Hair has always had an anthropological, imaginary and symbolic depth. Literature, painting, sculpture, under all latitudes, have testified and still testify to the metaphorical (and metonymic) power of hair, and more generally of hairs.
An exhaustive analysis of the representations of hair in Western painting alone could yield some exciting material.
Where does it come from? One of the fundamental problems that painters face is to make forms and backgrounds blend together in a meaningful way. The restricted and highly organized space of the canvas allows to give meaning to graphic analogies and pictorial proximities, which are as many opening metaphors, as many potential metonymies.
Paul Eluard writes that the work of the Painter,
« Is always a question of algae.
Of hair of grounds (…) » i
How, for example, should a character’s hair, whether spread or held, mad or wise, meet on the canvas the background against which it is shaped? Should it contrast sharply with its immediate environment, or attempt a latent fusion?
For the painters who represent the metamorphosis of Daphne into a laurel, the hair of the nymph is a propitious place to present the fusion of forms to come, the transformation of the human figure into an evergreen shrub. The sculpture also takes advantage of these effects of metamorphosis. Bernini, with Apollo and Daphne, presents with precision the beginning of the vegetable transition of hair and fingers into foliage and branches, where it naturally begins.
The hair favors many other metaphors, such as that of the veil:
« O fleece, flowing down to the neckline!
O curls! O perfume loaded with nonchalance!
Ecstasy! To populate this evening the dark alcove
With memories sleeping in this hair,
I want to shake it in the air like a handkerchief! » ii
From this handkerchief, we can use it to wipe tears or tears, Luke attests it:
« And behold, a sinful woman who was in the city, when she knew that he was sitting at table in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster vase full of ointment and stood behind it at Jesus’ feet. She wept, and soon she wet his feet with her tears, wiped them with her hair, kissed them, and anointed them with ointment. » iii
There is also the metaphor of the waves:
« Strong braids, be the swell that takes me away!
You contain, sea of ebony, a dazzling dream
Of sails, rowers, flames and masts :
A resounding port where my soul can drink. « iv.
Multiple, heteroclite, are the poetic or graphic metaphors of the hair: knots, linksv, helmets, breastplates, interlacing, clouds, and even the stars! The Hair of Berenice is a constellation of the Northern Hemisphere, named so because Berenice II, Queen of Egypt, sacrificed her hair, and that, according to the astronomer Conon of Samos, it was then placed by the gods in the sky.
Among the most widespread in painting, it is undoubtedly the metaphors of water and blood, which lend themselves very well to the supple and silky variations of the hair.
Ophelia’s drowned hair blends harmoniously with the wave, in which her body is bathed, in Eugène Delacroix or J.E. Millais. Gustave Klimt uses this effect to paint Ondines swimming lying down in Sang de poisson and in Serpents d’eau.
Bernardino Luini represents the head of John the Baptist, above a dish held by Salome, and his blood still runs in long dark streaks, prolonging the hair of the beheaded man.
Among all the countless metaphors of hair, there is one very particular one, that of fire and flame.
« The hair, flight of a flame to the extreme
Occident of desires to deploy it,
Poses itself (I’d say die a diadem)
Towards the crowned forehead its former home »vi
The image of a ‘hair of fire’ goes to the extreme indeed, and makes it possible to reach untold ends, and the Divine too…
The Ṛg Veda evokes a single God, Agni, named « Hairy », who is incarnated in three figures, endowed with different attributes. These three « Hairy » have the hair of a flamevii. « Three Hairy ones shine in turn: one sows himself in Saṃvatsara; one considers the Whole by means of the Powers; and another one sees the crossing, but not the color.» viii
The « Hair » connotes the reproductive power, the creative force, the infinite radiance of divine light. The first « Hairy » engenders himself in the Soma, in the form of a primordial germ. The second « Hairy » contains the Whole, i.e. the universe, again through Soma. The third « Hairy » is the « dark » Agni, the « unborn » Agni aja, which passes from night to light and reveals itself there.
In Judaism, hair does not burn, and it must be carefully maintained. ix
However, God chose a kind of vegetable hair, in the form of a « burning bush », to address Moses on Mount Horeb.
In Christianity, the flames of the Holy Spirit, at Pentecost, come to mingle with the hair of the Apostles. x
In Sufism, the « Hair » represents the Divine Essence as a symbol of multiplicity hiding unity. « Multiplicity conceals the non-existence of things, and thereby obscures the Heart, but at the same time as it veils, the Hair attracts Divine Grace and Divine Gifts. » xi
The hair represents here the « multiple », and thus nothingness. By its abundance and luxuriance, hair is an image of everything that is not the « unique ».
In absolute contrast to Sufism, John of the Cross chose precisely the metaphor of the « single hair » to represent the reciprocal love of the singular soul and of God, and to represent the fine and impalpable link that connects the soul to God. An infinitely fine link, but so strong that it has the power to link God himself to the soul he loves.
For John of the Cross, fundamentally, « the hair represents love ». xii
The initial inspiration for this metaphor seems, apparently at least, to come from the Song of Songs.
« Speaking of this wound, the Bridegroom of the Song of Songs says to the soul: You have made a woundin my soul, my sister, my wife, you have made a woundin my heart, with one of your eyes and with one hair of your neck (Ct 4:9). The eye here represents faith in the Incarnation of the Bridegroom, and the hair represents the love inspired by this mystery.» xiii
Vaporous lightness, evanescent subtlety, but also inconceivable power. Beneath the most feeble appearance, the single hair hides an extraordinary strength. A single, solitary hair has the power to hold God captive in the soul, because God falls in love with it, through this hair.
« God is strongly in love with this hair of love when he sees it alone and strong. » xiv
John of the Cross explains: « The hair that makes such a union must surely be strong and well untied, since it penetrates so powerfully the parts that it links together. The soul exposes, in the following stanza, the properties of this beautiful hair, saying :
This hair, you considered it
On my neck as it flew,
On my neck you looked at it,
It held you prisoner,
And with one of my eyes you felt hurt. » xv
John adds :
« The soul says that this hair ‘flew on her neck’, because the love of a strong and generous soul rushes towards God with vigor and agility, without enjoying anything created. And just as the breeze stirs and makes the hair fly, so the breath of the Holy Spirit lifts and sets the strong love in motion, making it rise up to God. » xvi
But how can the supreme God fall in love with a hair?
« Until now God had not looked at this hair in such a way as to be enamored of it, because he had not seen it alone and free from other hair, that is to say, from other loves, appetites, inclinations and tastes; it could not fly alone on the neck, symbol of strength ». xvii
And, above all, how can the supreme God remain captive, bound by a single hair?
« It is a marvel worthy of our admiration and joy that a God is held captive by a single hair! The reason for this infinitely precious capture is that God stopped to look at the hair that was flying on the neck of the bride, because, as we have said, God’s gaze is his love ». xviii
God allows himself to be captivated by the « theft of the hair of love », because God is love. This is how « the little bird seizes the great golden eagle, if the latter comes down from the heights of the air to let himself be caught ». xix
The single hair embodies the will of the soul, and the love it bears to the Beloved.
But why a single hair, and not rather, to make a mass, a tuft, a fleece, or an entire head of hairxx ?
« The Spouse speaks ‘of one hair’ and not of many, to make us understand that her will is God’s alone, free from all other hair, that is to say, from all affections foreign to God. » xxi
But the case is more complicated than it seems.
The Song of Songs does not actually contain this image. In its chapter 4 verse 9, we read the following:
« You have captured my heart, O my sister, my fiancée, you have captured my heart by one of your glances, by one of the necklaces that adorn your neck. »
The word « necklace » correctly translates the Hebrew word עֲנָק, which actually has no other meaning, and certainly does not mean « hair ».
In Hebrew, « hair » is said to be שַׂעָר. This word is also used just before, in verse 1 of the same chapter of the Song of Songs: « Your hair is like a herd of goats coming down from the Mount of Gilead »xxii.
The metaphor of the « herd of goats » implies a play on words, which is not unrelated to our subject. Indeed, the Hebrew שַׂעָר , « hair », is very close semantically to שָׂעׅיר , « goat » and שְׂעׅירָה , « goat ».
This is understandable. The goat is a very hairy animal, « hairy » par excellence. But the verse does not use this repetition, and does not use here the word שְׂעׅירָה , but another word, which also means « goat », עֵז, and which allows for an equivalent play on words, since its plural, עׅזׅים, metonymically means « goat hair ». By forcing the note, verse Ct 4.1 could be translated literally: « Your hair is like a multitude of goat’s hairs coming down from Mount Galaad… ». »
If verse 1 multiplies the effect of multitude, in verse 9, it would only be a matter of a single hair, according to John of the Cross.
The problem, we said, is that this hair is not present in the Hebrew text.
So did the Vulgate, in a translation here defective, mislead John of the Cross?
The Vulgate gives for Ct 4:9: « Vulnerasti cor meum, soror mea, sponsa; vulnerasti cor meum in uno oculorum tuorum, et in uno crine colli tui. »
The Vulgate thus translates the Hebrew עֲנָק, « necklace » by uno crine, « a curl of hair », which seems a dubious equivalence.
Poets are seers, and outstanding visionaries, they see higher, further, more accurately. Perhaps the « hair » that God « sees » on the Bride’s neck is in fact a fine, precious thread, attaching to the neck a unique jewel? Hair, or thread on the neck, what does it matter, then, if both words fulfill their role of metaphor and metonymy, signifying the love of the soul for God, and God’s love for the soul?
In the film Call me by your name, by Luca Guadagnino, the hero, Elio Perlman, played by Timothée Chalamet, sees a Star of David hanging from a thin golden thread around the neck of Oliver, played by Armie Hammer. In the film, this precious object plays a transitional role in Elio’s budding passion for Oliver.
Perhaps we can imagine an extremely precious piece of jewelry around the Bride’s neck? In this case, one should not be mistaken: what attracts the gaze of God, as Bridegroom, is not this jewel, however precious it may be, but the very thin thread that holds it, and which the Vulgate assimilates to a « hair ».
In the eyes of John of the Cross, the unique necklace of the Bride of the Song of Songs is in any case a powerful metonymy assimilating the thread to a hair and the hair to a mystical link. This metonymy inspires him, and allows him to write his own original spiritual Song of Songs, whose stanzas 21 and 22 tie the metaphor tightly together:
De flores y esmeraldas,
en las frescas mañanas escogidas,
haremos las guirnaldas,
en tu amor florecidas,
y en un cabello me entretejidas.
In solo aquel cabello
que en mi cuello volar considerarste,
mirástele en mi cuello,
y enél preso quedaste,
y en uno de mis ojos te llagaste.
(With flowers, emeralds,
Chosen in the cool mornings,
We will go to make garlands,
All flowered in your love,
And held embraced by one of my hair.
This hair, you considered it
On my neck as he flew,
on my neck you looked at him,
He held you prisoner,
And with one of my eyes you felt hurt).
iPaul Éluard, Uninterrupted Poetry, Poetry/Gallimard, 2011
iiCharles Baudelaire. The Hair.
iiiLk 7, 37-38
ivCharles Baudelaire. The Hair.
« D’or sont les liens, Madame,
Dont fut premier ma liberté surprise
Amour la flamme autour du cœur éprise,
eyesThe line that pierces my soul. »
Joachim du Bellay. Regrets.
viStéphane Mallarmé. The Hair
viiṚg Veda I, 164.44.
viiiIncidentally, one of the attributes of Apollo, Xantokomès (Ξανθόκομης), also makes him a God « with fire-red hair ».
ixThe rules concerning hair are very codified. But only he who purifies himself must make them disappear completely, under the razor blade: « Then on the seventh day he shall shave off all his hair, his hair, his beard, his eyebrows, all his hair; he shall wash his clothes, bathe his body in water, and become clean. « Lev 14:9
x« On the day of Pentecost, they were all together in the same place. Suddenly there came a sound from heaven like a rushing wind, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting. Tongues like tongues of fire appeared to them, separated from one another, and rested on each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit, and began to speak in other tongues, as the Spirit gave them power to speak. « Acts 2:1-4
xiLaleh Bakhtiar. Sufism. Ed. Seuil, Paris, 1077, p.68
xiiJohn of the Cross, Spiritual Song B, 7,3. Complete Works . Cerf, 1990. p.1249
xivSpiritual Song B, 31, 3 Ibid. p. 1386
xvSpiritual Song B, 31, 2 Ibid. p. 1386
xviSpiritual Song B, 31, 4 Ibid. p. 1387
xviiSpiritual Song B, 31, 6 Ibid. p. 1388
xviiiSpiritual Song B, 31, 8 Ibid. p. 1388
xxHowever, in Ascent to Carmel, John of the Cross uses the metaphor of ‘hair’ in the plural. He relies on a passage from the Lamentations of Jeremiah which he translates again from the Vulgate: « Candidiores sunt Nazaraei ejus nive, nitidiores lacte, rubincundiores ebore antiquo, saphiro pulchriores ». « Their hair is whiter than snow, brighter than milk, redder than antique ivory, more beautiful than sapphire. Their faces have become blacker than coal, and are no longer recognizable in public squares. « (Rom 4:7-8) John of the Cross uses here the word cabello, « hair, » to translate into Spanish the word Nazaraei (« Nazarenes, » or « Nazirs of God ») used by the Vulgate. And he explains what, according to him, Jeremiah’s metaphor means: « By ‘hair’ we mean the thoughts and affections of the soul which are directed to God (…) The soul with its operations represented by hair surpasses all the beauty of creatures. « (John of the Cross, The Ascent of Carmel 1,9,2. Complete Works . Cerf, 1990. p.611)
xxiSpiritual Song B, 30, 9 Ibid. p. 1383