Monday, July 16, 2012

Did Cleopatra Have Red Hair?

Detail from The Finding of Moses by Lawrence Alma-Tadema

It's an intriguing and potentially controversial question: Was Cleopatra a redhead? Egypt's most famous queen has been imagined as everything from a fair-skinned blonde to a dark-skinned Black African. But I never considered the possibility of a ginger Cleopatra until recently, when an anonymous reader left a comment about it on my post about Cleopatra's appearance.

He (or she?) mentioned the book Cleopatra the Great by Egyptologist Joann Fletcher. I was immediately interested, since Dr. Fletcher is an expert on an unusual subject: hair in the ancient world, and in particular ancient Egypt. When I was at the bookstore, I happened upon the book and flipped through. I was very happy to find that she had included a color photo of a fresco from Herculaneum that she believes is a posthumous portrait of the legendary queen. The woman, who wears what appears to be a royal diadem wrapped around Cleopatra's signature melon hairdo, has unmistakeably red hair.

Some ancient and modern Egyptians did and do have naturally dark red/auburn hair. In pharaonic times it was fashionable to dye one's hair red with henna. The mummy of Ramses the Great had dyed red hair with a little bit of natural white at the roots. Fletcher confirms that red "was a shade favoured by fashionable Alexandrian women, including some in the royal household. Perhaps Cleopatra's own auburn hair had set the trend, maybe enhanced with a vegetable colorant such as henna (Lawsonia inermis)" (Fletcher 238).

The contemporary images that exist of Cleopatra are unreliable at best; almost all of them serve a propaganda function, and none of them have any surviving paint. I know of no written descriptions of the particulars of Cleopatra's appearance. All I know is that Cleopatra had many faces, and redheaded fashion plate could certainly have been one of them.

6 comments:

  1. Actually, Ramses II's red hair was natural -- it had faded to white, but when he was young it was, in fact, naturally red. This was proven by examination of the roots of his hair, and discovering that deep within the root, the red pigments still remained, and that they were clearly the natural pigment, not the artificial henna pigment (which are chemically different). Lending credence to this is Ramses' association with the god Set, whose traditional color was red.

    Contrary to popular belief red hair can and does express itself as a trait in nonwhite populations, including african and middle eastern persons. The genes for the trait still exist in those populations, it's just much, much rarer, and also harder to see than on pale northern europeans (generally, the red is a dark brown-red that can only really be seen in bright sunlight). However, in a royal line, which were notoriously inbred, the trait would manifest much more often.

    Ergo, it's entirely possible that Cleopatra was a natural redhead, AND also dark skinned and African. Her family had married internally for generations, and given that Ramses had natural red hair, it's a trait that shows up in Egyptian royal lines. They're not mutually exclusive.

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  2. Cleopatra was Ptolemaic. Different dynasty from a different part of the world. She was Caucasian and from a group that produced a large number of blondes and redheads.

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  3. Might get some eye rolls for this, but "ginger" is a derogatory term and shouldn't be used by anyone referring to redheads. Kind of only acceptable for redheads to refer to themselves as ginger since they are the ones who handle that stigma, as ginger is often associated with negative connotations towards red hair (i.e. kick a ginger day, etc.).

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    1. I used to have natural red hair. I have multiple relatives and friends with red hair who have no problem being referred to by non-redheads as "gingers." Not one of them has ever intimated that they find it offensive. Perhaps it is offensive outside the US, but here in America it generally isn't.

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    2. (Different Anon) Outside the US it is definitely offensive. In the UK in particular.

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    3. Again, please keep in mind that this blog is based in the US, not the UK.

      I'm closing comments on this post. It was intended to share an interesting tidbit I read in a book, nothing more or less.

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