Canadian actor-cum-mythopoetic terrorist hunter Kiefer Sutherland was charged last week with misdemeanor assault for head butting fashion designer Jack McCollough, after the latter is alleged to have bumped into Brooke Shields. That the head butt is Mr. Sutherland’s chivalric corrective of choice is not surprising, given his Scottish heritage (he is, in fact, the grandson of Canada’s legendary and beloved father of socialist populism, the late great Tommy Douglas, recently voted The Greatest Canadian). Full details have yet to come out regarding the style of head butt Mr. Sutherland employed, though Mr. McCollough’s broken nose would indicate the classic, full-frontal surprise attack. As such questions arise, the moment seems right for a brief, personal history of the head butt.
Why personal? Like Mr. Sutherland, I too am a Canadian of Scots-Irish heritage, with an avowedly socialist grandfather; furthermore, my father grew up in Glasgow (spiritual home of the head butt); also, I have been head butted, and have delivered same. Let’s start at the beginning, shall we? [NB: a popular study of the head butt was essayed by Daniel Engber in 2006, for Slate, on the occasion of Zinedane Zidane’s infamous head butt (upon which, more later); though Mr. Engber does a decent job outlining the kinetics of the move, he clearly has never delivered one of his own, nor, I would suggest, has he received one.]
The History of the Head Butt
As with other questions of specialized adaptation it is difficult to say precisely if the head butt came to prominence because of the prognathis or if the prognathis came about because of the head butt. Whatever the case, as the brain (and its vessel, the head) comes into prominence as a valuable weapon in the arsenal of man (between 8,000 to 5,000 BCE, the time of the Iliad and the Pharaohs), the head butt likely moves from standard combat maneuver to specialized—and gratuitous—attack strategy. (For some reason, the head butt will never quite fade from use among northern Europeans, particularly the Vikings and the Celts; one can still see a higher preponderance of prognathis among those peoples. The relatively retarded development of scholarship and erudition among these northern Europeans, in comparison to the Mediterranean cradle of learning, is likely a factor in the ongoing popularity of using the brainpan as concussive weapon among people who freckle. In fact, my own Scottish lineage can be traced to a Norwegian named Gunnir Thorson, who crossed the North Sea in the 11th century, whereupon he raped a Pict and settled down to wait for the invention of rugby.)
It isn’t really until the Enlightenment (and in this case, the Scottish Enlightenment) that northern Europeans come to accept the reality of the head butt, specifically that — despite the deeply satisfying efficiency of its bloody power — it often does as much harm to the butter as it does to the buttee. (Insofar as this is a brief, personal history of the head butt, it is necessarily focused on northern Europe; I should point out here that the head butt does show up in certain Southeast Asian martial disciplines—Burmese lethwei and Thai muay boran—but only as a precisely described movement among a series of ritualized strategies.)