It's official: we have reached peak beard. In today's beard-crazed culture, it's now almost impossible to have a gathering without at least one guest with gigantic facial carpets in attendance; soon, the only clean-shaven people will be the Queen of England and small children. But despite their current wave of popularity, beards haven't always had an easy time of it. In the past, beards have been seen as signs of lustfulness, thought of as shortcuts to being taken seriously as a royal leader, been subject to taxation, and, throughout history, have generally prompted people to think up some weird and wonderful ideas. All this, despite the fact that it's just facial hair. What on earth is the matter with all of us?
The rise and fall of the beard in history is about more than just fashion. Through the centuries, people associated beards with all kinds of ideas: modernity, barbarism, piety, kingship, hygiene, anything you can name. They haven't always been seen as signs of virility and manliness, either.
Here are five of the weirdest beliefs about beardiness in history. Put on your fake facial hair and let's get to the itchy, curly truth. Take it by the hairs, as it were.
1. Having A Beard Meant You Were A King — Even If You Were A Woman
Ever heard of Hatshepsut? She was one of the only female pharaohs in ancient Egypt. And she ruled. But getting full authority and respect as a woman was actually quite a tricky thing at the time — a situation that she negotiated by making sure that all of her official portraits and statues depicted her with the elaborate, fake beard strapped onto her chin. Everybody knew she was a lady; but everybody also knew that the pharaoh had a beard. If she was pharaoh, well, she had better find one!
The hilarious thing about this, as Christopher Oldstone-Moore points out in Of Beards And Men, is that she was likely the only person in the entire kingdom with a "beard" of any kind at the time, because growing a beard may have been considered an honor reserved purely for the pharaoh. So during Hatshepsut's reign, there was only beard in the country, and it wasn't even real.
2. No Beard? Then You Have No Morals Or Intelligence
Perhaps this one sounds like I'm making it up, but it's true. The most ridiculous example of this belief comes from The Philosophy Of Beards, first printed in 1850, which expounds the very scientific belief that "The absence of Beard is usually a sign of physical and moral weakness."
But while this may sound like more retro silliness, the obsession with beards as a measure of mental and moral fitness actually had a very sinister side: during the late 19th century mania for racist pseudoscience, a number of scientists believed that people from races that typically grew thinner facial hair were "weaker;" some of them "ranked" various races based on what kind of beard they had, and tied up an inability to grow facial hair with a general deficiency in other areas, from intelligence to moral codes. Francois Bernier, one of the first people to classify humans into races and then rank them, graded the results by beard type (Europeans, unsurprisingly, came up on top in his assessment).
And some naturalists in America decided that the lack of beard-growing among Native Americans meant they were a "lower" race and basically deserved to be enslaved. Londa Schiebinger, in Nature's Body , has a list of just a few of these racist theories. It would all be quite stupid, if it weren't so horribly tragic.
3. The Beards Of Goats Symbolized Lustfulness (And Possibly The Devil)
Medieval people had some very conflicting ideas about the kinds of beards you see on goats (pointy, centered on the chin — generally not the kind of beard that gets much love on Tinder). On the one side, they associated it, and goatishness in general, with the Devil, lust and seduction of innocent women. The personification of Lust supposedly road on a goat, and Jews (who were the subject of extreme prejudice during the medieval era) were said to have goat-like beards.
On the other hand, though, we have the unicorn, symbol of chastity, which wasn't a pretty white steed in most original conceptions of the creature: unicorns are usually shown in medieval and Renaissance art as some kind of half-goat half-horse thing, laying its head on the lap of a virgin with a very goaty beard. So goat-beards were both good and evil. Par for the course in the history of this polarizing facial flare.
4. Everyone Has A Party When The Emperor Shaves His Beard
It's an urban myth that the Romans came up with the word "barbarian" because of the beardiness of the Goths and other people they came across. (The word basically meant "foreign".) But they did have some hilarious ideas when it came to their own beards and shaving rituals.
Dio Cassius, the Roman historian, wrote that both Nero and Julius Caesar held massive festivals for the entire city of Rome on the days they shaved off their beards for the first time (the first shave was thought to signify that they'd become adults). Nero was famously bonkers, but Julius Caesar wasn't, so it seems like this ritual was just a perfectly normal thing to do. (Nero did add his own particular brand of crazy to the proceedings, though; he put his beard shavings in a golden globe and offered them to the gods. Like they'd want anything with an adolescent's greasy stubble.)
5. Beards Should Be Taxed
Apparently Peter I of Russia, otherwise known as Peter the Great, decided to turn had his animosity towards beards into profit. On September 5, 1698, Russia was subjected to the "beard tax", where every man who desired to keep his luxurious facial hair basically had to pay the state for the privilege. If you were paying your beard tax, you were granted a special token (with a picture of a beard on it, obviously) that proved that you were allowed to flaunt your elaborate chin-hairs. This hilarity lasted until 1772.
Peter's hatred of beards appears not to be superstitious or personal, but rooted in beliefs about modernity; he felt that beards were horribly old-fashioned and he wanted to drag Russia right bang into the 17th century. He wasn't against all facial hair, however. Peter himself displayed a dashing (and, presumably, incredibly modern) mustache for most of his life.
Images: Shannon Selim/Stocksy, Wikimedia Commons (5)