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The Magic Power of Hair


Bountiful hair has always been regarded as a mark of beauty in both male and female alike. In the ancient world, hairstyles were indicative of national, religious, tribal, and class differences. Amongst the ancient Egyptians, influential men and women wore decorative wigs – the more elaborate the wig, the more important the wearer – whereas common people favoured shoulder length hair. Their neighbours, the Israelites, traditionally wore their hair long. This changed later when, during New Testament times, they were influenced by the shorter styles of the Romans and Greeks. The Romans regarded long hair as a disgrace, clearly expressed by their disdainful, superior attitude towards the longhaired barbarian Germanic tribes of the north. The Apostle Paul expresses the Romans’ contempt for long hair in his letter to the Corinthians: ‘... if a man have long hair, it is a shame unto him’.198 

As hair has always been considered one of our most indestructible body parts, numerous beliefs concerning magic properties and the cutting, combing, and disposal of hair abound. In the past, it was firmly held that a person’s soul and physical strength were inextricably linked to the hair, therefore, the widespread belief that to cut a man’s hair either weakened or killed him – akin to the dying sun losing the strength of its rays. This belief is represented in myths and tales from all parts of the world, the most well-known probably being the story of Samson and Delilah in the Old Testament: ‘She [Delilah] made him sleep upon her knees and she called for a man, and she caused him to shave off the seven locks of his head [...] and his strength went from him’.199

In ancient times, victorious soldiers sometimes hacked off their enemies’ beards to weaken them, as luxuriant facial hair was also regarded as a symbol of strength. One reason behind the supposed connection between bodily strength and hair growth might stem from the observation that boys and eunuchs are beardless. Hence, virility and strength were equated with a profusion of bodily hair, and the simplest way to avoid losing these virtues was not to cut the hair or only on certain occasions. Ancient Egyptian men often left their hair uncut until after an important journey. Frankish kings were not allowed to cut their hair, as this would diminish their power. Similarly, Germanic tribes did not cut their hair or shave until after battle or any other significant expedition, which is probably why the Romans, habitually close-shaven with short hair, thought of them as primitive and barbaric. This is how the Lombards acquired their name. Originally known as Langobardi, meaning ‘long-beards’, they were a Germanic tribe who, as all Germanic peoples, must have shaved in times of peace, judging from the multitude of razors found in graves and burial sites. Among certain Germanic tribes described by the Roman historian Tacitus, boys in puberty did not shave or cut their hair until after having killed the first enemy in adulthood – the severing of the hair a rite of passage and an indication of bravery and courage.200

However, there were also occasions that specifically called for the shaving of hair amongst certain cultures. Throughout history, such hair removal, either from the head or the face, indicated a radical act, marking a time of great suffering or grief. Pliny the Elder tells us that Egyptians shaved their heads to indicate mourning.201 Similarly, this was customary amongst the Israelites: ‘For every head shall be bald, and every beard clipped [...] there shall be lamentations upon all the housetops...’.202 ‘Then Job arose, rent his mantle and shaved his head and fell down upon the ground and worshipped’.203 The Israelites also performed ritual shavings during certain purification ceremonies. 

Amongst early societies, the head was considered universally sacred. According to this viewpoint, hair cutting disturbed the spirit of the head, which could be injured and later seek revenge. Hair cutting, therefore, was considered a delicate, difficult, and dangerous operation. Headhunting amongst these societies was based on the belief that the human head has potential magical powers. These were also thought to be transmitted to the hair, probably because of observations that hair could be cut off without pain or bodily impairment, that it always kept renewing itself and, because of skin shrinkage, even seemed to continue growing after death. Hence, human hair was thought to be endowed with mystical properties. 

It was universally believed that hair retained some magical connection with the body even after being shorn off and that the clippings could be used to work contagious magic on the person to whom they belonged. Universally, therefore, various precautions were taken during the cutting or trimming of hair. The Maoris uttered spells when hair was cut, and Brahmins kept up noisy music to drive all evil spirits away. In Japan, ‘the hair and nails of the Mikado could only be cut while he was asleep, perhaps because his soul then being absent from his body, there was less chance of injuring it with the shears’.204

Whether in New Zealand, the Maldives, ancient Rome, the British Isles, Germany, or Tahiti, the same great care was taken in disposing of hair cuttings. To throw them away was considered imprudent, so they were usually buried or burned, or they could be spat on – spittle being a well-known protective charm. In his book, Healers of Arnhem Land, John Cawte describes how Australian Aborigines, after a haircut at the local barbershop, carefully picked up all their hair clippings off the shop floor and carried them home to store away safely so that nobody could practise borrpoi, or magic, on them.205

In Christian countries, the safest method of disposing of hair cuttings was to bury them, which was seen as preferable to burning them, as the person to whom they had belonged was sure to need them on Judgment Day. Further, it was thought that birds might build their nests with discarded or combed out hair, which would be very unpleasant to the person from whose head the hair had come. Jacob Grimm alludes to this in his Teutonic Mythology: ‘If a bird carries the hairs to its nest, it gives you headaches or blindness’.206

Interestingly, not only the cutting, but also especially the combing of hair seems to be connected worldwide with stormy weather: The ancient Romans believed that one should only cut hair while at sea when a storm was already in progress. Throughout Europe, it was believed that witches could use hair cuttings to raise storms. In the Scottish Highlands, it was believed that any female with a relative at sea should not comb her hair at night, as this would raise storms and imperil the person’s life. Curiously, a similar belief is also found amongst the North American Thlinkeet Indians who attributed all stormy weather to a woman having combed her hair outdoors. 

Another factor given careful consideration in the past was when and how to cut hair. For the hair to grow back quickly and keep its shine, it was thought that hair should always be trimmed when the moon was waxing. Similarly, some believed that the zodiac was an important consideration when cutting hair. Consequently, it was thought that if hair were cut during the sign of Aries, the sign of the ram, it would grow back very curly or woolly; or if cut during the sign of Leo, an abundant mane of hair would result. Never was hair to be cut on Good Friday or on Saturdays and Sundays, and never was one to attempt cutting one’s own hair. 

Given the fact that hair is one of the most indestructible parts of the human body and associated with male strength and virility, it was frequently used in magical rites and witchcraft, used as a charm, and used in love potions. During the days of the witch-hunts, it was believed that much of the magical potency ascribed to a witch resided in her hair. At a time, when women covered their heads with hats or scarves, depending on their social standing, and wore their hair modestly pinned up or tied together, shaking the hair loose was seen as a witch casting a spell. Consequently, to meet a woman with her head uncovered was regarded as ominous. This is why depilation of an accused witch frequently preceded torture. Once shorn of all bodily hair, it was believed that the witch became weak and helpless, consequently making the confession required for her execution. 

In the past, hair colour was considered important and thought to communicate information about someone’s character. Red hair has always been especially regarded with feelings of ambivalence. On the one hand, red hair was associated with a fiery temper, thought to inspire love and passion, and on the other hand, there seems to be a deep-rooted suspicion connected with redheads. 

Significantly, some of the most beautiful, passionate, and powerful women in history are said to have had red hair: Helen of Troy, Queen Elizabeth I, Catherine of Russia, and Anne of Austria. But tradition also assigns a reddish tinge to Absalom’s hair, and Judas Iscariot is usually depicted with hair of the same colour. As far back as ancient Egypt, red-haired people were regarded with suspicion and dislike. It reminded the ancient Egyptians of the red-haired god Seth, the slayer of Osiris. In honour of Seth, Egyptians customarily sacrificed redheaded people, captives from countries further north, as those with red hair were a rarity in Egypt. In Russia, red-haired people were believed to have more knowledge in magic than others and were not trusted on that account. In Christian countries, it was a common notion, as late as the 1800s, to regard children with red hair as the product of a mother’s infidelity.207 Consequently, these children were considered unlucky and unwelcome in most homes. Regardless of hair colour, however, it was held as unlucky to pluck out any grey hairs, as ten more would grow for every one grey hair forcibly removed.

Of course, in modern Western society where hair colour and texture are habitually changed from one day to the next, where hair is streaked, dyed, bleached, permed, foiled, and straightened according to the dictates of fashion, all these curious beliefs seem as strange as they are obsolete.

While on the subject of hair, it would be remiss not to mention the widow’s peak, which refers to a V-shaped descending hairline in the middle of a person’s forehead. A widow’s peak on a woman was once perceived to mean that she would outlive her husband – in other words, it foretold widowhood. The V-shaped descending hairline was thus named because it was likened to the pointed beak of a specific bonnet worn by widows in various European countries during the sixteenth and seventeenth century to indicate mourning. 

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