hair


hair
   This makes many appearances in *superstitions, cures, tales, popular errors, and *div-ination. One should be particularly careful in the disposal of hair after cutting or brushing, as such removable parts of the body can be used in *witchcraft against you. Birds must also be prevented from using your hair to make their nests, as this would mean a headache, or if a magpie, death within a year, so the only safe method of disposal is to burn it (Opie and Tatem, 1989: 184). Most *regional folklore collections include examples of the divinatory use of hair. When it is thrown on the fire, for example, if it burns brightly then a long life is to be expected, but smouldering means the opposite. A single hair drawn between the nails of finger and thumb indicates the character of its owner.
   A belief reported from the 17th century to the present day is that if a person's hair grows into a low point over the forehead, like a peak, she/he will be widowed soon - hence the name 'Widow's peak'. Schoolchildren had a particularly useful belief: if you place a single hair across the palm of your hand, it will split the cane with which you are being chastised, or at least it will considerably lessen the pain felt (Harland and Wilkinson, 1873: 225; N&Q 11s:11 (1915), 277-8). See also *onion for a similar idea. Also, 'In my childhood I used to be told that if you swallowed a long hair it would twine about your heart and kill you' (N&Q 8s:10 (1896), 47), an image which is surprisingly old, being found in Thomas Middleton's play, The Witch (iv. i): '... let one of her long hairs wind about my heart, and be the end of me.'
   Porter (1969: 81-2) gives several recipes for traditional hair care from Cambridgeshire, including tobacco and pepper to cure ringworms, and the use of goose grease or bear's grease to keep hair healthy. A Lincolnshire woman, however, swore by hedgehog fat for this purpose (Sutton, 1992: 147) and many writers comment that *rosemary leaves make an excellent hair tonic or rinse. Since at least the 16th century it was thought essential to comb your hair the right way (Lean, 1903: ii. 24), and if you want your hair to grow back thick and luxuriant, it must be cut when the *moon is waxing. It was considered unlucky to cut hair on *Friday, and *Good Friday was the worst day of all to do it; a baby's hair should never be cut until it is twelve months old (N&Q 2s:12 (1861), 500).
   There has been a long-standing prejudice against *red hair in Britain since at least c.1200. At best, red-haired people were considered unreliable and hot-tempered, and archetypal evil people such as *Judas Iscariot and Cain were usually depicted with red hair and beard. Another explanation sometimes given is that the Danish invaders had red hair, and red-haired children were sometimes quoted as evidence of their mother's infidelity (Harland and Wilkinson, 1873: 225; N&Q12s:2 (1916), 128,196-7, 239, 379; 12s:5 (1918), 194, 218; Opie and Tatem, 1989: 325-6).
   A regularly reported cure for whooping cough is to take a hair from the afflicted child, place it between two slices of bread, and give them to a dog to eat. The dog will get the cough and the child will be cured (Porter, 1969: 90, and many others). Two widespread 'popular errors' concerning hair are the beliefs that hair could continue to grow after death, and that a person's hair could turn white overnight through extreme fear or mental anguish. The latter idea still turns up as a motif in some *contemporary legends. See the correspondence in N&Q 4s:6 (1870); 4s:7 (1871); 6s:6 (1882); 6s:7 (1883); 6s:8 (1883); 6s:9 (1884); 7s:2 (1886); 7s:3 (1887); 7s:4 (1887); 7s:7 (1889); 10s:9 (1908); 10s:10 (1908). Opie and Tatem, 1989: 184-6, 325-6, 445-6.

A Dictionary of English folklore. . 2014.

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