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Redheads have been Feared and Vilified Throughout History – Here’s Why

Steve Palace

Red-haired people are often seen as easy targets for mockery. The reality is actually pretty painful. History has not been kind to redheads. In fact, Ancient Greece saw them lumped in with another minority, and what’s worse a fictional one… vampires!

How did this weirdness come to pass? The saga of resentment and mistrust is thought to stretch back to the time of Christ. Indeed, one of the Bible’s most notorious figures was portrayed as a redhead.

Website The Myths and Histories of Red Hair writes, “There are legends that link vampires with both red hair and Judas. It’s said that Judas became the first vampire when he committed suicide following his betrayal of Christ.”

Hades abducting Persephone, fresco in the small royal tomb at Vergina, Macedonia, Greece, c. 340 BC

Hades abducting Persephone, fresco in the small royal tomb at Vergina, Macedonia, Greece, c. 340 BC

It was believed the “thirty pieces of silver he received for this betrayal” became “a weapon that could be used against him, burning his skin with its touch. Much like the way a crucifix burns vampires in B-movies”.

Those of a fiery appearance were branded undesirable in religious eyes. Or were they in fact desirable? So much so that it was a sin…?

Jewish mythology reaches even further back, detailing the appearance of Lilith, a comely demon who wreaked sensual havoc in the Garden of Eden.

Garden of Eden

Garden of Eden

Lilith preceded Eve in Adam’s affections. A 2017 Daily Mail article explains how ultimately she “refused to be subservient to Adam and left him — leading to her being both demonized as sinful and hailed as a liberator of women. Naturally, Lilith is often represented as a redhead.”

Connections have been made between redheads and witchcraft. Adding insult to injury, the Egyptians reportedly sacrificed them by burying them alive to avoid bad luck!

But there’s a more down to earth, and darker, element to the prejudice. In light of Judas’s actions, the hair color became associated with Jewish people, even though evidence that Judas’ hair was actually red is questionable at best.

Roman fresco of a woman with red hair wearing a garland of olives, from Herculaneum, made sometime before the city’s destruction in 79 AD by Mount Vesuvius (which also destroyed Pompeii).

Roman fresco of a woman with red hair wearing a garland of olives, from Herculaneum, made sometime before the city’s destruction in 79 AD by Mount Vesuvius (which also destroyed Pompeii).

The Mail writes, “This idea continued to be reinforced through Medieval times and the Renaissance period, particularly with Shakespeare’s tragedy The Merchant of Venice, in which Shylock had red hair and actors portraying him would wear red wigs.”

Such was the hysteria that during the heights of the Spanish Inquisition (1478 – 1834), anyone “red” was deemed a Jew and rounded up by Catholics. Safe to say, the historical writing was on the wall for gingers. The Ancient Greeks were terrified when a redhead died because it was feared they would return as a fanged creature of the night. Bodies were even burned as a means to stop that happening.

Torturing and execution of witches_in_medieval_miniature

Torturing and execution of witches_in_medieval_miniature

Yet it wasn’t all bad. The representation of redheads throughout history is a game of 2 halves. Certainly, they suffered terribly, but they were also adored.

The Thracians, Indo-European tribes who fought in the Trojan War (1260 – 1180 BC), “didn’t cast gingers as demons” the Mail writes. In fact, they worshiped gods with red hair and blue eyes. Of course, that’s probably because many Thracians had red hair themselves.”

Supposedly vampiric redheads were feared in Ancient Greece, but there was another side to the story. The website Ginger Parrot notes, “many Thracian graves had the inscription ‘Rufus’, meaning redhead, with Thracians often depicted as having red hair, too… it is also said that ginger hair was admired… because it was associated with honour and courage”.

A Gentleman pressing a Lady to drink oil on canvas

A Gentleman pressing a Lady to drink oil on canvas

In terms of their physical profile, redheads seem to have the edge over other mortals. The look is caused in the first place by a mutated pigmentation gene known as MC1R. This leads to a higher pain threshold, greater sensitivity to hot and cold plus a greater amount of Vitamin D in the system. While redheads aren’t supernatural, they definitely stand out from the crowd.

There are upsides to the vampire tag. For example, fans of fantasy horror series True Blood are devoted to the flame-haired character of Jessica Hamby (played by Deborah Ann Woll).

Read another story from us: Black is the New Black – A History of Fashion’s Favorite Color

Commentators believe these powerful images should be embraced. As howtobearedhead.com puts it, “We’ve weathered centuries of accusations and injustices, and we’ve come out of it more confident, more self-assured, and more unstoppable! Basically, you can’t keep us down.”

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