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Posted by on Aug 25, 2011 in 1reland, Culture & Customs, History | 11 comments

All About That Celtic Hair

The arrest of Christ depicted in the Book of Kells.

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

Photo by Kiley Arrendale via www.dublinirishfestival.org

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.

Photo by Steve Wolfe via www.dublinirishfestival.org

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?

The scholar and author P. W. Joyce in 1911, nearly hairless.

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.

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11 Comments

  1. I love this! Very interesting! I also learned that I have a connection between this earth and the next and that I wear my hair in a barbaric fashion! That’s me to a T! Hahaha! I had never heard of this before and find it fascinating. Thanks for sharing!

  2. During the winter my hair is dark auburn. The more time I spend outside during the summer, the more red it gets. I guess that means I have a magical terrestrial connection. :)

  3. Who would have thought I’d find the history of hair interesting. Thanks for sharing Cindy.

  4. I found this fascinating. It now makes more sense when I watched The Wind That Shakes The Barley (a great Irish film) when they severely and brutally shaved the hair off of the head of the young woman. The wanted to gravely humiliate her. It just made her want to fight more.

  5. Thanks, everyone. I love hearing your thoughts. I’m a bit terrestrial myself. I guess. I wanna be blond!

  6. i love this! growing up, i was SO tired of being called derogatory redhead names. i should have KNOWN this, and proclaimed magical powers! :)

  7. This is fascinating! Something I did not know. Thanks.

  8. I’m curious. In many films and shows you’ll see a Celtic man (either Irish or Scottish) with one braid down the side of his head. Is there any symbolism behind that?

    • Hi Ryan,
      Hair was extremely important to the Celts. I believe braiding was part of the grooming. In the post I quoted P.W. Joyce. In his A Social History of Ancient Ireland, he says, “Conall Cernach’s hair, as describe in Da Derga, flowed down his back, and was done up in ‘hooks and plaits and swordlets.’” So, it was certainly the style and the movie makers are reflecting that. I don’t think (as far as I know) that there was a particular symbolism in it, other than to show how meticulous they were about their grooming.

  9. I am a bit surprised that this article did not mention the well documented liming of hair done by Celt warriors in Roman times. Ant the head was not just the “essence of one’s soul,” it was where the soul resided. The ancient practice of taking, or preserving heads was to capture the soul and keep it present.

    • I would agree with that, Charles. Thanks for reading!

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