To appreciate something you must understand its past. The Mona Lisa would be pretty shit if you didn’t know Da Vinci painted it and it was worth 750 million. And butterflies are way cooler because they evolved from a green worm. So it follows, to appreciate beards you must appreciate their past. Thus, we have recovered the lost knowledge of beards hidden for centuries in the dusty intellectual tombs of Google, religion and the drunk hobo down the street, and can now attempt to condense the history of the hirsute.
Beards have played an undeniable role in past societies. While the current denotation of the beard is confined to wizards, hipsters and hippies, their historical symbolism has vast ascriptions ranging from sexual virility, wisdom and high social status, to barbarism, unorthodoxy and Satanism.
In the past, your beard exhibited your religious, political, social, cultural and sexual status, like growing your postulations from your face it immediately established who you were and what you wanted. However, as the definition of the beard grew faster than beards themselves, the bearded man had an urgent need to master the shifting semiotics.
Monkey man had no such problems; he wore a beard because he couldn’t shave it off (and we think we have evolved). However, when hominids developed the passion for fashion, and cloth and leaves began imprisoning our genitals, beards were needed to visually distinguish man from woman. As the phallic symbol for masculinity and virility was hidden, a new indicator was required, and thus we started growing hairs from our face. This explains why some psychoanalysts believe shaving is equivalent to auto-castration.
In ancient Greece a beard signified maturity and wisdom. The almighty Zeus had flowing muzzle lashings and Socrates was esteemed ‘the Bearded Master’. In Egypt’s First and Second Dynasties, beards were oiled, dyed, curled, beaded, painted and perfumed. Having a beard symbolised kingship, and even queenship, with female pharaohs donning a false beard made from gold called a postiche. In ancient Rome the implication of a beard was constantly changing, however the length always contrasted between slaves and the elite. The Irish were quite particular about their facial hair – the aristocrats grew both a beard and moustache while the lonely stache denoted soldiers and the lower classes.
A few liberal years of orgiastic pagan glory passed and then Catholicism shoved its ever-meddling, unwashed hands into human evolution. Suddenly Satan grew a beard and anyone who forgot to shave was labelled a heretic and banished or burnt. The Catholics apostatized and then reintegrated the beard a couple of times, before agreeing that it was trouble. While the Sikh’s had it dialled from the start, following Mohammed’s wise words to ‘keep the beard uncut’. Mohammed loved his beard so much he made his followers swear by the beard of the prophet. Which is probably the only interest Muslims share with orthodox Jews, who also believe that to shave is to ‘antagonize nature’.
Fast forward to sixteenth century Britain and beards return to their throne of virility, sexual potency and dominance. However this time, the great scientists of the church associated the beard with the four humours – black bile, yellow bile, phlegm, and blood – which indicated a person’s health, believing it was a natural form of bodily waste. Which is not necessarily a bad thing, rather they diagnosed it as ‘heat rising’ from your libido.
Then came the taxes. Edward VI imposed a penalty of 40 shillings on any commoners who grew a beard with more than three weeks growth – so all the best beards. Elizabeth followed, introducing taxes which were indexed on the ‘age and social status of the beard wearer’. In the seventeenth century the Russians even got on board, milking their bearded noblemen for extra pennies.
As civil wars and revolutions resurrected liberties and individualism, and the monarchy and the church lost their despotic powers, the fluctuation of beards became linked to times when masculinity appeared under threat. In the Victorian era, society was shifting away from parochialism, pastoralism, and patriarchies. Men needed to adapt to new working environments where large firms with hierarchies and power structures supplanted small workshops and the barter economy. Women’s rights began to flourish which altered household dynamics. So how did man reclaim his manhood in the bare face of adversity? By growing a massive beard.
The 19th and 20th centuries saw the cult of beard. Bearded heroes emerged, intrepid explorers and hunters, prominent politicians and philosophers, celebrities and noblemen, were famed and glorified and their beards were imitated by the public. Tales of Lincoln’s chin scruff travelled the country in hailed praises and idolatry, making beards popular for all Americans. In post revolution Cuba, Fidel Castro’s beard was so revered that you couldn’t find a clean-shaven man in the whole country, and conversely, with his rise to despotism came the demise of facial hair.
In the 60’s beards were worn as a reaction to a homogenised society. Growing your hair long, taking LSD and shedding your clothes became a blunted, rainbow-coloured weapon against capitalism, consumerism and commercialisation. Beards expressed freedom and also helped to distinguish a brother from an undercover cop. Though as with any subversive movement, the superficial traits of the hippy were soon condemned by mass media who associated beards with vagrancy and instability and thus eroded their public appeal. Until now.
Whether we sport facial hair to look more like Brad Pitt, to reject social norms, or to reclaim a masculinity alienated by mass industrialisation and the push for gender equality, the resurgence of the beard is upon us. 65% of men worldwide have clued in and are now cultivating their face crops, and there is no sign of a baby-face comeback. So ditch the razor, become a man and grow some history from your face. – Miles Bouchard
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Cooper, W 1971, ‘Hair’, Stein and Day, New York.
Dowd, M 2010, ‘Beards: an archaeological and historical overview’, Richards Century, New York.
Dunlevy, M 1999, ‘Dress in Ireland: a history’, The Collins Press, Cork.
Peterkin, A. 2001 One thousand beards: a cultural history of facial hair. Arsenal Pulp Press, Vancouver