The Myths and History of Red Hair

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The Ancient World

Clover Leaf Map of Europe, Asia and Africa

The following page is a collection of all the information about red hair that I've come across in regards the ancient world. The bits and pieces I've picked up from books I've referenced, but a lot of the stuff that I've found on the internet I haven't - simply because I'm not completely sure of its veracity. Hopefully it's all correct!

The Greeks

The Greek philosopher Aristotle is reputed to have made the following comments about red hair:

"The reddish are of bad character."

"Those with tawny coloured hair are brave; witness the lions. [But those with] reddish [hair] are of bad character; witness the foxes."

"Fishermen, divers for murex, and generally those whose work is on the sea, have red hair."

He also apparently described redheads as being emotionally un-housebroken, although I haven't come across a direct quotation for this. Another mention of red hair comes from Xenophanes, who referred to it when discussing the natural tendency of man to confer upon God a human form:

"The Ethiopians claim that their gods are flat-nosed and black-skinned; the Thracians, that they are blue-eyed and have red hair...if oxen, horses, and lions had hands with which to draw and make works like men, horses would represent the gods in the likeness of a horse, oxen in that of an ox, and each one would make for them a body like the one he himself possessed."

This mention of the Thracians having red hair brings to mind Herodotus' description of the Budini, a tribe in the region of Scythia that had "blue-grey eyes and red hair."1 In fact it's now clear that there must have been at least some red-haired people living in the areas referred to by the Greeks as Scythia and Thrace, as comments such as these are now backed up by the discovery of Thracian art that clearly depicts people of a red-haired appearance. I've also read that in Greek and Roman theatre slaves were given red wigs as identifiers and that this stemmed from the fact that their slaves often came from these northern territories.

Incidentally, the Greek playwright, Euripides was also described as having a freckled appearance - although whether he had red hair or not we can't be sure. It should also be noted that in Homer's Iliad both Menelaus and Achilles are described as being red-haired.

The Romans

The Romans tended to associate red hair with the Gaulish and Germanic tribes that they encountered in the north, as the following comments illustrate:

"Their tall stature, their long red hair, their huge shields, their extraordinarily long swords; still more, their songs as they enter into battle, their war-whoops and dances, and the horrible clash of arms as they shake their shields in the way their fathers did before them - all these things are intended to terrify and appal."
- Livy, on the Gauls.

"The red hair and large limbs of the inhabitants of Caledonia point clearly to a Germanic origin."
- Tacitus, on the inhabitants of northern Britain.

"The colour of the Ethiopian is not singular among his countrymen, nor is red hair tied up in a knot a peculiarity among the Germans."
- Seneca, on the Germans.

There is also a story that Caligula made prisoners from Gaul grow their hair long and dye it red, so that he could display them to the public on his triumph in Rome.

A telling indication of how red hair was viewed in ancient Rome may be found in an epigram written by Martial about a slave named Zoilus. He wrote "Zoilus, with your red hair, dark complexion, short foot, and bleary eye, it would be miraculous if you were virtuous." However, it wasn't all bad for red hair, as it is said that the Romans also used to import it from northern Europe in order to make wigs.

One tantalising titbit about red hair I came across was in the works of Plutarch. In his "Lives" he states that Cato the Censor was a redhead. However, I've read two translations of this work and whereas the first describes him as having "red hair," the second simply describes him as "ruddy." So I don't really know what to what to believe. Once again the word "ruddy," and its various interpretations, leaves me guessing. However, I include it here as Cato seems like a man worthy of mention. He was a frugal-minded stoic, a soldier and an orator, and had a great knack for coining a phrase. Some of his sayings are below:

"Wise men learn more from fools, than fools from the wise; for the wise avoid the error of fools, while fools do not profit by the examples of the wise."
- on wisdom.

"I look upon a king as a creature that feeds upon human flesh."
- when asked why he shunned a king visiting Rome.

And my personal favourite,

"The soul of a lover lives in the body of another."

The Egyptians

It is thought that Cleopatra herself was a redhead. This is partly based on an image found on a wall in Herculaneum which shows a woman with red hair surrounded by Egyptian motifs. In her book, "Cleopatra the Great," Joann Fletcher writes:

"Cleopatra may well have been a redhead, judging from the portrait of a flame-haired woman wearing the royal diadem surrounded by Egyptian motifs which has been identified as Cleopatra."2

She also states that red hair became something of a fashion statement in Cleopatra's Alexandria, writing:

"The red hair of the Germanic tribes conquered by Caesar was particularly prized for this purpose. It was a shade favoured by fashionable Alexandrian women, including some in the royal household. Presumably Cleopatra's own auburn hair had set the trend, maybe enhanced with a vegetable colorant such as henna."3

She also mentions that during a feast put on by Cleopatra there were staff in attendance with hair so fair "that Caesar said he had never seen hair so red in the Rhine country."

Another book that mentions red hair in conjunction with ancient Egypt is James Frazer's "The Golden Bough." In it he states that red-haired men were burnt and sacrificed by the Egyptians:

"With regard to the ancient Egyptians we have it on the authority of Manetho that they used to burn red-haired men and scatter their ashes with winnowing fans, and it is highly significant that this barbarous sacrifice was offered by the kings at the grave of Osiris. We may conjecture that the victims represented Osiris himself, who was annually slain, dismembered, and buried in their persons that he might quicken the seed in the earth."4

Later in the book he elaborates on this:

"Again the theory that the pig, originally Osiris himself, afterwards came to be regarded as an embodiment of his enemy Typhon, is supported by the similar relation of red-haired men and red oxen to Typhon. For in regards to the red-haired men who were burned and whose ashes were scattered with winnowing-fans, we have seen fair grounds for believing that originally, like the red-haired puppies killed at Rome in the spring, they were representatives of the corn-spirit himself, that is, of Osiris, and were slain for the express purpose of making the corn turn red or golden."5

Given this information it's interesting to note that we now know that many pharaohs of ancient Egypt were red-haired, including Ramesses II, also known as Ramesses the Great. In fact the number of red-haired mummies unearthed seems strikingly disproportionate, especially given the climate in Egypt.

The Phoenicians

Apparently, the name "Phoenicians" loosely translates as "red people." Most scholars believe this refers to the purple-red dye they used to dye their clothes, others have argued that it refers to the colour of their land. However, I have also read that it may refer to their hair colour. I'm not really qualified to say whether or not this theory holds water, but I include it here simply because it piqued my interest. I've read a few eccentric theories that suggest the Phoenicians shared a common ancestry with the British - maybe they had red hair in common as well. It all seems a bit fanciful, but the Phoenicians did travel up the Atlantic coast and to the British Isles in ancient times so you never know.



References:

1. The Histories - Book Four. Herodotus.

2. Cleopatra the Great: The Woman Behind the Legend by Joann Fletcher. Page 87.

3. Ibid. Page 238.

4. The Golden Bough by Sir James Frazer (Wordsworth Edition 1993). Page 378.

5. Ibid. Page 476.




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