A Natural and Cultural History of the Human Form
An "entertaining, witty and erudite" (The New York Times Book Review) field guide to our anatomy
In this amusing and brilliantly conceived book, Michael Sims introduces you to your body. Moving from head to toe, Sims blends cultural history with evolutionary theory to produce a wonderfully original narrative in which he analyzes the visible parts of the body. In this fascinating brew of science and storytelling, readers encounter not only accessible explanations of the mechanics of their anatomy, but also the layers of mythology, religious lore, history, Darwinian theory, and popular culture that have helped to shape our understanding of any given body part. A titillating and unique book, Adam’s Navel is learned and entertaining, a marvelous lens through which to study the form we all inhabit—but may not really understand.
Despite the variety of cultures around the world, every human being reenacts the lives of the billions who were born and died in bodies like our own. On a metropolitan street you can see the diversity of humanity represented all around you. There are women and men and girls and boys of every size, shape, and color—different skin tones and facial contours, variations in eye shape and hair texture. Each of us has one body, and each of us comes from a culture that tells us what to do with it. In the same crowd there may be Orthodox peyot and skinhead pates, straightened hair of African origin and curled hair of European origin, artificial fingernails and painted toenails, tailored beards and pierced navels, false teeth and tucked necks, shaven legs and unshaven underarms, plucked eyebrows and rouged cheeks, enlarged breasts and reduced noses, calves taut in high heels and earlobes stretched by jewelry.
So much tinkering with the body exemplifies our ambivalent but creative response to it. The German film director Wim Wenders captured the joy and confusion of having a body in Der Himmel über Berlin (released in the United States as Wings of Desire), in which bodiless angels tire of their eternal voyeurism and yearn for the experience of being alive in a corporeal form. Inspired by both Rilke’s poems and the director’s own feelings about a divided Berlin, the script by Wenders and Peter Handke conveys a passionate longing for the sense of touch that humans take for granted. The angels hunger to grasp a pencil, caress an ear, stretch their toes, feed a cat, even to acquire blackened fingers from reading a newspaper. “Instead of forever hovering above,” says one angel, “I’d like to feel there’s some weight to me . . . to end my eternity and bind me to earth. At each step, each gust of wind, I’d like to be able to say, ‘Now!’ ” After his first night of making love with a woman, he says, “I know now what no angel knows.”
Daily we wallow in the luxurious physicality for which the angel yearns. The human body perceives the world through its senses, and there is no sense but touch. Through your body the world touches you. You taste chocolate and champagne when their molecules caress your tongue. You hear music when sound waves play the tympani in your ears. You smell coffee because tiny particles of it float through the air and touch the receptors in your nose. Photons enter your eyes and enable you to see the color of sunlit leaves. And there is the sense that we officially call touch, which enables you to perceive the difference against your skin of the wool of your jacket and the cotton of your shirt, or the texture of the luggage you’re carrying, or sunshine on your closed eyelids.
The slow evolution that eventually created the body of Homo sapiens—the first animal, as far as we know, to contemplate itself—is a wonderful story. Every part of the body attests to gradual change over long periods of time. One of the Zen-like side effects of the natural sciences is the big-picture perspective of biological time. As we scurry around atwitter with the fad or crisis du jour, we forget that we are as subject to nature’s laws as are the slime mold and the dodo. Even religious fundamentalists concede that, like other creatures, we select mates and reproduce our mutual characteristics, from the father’s height or eyebrows to the mother’s bone structure or skin tone, and that, in turn, our children choose mates and reproduce, further varying the pattern. What they are reluctant to admit is that this process has been going on for an incomprehensibly long time. We have changed, and we are changing.
When this realization becomes a part of your everyday thinking, you begin to see the bodies around you differently. They blur and shift before your eyes. Faces morph from one shape into another like those in computer-generated films. And you begin to realize that the human body is composed of malleable clay. Long before cosmetic surgeons approached it as a work in progress, nature was whittling and sculpting the body to adapt it for many different environments. Every inch of the human form bears the stamp of nature’s restless creativity. We have prominent noses and large buttocks. We stand upright on two legs. Our ears are situated to gather sounds and triangulate their location, and our navels mark us as placental mammals. We seem naked when contrasted with our hirsute relatives, but actually we have a great deal of hair on our bodies—much of it still clustered strategically to harbor scent.
Yet we are not content with such hard facts, no matter how impressive they may be. “The meaning of things,” observed Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, “lies not in themselves but in our attitudes toward them.” The human mind perceives the world in symbolic terms and never stops exercising the imagination. As a result, much of culture consists of fictions that endow natural processes with symbolic importance. There is no better example than our reaction to the talents and limitations of what we have variously called a machine for living, the temple of the soul, and our mortal coil—the human body. Every part and function of the body plays its symbolic role. In Islam the fingers of the open hand symbolize the Five Precepts. The instability of flame was represented by fire deities without feet. A haircut, a sneeze, even trimmed fingernails could mean a diminution of the vital force of life. Created in our own image, gods took their cues from the human form. Atlas carried the world on his shoulders. The mighty Strenua aided humanity with her muscular arms. Samson’s hair was seen not as a protein substance produced by follicles in the scalp but as a conduit through which God bestowed some of his own strength upon a mortal.
Like a sketch under a painting, the natural history of the body guides the composition of our faded mythologies and our flourishing preoccupations. Whatever social subsets may claim us, whatever abstract groups court our allegiance, we are also primates, mammals, and vertebrates. However, before reason won its small role as explainer of phenomena, superstition assigned every part of the body its own Just-So “explanation,” even such aspects as disfigurement, beauty, disease, and ugliness. The result is a sizable portion of our shared culture. With myth and art—and, more recently, with science—we have tried to answer through the body the three questions that Paul Gauguin once used as the title of a painting: Where did we come from? What are we? Where are we going?
Desperate for some kind of intellectual activity, I began thinking about the human body. I found that I could rest a legal pad flat on my chest and write without having to watch the words appear, if occasionally I worked the pad to a wobbly upright position to see if my palimpsest of notes was decipherable. During much of my convalescence, I whiled away the hours scrawling free association under such headings as “Ears” and “Navel” and “Toes.” Beside me on the bed the pages accumulated. Pliny’s remark about King Pyrrhus’s restorative toe stirred memories of Margaret Fox and the founding of American spiritualism. Houdini’s cues to his assistant reminded me of Darwin’s pointed ears. I could not envision Neil Armstrong’s carefully arranged photo op of pressing his boot into moon soil without also seeing the row of ancient footprints that Mary Leakey unearthed at Laetoli. And every time I tried to raise my head, I remembered how much of our back pain scientists attribute to an awkward bipedalism—the once horizontal mammalian spine wrenched upward to support the aspiring head and free the greedy hands, leaving the old vertebrate nerves and their armor crowded too closely together.
Soon I realized that I had begun my next book. When I could sit up again, I dived into research about the body. Each source led to new discoveries. In time I consulted experts. Because I am as interested in culture as in nature, I could not help noticing that many of our cherished myths about the body began with an imaginative response to its natural history. Nothing excites my imagination more than the border habitat where the two fields interbreed and form strange hybrids. For this reason Adam’s Navel is itself something of a hybrid.
There are many ways to approach the study of the human body. Medical specialists examine the great administrative systems that govern bodily departments: skeletal, muscular, nervous, digestive, respiratory, cardiovascular, endocrine, lymphatic. Paleontologists burrow after the hard evidence of our ancestry. Sociologists, psychologists, reflexologists—every species of -ologist manages to apply a theme to the body. Athletes sculpt themselves into works of art. Books address self-image, attractiveness, sexual performance, grooming, nourishment, exercise, the sinfulness of the body, and the possibility that your soul previously inhabited a different vehicle than the one that so preoccupies you now.
Because none of these approaches covers my particular interests, I follow my own itinerary in Adam’s Navel. I journey down the human body—male and female—from head to toe, one region at a time. I take as my model a curious style of poetry that arose in France in the mid-sixteenth century. At the instigation of an exiled poet named Clément Marot, a group of prominent writers began composing blasons anatomiques—poetic tributes to the individual parts of the female body. Such celebrations of body parts had their antecedents, including Petrarch’s odes to the eyes of his beloved Laura in the 1300s and a salacious tribute to the breast by the later Baldassarre Olimpo da Sassoferrato. What was new was the French poets’ attempt to apply this kind of admiring ode to body parts of lesser symbolic rank than the window of the soul or the nurturing bosom. Consequently the poets faced opposition. “What could be serious in the context of Laura’s expressive, inspiring eyes,” writes historian Nancy J. Vickers, “became absurd when applied to a random tooth or toe.” Moreover, the blazons usually addressed the body part directly, a pose that sounds rather silly when speaking to the elbow. And yet, as Vickers explains, had Marot written a traditional homage to the entire female form, he would not have opened up such fertile and controversial poetic territory. Soon there were blazons in praise, laudatio, and counterblazons in blame, vituperatio, expressing the spectrum from adoration to revulsion.
In a sense Adam’s Navel is an updated version of blazons and counterblazons, focusing largely (but not solely) on how the cultural history of the body reflects its natural history. Although I resist the kind of personification in which the blasonneurs indulged, I address our ambivalent regard for the vehicle—comic and tragic, divine and mundane—that carries our aspiring consciousness from cradle to grave. Our feelings about the body still range from laudatory to vituperative, as will be amply demonstrated when we zoom in for blazonlike close-ups and examine the many separate yet interdependent parts of the body. I like to think of them as the mutinous citizen describes them in Coriolanus:
I chose the route downward from the head to the feet for two reasons. First, it appealed to me as narrative, a journey rather than a system. Then I remembered that each human being actually develops in the same progression. In a newborn infant, the first feature of the freshly minted body to come under the baby’s control are the eye muscles. Gradually she achieves awareness of and control over the rest of her facial muscles and arrives at the popular milestone when deliberate smiling makes its appearance. Then the neck muscles come under her influence; her head no longer lolls to the side. Eventually the torso and trunk become part of the baby’s sense of herself. Uncontrolled arms and finally even the legs are recruited to serve with the rest of the body, changing from clumsy appendages and chew toys into precisely manipulated hands and carefully placed feet. Alas, many topics could not be included in this limited space. I omit, to name a few, teeth, breast augmentation, beards, weight gain and loss, the elbow and knee, and the huge topic of racism and skin color. During my journey down the body, however, certain landmarks demanded inclusion—the vigilant eye, for example. Often I realized that I was writing this book the way that I like to travel, by stopping wherever something piques my curiosity. My foray into the splendid weirdness of the human toes, or my ode to the eyebrows, I mean as examples of the black-hole density of the marvelous packed into even the humblest of topics. In both cultural and natural history, no part of the body lacks a story.
“There are one hundred and ninety-three living species of monkeys and apes,” wrote the English biologist Desmond Morris in his 1967 book The Naked Ape. “One hundred and ninety-two of them are covered with hair. The exception is a naked ape self-named Homo sapiens.” In reality the species that dubbed itself wise is not quite naked. Most of us have hair on every area of our bodies except our lips, our nipples, the palms of our hands and soles of our feet, and certain parts of the external genitalia. Much of it, however, is either fine or sparse or both. Compared with our furry cousins, we certainly look naked.
In their microscopic analysis of our every trait, evolutionary biologists have not ignored hair. A glance at any fellow mammal raises questions. For example, nowadays elephants are almost hairless. This is not a problem for them—nor, presumably, an embarrassment—because they live in the tropics. Like human beings, they experience no discomfort running around stark naked in such an environment. Some of their ancestors, however, were famously woolly and lived as far north as the Arctic. In 1871, in The Descent of Man, Darwin remarked that even Indian elephants native to cool altitudes have more hair than do their lowland Indian brethren. “May we then infer,” he asked, “that man became divested of hair from having aboriginally inhabited some tropic land?” As usual, Darwin immediately examined an objection to his own speculations. None of our fellow simians, most of which are fully as tropical as we, have lost their hair. Only humans emerge, as Desmond Morris would say, naked. One conjecture, mentioned in the Overture, is that we may have lost much of our hair in response to the evolution of sweat glands. Our relative hairlessness struck Darwin’s colleague, Alfred Russel Wallace, as an objection to the theory of natural selection. He insisted that, even if our tropical ancestors gradually became less hairy, still they ought to have reevolved a fur coat during the hominid diaspora to less temperate climes. For this reason, he concluded, “man’s naked skin could not have been produced by natural selection.” Wallace was always looking for some aspect of human evolution that might testify to a little divine nudging; finally he settled upon the brain’s complexity.
Darwin pointed out that in human beings the old mammalian body covering remains most dense “at the junction of all four limbs with the trunk,” and, at least in the male, on the chest and face. Before our ancestors evolved bipedalism and stood erect, all of those areas would have been sheltered from the sun. But another objection immediately came to mind: “The crown of the head, however, offers a curious exception, for at all times it must have been one of the most exposed parts, yet it is thickly clothed with hair.” Not only are we not hairless as adults, we were not even naked in the womb. Roughly four months after conception, the human fetus grows a mustache. Fine hair forms on the upper lip and eyebrows. Gradually, over the next few weeks, it covers the entire body, and by the end of the fifth month the unborn fetus is completely hairy. It will remain so for many weeks. Biologists call this coat of hair the lanugo, from a Latin word for down or wooliness. Usually, but not always, our lanuginose phase ends before birth. During the last few weeks of pregnancy, the baby swallows the shed lanugo. The tiny hairs join mucus and bile and other substances to form the meconium, the baby’s first bowel movement after birth.
Occasionally, like most other aspects of the human body, our genetic orders about hair provide the wrong instructions. This happens even with the lanugo. There is a rare genetic disorder called variously congenital hypertrichosis lanuginosa or hypertrichosis universalis congenita, which has been recorded in only about forty families, in places as far apart as Southeast Asia and Central America. Certain chromosomes malfunction, and individuals are born still covered with a longer version of the lanugo. One of the earliest recorded cases occurred in the Canary Islands in the mid-sixteenth century, when an infant named Petrus Gonsales (or Gonsalvus) was born with his entire body covered in long, soft hair. Rosamond Purcell describes the situation in her book Special Cases: Natural Anomalies and Historical Monsters: Gonsales “was placed with a kind of muted awe into the upper echelon of Renaissance society . . . an object of social fascination, a cultivated man who was somehow not a man.” He married a pretty Dutchwoman. Unfortunately their furry children resembled the father more than the mother. Various artists portrayed the werewolfishly hirsute Gonsales and his normal-looking wife, sometimes alongside their hairy-faced daughters. In these works the family is arrayed in court finery, their human eyes peering calmly from monster-movie faces. Even a glance at these portraits suggests that they inspired Jean Marais’s elaborate Beast makeup in Cocteau’s 1946 film La Belle et la Bête. Apparently it was a variation on hypertrichosis that afflicted Julia Pastrana, a member of the so-called Root-Digger Indians of western Mexico. Anticipating the Elephant Man, she became a celebrated plaything of American and European society in the mid-1800s. In the case of Pastrana, neither serious medical commentators nor sideshow promoters could resist expressing the titillating frisson of horror they felt at the sight of a human being—especially a woman—entirely covered in hair.
Hairiness has always been a bestial symbol of nature gone wild. Ambroise Paré, a sixteenth-century physician, recorded in his book On Monsters and Marvels a child who was born “furry as a bear” because her mother was gazing upon a picture of a hairy man at the moment of conception. In the ancient Babylonian epic Sha Naqba Imuru (He Who Saw the Deep), the warrior king Gilgamesh terrorizes the people of Uruk. In time the goddess Aruru hears the citizens’ prayers for rescue. From a pinch of clay she makes Enkidu, a rival whose job it will be to make Gilgamesh pick on someone his own size, thus distracting him from tormenting the ordinary mortals. Naturally the two brainless lugs become pals. The wild nature of Enkidu, who is raised by animals, is visible; he is “coated in hair like the god of the animals.”
From the semiotics of rock music to the enduring popularity of the fable about Beauty and the Beast, the symbolic relationship between hair and our impure nature persists to this day. One of the items found in the luggage of Mohammed Atta, a leader of the Al Qaeda terrorists who crashed planes into the World Trade Center on 11 September 2001, was a four-page document with instructions for the last evening before the attack. Alongside an admonition to make an oath to die was a reminder to “shave excess hair from the body.” Bestial impurities, we imagine, can be shed along with bestial signifiers.
Our blatant kinship with other animals makes us nervous. Declaring ourselves half angel, we fear that we are also half beast. It does not help that, like wolves and mice and camels, we are inescapably hairy. Mammals have different kinds of hair on different parts of the body, and we are no exception. Most of us were born without hair except on the scalp, eyebrows, and eyelashes. This differs from body hair. The fine downy hair that infants develop soon after birth is called vellus. At puberty and afterward, the body replaces vellus with the pigmented, coarser body hair called terminal hair. Puberty has little effect on the hair of the scalp, lashes, and brows, but those areas, as we all know, tend to show age dramatically later in life. (Because this book is a tour of the body by region rather than by theme, we will address the unique aspects of pubic hair in Chapter 11.)
The November 1941 issue of Life magazine applauded the striking hairstyle of a young actress named Veronica Lake. In his enthusiasm the author of the article went into microscopic detail: “Miss Lake has some 150,000 hairs on her head, each measuring about .0024 inches in cross-section.” He then measured the various parts of Lake’s now legendary peekaboo hairstyle and added the memorable detail that “her hair catches fire fairly often when she is smoking.” The allure of Veronica Lake’s hair was not in its quantity or diameter; the quoted number of hairs and their width are perfectly normal. Although figures vary slightly between brunettes, redheads, and blondes, each of us carries around an average of 5 million hairs, with roughly 100,000 to 150,000 of them located on the head. Yet hair frequently plays a role in such hyperbole. In The Second Sex, while denouncing the artificiality and idealization in standard notions of femininity, Simone de Beauvoir observes slyly of Rémy de Gourmont, the versatile French man of letters and Symbolist missionary, that he “wanted woman to wear her hair down, rippling free as brooks and prairie grasses; but it would be on Veronica Lake’s hair-do and not on an unkempt mop really left to nature that one could caress the undulations of water and grain fields.”
Not all mammals are completely covered with hair when fully grown. Adult whales have only a few bristles near the mouth or even lack hair entirely. As long as it remains dry, hair traps air, but in water it would be worse than useless. Therefore most aquatic mammals gradually evolved to their current hairless state and replaced the external wrap with a subcutaneous layer of insulating fat. But even aquatic mammals possess hair as embryos. Surprisingly, it was not hairiness that the Swedish systematist Linnaeus chose as the defining characteristic of the order to which he himself belonged; mammals are so named because of their milk-producing glands.
Like fingernails and skin itself—and, for that matter, like feathers and horn—hair consists largely of the protein keratin. This strong material is the primary ingredient in the horn of the rhinoceros—the reputed aphrodisiacal properties of which, possibly because of the presence of luteotrophic hormone, have endangered the creature. In fact, the word keratin comes from the Greek keras, “horn.” It is a complex substance that resists the enzymes that usually dissolve proteins, a trait that also explains the clogged drains that afflict sinks and bathtubs: Keratin is insoluble in water. This resilience explains why exhumed human bodies often have no internal organs left, while the hair and much of the skin remain. Many people believe that hair continues to grow after death, but actually rigor mortis contracts the erector pili, the diminutive muscles that make hair stand on end—a holdover from ancestors in which such a sign indicated fear or anger—and the hair becomes more prominent. This reaction unites with the shrinking of decaying flesh to give the appearance of still-growing hair.
Hair grows from a mass of epidermal cells that lie, as if at the bottom of a well, in the cylindrical depression of the follicle. The follicle extends from the surface down into the dermis and sometimes even into subcutaneous layers. In the dermis, at the base of the follicle, connective tissues transmit blood to nourish the hair’s growth. As the cells divide at the bottom of the follicle, they are channeled upward, acquiring pigment and becoming keratinized along the way. Downy hairs may last only a few months. Each follicle of terminal hair continues to produce for at least a couple of years and sometimes as long as six, but only the growing cells at the base remain alive. The rest of the cells are as inert as the outer edge of fingernails. When the breathless Life reporter stared at Veronica Lake’s hair, he was looking, as we are looking every time we glance in a mirror, at a mass of long-dead protein.
For a dead substance, hair is very much alive in religion, the arts, and everyday life. It is important across a spectrum of religious symbolism. Long, unbound hair represents penitence in some Christian iconography. During the christening ceremony, Greek Orthodox priests bestow upon a baby the sign of the cross by cutting its hair in three places. Many Hindu deities wear a sikha, a braided topknot. Representations of Brahma always include his towering braids. Although ornately coiffed on the feminine side, the hermaphroditic Ardhanarisvara wears the piled braids of an ascetic on the masculine side. Even Ganesha, the elephant-headed minority leader of the Hindu pantheon, wears the braids atop his vast noggin.
One of the sillier records of military herdthink—although described within the fold as a noble expression of esprit de corps—is a photograph of at least a couple of dozen U.S. paratroopers in France in 1945. Looking like extras in The Last of the Mohicans, all wear Mohawk haircuts. When Fidel Castro was leading a guerrilla war against the Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista in the late 1950s, his followers vowed to neither cut their hair nor shave until they had achieved their goal. By contrast, in the West African nation of Mali, the elaborate coiffures of traditional Songhai women exhibit a sense of history. They recall the heritage of the fabled Songhai Empire, which flourished in the Niger Valley of the Sudan until the Moors destroyed it in the late sixteenth century. On special occasions married Songhai women wear on their foreheads the zoumbo, a circular disc of hair and wool that dates back to the days of the empire. Wodaabe women wear a similar large topknot bunched over the forehead and shave their hairlines to make their faces seem longer. Muslim Fulanis denounce this ornamentation because it inhibits women from praying in the prescribed Islamic manner—by prostrating oneself and touching the forehead to the earth.
Modifications of the hairline are common. The American actress Rita Hayworth underwent electrolysis to raise her hairline. She suffered through numerous painful treatments at the insistence of her husband, who argued that her natural hairline revealed too little of her forehead and diminished the visual impact of her eyes. Photographs of Hayworth before the procedure reveal a beautiful young woman in no way disfigured by not conforming to a trendy ideal. Because men’s hairlines naturally recede over the years, shaving them is a routine method of making an actor look aged. When he died in an automobile accident in 1955, James Dean looked decades older than he really was because his hairline had been shaved to age him for the final scenes of Giant. (Among the more gruesome celebrity mementos on record—although not quite rivaling Napoleon’s penis—are locks of James Dean’s bloodstained hair, cut that evening after the accident.)
Obviously human hair is more than a covering. Our busy little brains are not about to permit it to remain mere fur. Hair is symbolic of many things, and symbolic for many reasons. It is also a great source of visual, tactile, and olfactory pleasure for both its owner and observers. Besides symbolism growing out of the biology of hair, geographical differences in Homo sapiens—the minor variations, originally local and the result of isolated evolution—have evolved several distinct kinds of human hair: the straighter, darker hair adorning those of Asian or Polynesian descent; the many versions of blonde, brunette, and redhead among Caucasian groups; and the usually dark, more tightly curled hair resulting from African ancestry. Each culture has responded to its own hair and to those whose hair differs.
Often, too, scent is omitted when hair is discussed. Why? Is it too intimate a topic? Surely most of us have hugged a child and smelled tousled hair and been flooded with tenderness. Most people have leaned into a lover’s hair and inhaled the very breath of intimacy. The American writer Sandra Cisneros nostalgically expresses how much that hair can represent and convey—how much more it is than mere strands of dead protein— in two sentences from the linked stories in her collection The House on Mango Street. But my mother’s hair, my mother’s hair, like little rosettes, like little candy circles all curly and pretty because she pinned it in little pincurls all day, sweet to put your nose into when she is holding you, holding you and you feel safe, is the warm smell of bread before you bake it, is the smell when she makes a little room for you on her side of the bed still warm with her skin, and you sleep near her, the rain outside falling and Papa snoring. The snoring, the rain, and Mama’s hair that smells like bread.
Like other primates, we groom ourselves and each other. Inevitably the human imagination has run wild with this natural habit. One medieval belief apparently traces to the sparks of static electricity created when we comb our hair. Witches, and sometimes women in general, were thought to influence storms, to create lightning and even hail by combing their hair. Some ancient Romans, convinced that untimely haircuts inspired such atmospheric turmoil, waited until storms were actually in progress before flocking to the barber. Cutting hair at the wrong time of the moon, at a bad time of day, in March, on Sunday—all have been prohibited.
Witches could increase the power of a spell merely by shaking their hair during its incantation. Fortunately for the victim, however, the power of hair could work both ways. People who thought themselves bewitched could throw some of their own hair into a fire to afflict the witch with the pain of the flames. Another superstition claimed that the brighter the hair burned when thrown into a fire, the longer its owner would live. In India the Bhils once defused the magical powers of suspected witches by clipping a lock of their hair and burying it. The Tiwi, who live on Bathurst Island north of Australia, believe that the recently dead are lonely and desire to take their survivors to the grave with them. Knowing that they are in pukimani (spiritual danger), the survivors disguise themselves by painting their bodies and cutting off and burning their hair. A superstition in Germany led people to carry a bag of straight hair on the abdomen for three days to learn if they were the victims of spells. If the hair did not become tangled during this time, they considered themselves free of magical problems.
In his 1946 volume Witchcraft and Black Magic, Montague Summers describes the murder of Nelson Rehmeyer, in Pennsylvania in 1929. Locally considered a practitioner of black magic, Rehmeyer was thought to have placed a hex on the Hess family. Informed that the only efficient way to battle a hex is with a countercharm, several men set out to procure the requisite lock of Rehmeyer’s hair. Unfortunately he was reluctant to part with it, and in the ensuing struggle he was killed.
Other reasons for keeping hair clippings have arisen. “It is held by the lower orders,” wrote an observer in Dublin in the 1860s, “. . . that human hair should never be burned, but should be buried, it being stated in explanation that at the resurrection the former owner of the hair will come to seek for it.” James Frazer, the Scottish anthropologist, described in his huge compilation The Golden Bough the beliefs of old women in an Irish village “who, having ascertained from Scripture that the hairs of their heads were all numbered by the Almighty, expected to have to account for them at the day of judgement. In order to be able to do so they stuffed the severed hair away in the thatch of their cottages.”
Historians consider a fifth-century-b.c.e. Zoroastrian liturgy entitled the Vendidad the source of many surviving Eastern notions about the magical power of hair. In it, Ahura Mazda, the supreme creative deity of Zoroastrianism, instructs Zarathustra in the proper disposal of bodily artifacts. The god tells him to transport both nail parings and hair clippings at least ten paces away from the faithful, twenty from fire, thirty from water, and fifty from the bundles of holy twigs called baresma. “Then,” he adds with Monty Python precision, thou shalt dig a hole, ten fingers deep if the earth is hard, twelve fingers deep if it is soft; thou shalt take thy hair down there and thou shalt say aloud these fiend- smiting words: “Out of his pity Mazda made plants grow.” Thereupon thou shalt draw three furrows with a knife of metal around the hole, or six, or nine, and thou shalt chant the Ahuna Vairya three times, or six, or nine.
The Ahuna Vairya was the most frequently uttered Zoroastrian prayer, roughly equivalent to the Lord’s Prayer in Christianity. Fingernail clippings required separate rituals. Both hair and nails, united with that other potent bodily product, blood, were used by the ancient Egyptians in a potion that supposedly rendered a victim powerless to resist the magician’s influence. And, in one poignant ritual, Egyptian widows buried a lock of their hair with their husband’s body, presumably as a vow of continuing devotion in the afterlife.
First an angel appears before Manoah’s wife and declares, “Behold now, thou art barren, and bearest not: but thou shalt conceive, and bear a son.” He then lists some prenatal guidelines. The future mother is to avoid unclean foods. Like mothers nowadays, she is advised to abstain from alcohol. And the angel points out that after the son’s birth, “no razor shall come on his head: for the child shall be a Nazirite unto God from the womb.” We never learn the name of Samson’s mother.
The Nazirites were a sect apart. They took their name from the Hebrew word nazir, which meant “consecrated” or “dedicated,” and they vowed abstinence and separation as proof of their devotion to the service of God. Most chose the role themselves; few were saddled with it from birth by an angel. Being a Nazirite was also usually a temporary role, lasting sometimes for as brief a period as thirty days. Only three biblical characters are on record as lifelong Nazirites—John the Baptist, the judge and prophet Samuel, and Samson.
There were other restrictions besides the angel’s list. For one thing, it wasn’t only the mother who was to be a teetotaler. In the Book of Numbers, speaking through Moses, God warns those contemplating the honor and burden of becoming a Nazirite that they must abstain not only from wine but from all grape products. The most visible declaration of faith was the Nazirites’ hairiness, and therein lies the story of Samson. Because he is a consecrated Nazirite, Samson misses a family milestone, the first haircut. There are no doting parents watching when, as an adult, he unwittingly receives his first trim.
In the King James Version of the Bible, the verse (Numbers 6:5) referring to Samson’s hair is straightforward:
Because Samson is a homicidal buffoon who rejects all of the vows into which he was born, some scholars maintain that he could not possibly have been a true Nazirite. The one vow he keeps is allowing his hair to grow untrimmed. Apparently Samson regards this external symbol as his one inescapable covenant—and, because God provides him with supernatural strength no matter how ungodly his behavior, he must be correct.
Although the Legion of Decency denounced DeMille for “portraying Samson and Delilah as a morally corrupt couple yet billing it as a religious film,” in this aspect he was remaining true to his source. The biblical pair hardly exemplify family values. In the film Samson spurns Delilah for what the rouged and lipsticked Philistine dismisses as a “milk- faced Danite lily,” and she vows revenge. Later she employs all her siren’s wiles to draw from Samson the secret of his extraordinary strength.
“Is it some herb you mix in your food,” she purrs, “or some charmed oil you rub into your body?”
Three times she begs him; three times he lies. Finally he explains that his strength comes from God, the idol-less deity that the Philistines dismiss as an “invisible” god. Samson obliquely declares that the lion’s and the stallion’s manes are the symbol of their power, like the wool of the ram and the eagle’s two “prime feathers.”
Delilah finally gets the point and touches his hair. “This is the mark of your power. If it were shorn from your head—”
To find out if he is finally telling her the truth, Delilah drugs Samson’s drink, and soon he is unconscious. She trims his locks with his own knife. (In the biblical version Delilah “called for a man, and she caused him to shave off the seven locks of his head.”) It is the tonsorial equivalent of throwing kryptonite at Superman. When Samson awakens with a crew cut, he is unable to resist the waiting Philistines. In despair he cries out, “Throw your spears! The shield of my god is gone from me.” Instead of killing him, the soldiers blind him with a red-hot sword.
Throughout the film Samson’s hair has been growing ever longer. However, apparently neither womanizing nor killing multitudes with an ass’s jawbone keeps him from shaving; he grows the beard that was required of him as a Nazirite only after he is blind and bound to a mill wheel. We know that Samson is blind because Mature keeps his eyes closed to reveal dark eye shadow. And, as he trudges in his sightless circle day after day, mocked by onlookers, his hair slowly lengthens. The movie finally returns to the point of the story: Samson discovers that his strength is returning with his hair. He doesn’t reveal this new development until the fateful day when he is led to the pagan temple to provide sport for the Philistines. There, under their towering idol of Dagon, he wreaks his vengeance. The walls come tumbling down upon the film’s numerous villains, and upon Delilah and the wayward Nazirite himself.
By the tribal logic of the Bible, with this mass homicide and his own suicide Samson is redeemed in the eyes of the Lord. In the film’s coda, the still milk-faced Miriam says of Samson, “Men will tell his story for a thousand years.” She underestimated. By the time Cecil B. DeMille got around to exploiting the story of Samson, it had been at least three thousand years since the first stirrings of the Hercules-like legend among the Hebrews. To this day it is the best-known fable about hair.
The Ras in Rastafarian is a title meaning “prince.” Born in Ethiopia in 1892, Lij Tafari Makonnen became Haile Selassie upon his coronation as emperor in 1930. Only the year before, Marcus Garvey, the head of the Universal Negro Improvement Association, had predicted that soon a leader would arise in Ethiopia. With one of Africa’s longest recorded histories, Ethiopia claims that its government traces all the way back to King Menelik I, who ruled in the eleventh century b.c.e. and who supposedly was the son of Sheba and Solomon. Believers consider Ras Tafari to have been a lineal descendant of this colorful pair. Such a genealogy would be a fulfillment of the Old Testament promise that, in due course, a Redeemer would arise from the House of David. Rastafarians have an ambivalent relationship with the Bible. For example, they consider the story of the Hebrews’ years of slavery to be the deliberately corrupted and misrepresented history of the black races, but they find in the Nazirite tradition the divine rationale for dreadlocks. Few hairstyles are as dramatic. Although they are no longer as politically charged as when they first appeared, the long, wild-looking locks are still regarded by many as a symbol of political unity and ethnic pride. Like Christianity, Rastafarianism grew out of the dreams of an oppressed people. It promised deliverance, in the form of a millennarian repatriation to “Zion” (Ethiopia); authorized the use of ganja (marijuana) as a sacramental tool of enlightenment; and offered the possibility of a group identity, not least with its signature hairstyle.
Dreadlocks were not native to Jamaica. The Rastas imported the style. In Kenya in the early 1950s, many local whites resisted the dissolution of the old British colonial government. The native Kikuyu responded with a guerrilla insurrection, the so-called Mau Mau uprising. Photographs of the Land and Freedom Army soldiers, showing their long, matted hair, were widely disseminated, including in the Rasta organ African Opinion. Jamaicans had been similarly oppressed by colonialism, from the time that Christopher Columbus “discovered” the island in 1494 until independence in 1962. Their new public identification with African origins alarmed the authorities. The Rastas adopted the dramatic African hairstyle as a badge of rebellion. In Jamaica at the time, as elsewhere, many parents of African descent admonished their children to deemphasize their ethnicity by straightening or otherwise processing their hair. Some youngsters who failed to do so were denounced by their parents as “natty head pickney.” Mulatto children were considered fortunate if they were born with straight—sometimes actually called “good”—hair. Because of the uneasiness it inspired in political opponents, their hairstyle was named dread- (for “fear”) locks. After the Rastas adopted dreadlocks as an official symbol of political solidarity, a new term entered the patois of the resistance—“Natty Dread.”
As usual, the symbolic power of hair was recognized by both its wearers and their enemies. In Jamaica in the late 1960s, when the police arrested Rastafarians, they symbolically tamed them by snipping off their wild hair. Although hoodlums and others also adopted the style, blurring the symbol’s political and religious significance, the popularity of dreadlocks continued to rise. The style became associated with the burgeoning black-consciousness movement of the 1970s. But it was widely recognized and accepted only after it was adopted by reggae musicians such as Bob Marley. By the early seventies, some believers were dubbing those who did not wear the style “baldheads.” In time the term referred to any nonbeliever who rejected the teachings of Ras Tafari.
Like most religious ideas, the Rastafarian emphasis on long hair is subject to individual interpretation. In the early 1980s, David Hinds, head of Britain’s pioneer reggae band Steel Pulse, wore a bowler hat onstage. When his hair began to acquire the shape of his headgear, he decided to grow it straight up. In time the trunk of hair rising up from his scalp sprouted dreadlocks around its base like roots. This tonsorial topiary attracted a lot of attention, but Hinds insisted that it was not merely a publicity gimmick. “My hair,” he said, “is an expression of my devotion to the Rastafarian faith. . . . My hair is religious, cultural, not fashionable.”
Soon after they were popularized by reggae musicians, dreadlocks were no longer limited to Rastas or even to blacks. Whites in the public eye began to adopt the style. In 1982 the trendy London salon Antenna announced the introduction of “bobtails, or white dreadlocks.” Boy George of the band Culture Club wore a version of dreadlocks for a while. In the early 1980s, he explained to a reporter from a music magazine why he wore the discordant combination of Rastafarian hair and a Star of David. “I’m not at all religious,” he said; “I think the dreadlocks look good and the star is a nice symbol. . . . Basically, I wear it to annoy people.” Boy George certainly annoyed some people, more for his androgyny than for his hairstyle, but he also influenced people.
For the bandwagon followers as for the Jamaicans, there was also a practical aspect to the hairdo. As the owner of Antenna proclaimed, “Now the taboo of not combing one’s hair and washing it every other day has been thrown strongly out of the window.” Nowadays dreadlocks are relatively common among both women and men of African descent, and not a rare sight among white men and women in various countries far from the style’s origins.
The Rastafarians were not the only ones to react against the practice of torturously disguising one’s natural curls. In Alex Haley’s “autobiography” of him, Malcolm X told the story of a haircut that he later regarded as a milestone in his life. It took place years before he became a Muslim and acquired the name el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz. In Boston in the early 1940s, fresh from Omaha, Nebraska, he was still known as Malcolm Little. After arranging for him to be fitted for a zoot suit, a friend gave young Malcolm his first “conk.”
To avoid the cost of a barber, Malcolm gathered materials himself—eggs, potatoes, soap, a rubber hose with a sprayer, rubber gloves and apron, a jar of petroleum jelly, and a can of lye. A clerk at a drugstore knew the routine so well that he asked, “Going to lay on that first conk?” Malcolm grinned and proudly replied, “Right!” He didn’t grin during the actual procedure. Mixed together in a quart jar, the ingredients formed a yellowish, jellylike “glop.” Thanks to the lye, the jar felt hot to the touch. A friend of Malcolm’s warned him that the compound burned the scalp and added, “But the longer you can stand it, the straighter the hair.” The pain turned out to be excruciating. Malcolm emerged with his original color undiminished but its natural texture replaced by “this thick, smooth sheen of shining red hair . . . as straight as any white man’s.”
In this context the term conk is probably an altered version of congolese, a name for a hair-straightening compound produced from copal (resin) from trees in the Congo. In the United States during the 1920s, it became a popular method for straightening hair so that it would look less “Negro” and thus more acceptable to white society. Years later, Malcolm X said of his first conk, “This was my first really big step toward self- degradation: when I endured all of that pain, literally burning my flesh with lye, in order to cook my natural hair until it was limp, to have it look like a white man’s hair.” After becoming a Muslim, he rejected the style and wore his hair closely cropped. Frequently he denounced the popularity of conks and also of such humiliations as blond wigs on black women. Malcolm admired performers like Sidney Poitier and Lionel Hampton because they wore their natural hair. Many others succumbed to the fashion and wore conks—not least among them a wild and original performer named Richard Penniman, better known as Little Richard. In time, as the Afro and other hairstyles became expressions of pride during the later 1960s, the conk was considered a regressive curtsey to white society. Eventually it faded away. Many black women, however, still straighten their hair, including influential figures such as model Naomi Campbell and actress Halle Berry.
Like Samson’s trim at the hands of Delilah, like the Rastafarian version of the Nazirite legacy, both Malcolm X’s first conk and his later rejection of the style prove a remark by the Spanish novelist Julio Cortázar: “A haircut is a metaphysical operation.”
The American ecologist Aldo Leopold once wrote that pine trees earn the reputation of being “evergreen” by exploiting the illusion that governments employ—overlapping terms of office. Evergreen plants lose their needles slowly, dropping dead ones as new growth emerges. This way they avoid the naked phase of their deciduous neighbors. The human head knows the same trick; if we did not constantly grow new hairs to replace those falling out, we would all be bald. The term deciduous refers to a falling off during a certain stage of growth, and on occasion it is applied to antlers or even to the wings of insects. Perhaps we ought to apply it to ourselves. Like cats and dogs and pine trees, we shed. We lose an average of fifty to one hundred hairs every day, the normal rate of deciduousness increased by such activities as combing. It is interesting to imagine what myths would have evolved about hair if we shared a trait common to many of our fellow mammals—hair that grows in synchronous cycles. We would shed a great deal of it at once in periodic molts.
Occasionally we leave our shed hairs in inconvenient places. Traditionally a suspicious hair on an unfaithful spouse’s clothing can be as damning as lipstick on a collar. Criminals have been convicted on the evidence of hair found at the scene of a crime, especially with the growing accuracy of DNA testing. In the 1992 edition of her Etiquette, no less an authority than Emily Post advises on the proper response when encountering a stray hair. Immediately after admitting that there is no rule for choking on a bone and even advising that during the crisis one might forgo etiquette, Post provides guidelines for anyone encountering foreign objects in food. Ideally, one should remove the object and continue eating. “If,” however, “it is such that it upsets your stomach (as a hair does to many people), leave the dish untouched rather than embarrass your hostess in a private home.” And she reassures us that, in a restaurant, it is appropriate to discreetly inform the server. From etiquette to “bad hair days,” the ancient symbol of nature’s power has been reduced to social trivia exemplifying our tamed new view of ourselves.
Neanderthals Yawned · The Mystery of the Visible
Part One: Headquarters
1. The Not-Quite-Naked Ape
3. The Vigilant Eye
4. Houdini's Wiggle
5. A Ridiculous Organ
6. The Archaic Smile
Part Two: The Weight of the World
7. Arms and the Man
8. The Monkey's Paw
9. Madonna del Latte
10. Adam's Navel
Part Three: A Leg to Stand on
11. Privy Members
12. Our Steed the Leg
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