As adults, humans have more hairs than a chimpanzee but most of them are so short and fine as to be almost invisible. Hair grows densely only in certain parts of the body and since much of this growth coincides with puberty, hair is imbued with sexual significance. Hair has become a symbol of masculinity, virility and fertility (and equally its absence a lack thereof). The ancient Greeks, Phoenicians and Mesopotamians offered their hair as gifts to the Gods and the superhuman strength of the Old Testament hero Samson was attributed to his long hair. The Masai of Kenya believe their chief will lose his power if his chin is shaved and among the Amish sect of Mennonites in Pennsylvania, only married men may wear beards.
Men in many cultures use hair 'substitutes' to assert sexual, social or political dominance, including feather headdresses worn by indigenous American chiefs, plumes worn in Melanesia, traditional Scottish sporrans, the towering conical hairstyle of the Ila of Zambia, or even military headpieces such as the Russian fur ushanka.
Men in many cultures use hair 'substitutes' to assert sexual, social or political dominance, including feather headdresses worn by indigenous American chiefs, plumes worn in Melanesia, traditional Scottish sporrans, the towering conical hairstyle of the Ila of Zambia, or even military headpieces such as the Russian fur ushanka. Wigs have been worn for centuries by both sexes to disguise baldness or as a badge of status. In Ancient Egypt, everyone wore wigs except labourers and priests. The Carthiginian general Hannibal improved his appearance with a wig although Julius Caesar decided to mask his receding hairline instead with a laurel wreath crown, instantly transforming an old symbol of valour into Imperial regalia.
Hair plays in important role in creating gender. Darwin believed natural selection favoured epigamic (sexually attractive) hair in males and a relative hairlessness in females. Accordingly in many world cultures men exhibit long hair. For example, top-ranking Japanese sumo wrestlers wear their hair long and tied up in a special knot, while the Jivaro men of South America shave across on the top of the forehead but let hair grow long at the back. In contrast, the Western model has generally prescribed short hair in men and long hair in women as primary gender markers.
The preservation of hair can translate as a preservation of chastity. Girls from a certain tribe in east Africa are separated from the community for a whole year and forbidden to cut their hair as part of their passage into womanhood. There are contrasting examples of the meaning of cropped or shaven female hair. It can be associated with obedience and submission as in the case of some Jewish women of Palestine who have their hair and eyebrows shaved off before marriage; in the concealing headscarves worn by nuns or married Arab women; or the fiancées of Samburu men in Kenya who shave off their hair in order to help their future husband pad out his own coiffure. Conversely a shaven head can be a sign of humiliation or de-humanisation, as evidenced by prison culture or the French women who had their hair shaved off on suspicion of consorting with German troops during the Second World War.
The colour, as well as the amount, of hair carries connotations too. In the Western tradition, blonde hair is often associated with virginity and innocence, although Roman prostitutes were required to display their profession by either wearing a yellow wig or dyeing their own hair yellow. Red hair too has fallen in and out of favour; Queen Elizabeth I made it fashionable in Europe but just a century later, some young women were accused of being witches just for having red hair. Fear of red hair may have come from its association with the treacherous disciple Judas Iscariot but more likely from its very rarity. Greying occurs when the pigment-forming cells in the skin no longer transfer colour so the new hairs grow colourless (white). The use of dye to conceal this most telltale sign of ageing is an ancient, widespread and continuing phenomenon.
Finally, hair is regarded in many cultures as the carrier of potent power. Among the Veddas of Sri Lanka, it was customary for the bridegroom to present the bride with a lock of his own hair as part of the wedding ceremony and all over the world hair continues to be used as a love token and good luck charm. The Aborigines of Western Australia plucked their body hair and blew it in the direction from which they wanted rain to come. Hair is also particularly associated with an ability to cure illness by transference. In Suffolk, a recipe to cure whooping cough in a family was to take hair from the eldest girl's head and shred it into a cup of milk for her suffering siblings to drink. In Germany, nailing oneself to a willow tree through the hair, then wrenching away, would leave both the hair and the malady nailed to the tree.
However, hair can exert negative power too; the Greek philosopher Pythagoras warned against the dangers of standing upon one's own hair clippings and according to some old European traditions, hair should be cut with the waxing or waning moon, never on Good Friday, and when the cutting is complete the cuttings must be disposed of for if they are picked up by birds and woven into their nests, the owner of the cuttings will suffer excruciating headaches. Similarly in Japan it said that if a bird carries a strand of your hair in its mouth you shall go crazy. In southern Chile, it was useful to obtain some hair from an enemy as, once tied to a piece of seaweed and thrown in to the sea, the battering force of the waves would be transmitted to the enemy's head.
Further information is available in the Museum's Introductory Guide, which is available here.