Some people have speculated that the tree in the Garden of Eden was an orange tree. In fact, it was sometimes depicted as such in European art. This would be quite fitting as the sun-shaped orange can be thought of as a symbol of light and illumination. The orange quite aptly representing the knowledge Eve reached for against the wishes of God.
Surprisingly, the orange can also be seen as a symbol of red hair. These two ideas overlap in the symbol of the halo. The radiant aura surrounding the heads of enlightened beings. The words 'aura' and 'orange' may even be cognate with one another. The Latin for gold is aurum, the French for gold or. The Spanish likewise oro. The orange is therefore the golden fruit. Its brightness equated with gold, the king of metals. An aura is thus a golden halo, and it's easy to imagine how a head of bright red or blond hair could be seen as a literal halo. A circle of light standing out against the backdrop of the natural world. An earthly equivalent to the sun.
Before we proceed further it might be wise to briefly investigate this relationship between blond and red hair. We saw in the last chapter how easily the two can be confused. Is golden hair red or blond? Does fair mean fiery of flaxen? Can we speak of them both in the same breath, or do they have to be separate?
The difference between blond and red can be slight, but within that slightness there's often a great distance of opinion. Blond hair is often viewed as the very embodiment of beauty - a symbol of purity and perfection. The fair princess. All that is good and chaste. Whereas red is often viewed as a symbol of danger and sexuality. As a deviance from the accepted path. Even to the point where red hair can be viewed as a mark of deformity or abnormality.
Obviously this book is concerned with what we call 'red' hair - the deviant half of this vivid spectrum. However, it's impossible to truly cast a line between these two extremes. Strawberry-blond hair for example can be classed under both these categories, straddling the imaginary line between innocence and danger. I guess we therefore have to accept that both red and blond hair are somehow intertwined. There's an iridescent quality that we can't define. They're two sides of the same golden coin. However, the link they both have with brightness and illumination is impossible to ignore.
This association that red and blond hair have with light and illumination can almost have an alchemical tinge to it at times. For instance, the famed 17th century French dramatist Cyrano de Bergerac had this to say about red hair. I'll quote him in full as it's one of the more flattering accounts we have from history regarding red hair.
"A brave head covered with red hair is nothing else but the sun in the midst of his rays, yet many speak ill of it, because few have the honour to be so. Do we not see that all things in nature are more or less red? Among the elements, he that contains the most essence and the least substance is the fire, because of his colour. Gold hath received of his dye, the honour to reign over metals and of all planets the sun is most considered only because he is most red. The best-balanced constitution is that which is between phlegmatic and melancholy. The flaxen and black are beside it - that is to say the fickle and obstinate, between both is the medium, where wisdom in favour of red-haired men hath lodged virtue, so their flesh is much more delicate, their blood more pure, their spirits more clarified, and consequently their intellects more accomplished, because of the mixture of the four qualities."This is a clear example of red hair being given a special pre-eminence because of its colour, a pre-eminence apparently equivalent to the golden sun. Interestingly, in the medieval period it was even said that the blood of a red-haired man was needed to turn copper into gold, and perhaps more bizarrely it's recorded that the urine of red-haired boys was often used when making both swords and stained glass windows. Clearly red hair, or redheads, were seen as having some sort of magical chemical property - something needed in the process of achieving perfection.
Historical figures with red hair were sometimes described as having gilt or gild hair. The word gild means to add a thin layer of gold to something, and is clearly cognate with the word gold itself. This is where we get the term 'to gild the lily' - in essence to make something more beautiful. However, interestingly the word gild also had the archaic meaning of to smear with blood. Linking red hair with blood as well as gold. The old superstition that redheads were conceived during menstruation immediately springs to mind.
If we return to the Garden of Eden for a minute we'll remember that not only was the Tree of Knowledge associated with enlightenment, but also with sex and shame. The apple is often viewed as the archetypal symbol of sexuality, however, again, an orange could be viewed similarly. There's even of course the blood orange variety of orange - a rather literal link between oranges and blood. In some countries the blood orange was even seen as symbolic of the blood of Christ. We could even maybe make a link between the words gilt and guilt. Or even a link between the words sin and sun.
Mention of sin and Christ brings us quite neatly to another famous Christian symbol of sexuality, Mary Magdalene. Of course she was also often depicted in art with red hair - often quite noticeably so too. In fact, in his book Mary Magdalene: Princess of Orange the author Ralph Ellis suggests that because of this Mary's very symbol was the orange. He even goes so far as to suggest that she was the ancient ancestor of the Dutch House of Orange, and that it was from this that they derived their distinctive family name.
Mary was famously denounced as a prostitute by the Catholic Church, and her role in the Gospels diminished - relegated to the position of renegade sinner. So again in history we see red hair being held in association with fallenness and sexual deviancy. This can be seen in marked contrast to the Virgin Mary, who tended to be depicted with blond angelic hair. Once more highlighting the seemingly inbuilt tendency we have to regard blondness in affinity with purity and redness in affinity with danger. This in itself is quite a curious thing. Is it the product of human culture? Or is it an inherent part of nature itself? Something we can't help but feel instinctively? Something that maybe holds an inherent grain of truth.
Interestingly, it's said that French witches would blaspheme the name of the Virgin Mary by referring to her as "la Rousse" - the redhead. This was recorded as early as the 16th century and no doubt suggests a tradition going back even further. Did these witches see the concept of a virgin birth as an idea worthy of mockery? Or were they possibly aware of a counter tradition in which Mary was in some way deemed to actually be red-haired?
A similar link between red hair and the Virgin Mary can be found in the English saint St Modwen of Burton. She had red hair and was likewise associated with childbirth - carrying a staff which labouring women would take possession of to use as a walking aid during the exhausting months of pregnancy. A variant of the name Modwen was Modwenna, which clearly has echoes of the name Madonna, so it's possible that this was an ancient English version of the Mary myth. Clearly in this case though red hair was associated with childbirth in a positive way.
By the 18th century this positive association between red hair and motherhood in England had apparently disappeared though. A book of the period titled The Diseases of Women with Child, And in Child-Bed noted quite bluntly how unfit redheaded women were for the task. Warning parents of the dangers of hiring a red-haired wet nurse. It stated that a wet nurse "must not be red-hair'd, nor marked with Spots[.]" Going on to state;
"She ought to have a sweet Voice to please and rejoice the Child, and likewise ought to have a clear and free Pronunciation, that the child may not learn an ill Accent from her, as usually red-hair'd have[.]"This ill opinion of red-hair continues even further when it moves on to the topic of breast milk;
"It must be of a sweet and pleasant Smell, which is Testimony of a good Temperament, as may be seen in red hair'd Women, whose Milk hath a sour, stinking and bad Scent ...Very frequently the Milk of a Nurse, who is Red-hair'd, given to Wine, or very Amorous, may by its Heat and Acrimony cause small Ulcers in an Infant's Mouth[.]"Once again we see red hair mentioned in the same bracket as sexual licentiousness - and in this case it's akin to alcoholism as well. The very idea that milk from a red-haired woman could give a child's mouth "small ulcers" seems quite ridiculous to us, but it does serve to illustrate just how differently red hair was viewed in these earlier periods. In this light the much touted idea that red hair was seen as a sign of witchcraft seems perfectly realistic. In fact, that first line stating she "must not be red-hair'd, nor marked with spots" plays into this very notion. Red hair, birthmarks, strange spots and no doubt freckles all probably being seen as equally suspect by European witch-hunters.
This prejudicial attitude towards red hair seems to run deep in European history. In medieval times red hair was viewed as being inherently untrustworthy and writers would warn their readers not to take advice from red-haired men, nor to take them in as friends. A work titled Aristotle's Masterpiece (a popular work from the 1600s falsely attributed to the philosopher Aristotle) stated;
"He whose hair is of a reddish complexion, is for the most part, if not always, proud, deceitful, detracting and full of envy."It also contained the following unflattering question and answer;
"Q. Why doth red hair grow white sooner than hair of any other colour?
A. Because redness is an infirmity of the hair; for it is engendered of a weak and infirm matter, that is, of matter corrupted with the flowers of the woman; and therefore it waxes white sooner than any other colour."There's also the following story about a poor red-haired chap found in The Life of Charlemagne by the Monk of Saint Gall. This was supposedly written in the 9th century. It's a little long, but it likewise gives a flavour of how lowly red hair was deemed.
So he [a bishop] mounted the pulpit as though he were going to address the people. All the people ran together…except one poor red-headed fellow, who had his head covered with clouts, because he had no hat, and was foolishly ashamed of his red hair. Then the bishop [said] "Bring me that man in the hat who is standing there near the door of the church." The doorkeeper made haste to obey, seized the poor man and began to drag him towards the bishop. But he feared some heavy penalty for daring to stand in the house of God with covered head, and struggled with all his might to avoid being brought before the tribunal of the terrible judge. But the bishop, looking from his perch, now addressing his vassals and now chiding the poor knave, bawled out and preached as follows: -"Here with him! don't let him slip! Willy-nilly you've got to come." When at last force or fear brought him near, the bishop cried: "Come forward; nay you must come quite close." Then he snatched the head-covering from his captive and cried to the people: -- "Lo and behold all ye people; the boor is red-headed."No doubt this story is somewhat apocryphal, but it serves as yet another example of red hair being viewed as shameful. It also highlights the religious chastisement of it. Intriguingly, this status of red hair in the medieval period was heavily intertwined with the figure of Judas - that archetypal personification of dishonesty and betrayal. In artwork of the time Judas was often portrayed with red hair and a red beard. In fact, even as late as the 19th century the phrase "poil de Judas" (hair of Judas) was still being used in France to describe the colour. Even Shakespeare attributed the colour to Judas, describing it as "the dissembling colour" in the play As You Like It. There was also a Jacobean play titled Bonduca, about the previously mentioned warrior queen Boudica, that featured a devious character named Judas complete with "red beard".
Judas, of course, was also the personification of the archetypal Jew in the Christian mindset, and it's interesting to note that red hair was also associated with Jewishness in earlier periods. It's often stated on-line that during the Spanish Inquisition all redheads were regarded as Jewish, and that in Italy red-haired people were thought of as Italian Jews. On top of this there were also the famed "Red Jews" of Eastern Europe. These were a Jewish tribe or nation that crop up in German sources from the medieval era. The reason for their moniker "red" is contested, but some believe they were called such because they had red hair. The Red Jews have also been equated with the Khazars, a Turkic nation that are said to have adopted Judaism in the 8th century. Quite fittingly, the Khazars were described by Arab scholars as being red-haired and blue-eyed.
Mention of Judas brings me quite nicely to the final section of this chapter - the apparent link between red hair and vampires. We're well into the realms of fantasy when it comes to this topic, but it's still highly entertaining and revealing. The link is said to owe itself to Judas himself, as there's a legend that states that following his betrayal of Jesus and subsequent suicide he became the very first vampire. Destined to stalk the earth in eternal purgatory for his sins. The thirty pieces of silver he received for this betrayal becoming a weapon that could be wielded against him, burning his skin with its touch. Apparently this is where the idea that silver bullets can be used to destroy vampires and werewolves came from.
I'll leave the final word on all this to the writer Montague Summers. In his 1928 book The Vampire, His Kith and Kin he made this statement about red hair, Judas and vampires;
Red was the colour of the hair of Judas Iscariot, and of Cain ...I have not met with the following tradition save orally, but it is believed in Serbia, Bulgaria, and Rumania [sic], that there are certain red-polled vampires who are called "Children of Judas," and that these, the foulest of the foul, kill their victim with one bite or kiss which drains the blood as it were at a single draught. The poisoned flesh of the victim is wounded with the Devil's stigmata, three hideous scars shaped thus, XXX, signifying the thirty pieces of silver, the price of blood....and hence we get the Kiss of Judas.