insightful punditry

Witches, warlocks, and the Ginger Gene; A brief history of the persecution of redheads

By Kate Bradley

Carrot-top, strawberry blonde, tomato head, were the names my fearful father called me from birth. Onlookers would often wonder what perversion caused a father to be so antagonistic towards a toddler. But he knew better than any. My father was a concerned parent preparing me for what he considered to be a life of torment and sun damage. His loud voice would boom against my mother’s grievances: “Better we get her used to it early, so she won’t notice the difference once she starts school”.

My father understood all too well the future of discrimination and admiration that lay ahead of me, as he also shared the mutated gene MC1R – what is commonly known as the ginger gene. A stamp, which through the centuries of human existence has induced a combination of admiration, fear and downright hatred.

My poor father turned out to be more than right. While I passed through grades one and two with only mild name-calling, grade three was a different story. I will henceforth refer to that year as the coming and reign of Bradley Driver.

Bradley Driver was a perfect example of your stock standard genetic makeup: olive skin, which went a lovely golden brown in the sun, brown eyes, dusty brown hair- a little larger than the other kids. But most importantly he was a bully, and the thing he was afraid of most was difference. He also fancied himself a bit of genius, such as the day he masterfully innovated a new fun event for him and the other children referred to as “get the redhead day”. A day on which, I can comfortably say, dawned one of the darkest eras of my life. I think the best way to describe the experience is to visualize how the fox feels in a typical English fox hunt.

I was soon to learn that the world really did have a preconceived set of expectations as to what a redhead should be, both good and bad. Above all, I discovered that redheads were seen as different.


This caused me to wonder: what were the origins of these expectations, and why were redheads considered to be different? Why have we been persecuted throughout history? I thought it was time to get back to my roots.

With a little digging I soon came to understand that the prejudice, misconceptions and admiration of the redhead as “other” evolved across the centuries.

Just to give you an idea of what I mean, I have highlighted here some of the odder prejudices and misconceptions that have arisen in response to red tresses.

The ancient Greeks believed redheads would turn into vampires after they died. During the Middle Ages, a child with red hair was thought to be conceived through “unclean sex”- whether with the devil, or a little less precarious option, the milk man. Hitler, apparently, banned the marriage of redheads to avoid the birth of defiant offspring, which of course (no comma needed) would inevitably lead to the overthrowing of his dictatorship, while famous author Mr. Mark Twain believed that redheads, unlike most humans who had evolved from monkeys, had obviously evolved from cats.

Although I may quip about our persecution, to be honest, it is a serious matter and the redhead has quite a dark dreary past.

One of the first recorded tortures of redheads can be traced back to the cradle of civilization, Ancient Egypt. It has been chronicled by scribes and then recounted by anthropologist James Frazer that if you were lucky enough to be born a redhead, and a man, you would be burnt alive, to honor and worship the god Osiris, and, of course, to help the corn crop ripen.

But if any culture has anything to apologize for when it comes to the persecution of redheads, it is good old Western Christianity.  A level of distrust towards redheads is rather evident in Christian mythological iconography. For instance, in Michelangelo’s Temptation and Exclusion of Adam and Eve, Eve is initially portrayed as a sensible brunette before she lures poor Adam down the road of damnation, and after is depicted as a treacherous redhead. Once again, this is evident in the work of John Roddam Spencer-Stanhope, in which both Eve and the devil are depicted as redheads: the sign of a traitor.


However, the most precarious time to be both a redhead and a women was during the middle ages. It all began in 1486 when two charlatans or “clergyman” wrote and promoted ‘Malleus Maleficarum, or the Hammer of witches, which served as a guide book for the identification and prosecution of witches. Later, in 1928, the guide was translated by Montague Summers, an English author and clergyman, who even in the twentieth century still believed in the existence of witches. In his translation, it was noted that red hair, green eyes and freckles were some of the many signs of guilt when it came to being accused of sorcery and devil worship. This period can be described as one the worst examples of misogyny gone wild. Between the fourteenth and seventeenth centuries, around 57,401 to 61,651 women were drowned or burnt at the stake, basically, because men were afraid of women.

However, the history of the redhead is not all about live burials, vampires and copulation with a buffet of demonic warlocks.

It has been noted by SCHOLARS (which scholars I was unable to deduce) that proportionally, redheads have been some of the most influential figures in history. These red-headed heroes and heroines include Venus, the goddess of love, Celtic Queen Boudicca, possibly Cleopatra,  Napoleon Bonaparte, Queen Elizabeth, Emily Dickinson, Galileo and of course the cat-like Mr. Mark Twain, just to name a few.

Luckily, as I grew older I was soon to learn that being a redhead did have some benefits, if not many, that I could use to my advantage. It gave me full license to be fiery, hot tempered, assertive, a little quirky and a total tomboy. If I did behave out of line I was often pardoned from my behavior by lines such as ‘What do you expect? She’s a redhead’. For example, when I finally stood up to Bradley Driver- ending the horrific ‘get the redhead day’- by biting him in the arm and making him cry.

Throughout the ages, I think we can comfortably say, redheads have survived pretty much everything.

Which is probably why in today’s culture our non-ginger counterparts are wondering how we are still alive after centuries of persecution and Celtic racism, and may explain why the most current form of discrimination circulating in popular culture is that redheads are soon to become extinct- which goes to show that non-gingers just won’t leave it alone.

All I have to say to that rumor is ‘Ruadh Gu Brath’: a Gaelic phrase that translates to “REDHEADS FOREVER”.


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