The Egyptian Hair Pin: practical, sacred, fatal

Joann FletcherORCID logo

Department of Archaeology, King's Manor, University of York, YO1 7EP, UK.

Cite this as: Fletcher, J. 2016 The Egyptian Hair Pin: practical, sacred, fatal, Internet Archaeology 42.

Generally regarded as little more than a mundane tool employed in daily life, the humble hairpin occasionally played a rather more prominent role in history than has perhaps been appreciated. As the most ancient implements associated with hair styling, simple pins of bone and ivory were commonly employed in Egypt by c.4000 BC as a means of securing long hair in an upswept style (e.g. Petrie and Mace 1901, 21, 34). Although their occasional use by men undermines the assumption that hairpins are 'a relatively certain example of a 'gendered' artefact' (Wilfong 1997, 67), the vast majority have been found in female burials. They can be made of bone and ivory, wood, steatite, glass, gold, silver and bronze, and two 12cm long bronze examples were found within the hair of Princess Ahmosi c.1550 BC (Fletcher 1995, 376, 441) while the hair of an anonymous woman at Gurob c.AD 110 had been secured in a bun with pins of bone, tortoiseshell and silver (Walker and Bierbrier 1997, 209).

Figure 1
Figure 1: Portrait panel of a woman named Demos, portraying a hairpin, from Hawara, c.AD 80-100 (Cairo CG.33237) Image credit: J. Fletcher.

Reflecting contemporary representations in which the pins are usually concealed within the hair mass and only occasionally allowed to protrude in a decorative manner to reveal their terminals (Figure 1) (e.g. Walker and Bierbrier 1997, 57-59; Fletcher 2008, plate 18), such visibility was also the case with a crescent-shaped 'orbis' hairpiece again found at Gurob (Figure 2), a length of plaited hair set with 62 bronze pins described as 'probably the only example surviving of a well-known hairdressing of the period of Trajan' (Petrie 1927, 5; Fletcher 2000, 499).

Figure 2
Figure 2: Part of a fragmentary 'orbis' of plaited hair set with 62 bronze pins, from Gurob, c.AD 100. Image credit: J. Fletcher.

As early as c.2000 BC, hairpins were also portrayed as a functioning tool, the tomb scenes of Queen Nefru at Deir el-Bahari revealing the way her hairdresser Henut used a large hairpin to hold back a section of the queen's hair during the styling process (Figure 3) (Riefstahl 1952; 1956). The contemporary burial of fellow royal wife Kawit at the same site again featured scenes in which a hairdresser employs such a pin to style the coiffure of a queen who was also a priestess of the goddess Hathor (Riefstahl 1956: 16; Gauthier-Laurent 1938: 676, 688-89), as was a third queen, Kemsit, likewise buried at Deir el-Bahari, Hathor's spiritual home.

Figure 3
Figure 3: Hairdresser Henut using a hairpin to style the hair of Queen Nefru, from Deir el-Bahari, c.2000 BC (Brooklyn Acc. No. 54.49). Image credit: J. Fletcher.

The women's scenes emphasised the importance of hairdressing in the cult of a goddess known as 'She of the Beautiful Hair' (Fletcher 1995, 55; Riefstahl 1956, 17), whose attributes were increasingly absorbed by her fellow goddess Isis 'the fair tressed' (Griffiths 1975, 124) during the first millennium BC. Even worshipped in its own right at Abydos, Isis' hair was groomed with equipment carried in ritual processions by her priestesses who 'declared by their gestures and motions of their arms and fingers that they were ordained and ready to dress and adorn the goddess's hair' (Golden Ass XI.9, Apuleius trans. Adlington 1996, 190; Griffiths 1975, 81, 183).

With such goddesses portrayed on items ranging from the mirror handles to the hairpins that played a prominent role in the lives of female worshippers as well as in the daily lives of women throughout the Graeco-Roman world, hairpins continued to be used to secure the hair and if pierced with small holes could also be used as large sewing needles to stitch sections of hair into elaborate styles (Stephens 2008).

Yet beyond the realm of the everyday, the hairpin became a weapon with which two of the most famous women of antiquity were able to make spectacular political points as the Roman Republic imploded amidst state-sponsored murder and proscription. Instigated by Octavian and Mark Antony, the assassination of the orator Cicero in 43 BC was followed by Antony's demand that the dead man's head should be hung from the speakers' platform in the Forum in Rome in revenge for the repeated accusations Cicero had made against Antony and his third wife Fulvia. But even before the head was removed, Fulvia 'set it on her knees, opened the mouth, and pulled out the tongue, which she pierced with the pins that she used for her hair' (Roman History 47.8.4, Cassius Dio, trans. Cary 1917, 133). Similarly violent retribution was also carried out by the widow Charite who, seeking out her husband's murderer, 'took a great needle from her head and pricked out both his eyes' (Golden Ass VIII.13, Apuleius trans. Adlington 1996, 125), the sharpness of such 'needles' again highlighted when Psyche pricks Encolpius' cheek (Satyricon 21, Petronius, trans. Heseltine 1913, 29), and a downtrodden hairdresser punished by her Roman mistress who 'sticks a needle in her arm in a fit of temper', drawing both 'blood and tears' (Ars Amatoria 3.240-242, Ovid trans. Lewis May 2006, 91).

But by far the most dramatic use of a hairpin in history is surely the means by which Antony's fifth and final wife Cleopatra VII, Egypt's last native-born pharaoh, most likely took her life (Fletcher 2008, 315-18). Although the ancient sources admit 'what really took place is known to no-one' (Plutarch, trans. Dryden 1952, 779) since Cleopatra was already under house arrest, imagery of her snake-based death is based on descriptions of her posthumous wax effigy paraded around Rome. Featuring snakes coiling up her arms in the manner of Isis, who Cleopatra had claimed to represent, it was a means to express her cause of death to the Roman crowds, although it seems highly unlikely that the venom was administered directly by a snake itself. Despite assumptions it must have been smuggled to her inside a small basket, equally unlikely are claims such a snake was an asp, the North African viper, whose venom causes vomiting and incontinence before death. Like many Hellenistic monarchs well-versed in toxicology, Cleopatra would surely have selected the venom of the Egyptian cobra which causes the drowsiness and gradual paralysis felt far more suitable for the stage-managed suicide she had planned in the company of her two servants. Since a cobra with sufficient venom to kill a human is around two metres long, with venom discharged in its first bite meaning that three such creatures would have been needed to kill all three women (Whitehorne 2001, 192), alternative theories suggested a snake was already in her quarters, 'kept in a vase, and that she vexed and pricked it with a golden spindle till it seized her arm' (Plutarch, trans. Dryden 1952, 779). As an embellishment of the most believable ancient accounts, these claim that 'she had smeared a pin with some poison' and 'had previously worn the pin in her hair as usual' (Roman History 51.14.2, Cassius Dio trans. Scott-Kilvert 1987, 74-75; see also Cassius Dio trans. Cary 1917, 40); alternatively that 'she carried poison in a hollow bodkin about which she wound her hair' (Plutarch, trans. Dryden 1952, 779). With such hairpins concealed within her standard upswept 'bun' coiffure, the Roman soldiers who searched Cleopatra's clothing for concealed weapons prior to her arrest would presumably have known that the bound-up hair of a married woman was completely inviolable within Roman society (Sebesta 2001, 49). For despite her status as Egyptian pharaoh, Cleopatra had also been the last wife of Mark Antony, Rome's leading general.

It also seems rather significant that she had chosen to die with her hairdresser Eiras, previously ridiculed by Octavian who had claimed 'the generals we will fight are little more than Cleopatra's hairdressing girl', yet who nonetheless proved instrumental in depriving him of his greatest Triumph. For as royal hairdresser, Eiras would have supplied the hairpin with which Cleopatra 'made a small scratch in her arm and caused the poison to enter the blood' (Roman History 51.14, Cassius Dio trans. Scott-Kilvert 1987, 75; see also Cassius Dio trans. Cary 1917, 40), an apparently mundane hairdressing tool swiftly terminating three thousand years of pharaonic rule and changing the course of western history.


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