Red hair has long been associated with myth and folklore across many cultures. Throughout history, redheads have been seen as somehow different from people with other hair colors. They have been revered and feared, criticized and praised. Red hair has inspired many myths and superstitions that reveal how people have tried to explain and cope with its rarity and distinctive appearance.
Prevalence of Red Hair
Red hair is caused by a recessive genetic mutation in a gene called MC1R that results in the production of a reddish pigment called pheomelanin. Worldwide, only 1-2% of the population has natural red hair. However, in certain parts of the world, red hair is more common.
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The high percentage of redheads in certain northern and western European countries has contributed to many of the myths about red hair originating in these regions.
Origins of Red Hair in Folklore
Throughout history, red hair has been seen as mysterious, and its origins have often been explained through folk tales and myths. Here are some examples:
- In Ireland, Scotland, and Wales, red hair was often associated with descent from fairylike races. Celtic legends described red-haired warriors and sorcerers as having descended from demonic fairies or elves.
- A legend claimed that red hair in Scots was the legacy of the Picts, an early tribe paint that painted their bodies to frighten their enemies.
- In Asia, red hair was linked to demons, vampires, and other evil spirits. A Japanese proverb claims redheads turn into vampires after death.
- In the Middle East, red hair was seen as the mark of a thief or outlaw. Islamic traditions held that Judas Iscariot had red hair.
- In India, red hair was thought to be connected to the Hindu monkey god Hanuman and was seen as a sign of strength and power.
- Native American tribes associated red hair with craftiness and wildness. Among the Hopi, Zuni, and Navajo tribes, red hair was thought to signify a child conceived during a woman’s menstruation, conferring magical abilities.
These folk beliefs attempted to find meaning in the unusual genetic mutation that causes red hair by linking it to tribal ancestors, the supernatural, and spiritual forces.
Historical Perceptions of Redheads
Throughout much of history, red hair has been perceived as strange, unnatural, and suspicious. Redheads were often stereotyped as hot-tempered, sexually promiscuous, and wild.
Ancient Greece and Rome
In Ancient Greece and Rome, red hair was seen as a sign of barbarism. Greeks insulted their enemies as “redheads” during the Peloponnesian War. Roman writer De Temporibus described red hair as “not only a deformity, but the color of the hair is detestable.”
During the Middle Ages, red hair became strongly associated with witchcraft and heresy. Red hair and a strong libido were believed to be the devil’s doing. Merely shaking hands with a redhead was thought to lead to temptation.
Early Modern Period
The witch trials of the 16th and 17th centuries in Europe reinforced the association of red hair with heresy, evil, and untrustworthiness. Many women accused of witchcraft had red hair. Folk healers with red hair were prosecuted during the Spanish Inquisition.
Renaissance and Enlightenment
During the Renaissance and Enlightenment, red hair was linked to hot-tempers and ungovernability. Writers described redheads as prone to anger, impulsiveness, and alcoholism. However, some thinkers also described redheads as possessing creative genius.
In the early 20th century, theories emerged claiming redheads were becoming extinct. Writers warned that redheads would soon disappear, as people increasingly married brunettes to avoid having redheaded children. While exaggerated, these claims contributed to the persistent stereotyping of redheads.
Redheads in Folklore and Fairy Tales
Red hair appears prominently in the folklore and fairy tales of Europe. While the portrayals are often negative, redheads also take on heroic and magical roles in some stories.
Reflecting medieval stereotypes, red-haired witches appear in tales ranging from Brothers Grimm to Macbeth. The association of red hair with untrustworthiness and dangerous magic made witches natural redheads in folklore.
Red-haired mermaids and sirens were thought to use their beauty to lure men to their doom. Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid portrayed Ariel with flowing red hair, linking redheads to magic and the supernatural.
Figures of immense strength like the lumberjack giant Paul Bunyan were often depicted with red hair and beards. Red hair fitted tales of uncivilized wildness.
Some folk tales portrayed redheads as heroic underdogs. Anne of Green Gables told of a spunky, imaginative orphan with red braids who triumphs through her wit and determination.
Tricks and Mischief
Figures like Red Riding Hood and Pippi Longstocking played tricks and caused trouble with their defiant red braids. Their red hair conveyed youthful rebelliousness and a playful spirit.
Red hair carries religious symbolism in Judaism and Christianity that ranges from evil to divine love.
In the Hebrew Bible, red hair signified unusual origins. Esau was born red and hairy, suggesting his inferiority to his twin Jacob. King David was ruddy, reflecting his status as chosen by God.
Early Christian texts associate red hair with both virtue and vice. Red-haired Mary Magdalene was portrayed as a repentant sinner, while red-haired Judas was the traitorous apostle.
Though commonly depicted with brown hair, some early traditions described Christ with red hair. A legend claims the blood of Jesus gave his hair a reddish tint, symbolizing divine sacrifice and passion.
The Virgin Mary has been depicted with red hair in paintings, icons, and church stained glass. This symbolizes the purity of her love for Jesus and her sacred maternity.
Red hair appears frequently among early Christian martyrs and saints. Saint Rufina, Saint Cecilia, and Saint Margaret of Antioch were revered for their red-haired beauty and devotion.
Superstitions About Redheads
A host of superstitions surround red hair, warning of both good and bad fortune. While often negative, some superstitions grant redheads special gifts and powers.
Common folklore holds that it is unlucky to meet a redhead at the start of a journey, encounter two redheads at once, or allow a baby to see its reflection in a mirror if they have red hair.
Across Europe, redheads were reputed to have power over storms and rain. Sailors in Brittany kept redheads off boats to avoid storms. Greek and Roman writers claimed redheads could battle clouds with their braids.
In Denmark, people would cut off pieces of a redhead’s hair and carry it in their shoes to cure toothaches. Scottish highlanders drank redheads’ blood to gain resistance to poison.
Redheads are stereotyped as sensitive to temperature extremes. Folklore claims they feel heat and cold more acutely and thrive in temperate climates. In reality, redheads likely tan less easily, leading to the perception of sensitivity.
Redheads were believed to have innate magical gifts. Roman philosopher Pliny claimed drinking a redhead’s blood could give the power of divination. Some thought redheads were living vampires who could heal wounds with their bite.
Red Hair in Culture and Media
Red hair has made many vivid appearances in modern popular culture, though stereotyped depictions persist alongside more nuanced portrayals.
Redheaded comic figures reinforce stereotypes of hot-tempers and wackiness. Lucy from Peanuts, Carrot Top, Bozo the Clown, and Napoleon Dynamite’s Uncle Rico provide goofy, offbeat comedy.
Red-haired superheroes like Wally West as the Flash, Jean Grey and Poison Ivy of DC comics, and Black Widow from Marvel films bring red power to the forces of good.
Misunderstood redheads are portrayed in stories from Ayn Rand’s freethinking hero Howard Roark to the maligned puppet protagonist of Being John Malkovich.
Redheaded allure is embodied by Jessica Rabbit in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Ariel in Disney’s The Little Mermaid, and the fierceness of actresses like Madelaine Petsch, Amy Adams, and Julianne Moore.
Redheaded scoundrels like Sideshow Bob from The Simpsons, the Joker in various Batman tales, Rowena the witch in Supernatural, and Dolores Umbridge in Harry Potter convey menace and unpredictability.
Red hair has profoundly shaped legends, myths, perceptions, and traditions across many eras and cultures. While redheads have often faced prejudice, folklore has also granted them an aura of uniqueness and power. The recurrent image of red hair in stories reveals its hold on the human imagination. From signs of the diabolical to emblems of passion and strength, redhead symbolism reflects humanity’s need to tell tales and search for magic in the unknown.