UPDATE: A finished version of this book is now available on Amazon in both Kindle and Paperback edition.]
A logical place to start this book is the ancient world - namely ancient Greece and Rome. This is generally the starting point for anyone writing about history from a western perspective, and I guess it's only natural that I should start with the same bias. In fact, when I first started wondering about the origins of red hair this was where I first looked. Searching on-line I came across the odd ancient quote about red hair here and there and felt as though I'd inched a little closer to the truth in some way.
It says a lot about the mystery surrounding the origins of red hair that this was the case really. As a child I literally had zero information on the topic. I remember being vaguely aware that red hair was a northern European thing, and that Scottish people were more red-haired than everyone else. And that maybe it was an evolutionary consequence of the northern climate. But that was about it. So when I came across the odd quote by an ancient Greek or Roman stating that this tribe or that tribe were red-haired it seemed like a big deal.
Since then I've lost a lot of faith in these ancient writers. They're often unreliable, difficult to translate and difficult to date. Generally leaving more questions than answers. However, they do at least give us something to work with, and they make for fascinating reading for anyone interested in the history of red hair.
One of the most famous ancient writers to speak of red hair was the Greek philosopher Aristotle, and in many ways the quotes attributed to him sum up the fascination and frustration that comes with searching for ancient references to the hair colour.
The most often repeated quote attributed to Aristotle on-line is this one;
"Those with tawny coloured hair are brave; witness the lions. [But those with] reddish [hair] are of bad character; witness the foxes."It plays into the seemingly age old belief that redheads are somehow less trustworthy and courageous than everyone else. However, when we delve a little deeper things become a little less clear. For a start the quote comes from a work titled Physiognomics. Although this work was originally attributed to Aristotle, modern scholars now believe it to be the work of another author. They believe this "other" author wrote it around the year 300 BC, so it would still at least be an ancient quote, but just maybe not from Aristotle.
On top of this when I searched out an actual translation of the work the full quote given was this;
Too black a hue marks the coward, as witness Egyptians and Ethiopians, and so does also too white a complexion, as you may see from women. So the hue that makes for courage must be intermediate between these extremes. A tawny colour indicates a bold spirit, as in lions : but too ruddy a hue marks a rogue, as in the case of the fox. A pale mottled hue signifies cowardice, for that is the colour one turns in terror. The honey-pale are cold, and coldness means immobility, and an immobile body means slowness. A red hue indicates hastiness, for all parts of the body on being heated by movement turn red. A flaming skin, however, indicates mania, for it results from an overheated body, and extreme bodily heat is likely to mean mania.From this quote it seems the writer is speaking more of skin colour than hair colour. And that even if he is speaking of hair colour he seems to be denigrating not just redheads, but also black people, pale people, women - pretty much anyone that isn't a white Greek male.
In fact, the word 'ruddy' in the text is one that crops up time and time again, and it's problematic for people searching for info about hair colour. The general sense of the word is red. The word might even share its etymology with the word red - rud and red being essentially the same word when we consider how interchangeable vowels sounds can be. However, does it refer to red hair or red skin? Can it be used to describe either?
A good example of this confusion can be seen when considering the appearance of Aristotle's star pupil Alexander the Great. The writer Plutarch described him as having a 'ruddy' tinge. Some have chosen to see this as an indication that he had red hair, others think this was a reference to his skin tone.
My favourite Aristotle quote about red hair is the following one. It comes from a collection titled Problems, and again according to scholars there is some doubt as to whether this work can be attributed to Aristotle or not. They believe it reached its final form somewhere between the 3rd century BC and the 6th century AD - quite a broad brush stroke, but still reasonably ancient.
Why have fishermen reddish hair, and divers for murex, and in short all who work on the sea? Is it because the sea is hot and full of dryness because it is salty? Now that which is of this nature, like lye and orpiment, makes the hair reddish. Or is it because they are warmer in their outer parts, but their inner parts are chilled, because, owing to their getting wet, the surrounding parts are always being dried by the sun? And as they undergo this process, the hair being dried becomes fine and reddish. Furthermore all those who live towards the north have fine, reddish hair.It seems odd that he attributes red hair to a watery environment. His opinions may sound quite naive to our ears, almost laughable, however, interestingly, they're not too dissimilar to the general view we have today about red hair, and our belief that it's an adaption to the sunlight-deprived northern climate. In fact, the ancient Roman architect Vitruvius Pollio - the man who inspired Leonardo da Vinci's famous Vitruvian Man illustration - makes a similar statement to this in his work The Ten Books On Architecture;
In the cold regions that are far away from the south, the moisture is not drawn out by hot weather, but the atmosphere is full of dampness which diffuses moisture into the system, and makes the frame larger and the pitch of the voice deeper. This is also the reason why the races that are bred in the north are of vast height, and have fair complexions, straight red hair, grey eyes, and a great deal of blood, owing to the abundance of moisture and the coolness of the atmosphere.This idea that red hair was a northern thing was a common theme for the Romans and I'll return to it later, for the time being though I'll return to and expand upon that Aristotle quote. The murex he mentions is the name given to a particular sea snail. It was from this sea snail that the ancient Phoenicians produced their famous purple dye Tyrian purple - royal purple (or tyrants purple if you prefer). This reference to both murex and reddish hair fascinates me no end as it suggests a possible link between red hair and the Phoenicians.
It's thought that the name Phoenician means red people, or alternatively purple people, and it's generally believed that this name owes itself to their association with the above mentioned purple dye. However, others have speculated that it maybe refers to red hair.
Interestingly, the Phoenicians were famed seafarers and had trade links with ancient Britain. So again we have the possibility of red hair being associated with a wet, northern environment. Was there maybe a genetic link between the British and the Phoenicians? If they had red hair could it have originated in Britain? Or did the red hair actually arrive in Britain via the Phoenicians? Aristotle's claim that "all who worked on the sea had reddish hair" is quite telling in this regard.
I also wonder if the Phoenix could relate to all this. The Phoenix, of course, was a mythical bird that was said to die and be reborn in flames. Could its red and orange flames have been seen as symbolic of red hair? Some researchers have suggested that the pink Flamingo bird might have been the inspiration for the Phoenix. The word Flamingo suggests flame, so again the link with fire. It's not hard to imagine how ancient people could mythologise the Flamingo, with its bright pink feathers, into a totemic fire-bird.
The fact that purple was deemed the colour of royalty is also of interest here, as red hair has often been linked with royalty throughout history - a theme that will be touched upon in later chapters. When looking into all this it can be frustrating that scholars are unsure as to whether the name Phoenician donates red or purple, however their difficultly is understandable given their limited frame of reference. In earlier times colours may not have been differentiated the way we differentiate them today. Red and purple can look similar depending on the shade, so maybe the red and purple of ancient writers weren't as distinct as we think of them today. In fact, the above mentioned Flamingo, with its pink colouring, would maybe help explain this confusion between red and purple. Maybe red, pink and purple were all viewed as being under the same umbrella? Maybe they were all a symbol of red hair, fire and royalty?
The way we use the term red hair today illustrates this problem quite succinctly actually. When we say red hair what we usually mean is brown or orangey hair. However, someone reading this in a few thousand years time without our frame of reference could easily think we were describing people with telephone-box red hair, instead of the more natural colouring we actually mean. If we're this vague in our descriptions now it's little wonder we have so much trouble trying to understand what ancient writers were trying to describe.
Incidentally, it was also not uncommon for people to be described as purple-haired in ancient texts. Take this reference to violet-hair from a dithyramb (an ancient hymn) by the Greek poet Bacchylides;
It may be that the dear lovely-named daughter of Phoenix went to the bed of Zeus beneath the brow of Ida and bore you, greatest of mortals, but I too was borne by the daughter of rich Pittheus, who coupled with the sea-god Poseidon, and the violet-haired Nereids gave her a golden veil.There's also the story of King Nisus of Megara. This tale comes from the Description of Greece by the Greek geographer Pausanias. In this translation the hair is described as red. However, in other translations the colour is often given as purple.
Behind the Lyceum is a monument of Nisus, who was killed while king of Megara by Minos, and the Athenians carried him here and buried him. About this Nisus there is a legend. His hair, they say, was red, and it was fated that he should die on its being cut off. When the Cretans attacked the country, they captured the other cities of the Megarid by assault, but Nisaea, in which Nisus had taken refuge, they beleaguered. The story says how the daughter of Nisus, falling in love here with Minos, cut off her father's hair.Again too the link between hair colour and kingly power.
Another dithyramb by Bacchylides links the mythological Greek hero Theseus, the founder-king of Athens, with red hair (although in this case the passage most likely refers to the plume of red hair on his helmet, as opposed to the hair on his actual head);
The herald says that only two men accompany him, and that he has a sword slung over his bright shoulders ... and two polished javelins in his hands, and a well-made Laconian hat on his head with its fire-red hair. A purple tunic covers his chest, and a woolen Thessalian cloak. Bright red Lemnian fire flashes from his eyes. He is a boy in the prime of youth, intent on the playthings of Ares: war and battles of clashing bronze. He is on his way to splendor-loving Athens.The fire-red plume of the Laconian hat reminds me a little of the red Phrygian caps sported by ancient peoples, and then later, of course, by French revolutionaries. Note also the 'purple tunic' covering his chest. Incidentally, it's said that in ancient times girls who were about to be married offered locks of their hair to Hippolytus, son of Theseus, as a sign of their virginity.
In Homer's Iliad both Menelaus and Achilles are described as redheads too, although again translations differ - some giving Achilles' hair as blond or golden instead. Bizarrely, there's even a story that in his youth Achilles spent time disguised as a red-haired girl named Pyrrha - Pyrrha meaning "the red-haired".
The story goes that in order to stop Achilles dying at Troy as prophesied, his mother, the nymph Thetis, sent him to the court of Lycomedes, king of Skyros, disguised as a girl. There he fell in love with Deidamia, the daughter of Lycomedes, before being lured back to the call of war by the ever-cunning Odysseus. The story is alluded to in the Iliad, and was later expounded upon further in other works. It became a staple part of the Achilles mythology and was popular in both art and literature right up until the 20th century. Neoptolemus, the child produced by the affair between Achilles and Deidamia was also supposedly red-haired, being nick-named Pyrrhus because of it.
This fact that some Greek heroes were described as red-haired can appear quite odd when we consider that in other texts red hair was often viewed as something foreign and barbarian. In general red hair was associated with the tribes of Thrace and Scythia - areas to the north of ancient Greece. For example, the historian Herodotus mentions a tribe with "blue-grey eyes and red hair" called the Budini, living in the region of Scythia, and the philosopher Xenophanes makes reference to the red hair of the Thracians in his famous quote regarding the human tendency to depict gods in human form;
The Ethiopians claim that their gods are flat-nosed and black-skinned; the Thracians, that they are blue-eyed and have red hair...if oxen, horses, and lions had hands with which to draw and make works like men, horses would represent the gods in the likeness of a horse, oxen in that of an ox, and each one would make for them a body like the one he himself possessed.This is a great quote, only spoiled by the fact that again some translations give the hair colour as blond and not red. It should be pointed out however that the contention that the Thracians were red-haired (or at least that some of them were) is supported by the Ostrusha burial mound excavation in what is now modern day Bulgaria, which uncovered a beautiful image of a clearly red-haired Thracian woman.
Like the Greeks the ancient Romans also viewed red hair as a token of foreignness. However, they tended to associate it with the Germanic and Gaulish tribes of northern Europe. For example, the Roman historian Livy had this to say about the Gauls;
Their tall stature, their long red hair, their huge shields, their extraordinarily long swords; still more, their songs as they enter into battle, their war-whoops and dances, and the horrible clash of arms as they shake their shields in the way their fathers did before them - all these things are intended to terrify and appall.This appraisal of the Gauls was echoed by the Greek historian Diodorus Siculus;
For stature they are tall, of a pale complexion, and red haired, not only naturally, but they endeavour all they can to make it redder by art.It's also said that the Roman emperor Caligula made prisoners from Gaul grow their hair long and dye it red so that he could display them to the public on his triumph in Rome. The following account comes from the historian Suetonius;
He now concentrated his attention on the imminent triumph. To supplement the few prisoners taken in frontier skirmishes and the deserters who had come over from the barbarians, he picked the tallest Gauls of the province —'those worthy of a triumph' — and some of their chiefs as well, for his supposed train of captives. These had not only to grow their hair and dye it red, but also to learn German and adopt German names.This suggestion that Gauls had to dye their hair red to look like Germans seems to contradict the earlier quotes describing the Gauls with long red hair. It would also suggest that the Germanic tribes were viewed as especially red-haired by the Romans.
The idea that Germanic people were red-haired appears slightly odd to our modern eyes, as in modern day Germany red hair seems relatively rare. This would suggest that maybe these 'ancient' accounts are somewhat muddled and untrustworthy - or even completely false and fraudulent. There's also the possibility that "red hair" is a mistranslation - when it comes to Germanics would blond hair maybe make more sense? Whatever the provenance though we once again see red hair (or possibly fair hair) put down in text in association with ideas of otherness and northernness.
Many other Roman authors also made this connection. Tacitus had this to say;
For my own part, I agree with those who think that the tribes of Germany are free from all taint of inter-marriages with foreign nations, and that they appear as a distinct, unmixed race, like none but themselves. Hence, too, the same physical peculiarities throughout so vast a population. All have fierce blue eyes, red hair, huge frames, fit only for a sudden exertion. They are less able to bear laborious work. Heat and thirst they cannot in the least endure; to cold and hunger their climate and their soil inure them.Again, this quote would suggest that the ancient Germanic tribes were viewed as being especially red-haired. Wouldn't it be truly fascinating if this was indeed the case. Perhaps maybe it was, it's plausible that a lot could have changed in the last two thousand years or so. However, once again, mistranslation, confusion and exaggeration are much more likely explanations for this discrepancy between modern and ancient population demographics.
Another writer who painted the Germanic tribes as red-haired was the Roman writer Seneca;
Among his own people, there is nothing distinctive about the colouring of an Ethiopian; nor is red hair tied in a knot unbecoming to a German male. Nothing in an individual is noteworthy or ugly if it is common to his entire nation.Again we see these Romans and Greeks placing themselves in between the extremes of dark-skinned Africans and light-skinned northern Europeans. It's almost as if they used this distinction to define and self-identify themselves. It would be interesting to note however that red hair wasn't completely unknown amongst the Roman population. It's said that the emperor Vitellius was a redhead for example. There was also a Roman family line that went by the moniker Ahenobarbus - so called because they possessed red beards. Ahenobarbus literally translating as "bronze beard". Suetonius relates the story of how they came by this name;
The AEnobarbi derive both their extraction and their cognomen from one Lucius Domitius, of whom we have this tradition: -- As he was returning out of the country to Rome, he was met by two young men of a most august appearance, who desired him to announce to the senate and people a victory, of which no certain intelligence had yet reached the city. To prove that they were more than mortals, they stroked his cheeks, and thus changed his hair, which was black, to a bright colour, resembling that of brass; which mark of distinction descended to his posterity, for they had generally red beards.It's also said that Roman matrons would sprinkle gold dust on their hair to make it a reddish-colour in appearance. However, in spite of these few instances of positivity for red hair, the following example, coming from the Roman poet Martial's epigram about a slave named Zoilus, shows us, in quite swingeing terms, that, as per usual, red hair was in general seen as something different and unappealing;
Zoilus, with your red hair, dark complexion, short foot, and bleary eye, it would be miraculous if you were virtuous.Quite a stinging indictment. There's also this brief exchange from a Roman play titled Heautontimorumenos (The Self-Tormentor) by the Roman dramatist Publius Terentius.
SOSTRATA: My son, upon my honor I'll give you that charming girl, whom you may soon become attached to, the daughter of our neighbor Phanocrata.
CLITIPHO: What! that red-haired girl, with cat's eyes, freckled face, and hooked nose? I can not, father.It's also said that in Roman plays slaves would wear red wigs to distinguish themselves from the rest of the cast. This tradition supposedly derived from the fact that Roman and Greek slaves were sourced from the tribes of northern Europe. Incidentally, on the subject of plays, the famous Greek playwright Euripides was also said to have had a freckled appearance.
Perhaps unsurprisingly the tribes of ancient Britain were also associated with red hair in the minds of ancient Romans. In fact, the famed British warrior-queen Boudica, scourge of the Roman legions, was described by the writer Dio Cassius as being "tall and terrifying" in appearance and as having a "great mass of red hair". Both then and now she was seen as a symbol of the fiery red-haired north.
The redheaded Brits were also compared and linked to the above-mentioned red-haired tribes of Germany. Strangely presaging later writers that would chronicle the genetic links between the Anglo-Saxons and their continental German cousins. The writer Tacitus made this comment;
The red hair and large limbs of the inhabitants of Caledonia point clearly to a Germanic origin.And Intriguingly, when the Scots published their Declaration of Arbroath, in an attempt to establish Scottish independence in 1320, they traced their lineage back to the ancient Scythians. Were the red-haired Scythians equated with the red-haired Germanic tribes in the Medieval mind?
Moving on to a slightly more ghoulish topic, the ancient Britons, most notably the Celtic Druids, were also often accused by the Romans of human sacrifice. Now it's been suggested by some that redheads were a particular target for these sacrifices, and that the disproportionate number of bog bodies found with red hair is evidence of this practice.
For the uninitiated bog bodies are bodies that have been naturally preserved in peat bogs. As a consequence of this preservation some are found in astoundingly good condition - some almost looking life-like. Some of these well-preserved bodies do indeed show evidence of sacrifice, but the evidence is often highly contentious. It's also true that many appear to have red hair, however it's claimed that this is often due to the way the hair has chemically decomposed due to the conditions in the bog. The acid in the bog attacking the brown/black pigment in the hair (eumelanin), but leaving the naturally red/brown pigment (pheomelanin). Again though opinions often differ on this.
There do appear to be some uncontested bona fide redheaded bog bodies though. Two striking examples being Yde Girl - the body of a girl approximately 16 years old with long reddish-blond hair, and Neu Versen Man - the body of a man with red hair and beard, also known as Roter Franz, meaning Red Franz in English.
Concurrently, it's also been suggested that redheads were sacrificed in ancient Egypt. The ancient writer Diodorus Siculus gives us this testimony;
It is lawful to sacrifice red oxen, because Typhon seemed to be of that colour, who treacherously murdered Osiris, and was himself put to death by Isis, for the murder of her husband. They report likewise, that anciently men that had red hair, like Typhon, were sacrificed by the kings at the sepulchre of Osiris.On the one hand this far-fetched testimony is quite terrifying and chilling, on the other hand however it does make for good reading - and it makes the history of red hair seem a lot more sexy and cinematic than it otherwise would be. Maybe we can have our cake and eat it by pretending it's true for entertainments value, but at the same time hoping it's not true for our moral peace of mind. If there is any real truth in it though (and I guess given how well documented human sacrifice is in human history it has to be seriously considered) then it could maybe help explain why there are so few redheads around nowadays. It also parallels quite neatly the claim that red-haired 'witches' were singled out for the flames during the witch hunts that would later rage through Europe. A frightening historic strand of persecution if these claims do bear any truth.
My first introduction to these sacrificial claims regarding ancient Egypt came via Sir James Frazer and his seminal, and much referenced work, The Golden Bough. I might as well quote from it below for dramatic effect.
With regard to the ancient Egyptians we have it on the authority of Manetho that they used to burn red-haired men and scatter their ashes with winnowing fans, and it is highly significant that this barbarous sacrifice was offered by the kings at the grave of Osiris. We may conjecture that the victims represented Osiris himself, who was annually slain, dismembered, and buried in their persons that he might quicken the seed in the earth.He then later elaborates on this;
Again the theory that the pig, originally Osiris himself, afterwards came to be regarded as an embodiment of his enemy Typhon, is supported by the similar relation of red-haired men and red oxen to Typhon. For in regards to the red-haired men who were burned and whose ashes were scattered with winnowing-fans, we have seen fair grounds for believing that originally, like the red-haired puppies killed at Rome in the spring, they were representatives of the corn-spirit himself, that is, of Osiris, and were slain for the express purpose of making the corn turn red or golden.The killing of red-haired puppies seems particularly unnecessary. A further reference to redhead-sacrifice in The Golden Bough comes when Frazer speaks of the ancient inhabitants of Harran - an area in upper Mesopotamia, in what is now modern day Turkey.
The heathen of Harran offered to the sun, moon, and planets human victims who were chosen on the ground of their supposed resemblance to the heavenly bodies to which they were sacrificed; for example, the priests, clothed in red and smeared with blood, offered a red-haired, red-cheeked man to "the red planet Mars" in a temple which was painted red and draped with red hangings.Again this sounds quite cinematic and shocking ..and possibly apocryphal. If it's true though it paints a pretty horrific picture for any redhead caring to envision it. On a more positive note however, and to at least try to level up the playing field a little, it should be noted that many ancient Egyptian Pharaohs actually had red hair themselves. The most famous being Rameses II, aka Rameses the Great. His red hair can still be seen clinging on to his mummified corpse, as can the red hair of many other mummified Pharaohs. Again though, some people claim this red colouring may be a consequence of the decomposition process. So as ever opinion varies.
Interestingly, and taking us back quite fittingly to the realms of ancient Greece and Rome, it has also been claimed that the Egyptian queen Cleopatra was a redhead. A portrait unearthed from the ruins of the ancient city of Herculaneum, showing a regal looking woman with red hair, is said to depict her. Her hair colour was supposedly inherited from her Ptolemaic ancestors, who came and conquered Egypt with the previously mentioned Alexander the Great.
In summary then, to conclude this chapter, it would seem that in the ancient world red hair generally occupied one of three positions - ruler, victim or foreigner. In short, anything but the regarded norm. I suppose this was a natural consequence of the minority status of redheads - assuming, of course, they were a minority at that time. What's deemed normal is generally what's most common. A black sheep is defined by the multitude of white sheep, and redheads I guess were defined by the multitude of non-redheads. They no doubt symbolised otherness because of this, a theme that very much continues in the next chapter.