Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Redheads in the Greco-Roman Ream


According to the Roman historian Livy, Roman general Manlius Vulso called the Celts of Asia Minor a fierce nation:
Their tall bodies, their flowing red hair, gigantic shields and long swords, together with their howling as they go into battle, their shouts and leapings and the fearful din of arms as they batter their shields according to some kind of ancestral custom—all these things are designed to terrify!
He called the Galati "wild animals, whose fathers and grandfathers hardened and made savage by misfortune, driven from their land to settle in Illyricum, Pannonia and Thrace." (The Celts: A History, Dáithí Ó hÓgáin. p110).

Roman historian Tacitus, (b. ca. 56 AD), in one of the Gaulish provinces, possibly Belgica, or the Narbonne, who was most likely a Celt himself, often conflated German* and northern Celtic tribes in his writings. Conflating Celts and Germans was a hangover from Caesar's senate campaigning days to loosen the senators' purse strings and get them to fling open the warchest coffers.

In a nutshell, many of the so-called Rhineland Germanic tribes* Tacitus described in Germania and Agricola had Celtic tribal names and place names. Any tribe north of the Rhine was deemed Germanic, even if they spoke a Celtic language, and worshipped Celtic gods. I won't mention that "germani" is a Celtic word, and a Celtic war cry!

Dr. T. Rice Holmes, ['Caesar's Conquest of Gaul,'] noted that the ancients—who were not very close observers of other cultures' physical characteristics—consistently described the Celts as a tall fair race, warlike and masterful, and they made a distinction between the "fair" Germans as being blond, and the "fair" Celts as redheads.

But to the Romans, anyone north of the Rhine, whether the were Celtic, or German or Celto-German, was dubbed "German." The Rhine was the great divide—the Celtic Rubicon, like the American North-South division, the Mason-Dixon line

This side, there be badass Gauls. That side of the river, there be badass Germans. Even bigger and badder than the Gauls. So, cough up the dough, you old fharts.

Tacitus also commented on the "red hair and large limbs of the inhabitants of Caledonia (P-Celtic Pictland)" which he associated with red-haired Gaulish tribes living in Belgium and Germany. Clearly, well-funded invasion plans were in the works.

Caveat: I've not read the texts in the original Latin, but in modern translation, luckily, tribal names and place names tens to keep their orthography. 

Lest ye be thrown by the tribal name, the roving Belgae marauders were not Germanic, but descended from Hallstatt Celts or the related Volcae Tectosage tribe of Bavaria and Austria.

 In the Greco-Roman world, "red-haired" meant big, badass warriors. Clearly, the Vikings were not genetically involved with the Celts way back when.

In the Aeneid, that fine Cisalpine Gaulish poet, Virgil, (the very bright, or illustrious one) described his fellow Celts as "golden is their hair and golden their garments...and their milk-white necks..." 

The Celts preferred red-gold over any other gold. So "golden" could also mean red-gold—or ruddy. And they were extremely fair, not swarthy. Diodorus corroborated, "their skin is very moist and white."

The ancient Greek ethno-historians, especially Dio Cassius, noted in their observations that there were an awful lot of really, really big bad-ass (Clairol) blond/flaxen and redheaded Celtic warriors with grey eyes.

Dio Cassius described the Iceni warrior Queen Boudicca as being “tall and terrifying…a great mass of red hair fell over her shoulders” to her hips. 

She must've been a sight to see—standing tall in her chariot racing across the moors, her fiery mane blazing in the wind.

The kingdom of Pergamum in Anatolia (Bergama, Turkey), ca. 188 BC.

Though Herodotus, (5th c. BC ), the Turkish-born Greek scholar—dubbed the "Father of history," described the "Budini" (of what is now the Ukraine) as a "large and powerful nation: they all have deep blue eyes and bright red hair." 

The Budini lived in Scythia, their capital was the wooden city of Gelonus, built on the fens, their shrines were adorned in the Greek way and they honored Dionysus. 

If you read a bit further, you'll find Herodotus was probably describing nomadic, aboriginal peoples

Or conflating two different groups. It's hard to tell from the translation.

Aside from the stark contradiction of primitive, aboriginal nomads living in a complex fortified wooden city, I can deduce that from the language reference alone, they were clearly not Hunnic Finns who speak a radically different non Indo-European (IE) language that is related to Suomi, Basque and Magyar. Nor were the Budini the ancestors of the Sámit (AKA Suomi— which would link them genetically to the Basques).

Now, let me split a few fine red hairs: Herototus points out that the Budini "use a tongue partly Scythian and partly Greek." 

The Suomi and Finns would have had an especially hard time adapting, or speaking a Greco-Scythian hybrid tongue, as their Finno-Urgic languages are entirely unrelated. 

This strongly suggest that the Budini were Indo-European speaking—possibly Cimmerarians, or nomadic Indo-Iranian Scythians

But there were also numerous Celtic strongholds in the Russian steppes, settlements on the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea and beyond.

Besides, the phrase "white-skinned, red-haired and blue-eyed" is a Classical trope, generally referring to the Hyperboreans, i.e., the Celts, or any non Greek-speaking barbaric tribes. The TItans, the first gods (Atlas, Promethius, Cronos) were depicted as white-skinned with red (or light) hair.
  • xanthe—light-haired. Orestes’ hair is described as fair, Apollo and Demeter, are described as light-haired.
  • kuanochaites—dark-haired 
  • rhodo and purros—refer to red. Eos, the Dawn goddess is rosy-fingered (rhododaktylos). 
Racial Type of the Ancient Hellenes (From Stirpes: Antiquam Exquirite Matrem forum, Jan.6, 2005,) in one thread, Alkman, offers some food for thought:
We must also dispel the notion that xanthos always refers to yellow hair, or that purros refers to purely red hair…. Strabo uses xanthotrichein and leukotrichein (making hair xanthon and making hair “white”) indicating that xanthon was a darker shade than extremely fair hair….
The use of color terms are relative among different cultural groups; xanthos may mean the fair end of the Greek hair color continuum, not blond. This impression is enhanced by the descriptions of northern European hair as polios (gray, usually of old people) or leukon (white) to be found in Greek literature (Diodorus Siculus, Adamantius Judaeus).

As for purros it is noteworthy that the common Greek words for fiery red eruthros is not employed for hair, while purros is given by Aelius Herodianus (Partitiones 115, 10) for the color of eyes. Human eyes are never red, or strawberry blond…. Therefore, purros means having a red tinge, it does not mean redhead. Maybe rabid.

It would be worthwhile to quote here in full, the opinion of British anthropologist John Beddoe. Beddoe studied thousands of Britons and continental Europeans, and comparing his designations with that of other observers, came to realize the approximate relativity of the names of color terms:
French anthropologists say that the majority of persons in the north of France are blond; whereas almost all Englishmen would say they were dark, each set of observers setting up as a standard what they are accustomed to see around them when at home. What is darkish brown to most Englishmen would be chestnut in the nomenclature of most Parisians, and perhaps even blond in that of Auvergne or Provence; an ancient Roman might probably have called it sufflavus or even flavus.
In Histories (4.108-109), Herodotus describes a so-called Scythian tribe, the Budini as “ruddy,” or “red-haired” purron and “blue/gray-eyed” glaukoi. In their land, exists a city, Gelon, inhabited by the Geloni. While the Budini are nomads, the Geloni are farmers, speak a language that is half-Greek and half-Scythian and worship Greek gods. According to Herodotus, they are Greek colonists who left their sea ports to live inland among the Budini. Interestingly, Herodotus states that the Geloni are unlike the fair Budini in “neither form nor coloring” [ouden ten ideen homoioi oude to chroma].
(Note bene: this is thread from a forum, not my research. 
NB 2 I found the original paper replete with photos and art byDienekes Pontikos who seems to be an anthropologist (dated 2009). Will need to update links.)

Aristotle wrote that the Greeks generally considered blue eyes as unhealthy—the evil eye was associated with those northern barbarian tribes. Plato, in The Republic, stated that statues should have dark (manly) eyes and hair.

When Persian King Darius attempted to invade Gelonia (aka Gelonus or Helonus), the Budini (a Finnic tribe, or Scythian tribe) scorched the earth to avoid battle by leaving the "earth without grass," who oratorically replied: "We are free as wind and what you can catch in our land is only the wind."

Hmmm, that almost sounds cheekily Celtic. (Like the Celtic envoy's retort to Alexander the Great's query as to what they feared most: "We fear no man: there is but one thing that we fear, namely, that the sky should fall on us." —Sacred Texts.

Generally, "good" Greeks were represented as dark-haired and dark-eyed. Apparently "good Athenian girls had black hair," while courtesans had red hair. Galen (Galenus, or Galien) of Pergamon, that famous (possibly Celto)-Greek philosopher, and physician to the gladiators, wrote:
That of the inhabitants of cold, wet places, conversely - Illyrians, Germans, Dalmatians, Sauromatians, and the Scythian types of people in general- has reasonably good growth and is thin, straight, and red.

(under construction)

adapted from


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