Saturday, January 26, 2019

Cultural Appropriation Unmasked: “Fairy Locks” and the Truth of Celtic & Viking Hairstyles

In a previous blog post the topic of cultural appropriation was addressed, and several examples of cultural appropriation were discussed, including the cultural appropriation of African American hair styles.  The debate about the appropriation versus “appreciation” of these hairstyles has continued to rage before and after I posted that piece, but the debate has evolved into a new area: cultural appropriation of African American hairstyles as justified through fairy locks.  This blog post will discuss what fairy locks are (or claim to be), as well as address the accuracy of the “evidence” that supporters of fairy locks use to support their claims as to how fairy locks are not cultural appropriation but instead a part of their own culture for centuries.

Figure 1: Fairy Locks (Source: Pinterest)

The concept of fairy locks comes from various European folklore.  Fairy locks are tangles and matts in hair caused by fairies or elves twisting and tangling hair of those who sleep, particularly those with long hair.  Several folktales speak of the ways that these entities would cause mischief to unsuspecting sleepers, and even William Shakespeare discussed this concept in his play, King Lear.  Aside from the source material derived from European folklore and Shakespeare the enemies of the Celts and Vikings, specifically the ancient Greeks, identified them as having “snakes” for hair.  There are indeed references to such identifications among the ancient Greeks, who also claimed that the Celts and Vikings were horses, pigs, and any number of other creatures that they saw as beasts of burden.  There was even a report of the ancient Greeks likening these outsiders to being satyrs, which was not a compliment much like the other, previously discussed pieces of information.   Today, individuals who subscribe to the concept of fairy locks claim that this was a normal and even preferred hairstyle among various European groups, including the Celts and Vikings, and modern subscribers “dread” their hair (Figure 1), claiming that they have a right to do so as their European ancestors had done it for centuries before.

When I first heard of fairy locks I was shocked by the claim that past Europeans “dreaded” their hair.  I was shocked because as someone who grew up in Europe and visited various museums as I was a lover of all things historical (as I aspired to be an archaeologist since before I started school) I do not recall ever seeing such hairstyles depicted in the archaeological record.  This is because there is actually no evidence in that record to support the claims by white fairy locks subscribers that the Celts or Vikings did dread their hair.  

Figure 2: Lindow Man (Photo from the Trustees of the British Museum)
The Celts wore their hair in a variety of ways, as evidenced by bog bodies/mummies.  These mummies of both men and women throughout Europe and Scandinavia are so well preserved that their clothing and hair styles remain intact, allowing scholars and viewers to review what their appearance was like as it is in essence frozen in time.  Based on this evidence we can see that the Celtic men preferred their hair cut short, most often in a bowl cut (Figure 2), whereas Celtic women wore their long hair in a variety of braids, sometimes adorning them with various trinkets and ornaments.  This could account for how and why the Greeks believed the Celts had snakes in their hair.  This is further supported by the evidence of the hair found of the Clonycavan Man, who is associated with having the “first mohawk” (Figure 3).  His hair was twisted (braided) and afixed to the top of his head through pine resin and plant oil gels.  His hair style is by far the most unique of the bog bodies.  Further archaeological and historical evidence further demonstrates that the preferred hair styles of the Celts were short hair for men and long, braided hair for women.   

Figure 3: Clonycavan Man (Source: Archaeology Magazine)

Hair was of great importance to Vikings, as noted through in their religion.  According to the Viking beliefs Loki, the trickster god, cut the hair of Siv, wife of Thor (god of Thunder), and Thor retaliated by almost killing Loki because the act of cutting Siv’s hair was such a grave offense.  Loki paid retribution to both Thor and Siv by creating hair of gold for Siv, which she wore proudly because it did not break or tangle.  The Vikings, who often preferred their hair long, would often leave it straight, up in ponytails or top knots, or worn in a series of braids, either laying straight or wrapped up in intricate hairstyles (such as wrapped around their heads or in tight buns).  This is evidenced in Viking iconography, such as statues (Figure 4) and tapestries.  Hair care was also of the utmost importance to the ancient Vikings, who were known to carry around hair combs in order to maintain untangled and well-kept hair.  Hair combs are found in various Viking sites-both in Scandinavia and outside of it-as well as buried with the deceased (as it was taboo to take another’s hair comb).  Taken together there is no evidence that the Celts or Vikings dreaded their hair.

Figure 4: Valkyrie from Harby (Source: Artifact, 2014)

As someone who is both European and has had (and currently does have) long hair I can attest to how easy it is to wake up in the morning and find several matts in one’s hair.  As a child this was a constant issue, primarily caused by improper care of my hair.  I am not the only one who has had this problem, though.  My sister had similar issues growing up, and I used to spend hours brushing a friend’s daughter’s hair, which went down to her back, to get rid of the knots and mats.  The reason her hair tangled and matted so easily was because, like me as a child, she did not properly brush her hair.  This explanation is far more plausible of an explanation for the concept of fairy locks than the notion that European populations “dreaded” their hair, which according to the archaeological and historical record the Celts and Vikings themselves would have seen as offensive and deviant.  Therefore, the claims that these groups did “dread” their hair is actually dishonoring their memory. 

This is not meant to demean the act of “dreading” hair among Blacks/African Americans.  This is part of their culture and an effective means of maintaining their hair.  It is part of their identity, which unfortunately due to a series of laws and the language associated with the act is often used against them.  This is why the act of “dreading” hair among non-Blacks/African Americans is often appropriation.  As noted in the previous post non-Blacks/African Americans who do this hairstyle are seen as trendy and cool, whereas Blacks/African Americans are seen as dirty and bad.  The evolution of the “dreading” debate into the fairy locks is just one more means of appropriation as well as misrepresenting and dishonoring the past.

Works Cited

Artifact. (2014, September/October). Archaeology Magazine.
Artifact. (2015, July/August). Archaeology Magazine.
Arwill-Nordbladh, E. (2016). Viking Age Hair. Internet Archaeology.
Lobell, J. A., & Patel, S. S. (2010, May/June). Bog Bodies Rediscovered . Archaeology Magazine.
Lobell, J. A., & Patel, S. S. (2010, May/June). Clonycavan and Old Croghan Men. Archaeology Magazine.
Mehta, A. (2017, February 17). Celtic Hair History. Retrieved from The Celtic Fringe:
Riley, M. (1997). Hair, Jewelry, etc. Retrieved from Clothing of the Ancient Celts :
Sherrow, V. (2006). Encyclopedia of Hair: A Cultural History. Greenwood Publishing Group.


Taylor Morris said...

I like how this post is in depth about appropriation. I think sometimes we all get confused on what is appropriate and not appropriate. Its okay to know where things originated or came from without demeaning others culture and ways.

jada madison said...

I love this post,I recently had a conversation with someone about dreads or locs.I have never heard of fairy locs which I guess are different then locs worn by african american people.I recently saw a video on a teacher talking about how the word dreads came from Caucasians tellings african americans that their hair was dreadful being wrapped in that way, and eventually we just adapted to the word.Now, I dont know how true this is but I believe people that do wear locs believe they are a spiritual thing.I honestly just think its a hair style.

Anonymous said...

This is my first time hear about "Fairy Locks". Almost the same thing as Dreads or Locs. The concept behind Fairy locks is actually a cute story( even though it was "mischief". Fairies or elves locking your hair.
-Kyla Thomas

Unknown said...

You know I found a whole style based around fairylocks. I found it interesting and considered buying colorful "elflocks or dreadfalls" pieces to supplement my dreds for parties and the like. I knew about them but never thought of the implications of such things. I wonder Dr. Boston, what, if any actions should be taken to address this matter?


Cybergoth style:

Tori Spencer

Dr. Christine Elisabeth Boston said...

Sadly, the misinformation on this and several other topics is rampant, and it is slowly being addressed by individual scholars, such as myself, as well as nonscholars, such as friends of mine who realized these issues independent of me. Those who want to listen do but those who do not, well, they don't.

Anonymous said...


As I was reading, I was thinking about how blacks would consider this hairstyle "natural." Dreading is very common in the African American culture. Many see this style as a way to reconnect with their roots.

I have also seen this style used against African Americans. Often times, dreading is associated with being rowdy, as well as gang related. It is unfortunate because I have plenty of friends who are respectable young men that wear this hair style.

Joell Davis

Strawhyuk ♡ said...

I read about a King (Danish/Norwegian) who wore those locks on purpose?
What about that?

Dr. Christine Elisabeth Boston said...

Thanks for your question, Strawhyuk. Do you remember the specific source of this information? It is important to know this because of where that sourced material came from. Without appropriate evidence to support such claim then the information that you read may not have been accurate. Without knowing the source I cannot at this time comment on the accuracy of such claims. Based on the research that I and my colleagues working in the region have done there is no credible evidence to support the inclusion of dreadlocks as part of the Viking or Scandinavian hairstyles.

Shawn Austin said...

At first glance fairylocks looks like free form dreads, as we would call it in African american culture but the story behind the hairstyle makes it intriguing. The fact it comes from mischief is kinda funny to me but that is what makes it unique.

Tijunay Roberts said...

The idea of fairy locs being created because of fairies is an interesting idea that does make sense. It also makes sense that they can get natted if it isn’t properly taken care of when you go to bed. Mainly because if any one goes to sleep with their hair naturally out it is usually for it to nap up. I know mine does. That's one reason why as a child I was told to always braid my hair before I go to sleep.

Anonymous said...

I find it really funny how people made fairy locs up as a rebuttal to cultural appropriation. This form of fake news is so rampant on the internet due to confirmation bias. Also, it's not surprising due to the constant gaslighting of black people over cultural appropriation to mask the white guilt felt across America. In addition, it's sad because all people ask is that people educate themself and appreciate the culture rather than stealing it and fabricating lies and faulted arguments like appropriating blonde hair.
- Gavin G

Evelyn said...

as an Irish person people calling them "fairy locs" is the most frustrating thing. Not only has our entire culture been erased by the English, people now just make stuff up about it lol (and love to classify it as "fairycore"...). Most Irish people have incredibly thin hair, my hair can't even hold a curl... Dreads would not only serve no purpose but also probably damage the hair, and Norse and Irish people showered regularly which would prevent any natural dreads from forming not only that, hair combs are some of the most common ancient Norse artifacts found. I just don't understand why people fight tooth and nail for this. (I feel like the whole "vikings with locs" trope started because people wanted a way to dress them as "barbaric" and "tribal" aka anti-blackness.) Even if we did have locs thousands of years ago, today Locs for white people serve no purpose. It does not connect us to any cultural heritage. Our grandparents and great grandparents and great great grandparents never ever had locs and they just look plain ugly on white people.