Irish-American Witchcraft: Elf-Locks, Tangled Hair, Ill-Luck, and Appropriation.

Cultural appropriation is often a hot button topic these days in paganism, and certainly it is an issue that deserves discussion. Generally speaking I try to focus this blog more on specific topics relating to Irish-American witchcraft, fairylore, and the like but in this specific case I’m making a bit of an exception for one particular thing that touches a bit on these areas. For a while now I’ve run across people using the term or idea of ‘elf-locks’ or ‘fairy-locks’ to justify people of Celtic descent wearing dreadlocks in their hair. I’ve always personally found this odd, given the cultural associations of elf-locks, so I wanted to take a look at that here today.

elf lock in a horse's mane, Tsaag Valren,  Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported, wikimedia commons
elf lock in a horse’s mane, Tsaag Valren, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported, wikimedia commons

Elf-Locks:

also called fairy-locks or witches-locks are inexplicable* tangles or mats in a person’s hair that appear overnight while the person is sleeping and are believed to be caused by the fairies (or in some cases witches). They also happens to animals, particularly horses. Although some modern stories try to give them a twee backstory of fairies playing in the hair older folklore attributes them to either the person or animal being ridden at night by the fairies or else intentional knotting by fairies apparently as a punishment of some sort, possibly for laziness or dirtiness. As Shakespeare put it when describing the activity of Queen Mab: “That plaits the manes of horses in the night; And bakes the elflocks in foul sluttish [slovenly] hairs“. An essay in The Good People: New Fairylore Essays discusses an anecdote wherein a man talks about the Lutin [French fairies] harassing his mare by tangling her mane at night, tangles he could not undo no matter how he tried.

Shakespeare is the oldest English language reference to elf-locks and even his use of the term implies hair that is ill-kept and possible a person of questionable sanity. In King Lear the character Edward, after being declared an outlaw and fleeing to the woods, says: “My face I’ll grime with filth; Blanket my loins; Elf my hair in knots“, planning to pass as a madman while in hiding. A footnote in Shakespeare’s Works, volume 5 which defines elflocks as matted or knotted hair that is the result of neglect or disease also quotes a 1596 work by Lodge which says: “His hairs are curled and full of elves’ locks, and nitty for want of combing“. Both of these reinforce the connection between elf-locks and lack of grooming as well as possible madness, something which itself was often attributed to fairies’ displeasure with a person.

Ill Luck:

A sign of supernatural attention, it was very unlucky to have elf-locks but also unlucky to untangle them.  There are some divided opinions about whether it was bad luck to brush them out but allowable to work them out with the fingers. Most often they must be cut out, as they could be both painful and distracting. People experiencing elf-locks are usually advised to sleep with protective measures, particularly iron, at hand to ward off the fairies and prevent further such attention. I have never yet read about or talked to anyone in a culture for whom elf-locks are a belief who see them as anything but an ill omen or something to be prevented as much as possible. Even people like myself who make a habit of working with and connecting to the fairies see elf-locks as a bad omen, a sign of fairy attention in the night with malicious overtones.

Although it has become more common in modern views disconnected from actual folklore to see fairies as small pleasant little beings who are helpful and kind, or as nature spirits, fairies in folklore – even the ‘good’ ones – are dangerous, mercurial beings who can help or harm. Traditional fairies, the ones associated with elf-locks in the past, might torment people for their own amusement or punish human transgressions with illness, madness, or even death. All fairies were not necessarily malicious, but should they be tangling your hair in your sleep the belief was that their intention was not kind. People who had elf-locks might be viewed as having been fairy ridden the night before, especially if they woke up exhausted or aching, or as being influenced by the fairies in dangerous ways. As Shakespeare alludes to in King Lear, elf-locks when left to run rampant were associated with madness.

Arrest of Christ from the Book of Kells, public domain
Arrest of Christ from the Book of Kells, public domain

Historic Irish Hairstyles:

In Celtic belief the head is the seat of personal power. The heads of enemies or rivals who were defeated in battle could be taken as trophies, symbolizing the taking of that person’s power. Related to that a defeated enemy’s hair might be cut short to represent their loss of power; short hair was considered shameful.  Matted hair when it appears in descriptions in mythology and folklore is associated with madness and wild people; in contrast clean, neatly combed hair was a sign of nobility. In Ireland both men and women wore their hair long and loose, and women with long hair were considered particularly beautiful. Bathing was, ideally, done daily or at least as often as possible and combing out the hair was a daily practice. As Joyce tells us in his book ‘A Smaller Social History of Ireland’ hairstyles were often complex and carefully worked out, involving both curling the hair as well as plaiting it; the hair was often arranged in elaborate styles that involved dividing it into multiple sections in both front and back. The references to such complex hairstyles are supported by various depictions of the same in statuary and illustrations.

Appropriation:

I’d  gently point out that people who may suggest that ‘elf-locks’ or ‘fairy-locks’ was a term used by the Celts and/or Irish for intentionally matted or tangled hair are in error. Firstly the terms as they stand now are English language terms and date no further back than the 16th century. There is no directly correlating term in Old or Middle Irish, the closest term in older forms of Irish that I know of is “fa chochlaibh a ciabh” [under a hood of his hair, i.e. matted hair] involves a Latin loan word and translate to a ‘hood of hair’ or ‘cowl of hair’; in no way does this term involve the Good People. Secondly such fey attention to one’s head would never be seen as anything but ill luck, and something to be warded against. Thirdly all indications are that the Celts/Irish pagans were extremely proud of their appearance and hair which was carefully combed out and styled daily. Applying the term elf-locks to a deliberate hairstyle is a misuse of the term which was only ever meant to be used for tangled hair with no earthly explanation. The current and on-going debate about the appropriation of dreadlocks has directly led to this crossover with fairylore in some areas, something that I believe is compounding one issue with another.  However much one might want to find a cultural link here when we look to historic Irish hairstyles we see no intentional matting of hair – just the opposite in fact – and when we look to fairylore we see nothing but negative associations there. To call any modern intentional matting of hair ‘elf-locks’ is, in its own way, appropriating that term from its own rightful context.

Fairies by H J ford, public domain
Fairies by H J ford, public domain

Don’t get me wrong I’m not telling anyone what to do with their hair. Do what you want, it’s your hair. Just be realistic about the history and associations, and don’t try to twist a folkloric expression around to justify a hairstyle you want to wear – accept that some people will call you out for cultural appropriation of an ethnicity, whether you agree with that judgment or not. I would strongly urge anyone considering using elf-locks as a term for what would otherwise be called dreadlocks to seriously think about the folklore implications of that, as elf-locks have nothing but negative connotations. As we discussed historically elf-locks have two particularly negative associations: it was used as a term for the hair of people or animals knotted overnight by fairies, which was not a good thing to have happen; also as we see in Shakespeare’s use of it, it was associated with insanity (possibly caused by fairies) and dirtiness. This is in stark contrast to the history and cultural associations of dreadlocks in various other cultures. Conflating the two is highly problematic. If you want to wear dreadlocks, call them what they are, and embrace their history for what it is.

Ultimately we cannot look to Irish culture or fairylore for a way to feel better about wearing this hairstyle.

References:

Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet & King Lear
electronic Dictionary of the Celtic Language
Narvaez, The Good People: New Fairylore Essays
Irish Fireside All about that Celtic hair. http://irishfireside.com/2011/08/25/all-about-that-celtic-hair/
Joyce, P. A smaller social history of Ireland. http://www.alia.ie/tirnanog/sochis/xviiia.html

*obviously none of this applies if you know why the hair is tangling or simply have hair that naturally does so. The point of elf-locks is that they are unexplainable by other means.

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