Hair in Folklore

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Niamh and Oisin (via Education Scotland)

October’s North Clare Local article. 

Compared to most other mammals, humans have very little hair. For millennia we’ve styled and glorified the hair on our heads. Last month, I discussed the superstitions around red hair. While other hair colours don’t attract quite as much folkloric interest, there are some interesting differences in the way people with different hair colours and styles are perceived.

Historically, the mostly brown-haired Irish adored blonde hair. Niamh the Fair, who took Óisin away to Tir Na nÓg, had golden hair down to her waist. It was also believed that blonde-haired children and women were more desirable to fairies, and were especially vulnerable to kidnap by the sídhe.

Blonde hair has long been seen as attractive. Even today, blondes “have more fun” and gentlemen apparently prefer them. But if you’re a brunette or ginger, don’t be disheartened. Blondes have been traditionally seen as more fickle and unreliable, whereas brunettes’ loyalty is never called into question. Blond men were seen as deceitful and dishonest. Despite this, blondes have also been seen as paragons of virtue; brunettes were seen as less pure-hearted.

The stereotype of the “dumb blonde” refuses to die. Brunettes have long been seen as clever and blondes as hopeless ditzes. As we may observe from, say, Hilary Clinton and Kim Kardashian, the reverse is often the case, but the label persists. Studies have shown that men perceived brunette women as more intelligent and competent than their blonde counterparts.

The stereotype goes back as far as the 1800s. In 1775, a play about the French prostitute Rosalie Duthé made the most of her good looks, blonde hair and lack of brains. She’s the first “dumb blonde” but others have since followed in her footsteps. For many, like the well-read and intelligent Marilyn Monroe, the role was nothing but play-acting.

Colour aside, there’s all sorts of beliefs about hairstyles. Long hair in women is a sign of youth and beauty across almost all cultures. However, it could also be linked with temptation and seduction. In East Asia, loose long hair was seen as promiscuous, so women always wore their hair tied up. This was common in many cultures, such as our own. Going out with loose hair was seen as bad luck by the Celts. In England, a witch could bring around a storm by sitting on a beach with loose hair.

Despite the association with wantonness, long hair was seen as one of the most attractive physical traits a woman could have. The Grimm fairy-tale Rapunzel is probably the most well-known example. The beautiful maiden trapped in her tower lets down her long hair so her prince can climb up the walls. It must have been quite a strain on her scalp. There was a nice twist in the recent Disney adaptation, Tangled, where Rapunzel ended up with short hair. She didn’t seem to mind too much.

Lady Godiva, an 11th century English noblewoman, reportedly rode naked through the streets of Coventry to protest unfair taxes on the town. Only her long hair covered her modesty. A man called Tom peered at her, despite being forbidden to do so, and was struck blind. He’s the origin of the term “peeping Tom” and the legend of Lady Godiva lives on. For some curious reason, she’s become a mascot of many engineering colleges across the western world.

Lady_Godiva_(John_Collier,_c._1897)

Lady Godiva by John Collier (via Wikimedia Commons)

Over the centuries hair has been a political issue. During the Norman invasion of Ireland, the Gaels resisted pressure from the newcomers to cut their long hair. Irishmen who did cut their hair were seen as loyal to the new regime. Likewise, Normans who let their locks grow had become “more Irish than the Irish themselves.”

Cutting hair was a tricky business too. The new moon was the best time to do so, in Irish tradition; it meant it would grow back stronger. Cutting it during the full moon would lead to baldness, and combing your hair in the dark would lead to sorrow. Eating bread crusts makes your hair curl, but curly-haired people were believed to be bad-tempered.

One should never pluck a grey hair or ten more will fill its place. If you visit Thailand, you may not see many barbers open on a Wednesday, as this is considered an unlucky day for a haircut.

While some cultures believe it’s very unlucky to burn hair cuttings, in Lancashire, they once believed you can tell how long someone will live by how bright the flames burn. The Navajo people in America and the ancient Chinese believed that cutting hair would sap a person of their power, and the Biblical story of Samson is a reminder that a man should never let a woman cut his hair.

Hair is something intimately personal to us all, and the rich beliefs around it testify to this.

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