This is my second post about non-stereotypical hair. See my first one here.
If I were to ask you to draw an Ancient Egyptian, you would probably draw someone with gold, reddish, or dark skin, long dark eyes, and black hair. Red hair would probably not appear in your drawing. However, there has been a red-haired strain in Egyptian genetics apparently from time immemorial.
Ramses II, 90 years old when he died, was tall, thin, and by the time of his death he was stooped and had a tooth abscess. He also had red-gold hair. “Specialists who examined the strands under a microscope found that it had been dyed with henna and in all likelihood had been auburn in Ramses’ youth” (Time-Life, p. 153). Tall, thin, red-haired and hook-nosed, Ramses II does not match my mental picture of a typical Egyptian.
But he is not the only one. A number of red-haired Egyptian mummies have been found. Archaeologists used to assume that the hair was once dark and had been bleached out by the embalming process. But a recent study treated hair samples with the natron salts similar to those the Egyptians used, and found that the process did not change the color of the hair. Apparently these were actually redheads.
When I was taught Egyptian mythology in school, I was told that Seth, the villain of the story of Isis and Osiris, was red-haired. He was also Osiris’ brother. I found this intriguing, and it reminded me of the Semitic story of Jacob and Esau, who were twins one of whom was a dark-haired (?), “smooth” man, and one of whom was “hairy” and “red.”
Now I find out that Seth, as his legend later developed, was a trickster god, usually portrayed as a composite of different animals, with red hair or fur. Also, red was a symbolic color that could represent vitality or anger (no surprise there). So it’s possible that Seth was an entirely invented character and that his unusual hair color was picked to match his personality and symbolism. But, since this is an ancient origin myth, I can’t shake the possibility that there once was actually a founding pair of brothers, one of whom was dark-haired and one of whom was red. (Also, shades of the original Thor, a quick-tempered, red-haired, trickster god!)
If Red Hair is Native to Egypt, Does This Mean that Ancient Egyptians were Indo-Europeans?
It just means that, as for most people groups worldwide, their genetics were more complex than the layperson would first imagine.
The ethnicity of the ancient Egyptians has been a hugely contested topic. Their civilization is so intriguing that everyone wants to claim them. Eurocentrists have tried to claim that the Egyptians were actually “Mediterranean” (specifically the Hellenistic, European-style Mediterranean), because this supports their dogma that Europeans have been the only source of civilization and there has never been a high civilization to come out of Africa. Afrocentrists have countered by claiming the ancient Egyptians were not only not white, but were truly black, the ancestors of the modern-day sub-Saharan Africans. The world’s first high civilizations were African, and everyone else has stolen their ideas!
Both groups are wrong about the ethnicity of the ancient Egyptians. Genetic studies of mummies are difficult to do, and this is truer the older the mummies are, but so far, they have concluded that Egyptians have more or less always been … Egyptian. Uniquely themselves, more closely related to the peoples of the Levant than to any others, and genetically, more or less just like the Egyptians of today.
Also, Could We Stop the Tug-of-War?
And may I just add, this is stupid, human race? Could we please (and when I say we, I mean you, human race) stop all this “I started civilization” “No, I did”?
First of all, Egypt was not the world’s first civilization. Contemporary with them, we have the Sumerians, who though they did not live in Africa were probably also black, and the little-known Balkan civilization that gave us the Vinca signs. And there are good indications that many civilizations existed just as advanced as, and prior to, these. See all my posts about The Lost Civilizations of the Stone Age by Richard Rudgley.
The Afrocentrists are closer to being right than the Eurocentrists. Arthur C. Custance makes the case,
One does not think of Africa as particularly inventive. As a matter of fact, however, so many new things came from that great continent during Roman times that they had a proverb, “Ex Africa semper aliquid,” which freely translated means, “There is always something new coming out of Africa.”
It is true to say that whatever inventiveness [Indo-Europeans] have shown in the past three or four centuries has almost always resulted from stimulation from non-Indo-Europeans. Our chief glory has been the ability to improve upon and perfect the inventions of others, often to such an extent that they appear to be original developments … [I]t does not seem proper to call a people “inventive” who once in a while do invent something, but who 99% of the time merely adapt the inventions of others to new ends.Custance, Noah’s Three Sons, pp. 199, 215
That said, the idea that any one nationality can claim to have founded civilization is … stupid, human race. Human beings are really smart and civilization springs up wherever they go. Lots of people have invented civilization, many times.
(Furthermore, even if your ancestors did build the Parthenon or the Pyramids or Notre Dame, you didn’t build them personally, did you? Do you really want to start taking credit for amazing stuff that people who share your genetics did 3,000 years ago? Are you also going to take credit for all the atrocities they committed? Human race, you are too smart for this stupid idea.)
Egyptian Red Hair Makes an Appearance in The Long Guest
Nimri, the anti-hero of my novel The Long Guest, is a Cushite, who per Genesis is related to “Egypt.” Mid-novel, after being separated from his own people and dragged off on a journey over the Asia steppes, he observes some red-haired Indo-Europeans.
When I first saw that redhaired fellow I was reminded of my relative Mizra. He had red –gold hair and bright burnished skin like my own – only even more ruddy, just a shade darker than his hair. He was tall and thin, with a long thin arrogant face. Between that and his unusual coloring, he was a very striking-looking man. He used to stalk around the architects’ complex like a very god … how we all admired him, and wanted to be like him! But no one could compare to Mizra.The Long Guest, Chapter 13
The Hebrew word for Egypt is Mizraim, which is actually plural: “Egypts.” Rather than making Nimri’s relative’s name plural, I have simply called him Mizra.
Nimri never manages to tell anyone about Mizra, because he cannot yet communicate at this stage in the story. But I can tell you. In case you didn’t know, I’ll whisper it in your ear: Some Egyptians had red hair.
“Color (iwen)” Ancient Egypt: the Mythology
Custance, Arthur C. Noah’s Three Sons, The Doorway Papers series vol. 1, Zondervan, 1975. pp. 155 – 216 discuss “The [Technological] Inventiveness of the Hamitic Peoples.” Or you can read the chapter here.
“Isis: Egyptian Goddess,” Britannica.
“New Research Shows that Some Ancient Egyptians were Naturally Fair-Haired,” Ancient Origins, 2 May 2016
Perry, Philip. “Were the ancient Egyptians black or white? Scientists now know,” Big Think, June 11, 2017
Ramses II: Magnificence on the Nile, by the editors of Time-Life books, Time-Life Books, Alexandria, Virginia, 1993. p. 153 shows the red-gold hair on the mummy of Ramses II.
Schuenemann, Verena J., et. al., “Ancient Egyptian mummy genomes suggest an increase of Sub-Saharan African ancestry in post-Roman periods,” Nature.com, 30 May 2017. This is the study that the Big Think article is summarizing.
“Seth: Egyptian God,” Britannica.