Red Hair in Folklore

This appeared in the North Clare Local in September. 

Red hair (Sunny Ripert via Wikimedia Commons)

Red hair (Sunny Ripert via Wikimedia Commons)

At the time of writing, another successful Irish Redhead Convention is wrapping up in West Cork. The foxy-haired from all over the globe descend on Crosshaven every August to celebrate their ginger locks. Only two percent of the global population are red-heads, with the highest proportion found in the USA, Ireland and Scotland.

While most Irish people have the dark brown hair/blue eyes combination, red hair is common, and up to 40% of us carry the recessive red-headed gene. We do associate red hair with pale skin and freckles, but red hair is not the sole preserve of northern Europe.

For example, the ancient Tocharian tribe in China had a high proportion of redheads, a fact borne out by the discovery of their mummified remains. The Berbers of Morocco also count redheads among their members, as do the Ashkenazi Jews.

The latter group have a very long history in Europe, dating back to pre-Christian times. As Christianity took hold, the Jews found themselves increasingly marginalised, and spread across Europe. The Ashkenazi Jews were largely found in Germany and France. While they do not have as a high proportion of red-heads as the Irish or Scots, it’s relatively common. Genetic research shows that they descended from a population of around 350 people, hence the concentration of physical traits, like red hair.

Flora by Titian

Flora by Titian

Red hair has been associated with Judaism in European culture since very early times; King David was often depicted with red hair, as was Mary Magdalene. Judas too was often said to have been a red-head, and that red hair was a sign of untrustworthiness. This belief became entangled with the sinister anti-Semitism which blighted Europe for centuries. Jews were often caricatured as having red hair and hooked noses, and hair colour became another way to mark them out as different.

Perhaps because of the depiction of Judas, the betrayer of Jesus, as a redhead, gingers have long been seen as dishonest and untrustworthy. Ginger women, in particular, have a bad reputation. “Proud are the short, and untrustworthy the red haired,” as a Latin proverb went.

Fishermen in Britain and Ireland believed that to see a red-haired woman on their way to harbour was so unlucky, that they may as well give up on their voyage. A Munster superstition held that if the first person a man saw on his way to work was a foxy-haired lady, he would achieve nothing that day. And if a redhead is the first person to enter the house on New Year’s Day, you may as well stay in bed for the next 365 days. They were also bad luck aboard ships.

La Ghirlandata by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

La Ghirlandata by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Attraction is the other side of repulsion, and for all the dislike and prejudice around red hair, red-headed women have often been prized throughout history. Ginger women have been thought as over-sexed and fiery. During the 16th century reign of Queen Elizabeth I (a ginger definitely not to be messed with), red hair became a hot fashion trend in Britain. This cycle has repeated many times since. Botticelli’s Venus had flaming locks, and the artist Titian liked red-heads so much that his name is now synonymous with a particularly gorgeous shade of auburn. Later on, in Victorian times, the Pre-Raphaelites painted red-headed ladies. Even today, celebrities like Florence Welch and Christina Hendricks reach for the dye bottle in order to achieve their famous fiery tresses.

Men have had less luck, with red-headed men often thought to be unattractive. Even their blood wasn’t safe; the medieval author Theophilius Presbyter chronicled how gold could be made from a mixture of basilisk ashes, copper and the blood of a red-headed man. It wasn’t all bad for ginger men though. The god Thor was once a red-head, but nowadays we are more used to seeing his blond Marvel Comics incarnation. Red-haired men were often seen as fierce warriors, like Eric the Red. Russia gets its name from Rurik, a ginger Viking, and indeed, the Norse thought red hair was good luck.

"To my hammer's swing / Hitherward sweep / Vapours and fogs! / Hovering mists! / Donner, your lord, summons his hosts!" A ginger Thor, by Arthur Rackham

“To my hammer’s swing / Hitherward sweep / Vapours and fogs! / Hovering mists! / Donner, your lord, summons his hosts!” A ginger Thor, by Arthur Rackham

Some very odd beliefs attached themselves to redheads. The Greeks thought they would become vampires when they died. The witch-hunting text Malleus Maleficarum identified witches as those with red hair and green eyes. A rather bizarre belief was one from the southern United States which stated simply that whenever a red-haired girl was seen, a white horse would always follow. In Poland, it’s said that if you see three consecutive gingers, you’ll win the lotto.

Being a redhead has not always been a lot of fun. However, there does seem to a be a subtle turn in the last few years, with actors like Damian Lewis and the aptly-named Eddie Redmayne flying the ginger flag, and JK Rowling making half the characters in Harry Potter benevolent red-heads. Gingers, your time has come!

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