Hair and hair-binding in pre-Classical Greece


Nereides undoing their hair in mourning for Akhilleus, Louvre Museum (Wikimedia Commons)

I’ve been doing a lot of research on hair-binding lately, as a way of exploring and strengthening my commitment. After discussing the subject with a few other Hellenic polytheists, I have decided to share the product of my study with you all!

The document is rather long (9 pages) but it gives a general survey of hair across thirteen centuries of pre-Greek history, offers a theory as to how and why hair-binding and veiling developed, and contains a number of illustrations of ancient hairstyles, so if you’re interested in any of that, click on the link below to download the PDF 🙂

Hair and hair-binding in Ancient Greece


About Artemisia

A Hellenic polytheist lighting stars in the sky and skipping stones across the Styx.
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9 Responses to Hair and hair-binding in pre-Classical Greece

  1. I haven’t had a chance to read the whole paper and sorry if you made this clear in it, but why do you call the period between Middle Minoan and Classical age, pre-Greek? That’s usually reserved for other cultures like the Pelasgians and the users of Eteocretan, with the Pelasgians placed in pre-Mycenaic eras and the Eteocretans in the Early Minoan period and onwards.

    • Artemisia says:

      Eep, yep, my mistake. What I meant by pre-Greek was pre-Classical Greek! However, I’m pretty sure it is correct to refer to the Minoans as pre-Greek, as, from what we can tell, they neither spoke Greek nor worshipped Greek Gods (though several of their Gods were syncretised with the Hellenic pantheon), which is how Ancient Greek identity was defined. But you’re right, I should’ve made it clearer that the Mycenaeans and their successors were definitely Greek 🙂

      • Eh, it would be pretty old-school to call anything after the Middle Minoans pre-Greeks. It’s a bit like arbitrarily picking one of the successive Germanic migration waves towards the British Isles and calling everything before it pre-English. Unless all the very recent research somehow changed its view-points -again-, I’m pretty sure we’re still beyond the old idea that the Indo-European migrations destroyed local populations and didn’t just influence them and/or assimilate/be assimilated by them and closer to the idea that they all ended up forming the people known as the Classical Era Greeks. Not that it’s really significant or anything but those ideas mostly came from academics who were a little too-focused on the classical era and were into the whole migration as replacement frame of mind a little too much. It’s a bit of a foggy area in any case.

        Do you mind if I link to this page from my ‘resources for polytheists’ page? Seems really useful.

      • Artemisia says:

        Fair enough! You make a good point. I tend to gravitate more towards the opinion that Crete became definitely Greek in the Late Minoan, when the Mycenaean influence on the island became stronger, but then there is definitely a Minoan-ness about Greece so it’s hard to discredit the Minoans as Greeks themselves. Both the Minoans and Mycenaeans influenced each other, so trying to decide who made who Greek, if anyone did, is pretty difficult. Like you said, it’s probably both of them together, along with a lot of other people, who formed what was became to be known as “Greek”. But in any case, definitely a foggy area.
        You’re welcome to link to this page! That’s what the paper was meant to be – a resource for polytheists 🙂

  2. Sorry if I seemed nit-picky, I have an MA in a very relevant field and we’re kinda meant to be nit-picky with things like that among us which makes us seem pedantic when we forget that not everyone is meant to be super precise with terms and chronologies. I’m probably also a little nit-picky because of the fact that there have been some academics who were a little unscrupulous with unlinking the Greekness of certain proto-Greek tribes with the explicit aim to inject pretty spurious claims regarding the overall make-up of later Greek culture, like Gimbutas and several proponents of the Black Athena theory which I’m definitely not implying that you are doing.

    Anyway, I might have a few suggestions for more sources after I finish reading it with undiluted attention if you’re interested. One thing that comes to mind right now is that the custom of women wailing and pulling hair in mourning has survived until the contemporary era, up until a couple generations ago actually. This is relevant
    Some of these customs described in that paper might be vague remnants of ancient practices which might be able to fill in some gaps. In any case, they make for interesting reading.

    • Artemisia says:

      That’s fine! I don’t mind your comments at all – I also belong to a similar field (though I’m not quite at MA level yet) where precision is necessary, so I completely understand! And I get what you mean about those academics. By the way, if you have any comments about what I wrote once you’ve finished reading, you’re welcome to let me know 🙂 I tried to give an accurate overview without going into all the details but if there’s anything else like the pre-Greek term that I missed out on, or even got wrong, I’d be glad to know!
      That paper you linked looks really interesting and right down my alley, thanks a lot for sharing!

      • Thanks, link to this page just added. 🙂 Here’s some thoughts I’ve had as I was reading it. I think that there’s a strong preservation and selection bias to this era’s material culture. The depictions that do survive seem to be mostly of religious themes which might not be the best indication of every-day life styles. People usually do not give pedestrian characteristics to iconic representations of themselves. Which makes me feel a little unsure about the dominance of religion in archaic Greek life. Besides the material culture, the literary sources are similarly biased, focused towards religious themes. If you combine the concept of the separate spheres -public versus private- that some gender historians have brought into the mix, along with the different expectations and general shape of the female gender role at home, their styles might have been different. I think Aristophanes in some of his comedies describes less formal appearances for both men and women, possibly because private appearances entering public spaces where seen as scandalous and comical? I don’t know if four centuries were enough to drastically alter such customs.

        I don’t think your theory is far off though. As I said, there have been uncanny survivals of customs in the modern era and for example, my own grandmother always wore a black headscarf as a widow and always kept her hair in a tightly bound bun. Which might be a semi-practical method to keep the entirety of the hair hidden. When she was at home, she let her braid loose but didn’t untie it. This was extremely common among women of my grandmother’s generation that came from rural areas and definitely not her particular idiosyncrasy. Which brings me to the last point.

        Mentioning miasma made me think of the evil eye and how exposure to other people’s gaze was considered the key method to become infected by the bad influence. There might be a connection between needing to completely cover and contain the hair and exposure to other’s gaze. The modern survival of this concept used to hold that “you sometimes need to make yourself less handsome/beautiful to avoid making people give you envious looks which would carry the evil eye”.

        I’m pretty out of touch with ancient Greek gender history and your bibliography seems to be fine, I remember reading a paper on the ancient Greek conception of the evil eye, which I’ll try to locate again at some point.

  3. Saved to read soonly! I’ve considered hair binding myself as well as veiling but was unsure if others might be upset by assuming veil is as hijab, which I conceptually do not really care if others think I am a Muslim, but am more worried about ‘cultural misappropriation’ rage. There was recently a hijab day at a school and parents were all distressed about ‘ohnoes we can’t be nice to them!” It was upsetting, but I am glad to see kids at least giving it a shot.

    • Worried about being accused of cultural appropriation by Greeks or Muslims? I’m Greek and I wouldn’t think that you’re appropriating anything and most Greeks would probably be puzzled and tell you that our women don’t use veils anymore. I don’t know about Muslims but I don’t think they should complain, veils were used all over the place.

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