The Myths and History of Red Hair

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The following article is taken from a publication titled The Casket. Flowers of Literature, Wit & Sentiment and was first published in 1829.

The Casket - Cover

ON GENIUS,
As dependent on the color of the human hair.

View nature's works throughout her wide domain,
From black to white, from white to black again;
Eye all her colors, mingled, mix'd and spread,
Still you will find she most delights in red.
Or grand or gaudy, simple or sublime,
Still 'tis the same throughout receding time.

I have chosen the subject of my present paper, not altogether because it is perfectly original, but with the view of proving, by actual demonstration, that genius depends, in a very great degree, upon the color of the hair; though it is to be understood by the sons of genius, that philosophy teaches that there are honorable exceptions to all general rules. As the subject is original, the reader will perhaps be startled at the first view of the premises; but I have no doubt that when he has gone through a parity of reasoning on the subject, he will coincide with the author in the opinion, that the principles are correctly conceived and the proposition accurately demonstrated.

In later ages, prejudice has overcome the taste which once prevailed for red hair, and beauty, at the present time, is mortified at the idea. But this is all dependent on the dictates of prejudice and a false taste; for in the flourishing days of Rome, which gave laws, learning and fashion to the world, red hair was held in the highest estimation by the gayest and most gifted. The ladies of Rome wore towers upon their heads, of borrowed hair, and many stories, composed of tresses, knots, and curls, so that it resembled a building. Occasionally they gave it a military air, as the figure of a buckler or the form of a helmet. They also wore a head-dress which was called the mitre, and certain ornaments for the head which were considered as the insignia of modesty and virtue.

Light hair was the standard of fashion, and both male and female were so delighted with it, that they dyed it, to render the color more brilliant. The richest perfumes and essences were applied to give it lustre. Not unfrequently they covered it with gold dust, to give it a still greater brilliancy. - This mode came from Asia, and we are informed , by the celebrated Josephus, that the custom was in almost universal use among the Jews. - The emperors Varus and Gallienus adopted the same expedient, and we are told by Herodian, that the hair of Commodus was so red and shining, that when he was in the sun his head appeared to be one blaze of fire. The ancients were acquainted with no other means of adorning their hair than dye or dust, for no author mentions the powder which is used in modern times. The fathers of the church, who were severe in their castigations, respecting the artifices used by the women in heightening their charms, say nothing of powder; nor is it mentioned by the authors of the old romances, who detailed, with surprising accuracy, the minutiae of both male and female ornament. Neither is it observable in the paintings of the ancient painters, who were exceedingly exact in dress and decoration.

The French in earlier times, were also delighted with the beauty and splendid appearance of red hair. We are informed by history, that Margaret de Valois was so vexed and mortified at having dark hair, which was very black, that she had recourse to every artifice in her power to alter the odious color. The first notice which is taken of powder for the hair, is in the journal of the French writer, L'Etoile, in the year 1598. He informs us that nuns were seen ambulating the streets of Paris, curled and powdered. From that period powder gradually gained the ascendancy of fashion, and passed from France into other polished countries of Europe.

A French ingenious writer, in speaking of red hair, says that the reason why all the world speaks ill of it is because few have the honor to be so; and among a hundred ladies, scarce one will be found having red hair, because in being sent from heaven to command, it is necessary there should be more subjects than sovereigns. But to be serious. Throughout creation, nature appears to delight in red. It predominates in the pleasures of the imagination, for whatever is beautiful, agreeable, or sublime, partakes of it. The beautiful rainbow, the lovely rose, and the charming lip and cheek of beauty's self, are instances in point. The sublime sun himself, the source of heat and light, is red; and fire, the mighty autocrat of the universe, partakes of it. The most brilliant and beautiful flowers, as well as the most delicious fruits, the orange, the apple, and the peach, partake of this color. - Throughout the animal kingdom, red predominates, as in the king of beasts, the lion; and in the mineral, gold, which is red, reigns over the metals.

But, to go further. Adam, the progenitor of mankind, was red, and Jupiter, Apollo, Venus, and Jove, the greatest and fairest divinities of the Pantheon at Rome, were crimson. Mythology is replete with instances, and history opens another store. Sampson, whose strength was gigantic, derived his Herculean power from his red hair; and the destiny of the empire of Athens depended upon one red hair of Nisus. To come down to later times, we find that the greatest of men and women have had red hair. Whether in the field or the forum, in the sovereign or the subject, the philosopher, or the man of genius in any other sphere, the majority is great when whole numbers are compared.

England affords us instances among her sovereigns. William Rufus, so called from the redness of his hair, commenced his reign in the year 1087, and though not beloved by his subjects, was, not-withstanding, a man of superior intellect. It was during his reign that the Crusades commenced, a monument of human folly. The monuments which remain of his architectural genius are Westminster Hall and London Bridge, both of which were built by his directions. The Tower was also founded by him, and finished at the close of the fourteenth century, by Richard II. William Rufus was killed by Sir Walter Tyrel, as he aimed at a stag which started up suddenly before him.

Queen Elizabeth is another instance - one of the most celebrated, as well as gifted, sovereigns that ever swayed the gigantic sceptre of England. She was cruel, it is true, to the unfortunate Mary, Queen of Scots, but where is the child of genius that is not eccentric and abounding in foibles? It is useless to mention her exploits of intellectual greatness, as all are familiar with the history of this celebrated reign, and as I quote altogether from memory I might be culpable of committing errors. But it is necessary to observe, that she was the patroness of two of the most brilliant luminaries that ever illuminated the literature of England. I allude to Spenser and Shakespeare - the latter are instance of my position, if my memory serves me right. In Shakespeare we behold a child of nature, of intuitive genius, which is sufficient to overturn all the fine spun theories of metaphysicians respecting genius being the result of intense application and chance. Shakespeare had delineated more of human nature than any man that ever lived - a higher encomium is unnecessary, and cannot be given.

Milton, whose leviathan muse dictated the poem of Paradise Lost, is another instance to the proof of my pro-position. No pen save a Milton's could have penned the sublime catastrophe of the downfall of man is so glowing and so grand a manner. Like a mighty magician, he summoned forth to battle the superb throng of the blest, and represented Satan seated and surrounded by his compeers in the dark domain amid the rejoicings of fiends and the loud laugh of hell. But, least I should be tedious, I will pass on to France and give but one or two instances of red hair in great men.- The illustrious La Fayette, it is well known, is of this complexion. He who freely relinquished the splendors of one of the most polished courts in the world to brave an exterminating war in the wilderness of America, and with no other motive than the freedom of the enslaved, and with no other view than the good of mankind. His splendid genius has gained for him an immortal fame. I have been told that the hair of Bounaparte inclined to this color, but I will not vouch for the truth of the assertion. - The celebrated Daniel De Foe, of England, I had forgotten to mention. He was a man of extraordinary genius. I shall pass by many men of giant intellect in Scotland and Germany for the want of room, as well as many in our own favored country. The hair of the immortal Jefferson was red. If my memory serves me right the hair of General Jackson in youth inclined to this color, but it is useless to advance any more human instances, for if the reader will cast his eyes around him among the celebrated of his country he will find proof sufficient.

I shall now bring forward still higher authority that has yet been advanced, and a nobler instance than human nature can afford. It is no other than the Saviour of mankind, whose god-like genius eclipsed and astonished the most learned and illustrious doctors of Greece. Yea, he who revolutionized the world and died on Calvary for human sin had red hair. Henceforth let no poor human be ashamed of that which was chosen to cover the head of a God, and that God the Saviour of mankind. If the reader doubts the fact, let him search classical history, and he will there find it thus described as above by historians who saw him face to face. After this instance, it is needless to speak of Sappho, the ancient celebrated Grecian poetess, and many of the Grecian and Roman philosophers who illuminated with their learning the world.

To draw the conclusion, let the great mass of mankind with dark hair be considered, and the comparatively few who have red hair, and then consider the great number of men of the greatest genius who have had red hair, and the proportion will be found to be immeasurably in favour of red hair. It must be remembered that there are honourable exceptions to the general rule. There are men of black hair who possess the jewel of genius, but the comparative number is smaller. The manner in which it is to be so counted for is this. The best temperament is the florid, which is the medium lying between the phlegmatic and the melancholic, the seat of the wisdom. In the florid temperament the flesh is more delicate, the blood vessels are more active in the brain, as well as on the skin, the blood is more pure and more highly oxydized, the spirits are more abundant, and consequent the intellect is more active, susceptible and acute. - Here is the reason, says a French writer, why red hair turns not so soon grey as black hair, as if nature were angry and unwilling to destroy that which she took so great a pleasure in making.

In all the idiots that are born, not one of a thousand has red hair. I have never saw but one of this stamp, so called, and he was very shrewd in his observations, though but a small boy, and frequently astonished those who heard him in the sensible and even acutely witty remarks which he made on passing events. It seemed as though nature had modeled him for a genius, and, like some sculptors, had spoiled him in the making. As it regards beauty, that phantom of the soul is altogether percipient in the mind, as all colors are. Every man has his own beauty, and there is no standard. But as we are all to become slaves to beauty, says that above French writer, is it not better to be deprived or our liberty by golden chains than by hempen cords and iron fetters? My own standard of beauty is the mind. A soul-illumined by the intellect. Personal beauty alone is no more than a painting or a statue on which we soon become tired of gazing.

MILFORD BARD.


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