The Ceremony of Hair
Hairstyles aren’t just there to enliven the everyday. Across the world, they play a part in the story of humanity and mark the most memorable occasions in our lives – and deaths.
Words Rudi Lewis
THE ROLE OF HAIR in rituals and ceremonies has always fascinated me. While the different customs can vary wildly, the symbolic importance of hair across the world and throughout history is constant. From the moment we are born, our hair becomes both an expression of our own particular cultural heritage, and at the same time, part of the greater story of humanity and what it means to live and die.
BIRTH In south-east Asian cultures, particularly Thai Buddhism, the hair of a new-born is called ‘fire hair’ and is completely shaved off, except for a small tuft at the crown called a shikha, at the end of the first month of life. The hair is then set afloat on a banana leaf, signifying freedom from the past. Hindus believe that an infant’s hair retains traces of past lives, so, as an act of purification, the Mundan head-shaving sacrament is performed between the ages of one and three. Again, the crown is left uncut, and the rest of the hair is offered symbolically to the Ganges river. In some Muslim communities, after the head-shaving ritual, the weight of the child’s hair is matched in gold or silver and given to charity. For nomadic Mongolians, just the act of surviving infancy is cause for a huge celebration, with each guest cutting one strand from the head of the infant, before finally the head is shaved clean. The cut hair is often sewn into a silky ceremonial cloth. Orthodox Judaism holds that a boy’s hair must not be cut until his third Hebrew birthday, when he is ready to begin formal education. This stems from the belief that you should not harvest the fruits of a tree for the first three years after planting.
Our hair becomes both an expression of our own particular cultural heritage, and at the same time, part of the greater story of humanity.
LIFE Hair makes symbolic appearances in other milestone rituals, such as reaching puberty. Navajo girls have their hair washed with yucca soap before it is top-knotted elaborately with deerskin strings, and a series of ceremonies marks their passage into womanhood. There are Amazonian tribes who, among other tests of endurance, pull the hair of a young female from her head in preparation for adulthood. Conversely, in Niuean culture, it is the young males who never cut their hair before reaching teenage, whereupon the glorious mane is lovingly brushed and tended by female relatives before being cut off. Japanese culture is full of incredibly codified rituals involving hair, for which the observance of traditional rites is as important as the styles themselves. When an honoured sumo wrestler reaches retirement, his topknot, or chonmage, is chopped off piece by piece by his former trainers and opponents. In ancient China, adolescents took part in a strictly observed hair-combing ceremony, which signalled that they were ready for marriage. Elements of this tradition survive today, notably as part of wedding preparations. Performed by “a woman of good fortune”, the ritual culminates with cypress leaves being pinned onto the bride-to-be’s hair. Wedding hair, of course, is a source of elaborate ceremonial and symbolic preparation in almost every society on Earth. One of the most fascinating for me is the traditional red Zulu headdress, a broad, woven, basket-shaped affair, which used to be made from the bride’s mother’s hair. Some Hasidic women shave their hair after marriage. Since showing one’s hair is considered immodest, many choose to cover their heads with a wig, known in Yiddish as sheitel. Increasingly, the source of the wigs was human hair from India; until 2004 when rabbis deemed this unacceptable. There then followed a mass bonfire of wigs in Williamsburg, Brooklyn – quite a spectacle I’m sure. Hair coverings, found in hundreds of different societies for myriad reasons, provide one of the most fertile grounds for human creativity and expression. I particularly love the headdresses of the Bedouin and Tuareg people, elaborately adorned with coins, discs and symbols, offering a display of modesty and ostentation. Or the amazing headpieces of the Surma and Mursi tribes of east Africa, lovingly and playfully made from leaves, bark, moss, fruit and whatever else comes to hand.
There are Amazonian tribes who, among other tests of endurance, pull the hair of a young female from her head in preparation for adulthood.
DEATH Our species’ symbolic use of hair even extends to death. Many warrior cultures would take the hair of the vanquished as a macabre trophy. Of course, one of the most common mementos of a loved one can be a lock of hair, kept in a jewellery box or some similar place. Years later these keepsakes become deeply imbued with meaning for us. In some societies the hair of the departed would be woven into a statuette, or other likeness, as with the Chippewa people, who would make a doll with the hair from a child who had died. Those who have been bereaved are often expected to observe some form of etiquette involving either covering their hair, or, in some places, cutting it off as a sign of respect for the lost loved one. Or, in parts of Ethiopia, literally tearing their hair out in grief. One of the most visually arresting manifestations I’ve come across is the tradition, in Maori and Polynesian societies, of widows cutting off the front half of their hair and hanging the tresses from the branches of trees in sacred places. Indeed, many cultures believe that hair carries something of the essence of the person it belonged to, meaning it could be used as a charm, for both good and evil purposes. Therefore, before professional hairdressing became common, it was essential that you had complete trust in the person you chose to do your hair; you wouldn’t want the discarded locks ending up in the wrong hands. So, for me, it’s endlessly fascinating that so many seemingly disparate groups are actually united in the importance they place on hair and ceremony. Sometimes it’s important to look beyond modern preoccupations with styles or trends, to remember that these acts of social grooming and exhibition are really part of the rich tapestry of human experience, and that maybe there is more that connects us than divides us.
Those who have been bereaved are often expected to observe some form of etiquette involving either covering their hair, or, in some places, cutting it off as a sign of respect for the lost loved one.