In the ancient world, as today, nothing captures the horror and spectacle of death more than the severed head. Unlike other disarticulated body parts, the sight of a severed head leaves no doubt about the identity of the deceased. Moreover, it provides the clearest possible “proof of death.”
Beheading is also the ultimate life-extinguishing act. The ancient battlefield produced many nonlethal injuries. It was possible to survive being stabbed with a sword, shot with an arrow, or impaled with a spear. Yet beheading always has the same consequence.
Because of the unambiguous way in which beheading signals death, decapitation was a common practice in the ancient world, especially in the context of war. The story of David cutting off Goliath’s head (1Sam 17:50-51) is one of many biblical accounts of decapitation. For other examples from the larger ancient Near Eastern context, one can turn to in the annals of Ashurnasirpal II, in which the Neo-Assyrian king boasts about one of his victories: “I felled 800 of their combat troops with the sword (and) cut off their heads.” Describing another conquest, he claims: “I hung their heads on trees around the city.” Numbering and displaying heads provided a terrifying and effective means of commemorating the king’s domination.
Indeed, severed heads and headless corpses recur as frequent tropes throughout ancient Near Eastern art. The Sumerian Stela of Eannatum (circa 2450 B.C.E.), for example, presents severed heads being picked apart and carried aloft by vultures. This image relates the dis-integration of a once-powerful enemy. Enemies without bodies pose a threat no longer but are instead reduced to food for scavengers.
Disarticulated heads play a particularly prominent role in Neo-Assyrian royal iconography of the ninth–seventh centuries B.C.E. On the battlefield, beheading was often a means of killing a wounded enemy. One scene from a Neo-Assyrian palace relief depicting the battle of Til Tuba portrays a wounded Elamite soldier holding his hand to his neck. The caption above him indicates that he is petitioning an Assyrian soldier to have mercy on him and cut off his head. Elsewhere in the same relief we see a soldier in the very act of cutting off a head, in this case the head of the Elamite king Teumman.
Armies routinely took the severed heads of their enemies back to their captials as evidence of victory. David’s taking the head of Goliath to Jerusalem clearly served this function (1Sam 17:54). Taking heads was also a simple and convenient way to record who was killed in battle (like Teumman) and how many were killed. Heads are, after all, much easier to transport than whole dead bodies.
In another Neo-Assyrian palace relief, an Assyrian solider piles heads and looted objects amidst a grove of palm trees. The quantity and high quality of the accompanying booty underscores the value of the heads as memorials of domination.
Disarticulated heads were also carried in processions, bringing the tangible results of the victory into everyone’s view. Lest there be any doubt about the victor, the severed heads of the enemy tell the clearest tale. In the palace reliefs, and more broadly throughout the ancient Near East, the heads of the enemies are often manipulated in ways that are meant to shock and horrify observers. The heads are thus a sign of the celebration of victory and a warning to those who might challenge the authority and power of the king.