The Myths and History of Red Hair

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Red Hair Collage (detail)

Red hair has often been used as a focus for writers and artists throughout the years. The attention hasn't always been flattering, but it has always been interesting.

Red Hair in Fiction

The writer with the most disdain for red hair was probably Charles Dickens. Dickens would often use red hair or freckles as a marker for the more treacherous characters in his books. A classic example of this is the character Fagin, from Oliver Twist, who he described thusly - "standing before a fire, fork in hand, with a villainous and repulsive face, and matted red hair." Dickens also once complained about a painting that depicted the child Jesus with red hair. The painting was "Christ in the House of His Parents" by John Everett Millais and Dickens described the boy in the painting as a "wry-necked, blubbering, redheaded boy, in a bed-gown."

Other writers have been kinder, but have still nevertheless viewed red hair as a token of otherness. P.G. Wodehouse once wrote "I would always hesitate to recommend as a life's companion a young lady with quite such a vivid shade of red hair. Red hair, sir, in my opinion, is dangerous." And Jonathan Swift, in Gulliver's Travels, stated "It is observed that the red-haired of both sexes are more libidinous and mischievous than the rest, whom yet they much exceed in strength and activity." There was also a short Sherlock Holmes story titled "The Red-headed League" that centred around a job advertisement that specified red hair.

One writer who praised red hair was Mark Twain. Unsurprisingly he also had red hair himself. His appraisal of the colour was quite impassioned, but once again, like other commentators, he viewed red hair as something exceptional as opposed to something normal. The following are a few of his comments on the subject.

"When red headed people are above a certain social grade their hair is auburn."

"While the rest of the species is descended from apes, redheads are descended from cats."

"I would have loved to live in the time of Shakespeare and Queen Elizabeth, the best dressed period of the world. You know I like color and flummery and all such things - I was born red-headed - maybe that accounts for my passion for the gorgeous and ornamental."

He also published a short essay about red hair. It's rather flowery, but I'll repeat it anyway.

"TURN UP YOUR NOSE at red heads! What ignorance! I pity your lack of taste. Why, man, red is the natural color of beauty! What is there that is really beautiful or grand in Nature or Art, that is not tinted with this primordial color? What gives to the bright flowers of the field - those painted by Nature's own hand - the power to charm the eye and purify the mind of man, and raise his thoughts to heaven, but the softening touches of the all-admired red! Unless the delicate blushes of the rose mingle upon the cheek of youth - though the features be perfect in form and proportion, and the eye beam with celestial sweetness, no one will pronounce their possessor beautiful. And the flag under which the proud sons of American sires find protection in every nation under heaven, is rendered more conspicuous and beautiful by the red which mingles in its sacred "stars and stripes." The Falls of Niagara are never seen to advantage, unless embellished with the rainbow's hues. The midnight storm may howl, and the thunders loud may roar; but how are its grandeur and beauty heightened by the lightning's vivid flash?"

"Most animals are fond of red - and all children, before their tastes are corrupted, and their judgments perverted, are fond of red. The Romans anciently regarded red hair as necessary to a beautiful lady! Thomas Jefferson's hair was red - and Jesus Christ, our Savoir - "The chief among ten thousand, and altogether lovely," is said to have had "auburn" or red hair - and, although it is not stated in so many words, I have but little doubt that Adam's hair was red - for he was made of "red earth" (as his name indicates), and as the name "Adam" was given to him after he was made, it is pretty clear he must have had red hair! And the great probability is that Eve's hair was red also, she being made of a 'rib' from Adam, who was made of a lump of "red earth." Now, Adam and Eve before they sinned, are generally supposed to have been the most lovely and beautiful of creation, and they, in all probability were both "red headed." But you, O ye deteriorated black headed descendants of an illustrious stock! have no more taste than to glory in the evidence of your departure from original beauty! I'm ashamed of you; I don't know but you'll repudiate your ancestry, and deny you are descended from Adam next."

Red Hair in Modern Fiction

A modern work of red hair fiction is Ian Cook's Redhead, a supernatural thriller about a spate of human sacrifices that are being carried out on redheads across the globe. The book builds upon the sense of 'otherness' associated with red hair throughout history and weaves a tale that's both chilling and cinematic. The book also references some of the myths, both modern and ancient, surrounding redheads. Including accounts of red-haired sacrifice in ancient Egypt and the mysterious tales that surround the red hair that pops up on Easter Island.

The book also contains lots of information about red hair, a lot of which I wasn't aware of. (In fact, the bit about Gauguin painting redheads in the art section below was pretty much lifted straight from the book).

Redheaded Poets

A few poets have also possessed red hair, including Ezra Pound, Emily Dickinson and Sylvia Plath. Ezra Pound was described as a "tall distinguished looking young man with a shock of red hair flaming backward" and Emily Dickinson once sent a lock of her red hair to a friend with the message, "I shall never give you any-thing again that will be half so full of sunshine as this wee lock of hair but I wish no hue more somber might ever fall to you." And Sylvia Plath once wrote:

Out of the ash
I rise with my red hair
And eat men like air.

Shakespeare, however, probably the world's most renowned poet, described red hair as "the dissembling colour." In the same work ("As You Like It") he also ascribes the hair colour to Judas - "Something browner than Judas's."

Red Hair in Art

Paintings by Lucas Cranach the Elder

The most iconic images of redheads are probably those of the pre-Raphaelites, a movement founded in the 19th Century by John Everett Millais, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and William Holman Hunt. Many of the most famous images are of Elizabeth Siddal, a redheaded model who sat for both Rossetti and Millais. She became the lover and muse of Rossetti, who dedicated his life to painting her. She was described as having "greenish-blue unsparkling eyes, large perfect eyelids, brilliant complexion and a lavish heavy wealth of coppery golden hair."

One of the many works she posed for was Millais' now famed "Ophelia," however her most striking likeness is Rossetti's "Beata Beatrix," painted by the artist a year after her death. In fact, one morbid tale that adds to her mythology concerns her death, for when she died Rossetti placed a book of poetry in her coffin. However, after she was interred he decided that he wanted to retrieve it, so her coffin was dug up. The myth goes that when she was exhumed the coffin was filled with coppery red hair that had grown after death.

Other noted painters of redheads include Jules Joseph Lefebvre, Frederick Sandys and Gustav Klimt. Paul Gauguin also painted images of the red-haired natives in Polynesia. Conversely, painters that had red hair themselves seem to be few on the ground. Two notable exceptions are Vincent Van Gogh and Albrecht Durer, both of whom painted self-portraits of themselves showing their own gingery locks.

Personally, my favourite painter of redheads is Lucas Cranach the Elder. He was a German renaissance painter who painted during the Protestant Reformation. Many of his paintings show red-haired people and they seem to be a recurring presence in his pieces. Some of the portraits he painted show Martin Luther, Katherine Von Bora (Martin Luther's wife) and Rudolph Agricola with red hair. However, other copies of these paintings that I've seen show hair of a much darker colour. Sadly my ignorance of art means I'm not quite sure which are the originals and which are later reproductions - or even if the red hair in these paintings is simply a product of darker colours fading over time. I can't find any description of Martin Luther that mentions his hair colour, but it would be fascinating if he was a redhead. Maybe someone who knows more about these things will one day tell me.

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