The African Context of Hair in Ancient Egypt



In February, #blackinasia wrote an essay, “Ancient Egyptian “Blackness” in the Graeco-Roman Imagination”, based on the ancient Egyptian race “controversy”, a long held debate that takes root from anti-black racism (Martin 300-306), that rejects any possibility of seeing ancient Egypt within an African context. This “controversy” has led ancient Egypt to be grouped under a near Eastern context, a European context in popular culture or a group of its own, entirely separate from the rest of African cultures (Martin 296). However, what usually goes largely ignored is the Afrocentric elements ancient Egyptians used in portraying themselves.


[image description: A model of a funerary boat from a tomb at Beni Hasan. 11th-12th Dynasty with figurines wearing Afro-like styles]

In #blackinasia’s essay on “blackness” in ancient Egyptian, he explains that the ancient Egyptians would more likely see themselves more as an African people than anything else through their cultural, linguistic, and biological background. #blackinasia starts off with explaining their ancestral homeland, the Land of Punt, which is located in modern-day Ethiopia and Eritrea. He then goes on to the biological similarities between the ancient Egyptians and Nubians (who are accepted as black Africans). Then onto how in ancient Egyptian art, Egyptians are depicted in brown and black hues. He later ends the essay with what is considered “blackness” through Graeco-Roman perceptions, listing more examples where Greek scholars imagined Egyptians within an African context.


[image description: a map of the continent of African with Egypt highlighted and label revealing it’s location]

I first would like to paraphrase Eglash and Odumosu (102) when I say that Africa does not have a homogenous culture in anyway, that is not to say that there a singular African identity, so instead I use the term “African context”. When I speak about an “African hair culture” it is to simplify a complex phenomena describing a family resemblance across multiple cultural streams.

As #blackinsasia mentions there are some cultural roots of ancient Egypt that better portrays them as an African people than ancient near eastern or European people. I believe there are actually multiple examples of how this is culturally true. However, for the sake of the theme for this blog, in this essay I argue that through close examination of the history of hair and hairstyles in ancient Egypt a pattern of similarities can be seen with African cultures and in fact that such cultural hair practices can only be indigenous to an African context. 


[image description: a side-by-side comparison between a Himba child and Ramesses II as a child to show a cultural resemblance in which it is quite common for various African peoples to shave their infants’ head, sometimes leaving a tuft of hair. (Seiber and Herreman 56).]

The Hair Texture of Ancient Egyptians


[image description: an artistic depiction of Herodotus, known as the “father of history and travel writing.” Photo via The Telegraph)

The ancient Greek historian, Herodotus, describes the hair of the ancient Egyptians as woolly using the term (οὐλότριχες), ulotrichous which means woolly or crisp hair. The root word, οὐλό, also has been used by Greeks to also describe the hair of Ethiopians, or black Africans (Snowden 6). There is also Cleopatra’s attendant, Iras, who is described as being dark-skinned with woolly hair (Snowden 15).


[image description: A Fresco Scene of two grape farmers, two of which had thread-like lines for hair which possibly represents straight hair and the figure to the far right seems to be wearing afro-textured hair.]

Though enough mummies have been discovered to infer that some ancient Egyptians had straight hair, this piece of fact is usually used as an end-all debate by anti-black racists that deem it impossible for ancient Egyptians to be seen in an African context. What usually happens is that anti-black racists show that Egyptian mummies had straight hair and that supposedly that proves ancient Egyptians were closer to Arabs, Europeans, or any other people other than Africans. However, many of these denialists fail to explain why straight hair is apparently lacking in ancient Egyptian hairstyles. In fact, if we examine the history of ancient Egypt a trend of the indigenous people being woolly-haired becomes more evident especially in the Predynastic periods.


[image description: A scene from the Narmer Palette from the Naqada III period of two afro-haired men.]

Throughout ancient Egyptian history, including the Predynastic periods, there have been sufficient discoveries of combs with long teeth resembling African combs, suited for combing through and detangling coarse hair.


[image description: Ivory combs and hair pins from the Naqada period before the rise of Pharaohonic Egypt.]

There have even been a discovery of a toupee being made out of sheep’s or goat’s wool (Tassie 1066).

With the examples given through literary and art representations, and the use of particular materials and tools such as wool wigs and “Afro-combs”, it is safe to assume that the ancient Egyptians did have a consistent history of having “woolly”, or οὐλό type of hair. Although some ancient Egyptians did indeed seem to had straight hair, the absence of straight hair in the majority of art seem to suggest it was either not standard and/or did not fit within ideal image of their culture. 

The Dominant Culture of Hair in Ancient Egypt

“There are five main operations that can be performed on hair:

It can be curled or left curly;

It can be straightened or left straight;

It can be plaited, twisted, or teased;

Hair can be added; and

Hair can be taken away.” (Tassie 1064)

Although there have been Egyptians with straight hair, we normally don’t see any incorporation of leaving the hair straight in their various hairstyles especially among the upper class.This tells us the kind of dominant culture present within ancient Egypt society that led to a suppression toward otherness, such as balding (not the same as baldness), any hair color that wasn’t black, and as I argue in this paper, straight hair as well. (Tassie 1063).

According to the Dictionary of Sociology, dominant culture can be defined as the established cultural traits that would be considered as the norm for a society as a whole. Regarding to hair, the ancient Egyptians would usually either curl (even tightly), twist, and plait their hair, or hair pieces.


[image description: (from left to right) lady Istemkhebs’ short curly wig , duplex wig, Ahmose-Hentempet’s short curly wig. Located in the Cairo Musuem]

These alterations to the hair actually bear more resemblance to afro-textured hair and aesthetics found in African cultures. We can even see many of these similar alterations and styles in modern-day black Africans (the well ignored) that inhabit Northeast Africa, such the Afar people.


[image description: Ancient Egyptian depiction of Nubians wearing traditional hairstyles of status, bringing tribute on the tomb of Huy. Note the Nubian servant with straight-ish hair]

It cannot be left unsaid that ancient Egyptians also enjoyed other styling methods that other Africans did to their hair, such as tinting and particular braiding pattern even to the point of emulating Nubian hairstyles, as stated above the two are closely related biologically.

theancientworld:    Canopic Jar Lid, New Kingdom, Dynasty 18, late reign of Akhenaten, ca. 1340–1336 B.C.Egyptian; From KV55, Valley of the Kings, western ThebesEgyptian alabaster with glass and stone inlays     Egyptian wigs are always something I’ve found fascinating.  This is a really lovely representation of one in a pretty stunning medium!  ALABASTER!

[image description: Canopic Jar Lid in the Shape of a Royal Woman’s Head wearing a hairstyle much similar to Nubians]

I like to further my point on the dominant culture of hair in ancient Egypt. During wig constructions, the type of hair they used for the wigs in every case was straight hair rather than afro-textured hair except that of Maiherpri’s (Fletcher 495). The hair would be gathered from either the wearers’ own heads, foreign captives, or from trading(Tassie 1066). However, the use and handling of straight hair did not prompt ancient Egyptians to seek out Eurocentric aesthetics, but rather they consistently altered the texture to appear more like Afro-textured hair or other African styles.


I would like to thank medievalpoc and lannaluv for reviewing this essay.

Further Reading

Curating Kemet: Fear of a Black Land? by Sally-Ann Ashton 

Egyptian hair combs in the Fitzwilliam Museum by Sally-Ann Ashton

Hair and the Construction of Identity in Ancient Egypt by Gay Robins


#Blackinasia. “Ancient Egyptian ‘Blackness’ in the Graeco-Roman Imagination”. Tumblr. 18 Feb. 2014. Web. 24 Feb. 2014

Bridge, Sarah. “The Ethiopian Tribes Who Use BUTTER to Style Their Hair: Incredible Photos Reveal the Elaborate Curled Creations of the Afar People, and the Hamer Who Mix Ghee with Red Ochre to Spectacular Effect.” Mail Online. Associated Newspapers, 13 Feb. 2014. Web. 24 Feb. 2014.

"Dominant Culture." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 22 Jan. 2014. Web. 24 Feb. 2014.

Eglash R. and Odumosu T. “Fractals, Complexity, and Connectivity in Africa.” What Mathematics from Africa? ed. G. Sica. Italy: Polimetrica International Scientific Publisher, 2005. 101-109. PDF File.

Fletcher, Joann. “Hair.” Ancient Egyptian Materials and Technology. By Ian Shaw. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2000. 495-96. Print.

"GEICO Ancient Pyramids Were A Mistake Commercial." MarketMeNot. n.d. Web. 24 Feb. 2014.

GORDON MARSHALL. “dominant culture.” A Dictionary of Sociology. 1998. 24 Feb. 2014 

knowledgeequalsblackpower.”Maiherpri, Buried at Thebes, Valley of the Kings, New Kingdom 18th Dynasty, 1427-1392 BC” Tumblr. 10 Jan. 2012. Web. 24 Feb. 2014.

Martin, F. “The Egyptian Ethnicity Controversy and the Sociology of Knowledge”.Journal of Black Studies 14.3 (1984) 296+300-306. Print.

Seiber R. and Herreman F. “Hair in African Art and Culture”. African Arts33.3. 2000. 54-69+96. PDF File. 

Snowden, Frank M. Blacks in Antiquity; Ethiopians in the Greco-Roman Experience. Cambridge, MA: Belknap of Harvard UP, 1970. Print.

Tassie, G. J. “Hair in Egypt.”, “Hair in Egypt: People and Technology Used in Creating Egyptian Hairstyles and Wigs”,”Hairstyling Technology and Techniques Used in Ancient Egypt”. Encyclopaedia of the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine in Non-western Cultures: With 107 Tables. ed. Helaine Selin. Berlin: Springer, 2008. 1060-1076. Print.

TRUTHTEACHER2007. Ancient Egyptian Afro Wigs. Youtube. 22 Apr. 2010. Web. 24 Feb. 2014.

The research here is amazing.

This is awesome.

3 hours ago on April 16th, 2014 | J | 2,493 notes







Slang: Victorian English




I get the feeling the Victorians would have been fans of “frickle-frackle”

I was gonna make a Thot joke but im ready for that word to be dead and gone, dead and gone.  

Ay girl, let me see your crinkum-crankum.

1 day ago on April 15th, 2014 | J | 60,056 notes


uh yeah i’m a pretty big history buff *picks up rock* this has probably been here for a long time. *touches ground* old people once stood on this ground. maybe even dinosaurs

2 days ago on April 14th, 2014 | J | 36,487 notes
If there is a God, He will have to beg my forgiveness.

A phrase that was carved on the walls of a concentration camp cell during WWII by a Jewish prisoner.  (via ieula)

I looked this up and it’s legit, though it’s not 100% certain that the person who wrote it was Jewish. The linked documentary is also a reminder of how unthinkably horrible the places like Mauthausen really were.

(via archaeo-geek)

3 days ago on April 13th, 2014 | J | 38,063 notes
About your nose ring rant: 4 for you Grendel, you go Grendel :D

Thanks, lovie!

3 days ago on April 13th, 2014 | J | 8 notes
So I read your rant about the nose ring message and I thought it sounded fair but at first I thought that maybe you overreacted a little bit, but then I scrolled down to see the actual ask and holy shit that was actually kinda disturbing. It's so creepy to think that there are actual people out there that not only have those kind of weird thoughts in their head, but actually think that it will benefit them in some way to share those thoughts with you...

Thanks, friend!

I’m sure there’s people out there who wouldn’t mind being told someone wants to play with their nose ring. But I’m not one of them.

I think the part that I find most bizarre is that this person really thought that telling me this would come across as positive in some way.

3 days ago on April 13th, 2014 | J | 2 notes
I think you're extremely attractive and would one day feel very honored to be able to chat with you about history and possibly shake your hand.


Thank you. That is sweet of you to say.

Ok, now, y’all take notes because THIS is an example of an OK compliment.

4 days ago on April 12th, 2014 | J | 9 notes
you overreacted to the nose ring thing dramatically. i don't think they meant any of that literally.


RE: This post

On the surface it could be seen that way, yes.

But comments do not exist in a vacuum. Nothing does.

If you have even an ounce of respect for me, hear me out:

Had that person come to me asking, simply, if I had a nose ring, I’d have been happy to answer. Had they asked for info on it (advice on obtaining or taking care of one, my opinion on body mods, how long I’d had it, etc) I’d have been happy to answer.

Had they simply said “I think you’re pretty” or “I think it’s awesome that you know so much about history”, I’d have been fine with it. 

But that was not what was said. I felt threatened by the comment that this person wants to play with my nose ring, and I think that it is wildly presumptuous of this person to think they could talk of kissing me - a complete and total stranger who has never invited or welcomed any such attention over the internet from any person, and who, in fact, actively makes it known that these approaches are NOT welcomed.

They openly ignored my FAQ where I talk about how these comments make me uncomfortable.

I know that it was probably not meant literally. I’m not foolish enough to think that this person had active intents. But this is where that whole “not a vacuum” thing comes into play. Because for every joking comment, there are countless very, very real comments. When I am told by a stranger, “I want to do this/that/the other to you”, I have no way of knowing if it’s a joke. I have no way to be sure that this person isn’t going to follow me, harass me, stalk me, to get what they want. I have zero proof that there isn’t a threat.

And, unfortunately, we live in a world where women are constantly under fire and where lots of people COULD and WOULD carry out a desire to play with my nose ring or kiss me, with or without my consent.

Is it any wonder that I feel threatened by these sorts of messages?

Furthermore, the phrasing of the comments threw up massive red flags for me. “Sorry if this is rude, you’re just cute…” “…and then possibly kiss you because of how awesome you are.” Think about that. Think about how those are phrased. Both comments reassign the causation of these urges from the person feeling them to me. These comments make it MY fault that THEY want to kiss me. They make it MY fault that THEY are saying these things. When - again - I have never welcomed or encouraged this kind of attention, and have in fact actively discouraged it. The first comment, moreover, indicates to me that this person knows very well that their ask is inappropriate, and is going to go ahead and send it anyway, and then try and make it look like it’s my fault that they’re sending it.

That is not ok.

This may be a minor sort of issue. But it isn’t alone. I’m not calling them out just to be mean. I’m trying to use it to explain WHY this is not ok and discourage further comments in this vein because clearly I do not like and do not want them! Hopefully this will not only show the anon that I DON’T take it as a compliment, but it will also show them WHY and if I’m very lucky, other people will see it and think “oh, maybe that’s a bad way to talk to someone”. That’s what I’m hoping for anyway.

So, maybe I’m not just reacting to one little comment. Maybe I’m reacting to an entire system that threatens me, and trying to cut off a stem born of that system’s attitude. In which case, I’d say my reaction was quite in proportion.

4 days ago on April 12th, 2014 | J | 33 notes
Tagged as: #ask 
Hi! I enjoy your videos and I noticed something. Do you have a nose ring? Or septum ring I suppose, either way, can I play with it like a tiny bell and then possibly kiss you because of how awesome you are? Sorry if this is rude, you're just cute and your knowledge of history is slightly intoxicating


Paragon response:

A) I do have a septum ring. 

B) Have you been by my FAQ lately? Particularly item 11, where I go into detail regarding how I feel about comments on appearance and sexually/”romantically” motivated messages. Hint: Not ok. Never ok.

Renegade response:

Jesus Christ NO you may NOT play with my septum ring. What the Hell makes you think that is an appropriate question to ask anyone? Why would I let anyone play with the hunk of metal in my nose? Do you honestly think I put it there for you to do that? For anyone to do that?

Don’t come to me and tell me that you want to kiss me because I’m awesome, because this is a remarkably problematic backhanded compliment that blames me for someone else’s advances.

And don’t tell me that you’re “sorry if this is rude” because that statement CLEARLY points out that you know damn well you’re being rude and that you’re going ahead and doing it anyway, so you must not be that sorry, now must you? Particularly when you follow it up with another statement “You’re just so….” which attempts to shift blame to me for the way YOU feel, when I’ve never done a thing to encourage you.

I’m glad you like the blog but you need to stop with the gross versions of compliments and reevaluate how you talk to people.

4 days ago on April 12th, 2014 | J | 31 notes


I’m baaaack!

Sorry it’s quiet. I filmed in a library. Shhhh.

Make sure to follow and reblog if you love me!

Reblogging for the not-obscenely-late-at-night crowd!

4 days ago on April 12th, 2014 | J | 24 notes
When I was a student at Cambridge I remember an anthropology professor holding up a picture of a bone with 28 incisions carved in it. “This is often considered to be man’s first attempt at a calendar” she explained. She paused as we dutifully wrote this down. ‘My question to you is this – what man needs to mark 28 days? I would suggest to you that this is woman’s first attempt at a calendar.’

It was a moment that changed my life. In that second I stopped to question almost everything I had been taught about the past. How often had I overlooked women’s contributions?
- Sandi Toksvig (via rosetastone, learninglog) (via fleurinc) (via megwhat) (via atnatnatn)
4 days ago on April 12th, 2014 | J | 81,876 notes
Just wanted to say I really love your blog!! I've been a fan for quite a while. I haven't seen such a high concentration of awesome historical information anywhere else on social media haha :) I didn't know you made youtube videos until like 5 minutes ago but I just watched your latest one and I really liked it!! :)

Glad you enjoyed the video! I’ve got loads of others - you should check them out. You’re a sweetie - thanks so much!

4 days ago on April 12th, 2014 | J | 2 notes

I’m baaaack!

Sorry it’s quiet. I filmed in a library. Shhhh.

Make sure to follow and reblog if you love me!

4 days ago on April 12th, 2014 | J | 24 notes


African American Vernacular Photography

Black History Album, The Way We Were

5 days ago on April 11th, 2014 | J | 906 notes

Been getting a lot of REALLY good questions lately!

I’m going to have to have a proper sit-down to answer them all. 

5 days ago on April 11th, 2014 | J | 1 note
Welcome to WTFhistory. My name is Grendel and I'll be your host for a few meandering hours of historical knowledge intake. Enjoy your stay, and remember:

Those who do not learn from history are doomed to flunk their finals.