Gaia’s Hair, part I

January 21, 2010 at 4:16 pm Leave a comment

Comb France

Bronze comb from France. After J. Briard.

Let us look once more at the symbols.They are difficult concepts because they are never just signs or allegories. Symbols are both images that seem to come out of nowhere, from our unconscious and appear in our dreams and also abstract concepts, such as life and death, femininity and masculinity, love and hate, the soul and God, which we can only describe borrowing words from our physical world. The comb is an example. When blond hair-like fibers appeared from the dead nettles, it must have felt s if a miracle had happened, as if a divinity had appeared: the plant had not died but had been transformed into something else, into hair that could be combed and plaited. It was natural to see the power behind it as that of a goddess who combed her flaxen hair of nettles. Every time they twisted the hair from the dead nettles into thread, into ropes, into nets, into string skirts, then wove the thread into cloth, they were reminded of the transformation.

Even a goddess may wish to comb her hair

A goddess is not almighty and there are always certain things she needs help with.  This story from Greenland that was told to Knud Rasmussen in 1905 and Jean Malaurie in 1954,  is about Nerrivik, the goddess without hands:

A loon, who was a great magician, once took a human wife. One day she became so frightened of him that she asked her brothers to help her run away. The magician became furious when he discovered that his wife was gone and called up a big storm that brought the small kayak with the fugitives close to capsizing. Realizing that their lives were in danger because of their sister, the brothers threw her into the water and when she tried to hold on to the boat they cut off her hands. She drowned, but reaching the bottom of the sea she became Nerrivik, mistress of the all the animals living there. Without hands she could not comb her hair and to solve the problem she kept the seals away from the hunters thus calling for the attention of the shaman who went to see her and combed her hair. She thanked him by allowing the seals to return.

Unexpected Consequences

With the transformation of the nettle into hair begins all the customs, all the traditions, all the tabus, all the deep feelings that surround our hair: For example, not long ago all Christian married women had to cover their heads when they went outside the house and, even more important, entered into a church. Men take off their hats inside a church, but in a synagogue they cover their heads. An orthodox Jewish woman hides her hair under a wig. The veil is part of a nun’s clothing and also of many Muslim women’s. Once upon a time, Catholic monks and priests partly shaved their heads and Buddhist monks and nuns still shave theirs. Hindu ascetics, on the other hand, let their hair grow and Sikh have the religious duty to never cut their hair and wear a comb in it. Samson’s strength resided in his hair (Judg. 16: 17-19)  and for a long time people believed that the same happened in the case of a witch, so during the witch trials the poor accused women got not only their heads shaved, but all the hair on their bodies.

Avicenna, a Persian-Jewish mathematician and philosopher (whose real name was Abn Ali al Hosain ibn Abdallah ibn Sina and who lived in the tenth century of the Christian era) asserts that a buried witch’s hair transforms itself into snakes. Even now when this significance has been forgotten, the symbol sometimes wakes up as when  Gananath Obeyesekere recalls his disgust meeting women in Sri Lanka, who had let their hair grow in honor of the god Shiva so it was many feet long, a matted and stinking mass. He notices that the hair looks snakelike and later discovers that at least one woman compares her hair to the holy and dangerous cobras.

Let me continue with two modern examples of how our hair unconsciously influences our behavior: A good friend of mine related that in her youth she had a terrible car accident. After the long hospitalization she felt compelled to cut her long, mid-rift hair and has never let it grow out again. I had the same feeling after recovering from a difficult fever years ago. I wanted to shave my head, but the thought of my family’s reaction made me ask the hairdresser to cut it really, really short. After much prodding he cut it, but I always felt it wasn’t short enough, although photos from the time show differently. Was cutting our hair a symbolic act of rebirth?  Had something in us died and by cutting our hair we prepared for our new life?

comb from Alto Adige, Italy

Bronze comb from Italy. Iron Age. After P. Laviosa-Zambotti.

The dangerous golden comb and the goddess Diana

I was excited when I discovered that Lorelei (whom we read about in school as a warning against vanity) is older and more important than our moralistic teacher ever knew. ( I follow Rose Brodt, eine Annäherung an dem Mythos Loreley.) Lorelei is the name of a great rock jutting out of the river Rhine at its most dangerous juncture; up to sixty years ago many ships found their early end on this infamous rock. During the Middle Ages the rock had different names which all started with Lur, perhaps another name for the ancient Germanic goddess Holda. (The ending -ley is also interesting and can perhaps be of Celtic descent, lei or ley meaning “holy”.) The Christian missionaries saw a likeness between Holda and the Greek-Roman goddess Diana so they portrayed her as a witch who lured women out in the night to sexual dances with the devil.  It doesn’t interest us how far back in time the story can be traced or if Heinrich Heine made the story up, but the interesting fact is that a link may exist between Lorelei and Diana.  Lorelei combs her hair and Plutarch, a Greek that lived two thousand years ago, writes that he frankly doesn’t understand why all Roman women must wash their hair on August 15, the day dedicated to the goddess Diana.  (This day was so important that Christianity took it over as the Feast of the Virgin Mary’s Ascension to Heaven. It is still one of the most beloved holidays in Italy.)

Why did the women in ancient Rome wash their hair in honor of the goddess Diana?

In order to answer Plutarch’s question we need to go deeper into the symbol with the help of three tales, the first one told by the Youkaghir people of eastern Siberia, near the Amur river.

An orphaned girl makes her living as a shepherdess. One day the sky turns black, and an evil spirit is about to swallow her. The girl runs for her life with the spirit in hot pursuit. First she throws a comb behind her, and the comb transforms itself into a forest, then her red scarf, which catches fire. As this does not help in diverting the evil spirit, she transforms herself into different animals to be able to run even faster.  Exhausted she finally comes to some tents where she faints.  (Told by Marie-Louise von Franz, Reflets de l’âme).

The second is a Russian folktale. (I am summarizing a longer and much more complicated story.)

A jealous stepmother sends a girl and a boy to Baba Yaga, the Russian witch. (In Russian “baba” means grand-mother”; “yaga” skeleton, that is, Baba Yaga is the Goddess of Death.)  Baba Yaga receives them and puts them to work: the girl must spin and the boy fetch water in a sieve. If they accomplish the tasks well enough, they may stay until the next day – if not, she’ll eat them. A bird tells them how to stop up the sieve so that they survive until the next day. Then the cat helps them to run away and gives the girl a kerchief and a comb that will stop Baba Yaga when she comes after them. The kerchief becomes a rushing river and the comb such a deep forest that Baba Yaga cannot traverse it. The children thus return unscathed home.

The last example is found in the Japanese creation myth.

Izanami, the beloved wife of the god Izanagi, has been burnt to death in giving birth to the god of fire and Izanagi goes into the underworld to search for her. He finds her, but she asks him to wait while she consults with the deities of the underworld about returning with him.  Izanagi, however, becomes restless and lights one tooth of his comb and goes in search of her. He finds her in the darkest chamber, where her body has began decomposing because of him having disobeyed her. She is furious and chases him down the corridors calling a host of nightmarish spirits. Izanagi escapes by throwing his comb at them and it becomes a forest of bamboo spouts.

The analogy between the comb and the forest

In order to find the analogy of the comb-forest we must equate the comb with the hair. When Izanagi and the girls throw the comb, it is as if they had taken off their hair and thrown it behind them—an impossible thing to do. The tool is substituted and the analogy hair-forest is not that far away. It is found in the Icelandic Grimnismal, (the Poetic Edda, verse 40), when the god Odin and his brothers Vali and Ve kill the giant Ymir:

From Ymir’s flesh the world was made
And from his sweat, the ocean;
The mountains were made from his bones, the trees from his hair,
And the vault of the sky from his skull.

The forest is the earth’s hair and following the analogy that the dead nettles are transformed into hair, the comb has the power to transform itself into a forest to stop pursuers and possible death. The Code of Emsig, a six hundred year old Christian manuscript, also contains this symbology. Here God creates Adam from the earth: the stones become his skeleton, clay his flesh, water his blood, wind his heart, the clouds his thoughts, the dew his sweat, the grass his hair and the sun his eyes. Just like the grass and trees, the textile plants – nettles, linen, hemp and broom – are the earth’s hair.


Entry filed under: Combs, Fantasy, Folktales, Myth, Nettles, Symbols.

The Transformation Power of the Nettles Our Planet Gaia: A Different Perspective

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