The Unexpectedly Violent History of Red Hair

Judas Iscariot. Google Images

A Rare and Suspect Color

 Both Greek and Roman culture were astute in noticing red hair was more prevalent in certain climates. The philosopher Aristotle noted that those living in northerly climes, as well as fishermen and divers usually had red hair. He reasoned this was because the moist environment both parties frequented made them chilly individuals but that their outer parts became red when they dried off in the sun! Vitruvius also made a similar but less fanciful observation, attributing red hair to the dampness of the climate because this made individuals living there more ‘moist.”

However, despite these rare attempts to rationalize red hair, ancient accounts emphasis certain traits as prevalent in redheads. As well as describing the Gauls, Germans, and Celts as predominantly red headed- something that wasn’t true for everyone- the ancient writers portrayed them as warlike and uncivilized.

These portrayals were reflections of inbuilt classical preconception of redheads. Aristotle, while acknowledging the bravery of tawny headed individuals because the color of their hair matched that of the pelt of a lion, also believed they were evil characters- because their hair color also matched that of a fox. The Romans also had quite a contradictory attitude to fiery hair. Once again, they regarded redheads, as untrustworthy- yet red hair was also desirable, as many Roman ladies aspired to it, prompting Roman wig makers to import quantities of red hair from northern Europe.


Mary Magdalene.Google Images

The Classical suspicion of redheads probably derived from the fact red hair was so rare in the Mediterranean regions. Although Archaic Greek texts like the Iliad refer to Greek heroes such as Achilles and Menelaus as red-headed, less than 1% of the Mediterranean population carry the red-haired gene-despite the descent of some Italians from a portion of the steppe migrants who crossed the Alps in around 1300BC. Intermarriage with other peoples with more dominant genes meant that the recessive red gene rarely had a chance to express itself and so was incredibly rare.

However, this suspicion of red hair continued and evolved with time. In the Middle Ages and beyond, redheads acquired even more negative connotations. Red hair became an almost demonic badge, associated with witches, vampires, and werewolves. By the Renaissance, the Spanish Inquisition was using red hair as a way of identifying Jews- despite the low prevalence of red hair in Jewish people. This badge stuck. Artists began to portray dubious Jewish characters as redheads, such as the treacherous Judas Iscariot and Mary Magdalene before her repentance. This prejudiced tendency was carried into literature, with both Shakespeare and Dickens portraying their Jewish characters of Shylock and Fagin as red-haired.

Redheads were certainly rare. However, perhaps there is something more than a fear of the ‘other’ at work here. Reactions against redheads could be a reaction against the color red itself, as,  in nature, red is often a symbol of danger. In 2011, a study of Rhesus monkeys was carried out. Keepers in red, green and blue shirts delivered food to the monkeys. While the monkeys readily accepted the food from the blue and green shirts, they universally rejected food brought by the red shirts.

Perhaps like the color of our hair, the suspicion of red is in our genes.

Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

Neoptolemus, Encyclopedia Brittanica

Red-haired genes 100,000 years old, Blueprint (The Newsletter of Oxford University) 31 May 2001

The Violent History of Red Hair, K Thor Jenson, OMG facts,

The Genetic Causes, Ethic Origins, and History of Red Hair, Maciamo Hay, Eupedia,

BritainsDNA Announces the Results of the Red-Head Project,, 2012

Livy, The History of Rome,

Seneca, On the Germans

Tacitus, Agricola

Tacitus, Germania