Shaggy and strong, or shorn and sharp? Hair’s evolving symbolism

As a conspicuous feature of the human body, hair – or its absence – is also a major element of social perception and identity. Yet the symbolic meaning of hair is far from fixed. Historically, the ways in which this bodily component has been regarded have been astonishingly varied, fluctuant and often contradictory. This is evident in even a brief sampling of the rich lore built by our multifaceted views on hair.

For some time, a goodly head of masculine hair was considered the appanage of the warrior spirit. Among the ancients, servants and slaves reportedly had their hair cut very short, in contrast to patricians and free men, who wore it long. By the same token, Germanic kings wore their hair long, but they shaved the heads of the princes they vanquished. One historical account says that, when the son of the Merovingian king Chilperic I (c539-584) was killed, his body was recognised thanks to his long hair. …

Traditionally, hair has also been thought of as an ornament, a thing of beauty, an adjunct for seduction – especially in women. Countless odes have sung the silkiness, the golden sheen or the pitch-black, splendiferous charm of the beloved’s hair. Take away the hair of the most outstandingly beautiful woman, and ‘were she Venus herself … she would not be able to seduce even her own husband,’ the Numidian writer Apuleius wrote in his 2nd-century novel Metamorphoses. ‘The hairs are Cupid’s nets, to catch all comers,’ reads a line in the English writer Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621). So powerful are the arcane forces believed to reside in women’s hair that an old Scottish superstition reputedly warned that women should refrain from combing their hair at night when their menfolk were at sea, lest doing so cause the boats to sink.

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