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Was Helen of Troy a Natural Blonde?

GemmaAngel6 May 2013

Tzu-i Liaoby Tzu-i Liao

 

 

 

 

 

 

Petrie Museum holds an extraordinary sample of pale yellow human hair, which is attached to a patch of scalp and entangled with darker curls that are most likely hair from a wig. It is very tempting to assume that the wig was used to conceal – even in the afterlife – the natural blonde hair colour of the wearer. On discovering this artefact in a tomb at Gurob, Petrie himself wrote that “the person was light-haired and wore a wig of black, hiding the foreign token.” Petrie based his argument on traditional studies of the ancient Mediterranean world. It is very likely that the vast majority of ancient Egyptians probably did have darker, coarser hair, and blonde hair in this context would have been very unusual. The use of wigs was not an uncommon practice amongst the ancient Egyptians, as many Egyptologists of Petrie’s era recognised. Indeed, bodily features were definitely a strong point of reference in recognising foreigners, and having different hair colour was surely one of them. Consider, for example, the common epithets (nick-names) for different ethnic groups used in ancient Greek literature: the hairy-headed Achaeans (kare komoontes), Abantes (Thracians), known for their long hair (opithen komoontes), and the bright-haired (likely golden, or blonde) Menelaus (xanthos) – including Helen of Troy (described as having bostrychous xanthes komes).

The example of Helen is particularly interesting for our discussion, not only because she might have been blonde, like the owner of the black wig in Petrie Museum, but also because she may have been to ancient Egypt as well. In Euripides’ tragedy Helen, the beautiful wife of Menelaus was not abducted to Troy; instead, she was sent by a god to Egypt to avoid this terrible fate. If Petrie’s theory about the purpose of the black wig was correct, Helen, as a refugee with conspicuous blonde hair, would probably have tried to ‘hide her foreign token’ with a similar black wig.

British Museum.

Ancient Egyptian mutli-tonal wig. From the British Museum collections.

 

 

While this all sounds very intriguing to a classicist like me, there is no textual or archaeological evidence which can confirm the theory that wigs were used to conceal particular hair types denoting unfavourable ethnic features. On the contrary, as the hairstyles represented in Egyptian art are often described by Egyptologists as wigs, it appears that wigs of this kind were more likely worn more commonly for other aesthetic reasons. Another wig from ancient Egypt (Thebes) in the British Museum is a good example of this counterargument. This piece consists of hair of two colours; a lighter shade arranged into looser curls on the top, and darker long braids underneath. The two colours are presented in different styles in one hairpiece, the lighter colour appearing more prominently over the darker hair. Having lighter hair colour does not seem to be too much of a concern here. The important thing is to have the style on display – or even, to distinguish the special status of the wearer. It is less likely that our blonde woman wore the black wig to make herself look just like everyone else. This wig was probably worn on special occasions, or to denote her high social status. J. Stevens Cox even suggests that the prevalent use of wigs as fashion and status markers in the Roman empire was in fact a result of contact with Egypt, where it was already a popular practice.[1]

The reason that Petrie so quickly assumed that the black wig was worn for purposes of concealment of ethnic identity, probably owes more to his interest in eugenics. Since the time of Aristotle, many people have made often spurious connections between appearance and character. In the era of eugenics, bodily features supposedly denoting psychological or moral character were not only categorised but also ranked in a hierarchy. Petrie’s interest in these theories are apparent in his archaeological work as well as in his writing; he extensively documented Egyptian monuments that displayed “racial types”; he collected glass and terracotta figurines or heads that depict ethnic phenotypes and labeled them somewhat arbitrarily (a selection of these are presented in our recent Foreign Bodies exhibition). As late as 1934, Petrie sent skulls of “racial types” to Francis Galton, the father of eugenics, for further research.[2] In the preface of his Janus in Modern Life [3], Petrie clarifies the purpose of such studies, describing them as “physiological research of the obscure causes of [present] troubles” (to use a medical metaphor), since “the present time seems to most people so infinitely more important…than the past or future,” and “[t]hey forget that it is only a fiction to speak of the present…and every such present has been entirely conditioned by its past…” Looking at his work retrospectively, it is clear that much of his own reading of the past was actually largely conditioned by his present. He made some of the very mistakes he set out to help the world to avoid.

 

References:

[1] J. Stevens Cox, “The construction of an Ancient Egyptian wig (c. 1400 B.C.) in the British Museum”, in Journal of Egyptian Archaeology Vol. 5 No. 63 (1977).

[2] For further information, please see the website of Petrie Museum exhibition Typecast.

[3] W. M. F. Petrie, Janus of Modern Life. G.P. Putnams’ Sons (1907).

The Other Minotaur

GemmaAngel25 February 2013

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The much celebrated production of The Minotaur at the Royal Opera House [1] by Harrison Birtwistle and David Garsent drew the curtains in applause in January this year. The reworking of the ancient myth of the Minotaur – half-bull, half-man – presents new dimensions not only of theatre but also of the concept of “foreign bodies“. In classical Greek representations the Minotaur is a creature with the head of a bull and the body of a man [2], or as Ovid writes, “part man and part bull.”[3] Since his father Minos, King of Crete, provoked Poseidon the sea god, his mother Pasiphae is cursed to fall in love with a foreign white bull, and made Daedalus produce a cow costume in order to seduce the beautiful bull. The Minotaur is thus born of this species barrier-crossing union, and kept deep inside the labyrinth so that his strange shape and conduct would not “harm” others. Later Theseus, a foreign hero from Athens, came to Crete and won the heart of the princess Ariadne, with whose help he manages to kill the abominable monster and find his way out of the labyrinth.

minotaur theseus

While traditional depictions of the myth usually focus on the triumph of Theseus, the Birtwistle production invites the audience to reflect upon the boundary between the human and non-human animal. John Tomlinson, who plays the Minotaur, wears a bull-shaped mask which is semi-transparent and allows the audience not just to hear the Minotaur’s heartbreaking lows, but also to see the facial expressions of the human within the bull. The Minotaur is not presented as “half-bull, half-man,” but rather as a human being trapped within the terrifyingly foreign body of a beast. He feels the endless walls and the hostility around him; he sees and understands that people fear his strange looks; he desires the young and healthy bodies of virgins; he dreams of the being able to speak up for himself in human language – like all humans do. To what extent he comprehends the duality of his physical nature is not clear. Yet it is evident that when he dreams he is capable of and eager to express himself like all others, and what he talks about, again and again, is how his body stands like the walls of labyrinth between him and the others and thus keeps him from a normal human life. In many ways the mythic figure is presented as a person victimized due to his monstrous appearance and incapacity to of behave and communicate like everyone else. Of course, the myth gives no clue whether the Minotaur could have been a “normal” human being had he been treated like a normal child instead of being imprisoned in the maze. Birtwistle’s production urges us to look through the Minotaur’s intimidating physicality and feel his very human sorrow and hatred.

Gehörnter_Gott,_EnkomiAnother interesting interpretation of Birtwistle’s production is the  pronounced parallel between the Minotaur and Theseus. While both are foreigners and extraordinary in their different ways, one is hidden away and feared, and the other is loved and praised. Minotaur the monster is born from the union of the lustful Cretan Queen and a sacred bull from abroad [4]; Theseus the hero obtains the tool he needs to escape from the labyrinth after seducing the Cretan princess Ariadne, and is himself the son of Poseidon. The most obvious parallel occurs in the solos of Pasiphae and Ariadne, performed before and during their seduction of the sacred bull and Theseus respectively. The score was similar and the same motif is used in both scenes: Both of the Cretan women dance and sing near the cow costume Pasiphae wore when the Minotaur was conceived, caressing the body of the cow and yearning for the touch of the foreigner. The costume becomes a symbol not only of the (strange yet exotic) physical nature of the foreign male, but also the instrument which shapes the fate of the two foreign male bodies. Birtwistle’s production thus plays with conceptions of the foreign, not only dressing both men in almost an OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAidentical way (both wear loose trousers only, with the exception of the Minotaur’s mask), but also amplifying the duality of their bodies and their fates.

The theme of foreign bodies runs through many ancient myths, as well as being a significant force in the socio-political environment from which these stories emerge (our upcoming exhibition demonstrates just how complex this realisation can be!). Birtwistle’s production elaborates on this concept, repeatedly asking his audience how one should face and understand a foreign body in the community. Keeping the Minotaur hidden away in the labyrinth is perhaps not the best  solution anymore. Perhaps the question we should be asking is this: is the Minotaur inherently “Minotaur the monster”? Or can we find a Theseus hidden within the Minotaur?


[2] As seen in the Minotaur myron in National Archaeological Museum in Athens; the Attic red-figure kylix from Etruscan Vulci; or the bronze Horned God from Enkomi, Cyprus.

[3] Ars Amatoria 2.24.

[4] Ovid seems to hint that the bull is actually a god in disguise: “[T]he bull’s form disguised the god, Pasiphae, my mother, a victim of the deluded bull, brought forth in travail her reproach and burden” (Heroides 4.53) – which extends the parallel further.