Monster of the Week: The Decapitating God

The Moche Decapitator Werner Forman/Universal Images Group/Getty

Many unnatural creatures revel in human decapitation. From the hatchet-wielding headless horsemen of the West to Gashadokuro, the starving skeleton of Japanese mythology, the impulse to slice or gnaw a person's head off seems universal.

And why shouldn't it be? After all, monsters such as the Chinese Xing Tian and Hinduism's Kabandha owe their headless states to human heroes. Meanwhile, monster slayers like Perseus pretty much make decapitation their grisly calling card. What a dick!

Headhunter! (1989)

So perhaps there's a strong element of vengeance at play when a voodoo demon or the lion-headed donestre snatches a human head. And for undying monster gods? Well, there's nothing like a good human beheading to drive home the ephemeral nature of mortal life. And so the Hindu destroyer Kali frequently manifests with a decapitated human head -- or even a garland of such grisly trophies.

The Moche civilization of pre-Columbian Peru worshiped a deity known today only as The Decapitator: a grim-faced god brandishing a blade and a human head (pictured above). I don't believe I have to tell you what manner of human sacrifice likely ensued.

But what can the natural world tell us about decapitation? For answers, we turn to the world of ants and flies.

Off (and Into) Their Heads

Specifically, we look to the grisly life cycle of phorid flies. Some species in the Phoridae family lay their eggs inside the bodies of ants -- eggs that hatch into larvae and move to the host's head for a nutritious feast. As the larvae gobble up ant head cheese, they also weaken the connective tissue in the neck till the head simply falls off. Finally, the decapitated head gives birth to adult phorid flies.

While most headhunting flies decapitate from within, female Dohrniphora longirostrata flies employ a unique external method in keeping with every human decapitation ever devised.

Discovered in 2015, these scavengers hunt down injured trap-jaw ants and use their scalpel-like mouth parts to severe the gut, nerve cord and other connective tissue in the victim's neck. Then they grab the head with their front legs and rip it right off.

With the head removed, D. longirostrata females drag their prize away to a secluded location to either gobble up the delectable contents themselves or lay their eggs nearby, thus providing a nutritious meal for the emergent larvae.

So perhaps our decapitating gods and monsters recognize the human head as a sound take-out meal. The brains provide a nice fatty meal for adults and their ravenous spawn alike.

Now let's watch D. longirostrata in action:

Monster of the Week is a - you guessed it - regular look at the denizens is of our monster-haunted world. Sometimes we'll focus on the cultural aspects, but mostly we'll look at the possible science behind a creature of myth, movie or legend. Be sure to explore the Monster Gallery as well as the Monster Science video series.

About the Author: Robert Lamb spent his childhood reading books and staring into the woods — first in Newfoundland, Canada and then in rural Tennessee. There was also a long stretch in which he was terrified of alien abduction. He earned a degree in creative writing. He taught high school and then attended journalism school. He wrote for the smallest of small-town newspapers before finally becoming a full-time science writer and podcaster. He’s currently a senior writer at HowStuffWorks and has co-hosted the science podcast Stuff to Blow Your Mind since its inception in 2010. In his spare time, he enjoys traveling with his wife Bonnie, discussing dinosaurs with his son Bastian and crafting the occasional work of fiction.