a favourite TV trope.

With a hip-hip and a clippity-clop
He’s out looking for a head to swap
So don’t try to figure out a plan
You can’t reason with a headless man!

— The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad

A specific type of undead (sometimes a ghost, sometimes a physical revenant), the Headless Horseman is a headless rider who haunts woods and roadways, often the one where he lost his head, in search of victims. Sometimes a Headless Horseman just seeks to scare, other times he will try to take others’ heads. Sometimes, the Horseman will carry a jack-o’-lantern in place of his lost head.
Tales of headless riders have existed in folklore for centuries, most notably the Irish legend of the Dullahan (see examples below), but the Trope Codifier is Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, although that is arguably an Unbuilt Trope, as it is strongly implied that the Headless Hessian that pursues Ichabod Crane is actually local blade Brom Bones playing a prank to scare the shit out of the schoolmaster.
A common modern variation replaces the live horse with one of steel.

Check it out here.

The Realm of Midgard, Minecraft also has a Dullahan.

Dullahan, also known as a Headless Horseman, is a type of undead whose head has been removed, and who typically rides a horse.
A Dullahan has no head.  They can either be created after the head has been severed, or at the time the body is beheaded, depending on how the creature is made.  Sometimes necromantic energy naturally seeps into the body at the time of death, and at other times they are “blessed” by fairies, often Unseelie fae.
The prime motivations of any Dullahan are finding their head and/or revenge.  Often these two goals intersect, as whoever killed the person who became a Dullahan took their head.  Most often the Dullahan takes their revenge by beheading the offender.  However cruel fate generally does not release the Headless Horseman from their curse by this alone, and most often the only way for them to move on is to rejoin their head with their body.

Learn more about the Dullahan in this setting here.

A quick search of books delivered this:

Leigh O’Bannon comes from a long, distinguished, line of Irish who settled in Dullahan Hollow. The opportunity of a lifetime is offered to her after graduation to become the Lead Archeologist at a newly discovered Native American burial ground. Leigh quickly discovers all is not as it seems once she and her team reaches the site. Realizing she needs the expertise of another, Leigh enlists the aid of a renowned authority on Native American Tribes and Culture, Jon Two Feathers. The longer Leigh is at the site, the more she begins to realize that she is somehow strangely tied to the woman whose remains lie in the grave and the wolf who was buried with her. As the dig continues, Leigh begins to understand her place within the Hollow. The wolves who once inhabited the Hollow are returning and only Leigh with the aid of her friends and the creatures who once protected the Hollow can save them from destruction.

Check it out on Goodreads.

Rumors about a gouging rider of death permeate the lands of King Ronald the Just. His reign brimmed with justice and hope for all those who sought the crown for help in times of need. But alas, not all is as it seems, as the King swiftly sentences a man to death for simply bringing up whispers of the Headless Knight. Timid and nervous, everyone grows tense at the suspicion/feeling that the rumors are more than they appear.

Check it out on Goodreads.


Check it out on Goodreads.

Dullahan in My Writing

Origin of the Fae: Dullahan

A terrifying creature. The only thing equally as scary is the steed he rides: a black horse which snorts sparks and has glowing eyes (colour differs from one steed to the next).
Dullahans are headless. They’re usually horsemen, though on occasion they will ride out in their carriages of death. The black coach has skulls all over lighted with candles from within. The wheels’ spokes are made of the femurs of humans and Fae alike. Six black horses swiftly and silently draw the carriage, creating fires in its wake.
Whether riding coach or steed, nothing can keep the Dullahan out. All locks unlock, doors and gates fly open whenever he wishes to enter. No-one is safe from the attentions of this Dark Fae.
The Dullahan’s head can either look like mouldy cheese, stale dough or some weird combination thereof with the distinct form of a skull. A terrifying, hideous, idiotic grin splits the face – broadening the closer the creature is to calling a soul to ride with him to the realm of the dead. The entire head glows phosphorescent, the strength of the light varying for stealth. Sometimes the Dullahan will use his own head as a lantern to see by…
The Dullahan likes blood. He carries with him a basin full of it, throwing it at the inquisitive who look upon him and sometimes on his victims to subdue them.
Probably the most macabre aspect of this Faery is the human spine he uses as a whip. Legend has it that the spine belongs to someone he cared for in a previous life.
Dullahans are created by the Unseelie Court as part of some weird ritual to appease the dead. Dullahans can either be made from humans (they don’t last really long) or from Fae who were chosen for this sacrifice. Always the one chosen to become a Dullahan is beheaded by a gold axe.
They have a strong allegiance to the Unseelie Court.
Dullahans don’t like speaking all that much. Mostly because the head settled on the saddle-brow can be dislodged by too much talking. A myth had arisen that this Faery has a limited power of speech because the disembodied head mostly only calls out the name of the soul he came to collect.
Though there’s no true defence against this herald of Death, the Dullahan seems to have an irrational fear of gold. (Probably due to it being a golden axe that killed him in a previous life.) Only gold weapons have any effect on them. Gold gathered from the ground with magic and then thrown at them works like shrapnel and is quite effective at chasing them off.

dullahan translation english afrikaans
Learn more here.

Did you find this to be terrifying? Any other horsemen from folklore that creep you out as much as the dullahan? Any horseman folklore you’d like to share? Check out my Pinterest board dedicated to the subject.

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6 thoughts on “The Nightmare Steed #folklore #AtoZChallenge”

  1. Goodness, Celtic folklore is full of scary beings! The dullahan is unfamiliar to me. I do have a copy of the Yeats book somewhere on my overflowing shelves, but haven’t read it cover to cover. I have read the Legend of Sleepy Hollow short story, which implies, as I recall, that Ichabod Crane has disappeared to somewhere less scary and has a job there.

    Disney did that black coach in the Darby O’Gill film. I remember being scared out of my wits as a child!

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