What hairstyles did the ancient Egyptians maintain?
“But if a woman have long hair, it is a glory to her: for her hair is given her for a covering.”
“All the days of the vow of his separation there shall no razor come upon his head: until the days be fulfilled, in the which he separateth himself unto the LORD, he shall be holy, and shall let the locks of the hair of his head grow.”
So go the Bible verses from 1 Corinthians 11:15 and Numbers 6:5, respectively. With regard to the latter verse, the statement is a promise given by God to his servant/prophet Moses, the Biblical patriarch and lawgiver who in the Book of Exodus was instructed by God to embark on the venture of freeing the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. Now, regardless of whether one believes Moses to be a legendary figure or actual figure in history, the key takeaway from those verses is that a significant value was placed on one’s hair.
It’s interesting to know that the ancient Israelites weren’t the only ones that attached spiritual and social undertones to hair. One such ancient civilization that viewed hair with great reverence was ancient Egypt.
We often see ancient Egyptian artworks depicting people, especially men, with clean shaved heads or eyebrows. But have you ever wondered why the ancient Egyptians, unlike the Israelites, chose to be clean shaven?
In the article below, World History Edu explores some of the reasons why ancient Egyptians shaved their hair.
Note: Please keep in mind that ancient Egypt encompassed a rich and varied culture that evolved over thousands of years. Therefore, it cannot be overemphasized that some of the reasons we give would probably apply to a particular period of ancient Egypt.
Cleanliness, they say is next to Godliness
It’s almost always the case that every religion in world history advocates for their practitioners to be clean both on the inside and the outside. Being clean was one sure way of drawing close to the divine.
And if there was any ancient civilization in world history that desired nothing more than to be in tune with their gods that civilization had to be the ancient Egyptians.
Therefore, it is not improbable that the ancient Egyptians shaved their heads because it helped keep them free from lice. According to the famed Greek historian Herodotus, ancient Egyptians, especially those from the upper class, had the habit of bathing more than once a day.
READ MORE: List of ancient Egyptian gods and goddesses
Egypt’s hot climate
It probably did not take too long for the first ancient Egyptian settlers to figure out that having a clean shaved head did the world of good in the hot climate they found themselves in. Sure, living along the Nile River gave them some bit of respite from the harsh weather condition; but there is no doubt whatsoever that being clean shaven kept them cool.
The full-body shave requirement for priests and priestesses
Considering the fact that ancient Egyptians absolutely loved and feared the numerous gods and goddesses in the pantheon, priests in the land were extremely powerful. Next to the pharaoh, ancient Egyptian priests were almost like the mouthpieces of the gods. As a result, you would only defy them if you wanted to your soul to be consumed by the fierce underworld creature Ammit. Just ask Pharaoh Akhenaten (also known as Amenhotep IV) how much hit his name and legacy took when he decided to go against the very powerful priests in Thebes. Long story short, Akhenaten was declared a heretic, and considerable effort was spent by his successors (obviously in alliance with the priests of Amun) trying to remove his name from the history books.
So, now that we know just how powerful priests were in ancient Egypt as well as just how important their jobs were, let’s now explore the entry requirement for priests.
For starters, ancient Egyptian priests were required to frequently shave off all the hair on their bodies. As stated above, it was believed that being clean shaven symbolized cleanliness. Therefore, before a priest carried out a religious ritual, he/she had to be clean shaven.
It was believed that hair could harbor impurities or negative energy, so removing it was a way to purify oneself for religious ceremonies and rites.
So, what about ancient Egyptian women? Did they also shave their heads?
Remember how we said in the earlier point that being clean shaven symbolized cleanliness, which in turn was a trait liked by the ancient Egyptian deities? Like many other ancient civilizations, ancient Egypt did not so much distinguish between political power from religious power. The pharaoh was the head of
both the political and religious institutions in ancient Egypt. And after the pharaoh were members of the upper class – like the priests, scribes, architects and other artisans. As members of the upper class wielded both political and religious power, it comes as no surprise that they were the ones who frequently shaved their hairs.
Therefore, not everyone shaved their hair. It kind of depended on one’s gender, social class and age. Speaking of gender, women, for example, did not shave their head as often as men. It was very much common for women in ancient Egypt to have long hair, with young girls preferring to have some kind of ponytail style. When it came to children, their hair was shaved leaving just a single lock (i.e. the “Lock of Youth”) on the right-hand side. As for slaves, it was very unlikely for them to have a shaven head.
Also, it has been opined by some scholars and Egyptologists that women’s locks in ancient Egypt were closely tied to fertility.
The use of wigs and extensions
Wealthy Egyptians often shaved their heads and wore wigs made of human hair or more elaborate headdresses, demonstrating their social standing and affluence. Wigs allowed them to change hairstyles frequently and maintain a fashionable appearance. Women of high status typically had long hair beneath the wigs.
A time of mourning
Shaving one’s hair was also a common practice during periods of mourning in ancient Egypt. It was a visible expression of grief and a way to honor the deceased. Once the hair grew back, it’s said that the person was no longer in mourning.
Barbers in ancient Egypt
Yes, and the extremely wealthy people in the society, much like today, could afford to have their own personal barber. In some cases, the barber was brought in to live in the home of the wealthy person.
The average Joe in ancient Egypt, however, had to go to barber on some corner of the street.
Barbers in ancient Egypt used a number of shaving items, including razors, sharp stones, and waxing solutions. The latter was said to have been made of ingredients such as oil, gum, and crushed bones.
The role of the barber held significant importance in ancient Egypt due to the emphasis placed on hair removal by the Egyptians.
Evolution of hairstyles in ancient Egypt
Ancient Egyptian culture held hair in very high regard as it represented one’s individuality. It conveyed religious and sensual connotations, while also conveying details about one’s gender, age, and social standing.
In the New Kingdom era, hairstyles became increasingly elaborate for both men and women, with the inclusion of intricate curls and braids, departing from the simpler styles prevalent in the Old and Middle Kingdoms.
Some scholars have observed that during the Amarna period, ancient Egyptians developed a fascination with Nubian wigs, which aimed to replicate the distinctive short and curly hair traditionally worn by Nubian tribes. Egyptologists hypothesize that Queen Nefertiti adopted the Nubian wig style after encountering it among the Nubians in the Pharaoh’s army.
Note: Marked by the reign of Amenhotep IV (also known as Akhenaten), the Amarna period refers to the later half of the Eighteenth Dynasty when the royal residence of the pharaoh and his queen was moved from Thebes to Akhetaten (‘Horizon of the Aten’) in what is now Amarna. Amenhotep IV, who changed his name to Akhenaten, made all those changes to reflect massive religious reforms he pursued – i.e. change of Egypt’s polytheistic religion into one where the sun disc Aten was worshipped over all other gods.
Questions and answers
The higher the social status of an ancient Egyptian, the more intricate and elaborate their clothing, hairstyle, and wigs became. And sitting at the pinnacle of the social hierarchy were the Egyptian pharaohs, who were regarded as living deities embodying the divine authority to govern over the land.
Here are more facts about how important hair was for ancient Egyptians:
Why did ancient Egyptians shave off their eyebrows?
The exact reasons behind the practice of ancient Egyptians shaving off their eyebrows are not fully understood, as there is limited direct evidence or explicit explanations from that time. However, there are several theories and interpretations based on historical evidence and cultural context.
One theory suggests that Egyptians removed their eyebrows as a sign of mourning. Egyptians placed great importance on mourning and rituals associated with death. It is believed that removing eyebrows could have been a way to visually express grief or signify mourning for the loss of a loved one.
Another hypothesis suggests that Egyptians shaved their eyebrows for aesthetic purposes. Ancient Egyptian art and depictions often featured individuals with high, well-defined brows. By removing their natural eyebrows, Egyptians could create a blank canvas to draw more precise and stylized brows that were considered aesthetically pleasing.
Additionally, practical reasons have been proposed. Egyptians lived in a hot climate, and it is possible that removing eyebrows helped prevent sweat from collecting and running into their eyes. This could have been advantageous in a practical sense, particularly for those engaged in physical activities or working under the scorching sun.
Why did wealthy ancient Egyptians wear wigs?
The use of wigs by royal members and upper class was meant to demonstrate their authority and ability to exert control over individuals for their own personal interests.
Why did ancient Egyptian pharaohs wear false beards?
The beard that ancient Egyptian pharaohs wore are called false beard. The term for them are “osirids”, a word that obviously stems from the ancient Egyptian god Osiris, the deity of vegetation, rebirth and afterlife. It’s important to note that Egyptian pharaohs were believed by their people as the human embodiment of the gods, often times the falcon-headed god Horus. And upon death, the Egyptian ruler was believed to enter the afterlife and become Osiris.
Crafted from materials such as gold or silver, the false beard (i.e. postiche) symbolized the pharaohs dominion and power in the land. It, along with ancient Egyptian symbols such as the ankh (i.e. symbol of life) and the crook and flail, were known symbols that the pharaoh used.
These false beards were typically worn during festive occasions and grand gatherings. While the pharaoh was alive, the beard was straight, but upon their death, it was transformed into a curly style. Again, this transition symbolized the pharaoh’s elevation to a divine status – i.e. the god Osiris.
The false beard, contrary to its name, resembled more of a goatee rather than a full beard. Positioned on the chin, it was affixed to the ears to secure it in place.
Basically, false beard used by the pharaoh is testament to the immense significance placed on hair in ancient Egyptian culture.
Did you know…?
Famous Egyptian female pharaoh Hatshepsut had herself portrayed in artworks as a man, with a male body and false beard.
READ MORE: Greatest Achievements of Queen Hatshepsut
It’s important to note that these theories are not definitive explanations but rather educated interpretations based on available evidence and cultural knowledge. The true reasons behind ancient Egyptians shaving their hair and eyebrows may have varied among individuals and changed over time.