Beards: an archaeological and historical overview
‘A grand gallimaufry: collected in honour of Nick Maxwell” (2010)
Introduction: There can be little doubt that facial hair played a significant role in past societies.Through time beards have been ascribed various symbolic attributes, such as sexual virility, wisdom and high social status, but conversely barbarism, eccentricity andSatanism. The presence or absence of a beard has alternately embraced ‘notions of eros and thanatos, east and west, good and evil, youth and decrepitude, and masculinity and femininity’. The decision to wear a beard is often deliberate and may denote a man’s religious, political, cultural, social or sexual affiliation. Beards or their removal can serve to conceal or reveal and thus in the past may have been linked to concepts of transformation, disguise, metamorphosis or exposure.
From the point in time when humans first began to wear clothes, beards became the primary feature by which to distinguish visually between men and women and therefore possibly the primary defining feature of maleness. It is plausible that amongst some cultures the more hirsute the man, the more masculine he was perceived to be. The progression from symbol of masculinity to indicator of virility may have been a logical one. Indeed, research suggests that the beard grows faster during periods when a man is sexually active, and some psychoanalysts claim that shaving is an act of auto-castration. Irish folklore reveals that it is unlucky for a man to allow a woman to shave his beard, as he is in danger of losing his virility and strength. The Philosophy of Beards, published in 1880, similarly concluded that ‘the absence of beard is usually a sign of physical and moral weakness’.
At different times in the Church’s history beardlessness was seen to reflect a celibate life, with the beard linked to sexual activity, the devil and evil. Removal of the beard was deemed necessary for salvation in the seventh century. However, by the ninth century Catholic priests wore beards while the Greek Church remained clean-shaven, but in medieval times the reverse was the case. In 1096 the archbishop of Rouen proclaimed that bearded men should be excluded from the church and in 1102 a decree from Venice banned long beards. Other religious traditions uphold specific rules in relation to beards. One of the five obligations of a baptised Sikh male is ‘to keep his hair and beard uncut’. As Mohammed did not shave, Orthodox Muslims follow suit and the greatest oath is to swear by the beard of the Prophet. Removal of facial hair is seen as a disobedience to Allah and is described as disfiguring, effeminate, an act of self-mutilation and an imitation of non-believers. Similarly, Orthodox Jews wear their beards long, one explanation being that ‘God gave man a beard to distinguish him from woman and that it is therefore wrong to antagonise nature’.