Saturday, March 9, 2013

Just who are these Redheads, Anyway?

With Cailín, the first book of my debut series Anam Céile Chronicles, releasing in little over a week, I thought I would dedicate this next month’s blog posts to subject matter I created the series around.  Aislinn, the heroine of this series, is a stubborn Irish lass, and naturally, she has red hair— something which I myself can also relate to.  Redheads have had a shaky history fitting in socially, going from being persecuted, ridiculed, and even put to death for the color of their hair to being admired and worshiped for it. 

I know from personal experience how bewildering being a redhead can be.  As a child I was teased and singled out for the color of my hair, which needless to say, took its toll upon my self esteem and resulted in my becoming rather shy and solitary.  Add that to my left-handedness and well, that’s another topic altogether!  I even went so far as to dye my hair, the first time at age eleven, to a lovely shade of mouse brown.  I was utterly thrilled!  During my teen years, I never did claim back my red hair, instead having it all shades of blonde and even black. 

Finally at eighteen I did revert to my natural born shade.  And what I discovered was nothing short of amazing— to a girl like myself, that is.  Now people, men and women alike, were stopping me in the street to tell me how beautiful my hair was.  My hair?  My red hair?  You must be screwing with me, I would think.  That took quite a many years to get used to, after having grown so accustomed to the opposite in my earlier years.

So, now that I am old enough to look back and laugh at going through all that, I am sharing my tale with you, my readers.  Perhaps you, too, are a redhead or have a redhead near and dear to you.  No matter how rare natural red hair is, and how beautiful it can be too, men and women who possess this hair color have often been ridiculed down through the ages.

For example, when red-headed Queen Elizabeth I reigned over England in the late 1590's, poet Edmund Spenser wrote "The Faerie Queene" in honor of her.  Thereafter, the English began to believe in faeries.  However, they were always depicted as being impish and naughty.  Consequently, faeries were said to have red hair. 

Here are some other interesting facts about redheads, as well as an equal number of harebrained myths.  Enjoy!


·        Red is the rarest hair color in humans, seen on the heads of only less than 1% of people in the world.  
·       While Scotland has the highest proportion (13%) of redheads (followed by Ireland with 10%), the United States has the largest population of redheads in the world, with between 6-18 million redheads, or 2-6% of the population.
·       There are two kinds of Redheads, says Mary Spillane, managing director of British image consultants Colour Me Beautiful.  There is "the autumn type with hazel eyes," and the Celtic type with translucent skin, light eyes and carrot top— the leprechaun redness "that people have trouble with.
·       Red hair is a recessive trait, which means that a child must inherit one red hair gene from each parent.  Recessive traits often come in pairs, therefore redheads are more likely than other people to be left handed.
·       According to genetic scientists, Redheads are becoming rarer and could be extinct in 100 years.  However, a National Geographic article states that while redheads may decline, barring a catastrophe, the gene for red hair will not likely become extinct.

Skin & Hair Truths

·       Since red-headed people have the fairest of skin, they tend to sunburn more easily.  They are also more susceptible to skin cancer and wrinkles.  That is why people with natural red hair need to protect their skin with moisturizers and sun blocks.
·       Because redheads have thicker hair than people with other hair colors, they have fewer strands of hair.  For example, while blondes have on average 140,000 hairs, redheads have the fewest strands of hair with an average of 90,000.
·       Because natural red hair holds its pigment more than other colors, it is harder to dye.
·       While brunettes and blondes have to deal with the dreaded gray hairs in their manes once they start to age, red-heads have an advantage here.  First, red-heads' hair maintains its natural color longer than any other hair color.  Second, a little known fact about natural red hair is that it never turns gray.  As a person ages, their red hair will turn to a sandy-blonde color.  It will then ultimately turn white.


·       The non-tanning skin associated with red hair may have been advantageous in far-northern climates where sunlight is scarce. Estimates on the original occurrence of the currently active gene for red hair vary from 20,000 to 100,000 years ago.  The gene that causes red hair initially had the benefit of increasing the body’s ability to make vitamin D, which was important for people living farther away from the equator.  However, today’s redheads are more likely to develop skin cancer and premature wrinkles.
·       Scientists now report that a DNA study concludes that some Neanderthals had a version of the gene that causes red hair but not the same variant as in modern humans, suggesting they did not interbreed with each other.

Biochemistry and Genetics

·       In 1995, Professor Jonathan Reese discovered that mutations of the gene MC1R on chromosome 16 were responsible for red hair (known as the “Ginger Gene”).  Red hair appears in people with two copies of the recessive gene.
·       The MC1R recessive variant gene that gives people red hair and non-tanning skin is also associated with freckles, though it is not uncommon to see a redhead without freckles. Eighty percent of redheads have an MC1R gene variant, and the prevalence of these alleles is highest in Scotland and Ireland.  The alleles that code for red hair occur close to the alleles that affect skin color, so it seems that the phenotypic expression for lighter skin and red hair are interrelated.
·       This type of inheritance is described as an autosomal recessive mode of inheritance.  Even if neither parents have red hair themselves, both can be carriers for the gene and have a redheaded child.
·       Some scholars postulate that it is this same gene mutation which also affects the way redheads respond to pain and anesthetics.
·       The pigment pheomelanin gives red hair its distinctive color.  Red hair has far more of the pigment pheomelanin than it has of the dark pigment eumelanin.
·       Red hair is associated with fair skin color because of low concentrations of eumelanin throughout the body of those with red hair.  This lower melanin-concentration confers the advantage that a sufficient concentration of important Vitamin D can be produced under low light conditions.  However, when UV-radiation is strong (as in regions close to the equator) the lower concentration of melanin leads to several medical disadvantages, such as a higher risk of skin cancer.

Medical Facts

·       According to the Outcomes Research Institute of the University of Louisville, two studies have demonstrated that people with red hair have different sensitivity to pain compared to people with other hair colors.  One study found that people with red hair are more sensitive to thermal pain (associated with naturally occurring low vitamin K levels), while another study concluded that redheads are less sensitive to pain from multiple modalities, including noxious stimuli such as electrically induced pain.  
·       Other research publications have concluded that women with naturally red hair require less of the painkiller pentazocine than do either women of other hair colors or men of any hair color.  A study showed women with red hair had a greater analgesic response to that particular pain medication than men.  A follow-up study by the same group showed that men and women with red hair had a greater analgesic response to morphine-6-glucuronide.
·       Redheads are harder to sedate than any other people, often requiring twenty percent more anesthesia.  Inadequate doses cause people to wake up during surgery and have increased recall of procedures.
·        People with red hair have twice the risk of developing Parkinson’s Disease.

Red Hot!

·       Redheaded women are often associated with sexual prowess.  According to Playboy Magazine, “Redheads are like any other women— only much more so.”
·       According to Hamburg sex researcher Dr. Werner Habermehl, “Interestingly enough, in self reported studies, women with red hair, have been shown to have more active and satisfying sex lives and have more sex than women with other hair colors.”  He also postulates that women in a relationship who dye their hair red may be signaling that they are unhappy and looking for something better.
·       One belief about redheads is that they are highly sexed; for example, Jonathan Swift satirizes redhead stereotypes in part four of Gulliver's Travels, "A Voyage to the Country of the Houyhnhnms" when he writes that: "It is observed that the red-haired of both sexes are more libidinous and mischievous than the rest, whom yet they much exceed in strength and activity.  In the novel and film Red-Headed Woman, the titular protagonist is a sexually aggressive home-wrecker who frequently throws violent temper tantrums.


·       Scholars note that redheads have influenced history out of proportion to their numbers. Famous redheads include Roman emperor Nero, Helen of Troy, Cleopatra, the ancient god of love Aphrodite, Queen Elizabeth I, Napoleon Bonaparte, Oliver Cromwell, Emily Dickinson, Antonio Vivaldi, Thomas Jefferson, Vincent Van Gogh, Mark Twain, James Joyce, Winston Churchill, Malcolm X, Galileo, and King David.
·       In ancient Rome, redheaded slaves were often more expensive than those with other hair color.
·       In Egypt, redheads were buried alive as sacrifices to the god Osiris.
·       Lilith, the supposed first wife of Adam, is said to have had red hair.  She was ultimately kicked out of the Garden of Eden because she refused to be subordinate to Adam.  She was known to have refused to lie beneath Adam during sexual intercourse, and stated “why should I lie beneath you when I am your equal since both of us were created from dust?” –Patai
·       During the witch hunts of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in Europe, many women were burned at the stake as witches merely because they had red hair.
·       Hitler reportedly banned the marriage of redheads in order to prevent “deviant offspring.”
·       The sixteenth-century artist Titian (Tiziano Vecelli) painted so many redheads that his name became associated with a shade of red.
·       In Michelangelo’s Temptation and in St. Paul's Cathedral, Eve is initially depicted as having brown and blond hair, respectively.  But in both artistic renditions, after she eats the apple and she and Adam are driven from the Garden of Eden, Eve is depicted as a redhead.
·       Archaeological digs in the Chinese desert of Takla Makan found mummified redheads dating back 3,000 years.

Other Fun Facts

·       The color Green tempers red. Look at a color chart. This is why redheads are taught as children to wear lots of green.  As if having red hair is a shameful state of being.
·       Ruadh gu brath is Gaelic for “Red heads forever!”
·       “Gingerphobia” is a fear of redheads.  “Gingerism” is the bullying or prejudice of redheads.
·       Some common surnames in the British Isles reflect the frequency of red hair there, including Flannery (“red eyebrow”), Reid (“red-haired, ruddy complexion”), and Flynn (“bright red”).
·       Redheadday is the name of a Dutch festival that takes place each first weekend of September in the city of Breda, the Netherlands.  The two-day festival is a gathering of people with natural red hair, but is also focused on art related to the color red.  Activities during the festival include lectures, workshops and demonstrations.

The Myths

Red hair has long been associated with flaming tempers, peculiarity, lying and red-hot sexuality and the myths surrounding them reflect just that.

·       Temperament: A common belief about redheads is that they have fiery tempers and sharp tongues.  In Anne of Green Gables, a character says of Anne Shirley, the redheaded heroine, that "her temper matches her hair", while in The Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caulfield remarks that "People with red hair are supposed to get mad very easily, but Allie [his dead brother] never did, and he had very red hair."
·       During the early stages of modern medicine, red hair was thought to be a sign of a sanguine temperament.  In the Indian medicinal practice of Ayurveda, redheads are seen as most likely to have a Pitta temperament.  In studies no difference in the temperament of redheads has been shown at all.
·       Alien hybrid theory: There’s a conspiracy theory that redheads are alien-human hybrids. One article asks "think about it: Why did several kings and queens of Europe have red hair even though, percentage-wise, redheads are fairly rare?"  This is only one of many reasons the conspiracy theorists give for stating that redheads may in fact be an alien race. The real explanation for this is obvious to anyone who understands genetics and royalty however.  Royalty throughout history in all parts of the world was notoriously incestuous and inbred.  This means that once just one person with redheaded genes getting into the mix could easily result in a royal family producing many redheads throughout future generations. After all, red hair is dominant to blonde hair, which makes this situation all the more likely.
·       Mark Twain once quipped that “while the rest of the human race are descended from monkeys, redheads derive from cats.”
·       Belief that redheads are witches is a folk belief in Germanic culture.  From 1483-1784 thousands of suspected witches were nearly always stripped and searched for “marks of the devil”.  These included any “abnormality” such as freckles, moles, warts, and birthmarks.  Red hair was certainly considered an abnormality.  Considering the freckle factor for redheads this was a deadly and shocking horror.  Approximately 45,000 women were tortured and murdered usually by burning at the stake or by drowning.
·       According to an old Russian adage, “There was never a saint with red hair”.
·       Russian tradition declares that red hair is both a sign that a person holds a fiery temper and craziness.
·       A French Proverb states that “Redheaded women are either violent or false, and usually are both.” 
·       The Egyptians regarded the color as so unlucky that they had a ceremony in which they burned red-headed maidens alive to wipe out the tint.
·       During the Spanish Inquisition flame colored hair was evidence that its owner had stolen the fire of hell and had to be burned as a witch.
·       The Romans kept red haired slaves, and sold them at a higher price.
·       In Corsica, if you pass a redhead in the street you are to spit and turn around.
·       In Poland, if you see three Redheads at the same time, you will win the lottery.
·       In Denmark it is an honor to have a redheaded child.
·       It brings one good luck to rub your hand on a Redhead`s head
·       Bees sting Redheads more often.

Religious and Mythological Traditions

·       Some scholars speculate that because Adam was from “red earth” and the Hebrew word for “red” is adom, that Adam was a redhead.
·       Satan is often portrayed as a redhead most likely because red was viewed as the color of sexual desire and moral degradation.
·       Eve’s red hair is seen as the stain of sin like the original scarlet letter.  Later her son, Cain, will bear the red hair and also a fall from grace.
·       In the Iliad, Achilles' hair is described as ξανθῆς, usually translated as blonde, or golden but sometimes as red or tawny.  His son Neoptolemus also bears the name Pyrrhus, a possible reference to his own red hair.
·       The Norse god Thor is usually described as having red hair.
·       Mary Magdalene is commonly portrayed with long red hair, as in the painting by Anthony Frederick Augustus Sandys.
·       Early artistic representations of Mary Magdalene usually depict her as having long flowing red hair, although a description of her hair color was never mentioned in the Bible, and it is possible the color is an effect caused by pigment degradation in the ancient paint.
·       Red hair dyeing is sometimes practised in Islam, because it is reported that Muhammad had red hair.
·       Judas Iscariot is also represented with red hair in Spanish culture and in the works of William Shakespeare, reinforcing the negative stereotype.
·       In Greek Mythology, all redheads turn into Vampires when they die.
·       According to legend, the first redhead was Prince Idon of Mu who, upon discovering Atlantis, was imprinted with the island’s stunning red sunset and leaves in the form of red hair and freckles so future generations would be reminded of Atlantis’ first sunset.
·       There is a tradition amongst astrologers that the planet Mars ("the red planet") is more likely to be rising above the eastern horizon (on or near the astrological Ascendant, which supposedly influences a person's appearance) at the time of the birth of a red haired person than for the population in general.

Medieval Beliefs

·       During the Middle Ages, a child with red hair was thought to have been conceived during “unclean sex” or during menstruation.
·       Red hair was thought to be a mark of a beastly sexual desire and moral degeneration.  
·       Montague Summers, in his translation of the Malleus Maleficarum, notes that red hair and green eyes were thought to be the sign of a witch, a werewolf or a vampire during the Middle Ages.
·       “Those whose hair is red, of a certain peculiar shade, are unmistakably vampires.”
·       It is significant that in ancient Egypt, as Manetho tells us, human sacrifices were offered at the grave of Osiris, and the victims were red-haired men who were burned, their ashes being scattered far and wide by winnowing-fans.  It is held by some authorities that this was done to fertilize the fields and produce a bounteous harvest, red-hair symbolizing the golden wealth of the corn.  But these men were called Typhonians, and were representatives not of Osiris but of his evil rival Typhon, whose hair was red.

I hope you have enjoyed and possibly even learned a thing or two from this.  I know I did, and it is always interesting to learn more about something pertaining to yourself of which you were not even aware, as well as the history of a group of people from which one hails.  While some of it is rather comical, alas other parts are horrifyingly sad. 

© 2013 Rosalind Scarlett


  1. Great article! My wife, who is also a redhead, learned a thing or two herself. :)

    There's one story told to me by my Irish Studies prof from university (a genuine Irishman)that you could add under the heading of superstitions: There are parts of Ireland where it is considered unlucky if the crew of a fishing boat see a redheaded woman standing on the shore as they are sailing out to sea. Some captains will turn their boats around and head back into port if this happens.


  2. Thanks for that, Don! You know, I do believe I remember that one myself. There is so many, it is hard to get 'em all in there! So, in Ireland, I would think that would be a common problem. They wouldn't be getting much fishing done if they stopped the boat everytime they see a redheaded woman!


  3. "They wouldn't be getting much fishing done if they stopped the boat every time they see a redheaded woman!"

    hmmmm . . .

    I'll just leave this one alone for now!