Hair

Great Symbols Series @ Theosophy Trust


HAIR


Soma flows like auspicious oil for him who wears the braided locks.

Rig Veda

 There is a sannyasin on the hill. In the mornings he sits upon a shelf of baked earth that extends out in front of his cave. There are a few pieces of cloth, a rolled coverlet of faded mien, together with a drinking pot and bowl, inside the cave, but these do not arrest the attention. One's eyes are ever drawn back to a contemplation of the man himself. His frame is slender and the aging skin is still fairly taut over the surface of his torso and his face. His legs folded up beneath him, he sits unblinkingly in the sun with deep unseeing eyes focussed upon horizons that seem to be ever retreating before his vastly disinterested gaze. Abundant locks of hair are coiled atop his head, but their ends have fallen loose from the top-knot and now hang about his shoulders in tangled streams. When the morning light is slanting along the side of the hill and one approaches the cave from the valley below, the long matted braids that extend down his back can be seen. They rest in dusty clumps upon the earthen shelf and provide a sort of mantle-covering for his perfectly upright back. They appear to be heavy and indeed they are clotted, as are the locks of his top-knot, with particles of dirt and insects' wings and all forms of pollen that drift there in the mountain air. But there is no sign from the calm expression on his face nor from the inclination of his head that he finds his tresses weighty. Even the looser strands that curve from his brow and whip his cheeks when the wind rises do not arouse in him an annoyed response, but seem to be part of a design with which he is in harmony. It is said that in his matted locks rests the secret of his power, and no one has ever known them to become anything but thicker and longer over the years.

 In saying this, people here are drawing on some very old ideas – as old as the Laws of Manu, which specify that a Brahmin hermit is forbidden to cut his hair. Hair has universally been considered a natural receptacle of the vital essence of an individual. Even in recent times it has been associated with the life-force and the power of the mind, prompting the German philosopher Herder to compare it to a sacred forest covering the mysteries of thought. People such as the Nazarites did not shave off or reduce the length of their hair because to them its rapid growth symbolized the individual's consecration to the Deity and his divine potency. They said: "The consecration of God is on his head." Such ideas have lingered on in many cultures and perhaps they were passed down through children's stories amongst the people in the valley. However that might be, of all the sannyasin's profoundly impressive attributes, his hair is looked upon with peculiar awe. Those who venture up the path leading by his cave tend to stop briefly at the vantage-point afforded by an inward curve of the hillside in order to gaze at the braided mass etched along his back.

 To them it is indeed as though "God is on his head", for they are innocent of the knowledge that, to others in the world, the greatest sacrifice they can make is that involving the cutting of their hair. The ancient Greeks offered their hair to river gods on attaining manhood, and warriors pledged their locks for victory. Bold and headstrong Achilles kept his yellow hair unshorn because his father had vowed to offer it to the River Sperchius if ever his son came home from the wars. Phoenicians, lamenting the death and ascent of Adonis, cut off their hair and sacrificed it in the sanctuary at Byblus. Therein virginal maidens also had to choose between the sacrifice of their hair and their chastity, both being equivalent in the eyes of the deity. Because hair was widely regarded as possessing the essential power of oneself, its offering was indeed frequently substituted for the sacrifice of one's personal power, even for one's life itself. Thus the sacrifice of hair often symbolized the renunciation of the procreation and multiplication of life. It is hardly surprising that many religious sects have incorporated this act as a crucial ritual, marking off the ascetic from the rest of humanity. The man on the hill might well have been a Jain or Buddhist monk, serene and aloof, presenting to the world the gleaming curve of his shaven head.

 There is a distinction to be made between the hair on the head and that on the rest of the body. That on the head is associated with spiritual forces, whilst body hair is related to the proliferation of irrational powers and of instinctual life. On a Romanesque capitol at Estiboliz, Adam is shown without a beard before the Fall but with bushy beard after it, an illustration of the descent into a somewhat bestial form of life. The hair on the entire body of an animal is intimately linked with the psycho-physical life-force of the species. With man it is the hair on the head which is believed to crystallize the individuality of a person, whilst body hair contains collective associations and secondary powers. At one time some persons accused of witchcraft were compelled to have their entire body shaved because it was believed that the power of evil was concentrated in their hair. To remove the hair on the head would be to weaken the individual's focussing of evil, whilst removing body hair was a safeguard against a more ubiquitous evil that might cling by some blind affinity to the form which first attracted it.

 The Hindu belief that hairs correspond to the lines of force of the cosmos refers to the hair on the heads of human beings. As with macrocosmic energy, it is similarly thought that electromagnetic power moves through human hair beyond the confines of the physical form. Thus, it is commonly believed that severed tresses, when widely separated from the body that generated them, continue to possess the unique potency of the individual.

 The mode of dressing the hair is thought to affect electromagnetic lines of power and to indicate to the world their nature and magnitude. Loose hair signifies nubility, wherein there is freedom in bestowing as well as in absorbing power. Bound hair marks the married woman whose consolidation of power is sometimes in a subjugated state. The serpent-hair of Erinyes or Medusa symbolizes the baleful aspect of feminine power, whilst the stylized curling of the Buddha's hair indicates the serene and tranquil mastery of life-force. Hair standing on end is taken as a sign of magical power or divine possession by many people, although it could also be the result of great fear, the strange obverse face of total receptivity.

 Warriors like the long-haired Achaeans or the Sikhs, or "those with long-streaming locks (who, in Israel) were called forth to do battle for their people", carried their power in plentiful hair. Believing that they battled for a righteous cause, they pursued their jihad with all the force they could project. With fierce mien and streaming hair, they marshalled spiritual and terrestrial energies against their foes. Many people believed that the colour of their hair indicated which energy was predominant. Brown or black hair was sometimes associated with Kali, time and terrestrial powers, whilst golden hair was widely believed to represent the sun's rays, and the Greeks ever addressed the solar orb as 'Yellow-Haired'. Red hair was enigmatic, some seeing in such flaming tresses a Venusian character, whilst others thought them demoniacal, the suspect resultant of malevolent magical practices in previous lives. Many classical works allude to the solar quality of golden hair. Procopius, Ovid and Virgil all described instances wherein the solar life-principle was thought to be powerfully contained within golden tresses, and undoubtedly this ancient belief motivated Mediterranean people to adopt the wearing of blond wigs during various periods in their history.

 Hair could be called a biological accessory. It is very personal, growing and changing with the individual's bodily condition. Physiologically, hair is a horny product of the skin tissue and a characteristic peculiar to mammals. Man is actually remarkable amongst primates for his scant body hair coupled with an abundance of hair on his scalp. Man lacks the tactile hairs of the cat, which are organs of great sensitivity, and his hairs are relatively inert despite the reservoir of magnetic energy held to be concentrated in them. Amongst human beings, the amount of it on the body and scalp, as well as its form, texture and colour, are taken as identifying racial traits. Whilst it serves as a thermal insulator for animals, with humans this function has ceased to be of significance. Even the length of hair on the human head is of questionable adaptive value. The fact that it is perishable and can be lost completely is a social rather than a biological disability. It is striking, then, how out of this almost useless physiological appurtenance man has elaborated a feature of profound cultural significance, one capable of a variety of personal, public and magical interpretations. Is this because he has, in fact, understood something of its inherent natural power?

 Darwin asserted that mankind lost its coat of hair because men and women chose as mates those individuals who were least hairy. If this is true, the Mongoloid races are ahead of the game, having the least body hair of all the races. As the most hairy of peoples, Caucasoids must have dawdled through the ages. They persist in a perhaps atavistic fascination with hairiness. There is a lingering impression amongst many members of the so-called Caucasoid race that hairiness of body among men connotes masculinity, daring and virility. Juvenal wrote that "a hairy body and arms stiff with bristles, give promise of a manly soul", and in Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing Beatrice proclaims that, "He that hath a beard is more than a youth, and he that hath no beard is less than a man." Even in modern parlance a *hairy' situation is seen as one which is rough and trying, perhaps even dangerous. That which is rough and shaggy is primitive, not quite civilized and certainly not tame. The hairy male is thought by some to epitomize male sexuality, which may, in some myths and literature, take extreme forms. It is striking to compare this with the masculine ideals of ancient India and China, where nearly hairless bodies were considered the mark of masculine refinement, combining both the attributes of virility and attractiveness.

 Of women's hair it has been said "one hair of a woman's head can draw more than a hundred pair of oxen". In The Rape of the Lock Alexander Pope endorsed this sentiment, writing that

Fair tresses man's imperial race ensnare,
And beauty draws us with a single hair.

The thin, thread-like hair which is the symbol of woman's frailty is also, paradoxically, her great strength. It has always been thought her glory; contained when she twists it up into a shining crown to frame her face, it softens and suggests the hidden fertility of nature. The young girl's hair, streaming in the sunlight, rejoices in an abandonment which will soon be curtailed. All over the world married women are expected to bind their hair whilst leaving it long, a fascinating combination of controlled force and burgeoning virtue. How much more meaningful and even exciting are the locks that escape their confines. Hair which 'hangs low' all of the time loses some of the private sense of power preserved within its containment.

 The burgeoning power of the hair's growth begins beneath the surface layer of skin in the dermis, which contains the hair follicles and glands that originated as structures grown downward from the epidermis. The plug of epidermal cells grows into the dermis due to excessive mitosis, and it becomes elongated, with the sebaceous and sweat glands forming in conjunction with the papilla at its base. It is the dividing cells of the latter which will eventually push up the growing hair. The hair canal is formed within this follicle, whilst the remaining part of the column of cells that grew down from the epidermis and that now surround the hair fibre become the outer sheath of the growing hair that will soon push its way through the surface of the skin. After the follicle has completed its development, the hair grows in cycles of alternating activity and rest. Old hair is shed at the end of a rest period when the new hair begins to press up to the surface. The growing hair receives nutrients from blood vessels around the follicle, but, though a good blood supply is very important to its healthy growth, the diameter of the hair is associated with the size and shape of the papilla, and the rate of growth and length of hair depend on the number of dividing cells involved, all of which are genetically determined characteristics.

 The hair which grows above the skin is dead. It cannot be changed by the body once it is passed out into the atmosphere. Composed almost completely of the protein keratin, which acts as a molecular sponge for attracting minerals in very high concentrations, hair combines minerals and keratin to form strong chemical bonds which remain constant during the time that it is growing outward from the scalp. Thus hair is an external substance that grows from within the body and is capable of being tested so as to reveal the subtle mineral balances or imbalances existing therein. In this way the outer hair reflects faithfully the inner condition brought about by individual metabolism interacting with external environmental influences. The old hair records the state of the body as it emerges from the dermis. Subsequent changes in the body will be duly registered in the new hair. This is true on the physical as well as mental and cultural planes. In all these ways hair reflects the inner state very rapidly as a symbolic action or as a sign of mental or physical distress. Trouble or calamity leads to a lack of care for the hair. This may take a symbolic form or it may involve pulling it out in anguish or losing it through the effect of persistent stress.

 Variations of form, texture and colour in hair lend themselves readily to association with social differentiation of class, sex and occupation as well as subtler distinctions. A rather prudish nineteenth-century work criticizes dishevelled hair falling on the shoulders. Fanatical Puritans of England cut their hair short and round so that it barely covered the ears, all to show public scorn for ringlets associated with what they considered a frivolous class. They gained the sobriquet 'Roundheads' in the process. This occurred in the seventeenth century, and Americans, imitating the English, laid down similar rules, such as that for the boys at Harvard in 1636 which read, "nor shall it be permitted to wear Long Haire, Locks, Fortops, Curlings, Crispings, Partings or Powdering of ye Haire". Of course, hair styles continue to be powerful public symbols to this day. The long hair of the hippie which signifies letting nature take its course' is a quasi-political symbol, whilst the 'Afro' speaks of racial and ethnic identity and addresses the problem of 'dealing with kinky hair in a straight-haired society'. The shorter hair of many modern women represents a deliberate shunning of the long-tressed, weaker feminine role. Women who leave their hair long tend to let it fall unconfined by the traditional implications of control or subjugation.

 A poetical soul once spoke of coiffure as an art involving the modification "by agreeable forms (of) those long filaments with which nature seems to have intended to make a veil rather than an ornament". Cultural records of thousands of years of variegated activities show these artistic modifications with surprising variety and significance. The ancient Mesopotamians used curling-irons made of clay to 'frizzle' their hair – a word taken from the place named Phrygia where the fashion began. Perhaps the most famous of ancient hair styles were those of the early Egyptians, whose long dark brown or black hair was plaited in many thin triple braids, the ends of which were tied in two's and three's with woollen strings. The plaits of aristocratic ladies hung over the shoulders and were bound together about the head by a fillet of gold from which a blue lotus flower hung suspended over the forehead. Natural Egyptian hair was thick, wavy and dark, but the style evolved of shaving the head in order to wear a ventilated wig made of human hair, black wool or even palm leaf fibres dyed black and attached to a porous foundation. After 1150 B.C. some of the wigs worn by men and women were dyed red, green or blue in a riot of colour. Splendid wigs of length and colour were worn by nobility, officers of rank and the wealthy, whilst some commoners sported short bobs over shaven heads, leaving only the poor or infantile with their natural tresses.

 Phoenicians powdered their hair with gold dust for festive occasions. Assyrians dyed their brows and beards black, Persians chose orange with henna, and later Athenians preferred blue locks or golden wigs imported from the north. Venetians of the fifteenth century also coveted the golden look and bleached their hair or wore blond wigs made of silk. Wigs were very important to the eighteenth-century soldier's life. If barbers were not available, whole regiments would sit down and tie each others' wigs. The curled and powdered hair in the early American army required stores of flour and tallow for powdering, a pound of flour being each man's ration for a week. In Europe, where similar practices prevailed, Rousseau lamented, "The poor are without bread because we must have powder (flour) for our hair." But men were simply following the fashion established by their betters. After the age of thirty-five no one ever saw Louis XIV without a wig. Upon his retiring at night, his wig was passed out between the drawn bed curtains to his page and the performance was reversed in the morning. Queen Elizabeth I owned eighty auburn, orange and gold wigs to cover her thinning hair, and wealthy style-setters employed a staff of specialists to care for their coiffures.

 The desire to create the effect of having a full head of hair is as strong as the associated desire to avoid the appearance of baldness or thinning of one's hair. For millennia people have equated loss of hair with failure and poverty. The Hebrews deprecated baldness so much that their term for 'bald-head' actually became a general expression of profound contempt. Ovid expressed this misfortune in gentler terms when he wrote that "a head without hair was like a field without grass". The association of long hair with privilege amongst many ancient people serves to illustrate the relationship between virility and power and an abundant growth of hair. Long hair symbolized the summer with all its brilliance and splendour, whilst the shortening or loss of hair characterized the weakness of the winter sun. To lose one's hair was a sort of death, a step closer to the final loss of personal, individual life-energy. Mourners of the dead deliberately took the step of shaving their hair out of sympathy. "Sympathizing with the dead," Aristotle wrote, "we deform ourselves by cutting off our hair." Just so do Greek and Arab women pull out their hair in lamentation and offer it on the grave.

 Losing one's hair is a diminution of the self, a reduction of the personality. But in rites of passage the hair is often deliberately shorn to rid the individual of all magnetic ties to the old persona. A young boy coming into manhood has his head shaved in preparation for a symbolic death of the child and a rebirth of the new adult, upon whose head new hair will grow to contain the energies of a man. There is a vital distinction between a voluntary and involuntary loss of hair. In some magical practices related to tribal warfare, the warrior prepares for battle by ritually removing his soul from his body so that the latter will become invulnerable. Rather than being directed further afield, the soul is lodged in the hair, which easily contains it as a receptacle capable of retaining the emanations which often escape from other parts of the body. Hair has been closely connected with the brain and with functions of memory. Many ancients thought that old people lost their memory with their hair. Thus the soul, by these connections, is often believed to have its seat in the hair, the involuntary loss of which is understandably calamitous. The magical influence one can gain over someone whose hair they possess is much feared, for it threatens one with loss of control of 'soul stuff, a reversal of the control exercised by one who undergoes a voluntary loss of hair through ritual.

 There is a primitive danger in cutting the hair, which has to do with the problem of safely disposing of the shorn locks as well as the possibility of disturbing the spiritual energies retained around the head. Sacred persons have to be especially careful of this, and the best way to avoid the danger is simply not to cut the hair at all. This belief accounts for the many traditions wherein kings, hierophants or mendicants were not allowed to crop their hair. It was particularly dangerous to molest the hair at the top of the head, which if plucked out, would cause the soul to flee. Greeks, Romans and Orientals all practised precautions concerning this hair. The legend of Samson which was widespread in many forms in the Mediterranean world is based upon a similar idea. He is a solar hero who responds to Delilah's request to tell her how he might be subdued by announcing:

I have been a Nazarite unto God from my mother's womb: if I be shaven, then my strength will go from me, and I shall become weak, and be like any other man.

Judges 16:17

While Samson slept, Delilah cut off his locks and made him vulnerable to the attack of his enemies, the Philistines, who blinded and imprisoned him until his hair grew back and he could avenge himself by pulling down their temple upon himself.

 The close identification in people's minds between the soul, the personality and the hair on the head lends itself to such sorcery, but it also lies behind the horror felt when one locates a stranger's hair in their soup. If hair is the bearer of the life-force and individual soul, it is also uniquely capable of polluting and, in the wrong place, can be especially upsetting. This is primarily because of its highly personal nature, but hair is also a symbol which links the personal with the public and has attributes of both. The basis of a public symbol is a shared cultural system which may include individual inner experience of a nature which charges the public symbol with private meaning. The sannyasin withdrawing from the normal activities of Hindu culture does not merely follow a public pattern that includes letting his or her hair grow in matted locks, but goes through a profound inner transformation that is expressible through traditional symbols. The public symbol of matted hair is thus re-created each time an individual goes through these unique experiences.

 The ideal prototype for most such ascetics is exemplified by Shiva, the Mahayogin in whose stacked and streaming locks supra-normal life-energy is stored. Through this association the matted hair can be identified with the lingam and the shakti source of the god's manifesting power in the world. The heavy locks are like serpents containing the sexual energy which has been alchemized as well as transformed. The emphasis in this tradition is on the transmutation of the lower instinctive powers into a great cobra-hooded energy which expresses the will of the deity. In the Buddhist or Jain tradition the inner experience may not be dissimilar, but the outward symbol of transformation takes the form of shaving away the hair. Part of the ordination ritual amongst the Jain consists in plucking out every hair of the head and body. In the comparison of these extreme symbolic responses lie several philosophically revealing distinctions.

 The matted hair of the Hindu ascetic is linked with a notion of conservation and alchemization of creative energy. In the myths about Lord Shiva there is a continual interplay of extreme asceticism and virile potency, which link up the elements of destruction and creation. Looked at from a more synthesizing perspective, these seeming contradictions can be resolved in contemplation of the idea of a perpetual desire which is a constantly potential fertility and which finds its origin in Truth. This is the Desire which stands behind Will and which flickers in all relative truths. The creative power residing at the poles of the spine expresses this desire, which, when transmuted upward to the head, can localize the action of the pineal precipitor and open the Third Eye, whose inner beam lights up the whole being and radiates out through the haloed hairs of the head. In the Buddhist ascetic tradition the emphasis is upon total renunciation of personal power. Myths about the Buddha tell how he left his wife and family, renounced the world, cut off his hair and eventually transcended all the temptations of Mara's hosts. Tantra in the Buddhist tradition is always treated as a purely mental merging of the dual energies in man, and total mental as well as physical celibacy is emphasized without the more exaggerated or passionate forms of self-denial sometimes found in the Hindu tradition. Shaving off of hair symbolizes a subjugation to a power greater than the individual. It typifies a condition of utter humility and receptivity, whereas the full head of matted hair symbolizes the control of power.

Ten thousand threads of light
 make up a glory, gay and bright,
Round the great orb.

SAMUEL COLERIDGE

 This is the creative power which issued forth in the Seven Rishis who sprang as mind-born sons from Brahmā's head and from whom are generated the divisions of mankind. They are called the 'Hairs of Brahmā', each being "a hidden fountain issuing from the concealed brain... [which] shineth and goeth forth through that hair [of the Macroprosopus] unto the hair of Microprosopus". From the division of the Seven Hairs, curls arise on either side of the brain of the Lesser Face, and through these commence the division of the Races of man. The biologically racial distinction of hair types in the world is but a shadowy reflection of this archetypal process. The Seven Locks are thus identified with the hidden Spiritual Sun and are reflected in the rays of the visible solar orb. Kesin, the long-haired', is the title used to praise the Sun in the Rig Veda: "The Sun with golden hair (who) brought forth the eternal light". This connection with manifesting creative power identifies the solar gods and heroes like Samson and Herakles. In their hair lies the pattern of individual potencies which correspond with the lines of force emanating from the hairs of the Invisible and visible Sun. Just as the hair is the bridging link between the inner and the outer man as he relates to a cultural or physical environment, so the Hairs of Brahmā or of the Central Spiritual Sun are the lines that connect the macrocosm with the microcosm in sevenfold planes and divisions. One may remove all their hair and step under the umbrella of the larger Law, or one may tender their hair inviolate and treat it as a powerful storehouse where universal and individual energy are bonded in a manner analogously echoed in the bonding of keratin and mineral molecules during the growth of the hair.

 The strange obsession men and women have always had about hair is a result of some knowledge and many dim memories of these remarkable correspondences. All the colouring and powdering, the wigs and ever-changing styles, are but largely unconscious responses to the power which is sensed to be inherent in hair. It is with this vague sense of awe that most of the people from the valley approach the sannyasin's cave to gaze on his matted locks and wonder. They have strong responses when they find another's hair in their soup and they wear their hair according to their sex and social position, but they do not connect it with the tresses of the golden sun nor with the serpent's sacred power or the seven Races of man. To do so would place them in the position of becoming caretakers of great streaming energies which would revolutionize their lives and affect all the world about them. Few of them, perhaps, would be willing to renounce their hair along with their individual selves and surrender to a universal sense of Self. Either way, the matted locks or the shaven head would seem frightening prospects to most of them. But there are those few who will climb up the hill and linger on. For them the pull up that mountainside will exert greater force than the desire to return to the safer-seeming world below. Of these few, some will follow the sannyasin 's path and discover the vital secrets of hair.

The Sun shares its hair
Amongst the ragged clouds,
And seven horses carry it
Streaming 'cross the sky.
Thus did the locks
Of my own love flow,
On the hills in the wind blowing,
Threads of light shining round the world.