Proving Your Enemy Dead

St Oswald's Head Shrine

It strikes me this evening that proving your mortal enemy dead is incredibly important. The proof has evolved over time. For the seventh century kings that this blog is mostly concerned with, that proof was literally the taking of a head. Kings Edwin and Oswald were both beheaded, presumably after death in battle, and carried off to show the supporters of their enemy. We know that Cadwallon carried the head of Edwin with him at least to York, and Penda put Oswald’s head and arm on stakes for the viewing of all. We know about both of these kings because the church was interested in obtaining and creating relics out of both heads. It’s likely that a very similar result happened to every king or military leader who died in battle or was executed.

Today we may find putting heads on stakes on the battlements to be crude or barbaric, but we still find our own ways to show off the body of the enemy. It is likely that in the coming days we will be seeing some photographic evidence of the death of Osama bin Laden. DNA evidence will be a new, but almost certainly necessary, twist in the identification of the enemy. This proof is all necessary because no doubt there will be some who refuse to believe it.

I find myself wondering now what will ultimately happen to Bin Laden’s body. Will they return to his family where it could become a relic or shrine to terrorists? Will they bury it here in a marked or unmarked grave? I suppose time will tell.

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4 comments on “Proving Your Enemy Dead

  1. amy says:

    Your post hits on some of my own thoughts this morning. From at least one article I read, bin Laden’s body was buried at sea, in accordance with Islamic custom — an honor and respect this American finds incredibly difficult to fathom.

    • Alexandra says:

      Respect for a man who encouraged citizens to harm other citizens IS kind of hard to muster up. I think the efforts to bury him at sea within 24 hours were a sign of honor and respect to Islamic traditions – a way of saying, “It’s not Islam or its people we have a problem with, it’s just terrorists like this guy.”

  2. Marge says:

    Given that the photo going round of bin Laden seems to be a fake (http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/may/02/osama-bin-laden-photo-fake ), it leads me to wonder how many of those heads carried round as dead royals were similarly ‘fake’, or rather they’d take any head of the retinue and present it as the king (suitably banged about to plausibly be the king’s, of course).

    • I think in an honor based society you better be sure that the guy is dead because if he shows up later you loose credibility. All leaders live on their credibility. I think part of having a head to show off is that people can get very close to inspect it. In early medieval times fighting was up close and personal so a lot of people could recognize the leader who led from the front.

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