by Jacqui Woodward-Smith
Brigit of the mantles,
Brigit of the peat-heap,
Brigit of the twining hair
When, in my early and mid-20s, I journeyed to the Underworld in the midst of a dark depression the urge that I most had to fight against was one to cut my hair; not to have it trimmed, or shaped, or styled to make me feel better, but to hack at it, cut chunks out of it, shave my head, make it ugly, destroy it. Somehow my hair was a symbol of my inner self and I felt that if I could make it look the way that I felt inside everyone would understand the dark place that I was in and I would never have to explain it, or hide it, again. Yet it wasn’t a considered thought, it was a barely understood visceral urge that I battled against almost every day, and I have since heard other women describe similar feelings. I think that that’s when I really started to think about hair…
…and the more that I thought about hair the more that I noticed references to it in the Goddess-centred books that I was reading and the stories that I heard. It became clear to me that, for women at least, our hair is a symbol of something deep and primal; a symbol of our wild, and yet often rejected or hidden, inner selves and it is, yet another, example of a symbol that has been taken from us and controlled, possibly to the point where it’s original meaning and power has been destroyed completely…but perhaps in everything there is a glimmer that can be reclaimed?
In my own Goddess tradition as a Priestess of Avalon, working with the ancient Goddesses of the British Isles, Rhiannon is the Goddess of Love and Sexuality and She has much to teach us about the inner wildness of women. She is the White Mare, said to have been born from the foam of the sea. Her symbols are, like the mermaid’s, the comb and the mirror. In India the comb is a powerful symbol of the rain which brings the regrowth and renewal of the vegetation each year (1). The Aztec Goddess Chicomecoatl, whose name can be literally translated as ‘Seven Serpents’, is the Great Corn Mother and, in ‘Ancient Mirrors of Womanhood’, Merlin Stone describes a ceremony in which three Corn Maidens would lead a procession through the town; the first and youngest, who symbolised the newly rising sprouts, would have her hair cropped short, the second, as an image of the half grown corn, would have her hair falling to her shoulders, and the third, the oldest and tallest, would have her waist long hair tied into a braided bun as a symbol of the full-grown crops (2). In the same work Merlin Stone describes the puberty rituals of the Cuna people of Panama in which a young girl is dedicated to the Butterfly Goddess, Mu Olokukurtilisop. As part of the ceremony the young girl’s hair is cut from her head and falls to earth as a symbol of the weight of the childhood that she is also shedding (3); our hair is both a symbol of our inner selves and of our connection to nature’s renewal.
In the Old Religions of Europe hair was a potent symbol of feminine power; indeed one of the first things that the witch-hunters did to the accused would be to shave off their hair because their ‘devil-power’ was believed to dwell within it (4). In ‘The Great Cosmic Mother: Rediscovering the Religion of the Earth’ Barbara Mor and Monica Sjöö write that:
“Hair has always been connected with the idea of cosmic power. Hair is electric, radiating energy, a symbol of vitality and spiritual illumination.Witches believed that their magic power was in their hair” (5).
And so, something in Rhiannon’s mirror and comb calls us to connect to our wild, magical selves; that part of us that is untamed and sings to us of the sea. We see a memory of Her in the tales of mermaids that sit on the rocks and comb their long hair, tempting sailors to their deaths (or perhaps to their pleasure) with their siren song. Perhaps there is something wanton in a feminine being who finds her power within herself and in the combing of her hair, rather than finding it in the reflected power of others, as so many of us have found ourselves doing over millennia of patriarchy?
There is an old story about a mermaid who is captured by a fisherman and kept in his barn. As a punishment he takes her comb and mirror so that her beautiful golden hair becomes tangled and dirty; she becomes ill and almost dies, lying in the dirty straw of the barn unable to save herself before she finds a way to return to the sea. Peg Aloi (6) suggests that this story shows the mermaid’s hair as the source of her power; uncombed and tangled it is useless. This theme is seen again and again in tales of mermaids; to ‘tame’ a Selkie you must steal her skin, to ‘chain’ a mermaid you must control her hair.
The Inuit people honour the Sedna, a monstrous and powerful goddess who lives in the deep beneath the sea in the Land of the Dead and whose dismembered fingers have become the seals, dolphins, fish, whales and other sea creatures that the Inuit must hunt in order to survive. Sedna will ensure a successful hunt but only after a shaman has descended to Her watery realm to comb her tangled hair; She demands proper respect and that is shown through the combing of her hair, that most intimate of actions.
Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza in ‘In Memory of Her: A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins’ writes of unbound, dishevelled hair being a common sight in the pre-Christian ecstatic worship of divinities and that this was ‘a highly desirable spiritual phenomenon and a mark of true prophecy’(7). She also notes that hair worn freely was a mark of a devotee of the goddess Isis, whilst a male devotee would have his head shaven. A woman friend of the poet Tibullus is said to have ‘let her hair down twice daily in the worship of Isis’ (8). The ecstatic Maenads of the Cult of Dionysis, the Pythia of Deplhi, the Sybil; all had the wild unbound hair that was ‘necessary for a woman to produce an effective magical incantation’ (9). Perhaps in this we are reminded of the wild-haired, and wild-spirited, Druid women who greeted the Roman army in their assault on Anglesey, off the North Coast of Wales, in 60 CE, or of the Boudica who was described by the Roman historian Dio Cassius as having “a great mass of red hair that fell to her knees”? (10)
Perhaps this is why the monotheistic religions have sought to control our hair; seeing it as a symbol of our base natures, of our ability to tempt men away from ‘God’, or perhaps recognising its true meaning as an outer manifestation of our rich and magical inner lives and of our wild spirits that have remained untamed despite everything; just beneath the surface we remain as we have always been. In ‘When Women Were Priests: Women’s Leadership in the Early Church and the Scandal of their Subordination in the Rise of Christianity’ Karen Jo Torjeson notes that Paul wrote to the Church in Corinth, where women held leadership roles, insisting that women prophets must wear veils when speaking in public because, for him, to do so with hair uncovered “contained the seeds of a sexual scandal” (11) By wearing the veil they ensured sexual propriety but also outwardly acknowledged their subordination to men (12). Indeed, Paul accused those women who prophesied without a veil of being “shameless” and said that they were signalling their intention to no longer be sexually exclusive (13). He also suggested that they were “inciting the angels to lust” (14). Numbers 5:18 states that a woman who has been found guilty of adultery should be publicly shamed by wearing her hair loose (15); always our hair is linked with both our sexuality and our inner natures.
In Judaism traditional Rabbinic morality states that women should cover their hair and the Palestinian Talmud suggests that the only grounds for divorce in the School of Shammai was adultery, but that ‘adultery’ included a wife being seen in public without a hair covering (16). Traditional Jewish brides would cut off their long hair, thus symbolically sacrificing their wild female power to a man in marriage (17) and, in the sixteenth century, women began to wear a wig to cover their hair throughout their married life. These controls are still practiced by pious women today (18). In ‘The Serpent & the Goddess: Women, Religion, and Power in Celtic Ireland’ Mary Condren notes that one of the Irish annals record that, in 888 CE, virgins “cut their hair” for the first time (19). This must have been a significant event indeed for it to have been recorded in such ancient texts. In medieval Europe it was usual, especially for married women, to cover their hair with a headdress and to wear a veil; peasant women who did not cover their hair were considered sexually provocative and “fair game for assault” (20). And so, women began to cover and control their hair for their own protection, and sometimes in order to enhance their social status; once more, something that had originally been devised to control us was, and is, taken on as something that is of our own free will and for our own good.
And so to the veil, which was first recorded in Assyrian texts from the 13th century BCE and is also mentioned in Greek records, stating that they should only be worn by noble born women (21). Egypt became one of the first societies to impose the veil on Muslim women from the 10th Century CE and we have seen how the veil, and other head coverings, were brought into the monotheistic religions as a way to control women and separate us from our wild and magical natures, yet Clarissa Pinkola Estés, in ‘Women Who Run with the Wolves’ suggests that we can relate to the veil in a different way and sees it as being “the main apparel that the Goddess wears when travelling on sacred pilgrimage, when she wishes not to be recognised or diverted from her intention (22). Rather than ‘covering our shame’ the wearing of the veil can be seen as a way for us to go within and connect to our essential natures, that from which we have most become divided. For her, “From behind the veil, all humans look like mist beings, all events, all objects, are coloured as though in a dawn, or in a dream” (23). Perhaps even the women of Corinth, or the wild Druid women of Anglesey, covered their hair to journey to the inner world? But until all women can choose to wear, or not to wear, the veil and until it is recognised as the sacred symbol that it is we must learn to let down our hair once more…the fairy tales tell us so and we would do well to listen; there is a story of a strange but beautiful woman who lived alone in the woods, weaving on a loom of black walnut boughs. One terrible day she was murdered and her body buried by the river. No one searched for her, or asked after her, but in her grave her beautiful golden hair grew and grew, up through the dark soil, until it became a field of swaying golden reeds above her grave. Shepherds came to make flutes from the reeds and, when played, they sang of the woman and named her murderer, who was brought to justice, ensuring that those of us who live in the wild woods are free to roam there once more (24). Let your hair sing of your wild nature, which can never truly die, remember your body as sacred, reclaim the symbols that are common to all women, and let down your hair…
©Jacqui Woodward-Smith, 1st February 2007
Nancy Blair, Amulets of the Goddess: Oracle of Ancient Wisdom, (Wingbow Press, 1993), 147.
2 Merlin Stone, Ancient Mirrors of Womanhood, (Beacon Press, 1984), 85.
3 Ibid, 79.
4 Barbara Mor and Monica Sjöö, The Great Cosmic Mother: Rediscovering the Religion of the Earth, (Harper Collins, 1991), 183.
5 Ibid, 83.
6 Peg Aloi, http://www.madstone.com/Pages/mermaids.html (15 January 2007).
7 Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, In Memory of Her: A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins, (Crossroad, 1983), 227.
8 Ibid, 227.
9 Ibid, 227.
10 http://www.unc.edu/celtic/catalogue/boudica/catalog.html (1 February 2007)
11 Karen Jo Torjeson, When Women Were Priests: Women’s Leadership in the Early Church and the Scandal of their Subordination in the Rise of Christianity, (HarperSanFrancisco, 1995), 41.
12 Ibid, 42.
13 Ibid, 144.
14 Ibid, 145.
15 Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, In Memory of Her: A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins, (Crossroad, 1983), 227.
16 Jean Holm with John Bowker, ed, Women in Religion, (Continuum, 1994), 128.
17 Barbara Mor and Monica Sjöö, The Great Cosmic Mother: Rediscovering the Religion of the Earth, (Harper Collins, 1991), 183.
18 Jean Holm with John Bowker, ed, Women in Religion, (Continuum, 1994), 129.
19 Mary Condren, The Serpent & the Goddess: Women, Religion, & Power in Celtic Ireland, (Harper & Row, 105.
20 Max Dashu http://suppressedhistories.net/articles/veil.html (15 January 2007)
21 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Veil (30 January 2007)
22 Clarissa Pinkola Estés, Women Who Run With the Wolves: Contacting the Power of the Wild Woman, (Rider Books, 1992), 441.
23 Ibid, 442.
24 Ibid, 379.