The characteristics of human hair make it highly symbolic in society. It is our most obvious distinguishing feature and with its malleability offers the best opportunity for decorative display. Apparently, the average woman in the UK spends £140,000 in their lifetime on hair care. Symbolically, its potency means its styling has the potential to provoke violence within and between different communities whilst it also provides an opportunity for corporations to generate great wealth as their fast evolving hair related products are consumed.
In Milton’s Paradise Lost, Satan makes special reference to Adam and Eve’s hair when he first spies them in the Garden of Paradise:
“His fair large front and eye sublime declared
Absolute rule; and hyacinthine locks
Round from his parted forelock manly hung
Clust’ring, but not beneath his shoulders broad:
She as a veil down to the slender waist
Her unadorned golden tresses wore
Dishevelled, but in wanton ringlets waved
As the vine curls her tendrils, which implied
Subjection, but required with gentle sway,
And by her yielded, by him best received,
Yielded with coy submission, modest pride,
and sweet reluctant amorous delay.”1
The difference between gender is striking: Adam’s hair style helps portray strength and power whilst Eve’s long hair is representative of her submission to Adam and God.
Milton draws from classical mythology for his illustration of ideal beauty. In ancient Greek culture, physical beauty was associated with virtue as it still is today through celebrity culture. “Hyacinthine locks” refers to the classical legend of Hyacynthus, a handsome Spartan prince loved by Apollo who meets his unfortunate if aesthetically significant demise when Apollo’s discus hits him on the head. His blood transforms into Hyacinth flowers to which the hair on Greek sculptures resemble. Milton’s appropriation is perhaps derived from Homer’s “the Odyssey”:
“Athene, daughter of Zeus, made him seem taller and sturdier and caused the bushy locks to hang from his head as thick as the petals of a hyacinth in bloom. Just as a craftsman trained by Hephaestus and Palas Athene in the secrets of his art puts a graceful finish to his work by overlaying silverware with gold, she endowed his shoulders and head with beauty.”2
The analogy between the hair and gold leaf points to hair as the final ingredient in Odysseus’ physical perfection. Here, it seems to function purely as rich decoration.
Historically, men’s hair symbolises strength and virility. In the biblical tale of Samson and Delilah, Samson loses his God given strength when his hair is cut. The message of the story is that true strength is provided by God – spiritual as opposed to physical.
The ancient Greek myth of Scyla and King Minos is another tale where strength resides in hair, in this case her father, King Nisus has a purple hair that holds his strength. Midas is at war with her Father and having fallen in love with Midas, Scyla betrays her father, removing his purple lock thus diminishing his strength and taking it to Midas. Midas rejects her though and she finishes up being transformed into a lark.
As described by Milton, growing hair long in Christian tradition is seen as a sign of subjection to God. Mary Magdalen is usually depicted in art with long flowing hair. According to the bible, she washed Jesus’s feet with perfume and her tears using her hair. Accounts of the saints that elaborated on bible accounts in the medieval era (probably conflating her with tales of another Mary) tell that she went into the wilderness after Jesus’s crucifixion where her clothes wore off so God allowed her hair to grow to cover her modesty. She is depicted completely covered in hair in some gothic depictions.
Hair is perceived to hold something of the soul of a person. Locks of hair were kept as relics of saints, supposedly containing the power to heal illnesses. Locks of hair are also kept in remembrance of family members or by lovers as keepsakes.
In Alexander Pope’s hyperbolic poem, “The Rape of the Lock” he uses the stealing of a lock of hair as a vehicle to represent the shallowness of high society in the 18th Century England. It’s based on a contemporary event where a man stole a lock of his fiancé’s hair causing a feud between families. Pope was asked to write a poem based on the event in order to demonstrate its absurdity and help mend the rift. The poem appropriates themes and devices from heroic classical literature but with fairies replacing the Gods, card games and flirtatious scuffles replacing battles, leisurely trips on the Thames replacing epic voyages. The “rape of the lock” is portrayed in a similar manner to the numerous atrocities carried out by gods and mortals alike in myths from antiquity. The absurdity demonstrates how superficial appearances of beauty had seemingly become held in higher regard to qualities of greater value and the trivial was taking precedence over more substantial political problems.
“The Nymph to the destruction of Mankind,
Nourish’d two Locks which graceful hung behind
In equal curls, and well conspir’d to deck
With shining Ringlets the smooth Iv’ry neck,
Love in these labyrinths his Slaves detains,
And mighty hearts are held in slender chains,
With hairy springes we the Birds betray,
Slight lines surprise the Finny prey,
Fair tresses Man’s imperial race insnare,
And beauty draws us with a single hair.”3
Aubrey Beardsley drew illustrations to accompany a later publication of the poem and his drawings demonstrate how hair offers the opportunity for highly decorative images.
Whistler said of Beardsley:
“Look at him! He’s just like his drawings, he’s all hairs and peacock’s plumes– hairs on his head, hairs on his fingers, hairs in his ears, hairs on his toes and what shoes he wears – hairs growing out of them.”4
When Beardsley showed him the illustrations for “the Rape of the Lock” he changed his mind. He proclaimed Beardsley “a great artist” causing Beardsley to burst out crying.
Artists have exploited the decorative opportunities that depictions of hair provide. Especially the pre-Raphaelites. Baudelaire in his Symbolist poem: “La Chevelure” or “Hair” uses metaphors like ‘aromatic forest’, ‘Ebony sea’, ‘Clamorous Harbour’ 5 (english translation) for erotic effect. Painters have achieved similar effects as depictions of hair cover wide expanses of the field of view – pre-empting Abstract Expressionist field painting. For instance Dante Gabrielle Rossetti in his close up portraits of women which he made aware that their sensual nature made them popular with patrons.
Women’s hair depicted in paintings throughout history generally objectifies. Seen through the “male gaze”. This image by Lee Miller is interesting to contrast. It seems less steeped in the mythologies and ideas largely stemming from male dominated culture where hair represents strength or submission.
- John Milton, Paradise Lost, Book 4, 300-310 (1667)
- Homer, The Odyssey, 6. 229-237 (quote from E.V Rieu translation, 1946)
- Alexander Pope, The Rape of the Lock, Canto 2, 19-28, 1717
- Elizabeth Robins Pennell, Joseph Pennell, Whistler: The life of James McNeill Whistler 1908
- Charles Baudelaire, La Chevelure, 1857