Those of us graced with the mutated MC1R are given more than pale skin, freckles and varying shades of red hair. We also get the grief that comes with the stereotypes surrounding and attitudes towards us. Apparently, we redheads have tempers as fiery as our hair, are dynamite in the sack. In others, we inspire lust, and we also inspire dislike.
As a child, I was been bullied for my hair colour. I was called original names like carrot-top or matchstick, and on two separate occasions, my bullies went at my hair with scissors, and also stuck a chunk of glue in my hair. As an adult woman, I’ve had an old man stop me multiple times as if to ask for directions, only to instead ask, “Is it true what they say about redheads?”, before laughing and leering at me; I’ve had teenage girls on the street shout out, “Ginger!” – as hearing the colour of my hair would offend me, and similarly had men in a car driving past shout out, “Ginga!”
Where do the stereotypes and dislike come from? In her book The Roots of Desire: The Myth, Meaning and Sexual Power of Red Hair (Bloomsbury USA, 2005), which looks into science behind red hair and roles of redheads throughout history, fellow redhead Marion Roach gives us many examples, from art, to mythology, to theatre, to religion, and many other historical sources. But what I find most interesting about what Roach discovered is the root in superstitious fears of the past.
“A strong belief persists that [redheads are possessed of the devil],” she writes. “I had heard it all my life. ‘All redheads are witches.’ It is something redheads are told and retell to others, and while it is evidenced, even slightly, in the association with pixies and their otherworldly talents, the power of this belief suggests that it must have a more primal and ancient source.” (p59)
In Part One: Sinners, Roach looks at how redheads were treated during the American witch hunts. In Puritan New England, she explains, it was believed that all suffering was God’s will. If no spiritual fault was found within a person to cause their sickness, they were told to, instead, look for an external force. Which they did, looking for “something that stood out, marking the ill, weak and otherwise inexplicably odd” (p58). Roach points out that, accounting for less than 4% of the population, redheads stood out. And it was believed – and feared – that the devil was recruiting, and would either stir people up or take possession of their bodies.
There is no mention of redheads in the Malleus Maleficarum – the Hammer of Witches as it is also known – the handbook on the prosecution of witches by German Catholic clergyman Heinrich Kramer in 1486, which was widely used during the Spanish Inquisition. But as Roach was told by Susan Cocalis, a professor of Germanic languages and literature at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, “The red-hair witch connection is not specific to the Malleus. It has long been a folk belief in Germanic culture and has been a symbol of a connection to hell in literature well into the 20th century.” (p60)
So there was this belief, but what was the belief based on? Roach tells us that in almost every account of the witch trials, there are reports of the devil’s seal or the devil’s mark – the latter sometimes mistakenly called the witch mark. In sixteenth and seventeenth century writings, it is said the devil made deals with witches, and sealed them by leaving an identifying mark on their bodies. And it would be easy, Roach surmises, to believe a redhead had made a deal with the devil once stripping her naked.
“[It] may be that when stripped, as witches nearly always were during examination—the devil believed to most frequently place his mark on the witches’ most private parts—that the shocking sight of red pubic hair may have been all the brand some people needed to see to make a connection to the fires of hell. […] Because naked redheads betray something, upset and undermine the idea of colour we expect to find, particularly on a woman, suggesting eternal youth and adolescence as well as the sin of temptation. And in the height of times of suspicion, such as the witch trials, red hair could easily be proof enough of the belief that the devil sealed his bargain by licking witches’ genitalia.” (p61)
What an image! But red pubic hair isn’t just a sign of a compact with the devil. It’s also a sign of how the devil possessed these redheaded witches. “[It] is in how he enters us that the devil gets what he is after.” Roach explains. “In the case of red hair on women, evidence suggests strong, historic belief in the devil’s ability to enter women and infuse them with the ultimate power of desire. And he does so in the fluid of the paramount humor, our blood. But not just any blood; rather, that primal confusing blood that divides the boys from the girls and the girls from the women and that has always upset us so—menstrual blood.
Menstrual blood scares us. In the case of redheads, it is believed to scare the hell into us.” (p71)
However, another fellow redhead, Jacky Colliss Harvey, disagrees that redheads were specifically believed to be witches. She also touches on the link between redheads, witches and the supernatural in her book Red: A Natural History of the Redhead (Allen & Unwin, 2015). She mentions Lilith – who is often depicted as a redhead – and how the idea of the evil redhead started with her. (p187) Lilith is said to be the first wife of Adam; when he came to her for sex, she refused – they were both made from dust and therefore equal, and so she would not lie beneath him. (p80)
In mythology, this evil redhead is a sexual being, using sex as a lure and a weapon. “Woman as sexual predator has always terrified and aroused in equal measure,” states Colliss Harvey, “and witches have always been bewitching, in art and popular culture at least. The reality was far different.” (p110)
And, according to her, as was the reality of the hair colour of those persecuted as witches; although the Montague Summers’ translation of Malleus Maleficarum is, as Colliss Harvey tells us, “cited as an authority for tales of young, nubile, redheaded, green-eyed women being dragged off to horrible deaths at the stake”, it was actually “a work of unrelenting misogyny that held all women in equal contempt, whatever their hair colour might have been.” (p110) Even though witches have been depicted in art with red hair, in actual fact, “[Their hair] was pretty much certain to be gray or even white. […] those going to the stake or the gallows on a charge of witchcraft were almost bound to be poor, elderly, widowed, and unprotected.” (p111)
But there is another belief that has led to the idea of redheads as hypersexualised women, and it goes back to Lilith and the belief that she was a redhead. I am fascinated by Lilith, partly down to a Rossetti painting I adore (more on this later) but also because of this amusing image from Roach: “Lilith never lets her lovers go but never supplies any real satisfaction, either; eternally dangling the prospect of desire but forever withholding the money shot.” (p22-24)
After refusing Adam, Roach tells us, “Lilith invoked the name of God and flew to the Red Sea, a place known to harbour ‘lascivious demons.’ There, she began a promiscuous lifestyle that ensures her role as a force of real religious and moral reckoning well into the nineteenth century, shaping the conduct of countless people by providing a conscious image of the quintessential evil woman.” (p23)
It’s for that very purpose the image of Lilith can be found depicted in bowls. Researchers from the University of Pennsylvania excavated several from a site fifty miles southeast of Hilla, Iraq, dating from around C.E. 600. To caution and protect their owners, on these bowls Lilith is depicted as a lurking succubus who goes to the beds of men at night to then bear demonic offspring. “Jealous—always jealous—she despises the children born of her victims and sucks their blood or strangles them and, swooping in on the most morbid fear of humans, she wrenches foetuses from the womb and leaves women barren.” (p24)
Not the nicest of women, I admit, but I have not been the only person to be fascinated by her. She has been depicted in countless paintings, and more often than not, as a redhead. In the completely captivating painting Lady Lilith by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, where her hair is the focal point, in a gorgeous shade of red; in Titian’s The Fall of Man, appearing as the redheaded serpent in the Biblical temptation scene in Hugo van der Goes’ Original Sin, and even in the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel by Michelangelo. (p25)
“In all,” Roach tells us, “[Lilith] is an icon in the history of the world of red hair, the oldest female cornerstone on which to build an argument for the evil and sexually charged identity of the red-haired woman.” (p25)
I am charmed by the idea that redheads were thought to be something otherworldly, but Colliss Harvey rebukes me, saying; “In so imagining [redheads as victims of witch hunts], we are being seduced ourselves by an association between otherness and otherworldliness, between red hair and supernatural forces, and between red hair and erotic circumstances that simply refuse to quit.” (p111-112)
Maybe we are fooling ourselves, but it’s endlessly fascinating to me that the catcalling and the insults we receive today can be linked back to the belief that we were once intimidating, terrifying, magical women. It’s something I find deeply satisfying and empowering.
Joanne Stapley is a writer and book blogger using the written word to discuss topics she feels passionate about –feminism, body image, self-confidence, and diverse YA. You can find Joanne at Jo’s Scribbles, her book blog Once Upon a Bookcase, or on Twitter @Jo_Scribbles.