The Myths and History of Red Hair

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Introduction

In spite of its rarity red hair is a physical trait that appears in many places around the world. From the cold extremes of northern Europe to the islands of Polynesia. Due to its sporadic nature those with red hair have often found themselves in the minority, and it's possibly this factor that explains the many strange beliefs and ideas that have sprung up about red hair throughout the ages.

Red Hair Collage (detail)

The idea that redheads embody a certain otherness is something that can be seen almost from the beginning of recorded history. For example, it is said that in ancient Egypt red hair was associated with the god Seth and that as a consequence people with the hair colour were often ridiculed and even sacrificed. Conversely, however, we also now know that many Egyptian pharaohs themselves actually had red hair, as the locks of rosy hair still preserved upon their mummified remains bear testimony to.

The Romans also saw red hair as a physical trait dissimilar enough to merit mentioning. The writer Tacitus talks of the "red hair and large limbs" of the ancient British tribes and countless other Roman writers make allusions to the striking red hair that could be witnessed in the Germanic and Gaulish tribes of the European mainland. Likewise, the ancient Greeks also spoke of red hair. In fact, both Achilles and Menelaus are described as being red-haired in that epic Greek work, Homer's Iliad.

There is also some contention as to whether red hair is mentioned in the bible. The word Adam supposedly derives from the Hebrew word for "red" or "ruddy", and this interpretation has led many people to believe that both Esau and King David were red-haired. Some people even suspect the "mark of Cain" to actually be red hair.

The religious and spiritual implications of red hair have further been strengthened by the art and iconography of Christian Europe. Both Judas and Mary Magdalene were frequently portrayed by artists as having hair of a red, and sometimes even orange, colouring, and this association has helped reinforce the connection between red hair and paganism.

Red Hair Collage (detail)

Even in the British Isles, a place noted for its high proportion of redheads, there has been mixed fortunes for the colour. The playwright William Shakespeare described it as the "dissembling colour" and the English author Charles Dickens often used it to accentuate the appearance of the more villainous characters in his books.

On the other hand, however, the Pre-Raphaelite artists of the 19th century lauded the colour and red hair became a common feature of their work. It should also be noted that many British leaders were blessed with the colouring, including Elizabeth I, Oliver Cromwell, Boudicca and Winston Churchill. The American presidents Washington and Jefferson were also redheads.

Even today red hair occupies a strange place in our cultural landscape. Its association with witchcraft and heresy has recently been reaffirmed by the books of Dan Brown and J.K. Rowling, and the advent of the internet has led to a new blossoming of speculations about the colour. The recent discovery that the Neanderthals possessed the gene for red hair has only enflamed this even more.

This website is about this strange history and mythology of red hair. A compendium of the weird and wonderful things that have been written and said about red hair both in our times and through history. I write this introduction in the hope that no one takes such things too seriously and that the information here is simply enjoyed as interesting fodder, there to entertain those with a curious mind.

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