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Beardstory Vol.1: The evolution of beards in Ancient civilizations as accessories of power

Beards have historically been accessories of power, and that perception is still ingrained in our collective imaginary. This is how ancient civilizations wore and understood beards.

It is said that beards are men’s best accessories. About a decade ago, long and vast beards became quite fashionable once again after decades in disuse and the thing is that, like fashion in general, trends in facial hair are also cyclical.

That is, that long lumberjack beard was trendy not only in our days, but also during the sixties and seventies, the late 19th century, some point between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, and among ancient Greeks. In that same way, the Iron-Man goatee or, as I like to call it, the 90s sleek beard was quite fashionable during Elizabethan times.

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But, beyond fashion statements, beards have also had a quite important political and status purpose. Either as symbols of nobility at some points or markers of commonness in others, whether if they were to install fear among enemies or to designate one’s wisdom, facial hair in general, and beards in particular, have always gone beyond fashion. Moreover, surveys have shown up that men with beards are always considered to be more respected, wiser, more powerful, or even to belong to a higher status.

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Beards are synonyms of masculinity and all the traits that come to that social construct have been long ingrained in our collective imagination. But how humanity understood and used certain styles of beards differs from time to time and from one civilization or culture to another. So, if you want to know how beards have evolved throughout time, just keep reading!

Prehistoric beards

Our prehistoric ancestors rocked long beards for different reasons, mostly practical. The first one, and most obvious, was for temperature purposes. Having a beard would protect their face from the cold and help them control their temperature. The second reason is as a shield to protect the nose and mouth from external agents, just as we have lashes and eyebrows, beards would catch all the things they didn’t want getting inside their bodies. Also, long fluffy beards would literally work as physical shields in combat or while hunting, providing a cushion effect on the face when being hit.

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Now, the last purpose of beards, and one that would be kept up in following cultures, was to infuse fear amongst their enemies. Yes, facial hair was used as a method of intimidation and, fun fact, that’s something many furry animals like lions, use. Beard, as we’ll see throughout history, gave a ‘manlier’ and more threatening look making individuals look stronger and mightier. This, little by little, was translated as a sign of honor among communities, to the point that cutting a beard became a punishment for those who behaved dishonestly.

The fashion statement of pharaohs

How beards were perceived in Ancient Egypt is quite fascinating. While Egyptians praised shaving and hairless faces as habits of cleanliness, beards had an important value for the royal spheres. Thus, beards became symbols of wealth, power, and influence, and besides the pharaoh and the royal family, wealthy people would also be allowed to wear beards.

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Long black, yet slim and perfectly assembled beards were the norm. To achieve that sleek look, rich ancient Egyptians made use of all sorts of products like waxes, oils, and perfumes; some would even dye their beards with henna to make them look perfectly black. Now, royals took it to the next level by adding some gold thread interwoven with their facial hair or would even wear a fake metal beard as a symbol of their ultimate might (as we can see on their mural paintings and statuettes). The interesting part is that queens would also wear them by tying them with a ribbon over their headpieces, like Hatshepsut who would present herself as both a male and female pharaoh.

The (very) long Persian beards

The ancient Iranians, or Persians, had definitely the longest and sleekest beards of all antiquity, a fashion and status statement that many still follow today. Generally, all Persian men grew long (mostly straight) beards but Kings or Qajars had the longest and most luscious ones. Their love for their beards was such, that legend has it, one Persian King exclaimed “what a pity it was, that a man possessing such fine mustache and beard should have been executed.”

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Kings and warriors would take the grooming of their regal beards to the next level by adorning them with luxurious jewels! The longest, the sleekest, and the most ornamented the better.

Beards as untouchable gifts

Moving to the east, in China beards also had quite an important meaning, even greater we could say. Legendary Confucius would say that the human body was a gift from our parents and, as such, making alterations was seen as reprehensible; that included cutting their hair. Now, this depended on the profession and social status as well. For instance, soldiers and farmers would be allowed to trim their beards since they would interfere with their daily work. Still, most men would simply keep it and arrangement in some comfortable way as we can see in the famous terracotta warriors.

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Ancient beards as signs of wisdom

With the ancient Greeks, beads had quite an evolution within their time. Beards were considered symbols of wisdom, authority, and virility. If we take a look at the ancient epics like Homer’s Illiad and Odyssey, most influential men and gods would be rocking a vast beard without a mustache. Shaving the beard was a common practice for mourning but most of the time men would keep their beards. To make beards even more majestic, ancient Greeks would curl them with tongs so they would look more voluminous and styled.

The importance of beards in the region was such, that even Spartans would shave the beards as punishment for those guilty of cowardice. This is because a hairless face was considered a sign of effeminacy.

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This would change in Macedonia under the rule of Alexander the Great. If you see any pictorial representation of him, you’ll notice he mostly rocked a smooth and hairless face. Alexander believed that beards made men look shabby and thus he ordered all his soldiers to shave their faces, firstly, because they would look more respectable, and secondly. because they could be a hazard in battle giving their enemies a chance to grab them.

Though Alexander the Great’s no-bead policy spread throughout his empire, there was a group that kept their luscious facial hair, and those were philosophers. Beards, as we see in figures like Aristotle, signaled their wisdom and profession since basically, only they would have beards. We can find this practice in common proverbs of the time like the one that says that “the beard doesn’t make the sage.”

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Beardless Romans

Ancient Romans shared Alexander the Great’s opinion on beards, and instead of using them to symbolize power and status, they would imply it through their hairstyles. However, during the first centuries of the Roman era, people still wore beards, and it’s even recorded that there were barbers in Rome since 299BCE.

However, beards were mostly associated with common Greeks, and in an attempt to differentiate from them was keeping a smooth hairless face. In that xenophobic mindset, beards were seen as filthy, and it was even forbidden for senators to wear them in the Senate. Shaving became an important act of manhood, and young men (mostly those in power) would have their first shaves in a ceremony where the hair cut off would be offered to a determined god.

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Contrary to the Greeks, Romans would only leave their beards grown as signs of respect when mourning. But as mentioned, these practices were mostly applied to the nobility and the wealthy. Common Romans would have a short beard they would only shave once a week when they went to the cities to trade or to buy goods.

It wouldn’t happen until the 2nd century CE when an emperor was seen with a beard. Hadrian, according to contemporary recounts was the very first Roman ruler to wear a full beard, and according to historians of the time, like Plutarch, he only did so to cover the scars on his face. Soon, Hadrian’s look would be replicated throughout the empire, bringing beards back into fashion. Other Emperors would keep the trend until Constantine the Great.

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The magnificent Viking beards

If there’s a civilization whose looks are strongly associated with beards that is certainly the fearsome Vikings. Their long voluminous beards adorned with braids, had a similar function to that of the prehistoric men. They used beards as weapons to instill fear among their enemies and the victims of their raids. Also, in the same purpose as the prehistoric men, having a beard allowed Vikings to protect their faces from the inclemencies of weather at sea.

But unlike many of the depictions we see in movies and series, the beards of the Vikings weren’t that shabby and messy, on the contrary, archaeological evidence has found that they were quite vain when it came to their looks. They would have perfectly groomed beards that also functioned as signs of their status within their communities.

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To be continued...

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