The Myths and History of Red Hair

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Brown in the Shadow, Gold in the Sun

The extracts on this page come from an article titled "Red Hair" which I came across in a publication called Bentley's Miscellany, dated 1851. It was written by a writer simply named as "the author of "the Pipe of Repose"." A brief internet search has led me to believe that this man was named Robert Ferguson, although of this I can't be sure. The article offers us a literary glimpse into what people thought about red hair in the 19th Century.

Our writer begins by noting how red hair "confounds every description" of it, stating how the term is used to cover a wide variety of shades.

"It may be the fiery Milesian shock - it may be the paly amber - it may be the burnished gold - it may be the "brown in the shadow, and gold in the sun"...it is all "red" - they have no other word."

Red Hair - by the author of the Pipe of Repose

He then states that the term "red hair" is used to encompass "the two extremes of beauty and ugliness - the two shades which have been respectively made the attributes of the angel and the demon."

"[W]e find that while, on the one hand, red hair (or rather a certain shade of it) has been both popularly and poetically associated with all ugliness, all vice, and all malignity, a more pleasing variety of the same hue has been associated with all loveliness, all meekness, and all innocence."

He then states that in Spain it was known as "Judas hair," claiming, "[t]o such an extent do the Spaniards carry their prejudices that the Castilians have a proverb, "De tul pelo, ni gato ni perro" (of such hair neither cat nor dog)."

He then turns his eye to the biblical Eve, noting that she is often portrayed as fair-haired in works of art and literature. He points out that this is contrary to what she would have really looked like, and speculates as to how people could have developed this misconception.

"And, indeed, it would seem a natural thing for a person to suppose, if unassisted by experience - on two beautiful women being placed before him - the one with shining locks of gold, and complexion radiant as the light, and the other with raven tresses and olive cheek, that the former was a native of a bright and sunny clime, and that the latter had grown up in the shadow of the gloomy northern land."

I think this is quite an interesting observation actually. He then expounds upon the idea, pondering (with a certain poetic beauty I think):

"Now were I to picture the first women, I would give her an almost Indian dusk, and the Abyssinian large, sad, gentle eye (for the mother of mankind should have a touch of melancholy), and flowing tresses of raven black, and everybody would say it was nothing like her."

The writer then comments upon the Egyptian disdain for red hair.

"Among all nations the ancient Egyptians stand pre-eminent for the violence of their aversion to red hair. Theirs was literally a burning hatred, for on the authority of Diodorus and others, that highly civilized people annually performed the ceremony of burning alive an unfortunate individual whose only crime was the colour of his hair. Fancy the state of mind into which every possessor of the obnoxious shade must have been thrown on the approach of the dreaded ceremony, each not knowing whether himself might not be selected as the victim."

He then presents us with an imaginary scenario - an epic narrative about a potential victim of this hate-fuelled frenzy.

"Let us try to realize a case. Suppose an individual, perhaps a most respectable citizen, of unblemished character, and with hair not so very red, only the supply has been unequal to the demand, and the more flagrant culprits have been used up - fancy the poor man rushing distractedly about, piteously asking his friends whether they think his hair is really so very red - fancy him, more eagerly than Titmouse, grasping at every receipt warranted to produce a deep and permanent black - fancy him sneaking nervously through the streets, imaging that every one who looks at him is saying to himself, "That's the man for the bonfire."

What can the poor man do? If he were to flee to another city they would burn him all the more readily as being a stranger, in preference to one of their own townsmen. If he were to have an artful wig made, the perruquier might be a conscientious man, and feel it his duty to denounce him. The time draws nearer and nearer, and as the dread truth that his hair is unquestionably the reddest in the place begins to ooze out by degrees, his agony is redoubled.

It is the last night, unable in the extremity of his anguish to form any plan, or take any measure, he passes the time walking distractedly about his house, exclaiming, "O this dreadful red hair!" The morning dawns, for the ten-thousandth time he rushes to his glass. Ha! what is this? His hair is no longer red, fear and anguish have turned it white. He leaps high into the air. "Ha-ha - cured in an instant!" But he dares not trust the evidence of his own bewildered mind. He calls all his household around him, and puts the question to each of his servants in turn, "What colour is my hair?" They all tell him it is white, and their looks of astonishment assure him that they speak the truth.

A loud knocking is heard at the door. His heart leaps within him, yet he feels that he is safe. Then a horrible qualm comes over him, fear and anguish had turned his hair white - perhaps joy may have turned it red again. Once more he rushes to his glass. No, it is all right. But he cannot bear the suspense, and rushes to the door himself. He sees the priests come for him - the magistrates, and all the little boys. Some of them may be his friends, but it is a religious ceremony, and all private feeling must give way. However, they think it proper to look grave as they inquire, "Is Mr.____ within?" - "I am, Mr.____," he cries with trembling eagerness.

His fellow-townsmen are taken aback. They had known him well - many of them had often dined at his house, and therefore it would have been interesting to see how he behaved when burnt (our amateurs will tell you that there is a great deal more pleasure in seeing a man hanged whom you know). However, there is no help for it - it would be monstrous to burn a man whose hair was not red. So they hypocritically congratulate him, and he goes off with a lightsome heart to see his neighbour burnt."

Quite a tale! The writer then moves from the Egyptians to the Chinese.

"It would appear, from the terms "red-haired barbarians," and "red-haired devils," which the Chinese have been wont to employ towards us English, that in that country a similar antipathy prevails. Now I want to know what right the Chinese have to call us "red-haired." They may call us "barbarians" or "devils," if they like, for that is a matter of opinion, but as to the colour of our hair that is a matter of fact, and I submit that they have no right to take the exception for the rule."

Heaven forbid us devils should all be tarred with the red-hair brush. He then comments upon how red hair is often associated with the devil.

"And here I would call to attention a curious coincidence of idea between these two people. It was in honour of Typho, or the devil, that the Egyptians annually burned a person with red hair, and "red-haired devils" is the term which the Chinese employ towards us, both nations appearing to associate the idea of devils with red hair."

Finally, he moves on to Scotland, stating "among some of the Highland clans, red hair is regarded with so much aversion as to be considered a positive deformity."

He backs up this assertion with the following tale:

"I remember an amusing instance of this, though I do not at present recollect the authority. A certain nobleman paid a visit to an old Highlander, and was introduced by him to his family, consisting of six fine, stalwart sons. The nobleman, however, happened to be aware that there were seven, and inquired after the absent member. The old man sorrowfully gave him to understand that an afflictive dispensation of Providence had rendered the seventh unfit to be introduced in company.

"Ah, poor fellow," said the sympathizing visitor, "I see-some mental infirmity!" "On the contrary," replied the father, "he is by far the cleverest of the family - there is nothing the matter with his mind." "Oh, then, by all means let me see him," said the nobleman, and while the old man went in quest of the unpresentable youth, he prepared a kind word for the cripple, whom he expected to be produced.

To his astonishment, however, the father returned, followed by a fine, tall, handsome young fellow, by far the most prepossessing of the family. "Excuse me," stammered the nobleman; "but I - in fact - I - see nothing the matter with him." "Nothing the matter with him!" mournfully exclaimed the afflicted parent; "nothing the matter with? Look at his hair!" The nobleman looked, sure enough his hair was red!"

I really hope this last story is true, but it sounds rather apocryphal to me. Nevertheless, it does illustrate the fact that even in northern Britain red hair was (and still is) often viewed disparagingly.

Anyway, such was the way of thinking in the 19th century. I can only hope that future centuries hold a sunnier outlook for "every possessor of the obnoxious shade."

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