Saturday, 29 September 2012

Notes: Early Irish Attitudes toward Hair and Beards

Early Irish Attitudes toward Hair and Beards, Baldness and Tonsure
William Sayers
ZcP Volume 44 (1991)

There's something about reading an article that's entirely devoted to hair and beards in particular that...well, it points to a level of geekery bordering on the ultimate, does it not? If that's the case then I shall wear my Official CR TonsureTM with pride...The trick with the styling is to get the right balance of lime and urine. Just FYI.

Anyway, in case you didn't already know the medieval Irish took their beards seriously. I mean really seriously. See for example: Geisi Ulcai: The Prohibitions of a Beard. But as amusing as it might be on the surface to think of the fact that somebody went to all that trouble over facial hair, it really is serious business when you get down to the nitty gritty of what this kind of thing represents. This is where Sayers' article comes in, because happily enough he lays out the major points quite nicely.

Firstly, he notes that the word for hair - OIr folt (in Gàidhlig today it's falt) - can also mean 'foliage, thatch'. In cosmogonical terms (creation myths), where it's speculated that the Proto-Indo-European creation myth involved the dismembering of a giant or primordial being (each part contributing towards the making of certain things - in this case the hair of the giant or being making the world's trees and grass), it can therefore be seen to have an extremely deep significance. There's a Dindshenchas tale about the first hair cut in Ireland, incidentally, which is analogous to the clearing of plains, reinforcing the creative potential.

In the relationship between hair and grass/trees it's easy to equate hair with the over all physical and social condition of a person. Long, glossy hair suggests a healthy, fertile person, and also denotes beauty. It also implies a high social status, having the luxury to take care of such hair to keep it in good condition. Those of lowly status, or the unfree, have shorn hair - a sign of their bonds, but also their position in society; no muss no fuss. Baldness, on the other hand, is utterly shameful, and it is one of the penalties for failing to attend the fair of Carmun. Being a harvest festival, the associations of hair with fertility brings us back to the cosmogonical overtones of hair's significance.

Different styles of hair can express certain relationships, and lots of sources refer to a kind of "druidic tonsure" that serves as a marker of the druid's station. Early on in the Irish Church an argument broke out of the appropriate form of tonsure, with different styles being favoured by two different factions. The "Celtic" tonsure had the front of the head shaved back to a line going across the way from ear to ear, but with a "fringe" at the front which reached round to the side, connecting the fringe to the hair around the ears. The druidic tonsure was said to have been similar, but with more of a "tuft" at the front, so they Celtic tonsure was clearly seen to be related to that, although it came to be called "Simon's tonsure" after Simon Magus. Ultimately, the other method - the Petrine tonsure (with the bald spot on top of the head, the resulting ring of hair supposed to resemble Christ's crown of thorns) - won out.

Sayers notes that warriors are frequently described in terms of general appearance, stature, and the state of the hair - generally long locks that are combed backwards and shaved at the front. Conchobar is described as having long, wavy, yellow hair befitting his royal status, whereas warriors are often described as brown-haired. Cú Chulainn is described as having three colours in his hair at points, both brown, red and gold denoting the way he straddles all levels of society and beyond (with his semi-divine origins). Or:
The progression from inside to outside, top to bottom, and the three colours, black, red and gold, may be equated with the three estates of agriculturalists and herdsmen, warriors, and priests and kings. Cú Chulainn's semi-divine origin and responsibility to defend all Ulster during the debility of its king and hosts account for his subsuming all three functions, as does, in other instances, the king.(p160)
Red hair is typically associated with Otherworldly figures like Da Derga, while yellow or gold is often used to describe the English (Anglo-Saxons) if it's not being associated with kings. Women, on the other hand, are stereotypically blond to one degree or another, unless clearly Otherworldly.

Different hairstyles denoted different things as well, and mention is made of the fíanna or díberga (brigands) wearing distinctive hairstyles that were supposed to give a lupine or ursine effect. Warriors are frequently referred to as having bristly hair, especially during battle when the stiffness of their hair is made to reflect their virility and resolve; there are comments that if apples, crab apples or even nuts were to fall on their head, not one would reach the floor because the spikes of the hair would impale them, but they might also braid their hair or model it along an equine mane or that kind of thing.

Fertility and virility equals strength and power. Slaves and lowly servants have a certain type of short or reoughly cropped hair, while charioteers have a special filet in their hair "reflecting the glory of their masters," as do poets. Picts apparently had cropped hair, of equal length at the front as at the back (a bowl cut, then!), and jugglers or fools were bald. I presume that means their heads were shaved. Not that they became jugglers just because they were bald; either way, the lack of hair is an indicator of their subservience. In the case of tonsures, partial baldness was indicative of their sacrifice (in return for knowledge and wisdom) and dedication to the gods, or God. Craftsmen and and farmers weren't supposed to have long hair or beards; these were reserved for the upper classes, warriors.

One of the most interesting bits, perhaps, is the implications of age and hair length. Long hair is associated with warriors, boys only being able to keep their hair long if they showed bravery and courage. In the case of beards (as per the Geisi Ulcae), beards are only appropriate for warriors or poets (a mark of maturity, the ability to fight or carry wisdom and the appropriate knowledge for their art/profession), but the warrior is only worthy of a beard if they observe the appropriate proscriptions. Cú Chulainn, being exceptionally young, occasionally had to fake a beard so that he might be able to fight; without a beard other warriors wouldn't fight him, because killing a mere boy would be a stain on their honour. Sometimes he used berry juice, other times he sang spells over grass (the hair:grass theme recurring once more).

In the case of women, their depictions are fairly uniform, yellow, gold, red-gold in colour, and aristocratic women tended to have long hair, plaited or loose (men might also wear plaits). Women's pubic hair is often described as well (the woman/goddess who arrives at Da Derga's hostel is described as having pubic hair down to her knees), and the penalty for shaving a woman's pubic hair was "two thirds of the éraic, plus her honour price if she is violated." Other fines covered offences to eyebrows, eyelashes and the hair or hair-pieces of "shorn girls", as well as against the beard and body hair of men. Seizing of hair during a fight between a wife and a concubine was not a punishable offence, however, given the understandable circumstances of the disagreement. For clerics, even touching their tonsure was a punishable offence.

So in general, hair articulated a few things - your social status, your station in life/profession, and sexual maturity. Cutting the hair appears to have marked various milestones of age and legal maturity, while hair colour could be very symbolic. Over all, the kind of hair you had helped to mark out your identity, and as such is an important motif in myth and legend.


V.V.F. said...

Gosh, thank you for this. Being an artist, I spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about Early Irish hair.

Seren said...

You're welcome! I'd heard this article mentioned a couple of times as being especially good, but not much mention of why. I hope it gives some good inspiration :)

Kevin Patrick said...

It seems that we know a lot more about early Irish and Welsh culture than we do about Scottish. Is it that I've just not been exposed to those writings, or do you think that's actually the case? Thanks for all the work you've put into the site/blog.

Saor Alba!

Seren said...

Thanks Kevin, it's good to meet you :)

I think it's a case of the kind of sources we have access to. Ireland had a manuscript tradition that's left us a lot of surviving material, some of which is very early. It's not perfect but there's a lot to work with. The sources for Wales aren't quite as early as we have in Ireland but we do have some evidence from what's now England that can help us in that (Latin and Anglo-Saxon sources etc).

But while the west coast of Scotland was colonised by the Irish, and contributed to the Irish manuscript tradition, it didn't maintain that tradition in the way that Ireland did once Ireland became less of a major player in Scotland's politics, and so on.