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Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Beauty Among the Irish Celts

  Beauty is such a wonderfully subjective thing. In our modern times what is considered beautiful has changed from one decade to another, as fashions shift and with it our ideas of what is attractive. In January there was a fascinating video that became popular called "Women's Ideal Body Types Throughout History" which looked at different perceptions of female beauty in a variety of cultures over the last 3,000 years. It included the ideal body type from ancient Egypt to Renaissance Italy to modern America, and noted the increased rate at which our perception of beauty has begun shifting with modern technology and communication. As I watched it I began to wonder about the ancient Celtic and Irish standards of beauty, and so I decided to explore those a bit here.
   In general we know that a broad forehead and small chin were considered attractive, as was fair skin and blond hair (Joyce, 1906). Blond hair was so strongly favored that it was a practice among the Gauls and British Celts to bleach their hair with lime, something that we know about from the writings of Diodorus (Wilcox, 1985). Irish women were also known to color their eyebrows black using berry juice (Joyce, 1906). From this we can see that the Irish were not opposed to creating the look they desired though artificial means, preferring light hair and dark eyebrows even if they were achieved cosmetically.
   Both men and women wore their hair long and loose, although warriors were noted to sometimes plait their hair on either side of their faces (Thomson, 2011). The hair was brushed every day after the person bathed, and curling the hair was noted among the Irish nobility with elaborate hair styles seen in most early Irish artwork and illuminations (Joyce, 1906). Long hair was seen as a mark of great beauty and conversely to have the hair cut short, unless required by the person's particular job, was a mark of great shame (Thomson, 2011). In this case the length of a person's hair was quite literally a measure of their beauty by societal standards.
  The hands were also a feature that was focused on as a measure of beauty with pale hands that were fine with tapering fingers being preferred (Joyce, 1906). The fingernails were rounded and painted red on women, and for men to have rough fingernails was seen as disgraceful (Joyce, 1906). This tells us that the state of the hands was important for both men and women, and was a universal measure of beauty, although men were not noted to color their nails as women did. Facial makeup however including painting the eyelids and cheeks was noted on both genders (Joyce, 1906).
  In many of the tales a strong physical form is described as attractive, but other than that we don't see much focus on physical descriptions - rather clothing is emphasized, as we see in the description of Fedelm from the Tain Bo Cuiligne: "She had yellow hair. She wore a vari- coloured cloak with a golden pin in it and a hooded tunic with red embroidery. She had shoes with golden fastenings. Her face was oval, narrow below, broad above. Her eyebrows were dark and black. Her beautiful black eyelashes cast a shadow on to the middle of her cheeks. Her lips seemed to be made of partaing. Her teeth were like a shower of pearls between her lips. She had three plaits of hair: two plaits wound around her head, the third hanging down her back, touching her calves behind..." (O'Rahilly, n.d.)
  From this we see that Fedelm fits the usual mold of beauty, having "yellow" hair, dark eyebrows, a broad forehead and narrow chin, and long hair, but we are given very little description of her body type. We see a similar description in the Tochmarche Ferb: "Very beautiful and splendid was the young prince whom they accompanied; long were his cheeks, radiant and broad was his countenance. Long, curling, and golden was his hair, and it fell to his shoulders; proud and glowing were his eyes, blue, and clear as the crystal. Like to the tops of the woods in May, or to the foxglove of the mountain, was each of his cheeks. You might fancy that a rain of pearls had fallen into his mouth, and that his lips were twin branches of coral. White as the new-fallen snow of the night was his neck, and such was the fashion of his skin" (Jones, n.d.)
 Once again we see an attractive person described by hair color and length, facial shape, and fairness of complexion but no mention of physical body type. Even Cu Chulain who is often said to be the fairest man in Ireland is described in the Tochmarch Emire mostly by his clothing and chariot, with only his fair and flushed cheeks, dark eyebrows, and white teeth mentioned as personal descriptors of his beauty. From this we may, perhaps, conclude that how well one dressed was in fact a significant factor of personal beauty among the ancient Irish, along with the aforementioned facial shape, hair and eyebrow color, and hair length. 
   Beauty is often in the eye of the beholder, but it is also a matter of cultural views. What our culture finds beautiful will influence the formation of what we find beautiful as well. For the ancient Irish that meant being well dressed, having a broad forehead and narrow chin, dark eyebrows and blond hair, fair skin, and long hair - the longer the better. Very different, perhaps, from our modern standards. 

Joyce, P., (1906) A Smaller Social History of Ancient Ireland
Wilcox, P., (1985) Rome's Enemies
Thomson, C., (2011) All About That Celtic Hair
O'Rahilly, C., (n.d.) Tain Bo Cualnge
Jones, M., (n.d.) Tochmarch Ferb


  1. The comment from Joyce on facial makeup fascinates me. I don't recall seeing any indication that men painted their faces, and the idea seems surprising (though not unwelcome, to be sure). Does he indicate why he says that (I don't have a copy of Social History… to check)?

  2. "These men, on their first appearance on the Continent, caused much surprise, they were so startlingly different from those preachers the people had been accustomed to....They were tonsured bare on the front of the head, while the long hair behind flowed down on the back: and the eyelids were painted or stained black." (page 148)
    "Ladies often dyed the eyebrows black with the juice of some sort of berry. We have already seen that the Irish missionary monks sometimes painted or dyed their eyelids black. An entry in Cormac's Glossary plainly indicates that the blush of the cheeks was sometimes heightened by a colouring matter obtained from a plant named ruam." (page 386)

    1. Excellent!

      The tonsure is subject to some debate (see "On the Shape of the Insular Tonsure" [pdf] by McCarthy), but the rest seems very interesting.