If you spend any amount of time in Heathen groups on Facebook, or really on any social media platform, a conversation that’ll at least be brought up and made to be controversial is the beard (Old Norse ‘skegg’) in Heathen culture so I thought I’d add my two cents’ worth. It’s important to note that what follows is my own opinion, backed up with a few facts from history.
The first thing that some will say whenever the question is asked is “There is no religious requirement for heathens to grow a beard”. This is absolutely true but, to be honest, heathens don’t have religious tenets or dogma associated with our beliefs and so to say it’s not required by a set of rules is just pointing out the obvious. But if that’s the case, then why are beards so popular within our culture? Well, in order to explain that, we have to go quite a way into history, so buckle up your seat-belts while we explore the history of hair in European culture and when and why it changed.
To the animist Indo-European people, the hair and beard were an extension of their spirit and to some, a source of their power and influence. Animist cultures believe that everything has a spirit so to say that your hair has a spirit and that it empowers you in some ways shouldn’t be such a mental hurdle to wrap your head around. In fact, the lore is riddled with examples of this belief in Heathen culture. Even though nothing in the lore comes right out and commands that we must wear a beard, it paints a pretty clear picture that beards were a major part of Norse pre-Christian culture. It is crucial to remember that the Sagas and such aren’t a bible – they’re simply stories that are meant to inspire and we use them in modern day to get an idea of some of the beliefs of our ancestors. From the Sagas of the Icelanders to The Lay of Atli, there’s mention of the beard being the center of male virility and prowess.
In our mythology, the only one of our God-like figures who is portrayed as being clean shaven is also the only God who was shamed and cast out from the Æsir: Loki. Loki is known for his feminine qualities as he shape-shifted into a mare, became pregnant, and gave birth to Sleipnir, Odin’s eight legged horse, so there again do we see the absence of a beard associated with femininity. Furthermore, Loki is also known for playing pranks and getting himself into trouble and so, aside from femininity, one could argue that Loki’s being perceived as beardless also reflects that he was child-like hinting that only women and children didn’t grow beards and a man without a beard would have been seen as both. The absence of the beard in nearly all Germanic literature is equated with weakness, treachery, shame, and dishonor.
From an archeological standpoint, combs and oils are almost always amongst the finds of anything related to a viking burial. This tells us two things: one, that our ancestors were hygienic and took great care of their hair and beards, almost to a point of reverence, and two that they believed their beards and hair would need to be maintained in the afterlife as if it has something to do with their spirit. Both of these things reinforce the animist perspective of hair being an extension of the spirit of the northern people.
When did we start shaving our beards and cutting our hair, and how did it become so acceptable to go around with short hair and a shaved face? Well, that began with the rise of the Roman Empire. To the Romans, Rome was the epicenter of civilization and was hailed as one of the greatest cities that expanded and dominated most of the western world. In Roman culture, men cut their hair short and shaved their beards in submission to their emperor and distinguished themselves as “civilized” men by separating themselves from the “barbarians” that inhabited the hillside.
As the Roman empire evolved and became the enforcement arm of the holy Catholic church, their military began to forcibly cut the hair of the native men they conquered as a symbol of removing their power and killing their spirit. The tale of Samson and Deliliah in the Bible is one shining example of the victory over the uncivilized barbarian, removing his native spirit by cutting his hair and replacing his ancestral powers with faith in the Abrahamic God. That story is literally telling us to put our native ways aside, submit to the governing power and save the lives of our own people by submitting, and the symbolism used is cutting his hair to remove his strength.
You still see this in the military forces of most western civilizations today, as basic training begins with ritualistically shaving the recruits’ head to eliminate their personal identity and force them to submit to a new authority. In western nations today, long hair on men is said to be feminine or unmanly, and until recently beards were seen as “dirty” or unhygienic. This is so ingrained in our culture today that many of us don’t even question it; we just keep doing what we’re told and forcing this culture on each other with no regard to why or where it came from. All we know or care about is that society keeps telling us that beards are gross and long hair is for girls.
I’m not telling anyone else what they should do, I’m just telling you how I see things. My beard is an extension of my spirit and I grow it, maintain it, and keep it healthy to honor my ancestors. I grow my hair as a symbol of rejecting Roman law. To me, my hair and beard is not only a symbol of masculinity and virility, but it is an extension of my soul, gives me strength and prowess, and is a symbol of rejecting the laws of foreign Gods and maintaining the way of my ancestors.
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