Severed: A History of Heads Lost and Heads Found by Frances Larson

Strong-stomached readers will enjoy this accessibly written cultural anthropology of severed heads.

severed

The human head is remarkable. Not only does it boast receptors for each of the five senses and house the brain–the command center for the body–but it also displays the face, which (for better or worse) defines our identities to the outer world. In Severed, anthropologist Frances Larson (An Infinity of Things) examines a dark side of the human head–specifically, its separation from (and attempted reattachment to) the human body in myriad ways and with different purposes, intentions and results.

The Western world has balked at shrunken heads, trophy heads, headhunting and wartime brutalities, but still maintained a macabre enthusiasm for collecting these specimens, which, ironically, led to an increase in the practices. In Europe, beheadings for criminal and political offenses led to the development of the guillotine during the French Revolution. Despite its gore, this machine was heralded for its efficiency and arguably humane approach relative to other execution methods. Detached heads have served as religious and secular relics; scientific or pseudo-scientific tools; artists’ inspiration; soldiers’ souvenirs; and objects of ritual and political symbolism. In fact, much of Larson’s study considers the interplay between the head as part of an individual and head as object: it is necessary to objectify in order to decapitate or dissect. An overarching concern is whether the head alone holds the essence of each of us. The question remains unanswered, even as Larson investigates cryonic suspension of severed heads and head transplants (or as their practitioners prefer, “body transplants”) in one of her most intriguing and memorable chapters.

Larson’s examinations of the head’s place throughout history and the present are endlessly fascinating. Her writing is never gratuitously gruesome, but necessarily deals in grisly detail. (In addition to the myriad lessons within these pages, readers may well learn the threshold at which they become disturbed by such subject matter.) Severed explores the head in idiom, in its “linguistic ubiquity,” and as a tool for justifying racism: one major collector of skulls and related data rounded average skull size up for Germans and Anglo-Saxons, but down for “Negroid” Egyptians.

In this thoughtful survey of decapitated heads and their implications in history and across cultures, Larson is sensitive and thorough, allowing occasional humor while giving her subject the respect it deserves, offering entertainment alongside a truly engrossing educational experience. For readers of science, history, culture, anthropology and generally quirky nonfiction, Severed will be thought-provoking and unforgettable.


This review originally ran in the November 18, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 measurement tools.

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