Some civilisations have located the soul, or the self, in other areas of the body. The Ancient Egyptians believed the seat of intelligence was the heart, giving little status to the brain: they didn’t even bother to embalm it after death, instead scooping the brain out and disposing of it. Plato believed a tri-part soul resided in the head, heart and liver. But in our neurocentric times we most often see ourselves firmly as residents of the skull.
In some ways it seems strange to focus on the head so much, the little nut on top of a tall mound, but considering the head contains most of the sensory organs with which we form our subjective reality, and with which many of us communicate our worldly experience, it’s easy to see why we are such a head-centric society.
Our language reveals just how important heads are to us in the general scheme of things: headteacher, head of state, head chef, head table, headline, headstrong…all examples of how the word “head” has come to mean the important part of a larger whole. The word “capital”, itself from the Latin for head, is also significant: capital letter, capital city and, of course, the way we talk about money as capital within our current economic system of capitalism (the individual units of money, like coins and notes, also contain a head portrait of the head of state).
Sidebar: there are other phrases that cast doubt on how far we should trust our bonces. “It’s all in your head”, for example, suggests that our brains may not be that reliable after all and perhaps we would do better to “follow our hearts”.
It follows that if the most important part of the body is the head, then to decapitate a person (perhaps under the auspices of capital punishment) is a strong statement indeed. Decapitation has been a common form of execution all over the world and still continues to be practiced in many countries today.
Famously, after decapitation, the heads of traitors were skewered on spikes outside the Tower of London; a gruesome political statement of the power of the State and a warning to would-be deviators from the status quo. Cutting off someone’s head is a highly symbolic, political act. It’s hard to imagine the same sort of control and fear of state being communicated if a severed hand or leg were impaled on a spike.