The color of one’s hair, the way it was cut or not cut, and the grooming was extremely important to the ancient Irish. The issue of the cut of a monk’s tonsure was even a highly debated subject at the Synod of Whitby in 664. The Irish tonsures mimicked the druids while those of the Roman tradition represented the crown of thorns Jesus wore.
The Importance of Hair
The head represented the essence of one’s soul. That’s why during battles heads of the enemy were collected and displayed. Hair had a kind of magical symbolism, an indication of one’s supernatural connections. It was considered disgraceful to cut short one’s hair or beard. If you wanted to humiliate someone you would cut his hair and he would have to hide out and let it grow before showing his face in public again. Bad hair days have been around since ancient times, apparently.
However, for practical reasons tradesmen were not permitted to have full beards and some , according to the Geisi Ulchai, or Prohibitions of Beard, were even expected to shave once a month. The better your position in society the bigger your beard it seems.
Hair Color Mattered Too
Brunettes had a terrestrial connection, while blonds were thought to be closer to God. Redheads, however, had magical power. That is probably where the idea of rubbing a redhead’s hair for good luck comes from. (Although some legends say it is bad luck if you see a redhead when you set out on a journey.) In the Book of Kells Jesus and the apostles are often depicted as blonds with red beards—all bases covered. Even silver hair was important, the symbol of a connection between this earth and the next.
Both men and woman generally wore their hair long and loose, bringing condemnation from Anglo-Normans who thought this was barbaric (or in other words, different from what they did with their hair.)
For ceremony the hair of both men and women was elaborately curled. (See the Book of Kells photo above.) P.W. Joyce in his A Social History of Ancient Ireland (1913) speculates that some kind of curling iron was used to produce this. That surprised me because I thought of curling irons as being a more modern invention. Women today think they spend a lot of time wrestling with one of those appliances. Imagine the effort it must have taken without the benefit of electricity!
Joyce notes that the style of long hair applied to priests, monks, and nuns as well. And certainly braids were worn. In 1780 a body was found preserved in a small bog near Drumkeeragh, County Down in Ireland. A portion of plaited hair over 16 inches long was found with the body. You can read more about that here.
I have to wonder if Joyce took all this personally. It’s a good thing we don’t put that much importance on hair today, right?
Cindy Thomson is the author of Celtic Wisdom and Brigid of Ireland. She enjoys exploring Irish history, especially the Early Christian period. She has written numerous articles on Irish genealogy. Visit her blog Celtic Voices and her web site where you can sign up for her monthly newsletter.