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Hellhead

July 18, 2013
Detail of a Hellhead in the icon Resurrection and Descent (circa 1650), from the Museum of Russian Icons (Hundt and Smith 2013)

Detail of a Hellhead in the icon Resurrection and Descent (circa 1650), from the Museum of Russian Icons (Hundt and Smith 2013)

The Museum of Russian Icons, through some sub-entity called the Center for Icon Studies, publishes a peer-reviewed online Journal of Icon Studies. The article that’s currently on top, “A Teratological Source of Hellhead,” is short and clear with lots of pictures of icons. The authors wondered what was going on with these strange red heads that look forward, with a complete human face in the usual place, but also some sort of opening on the top, out of which the righteous emerge from Hell. These Hellheads, not to be confused with Hellmouths found in other icons, are odd in that they aren’t shown in profile, like most diabolical things in icons.

The answer Henry Hundt and Raoul Smith give has to do with Alexander the Great. In the 4th century CE (per Hundt and Smith, though there seems to have been a 3rd century version), an unknown writer called Pseudo-Callisthenes wrote about Alexander’s adventures in the East, where he met “centaurs, amazons, humans with dog heads, other humans with six hands and six feet, some with only one foot, etc.” (8). This text was translated into many languages, including Serbian, and is known to have been held by a particular Russian monastery.

Headless men in a 17th-century Slavic manuscript about Alexander

Headless men in a 17th-century Slavic manuscript about Alexander

Some of the creatures Alexander met were Blemmyes, headless beings with faces on their chests and, in an illustration in one of the Slavic manuscripts, what looks like an opening on the top of their heads. (There was also a real tribe called the Blemmyes, and mythical headless Blemmyes going back to 1st century BCE illustrated manuscripts of Herodotus and Pliny the Elder. See p. 7.)

Apart from the Hellheads and Blemmyes, I learned something many of you probably know: there are more Christian year-numbering systems than just anno domini (counting from Jesus) and anno mundi (from the creation of the world). There’s also anno martyrum, counting from the reign of Christian-persecuting Emperor Diocletian.

Hundt and Smith have many more pictures, and the journal has two other articles so far, and the museum site also seems to have a lot to offer. And you don’t need special university or library access – bravo to the MRI and the CIS for putting the journal online!

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