When I was directed to shave my head the first time, I missed the point. I knew what the reasons behind the directive were, but I didn’t get it. It took place at a weekend-long Beltane celebration in 2007 and it was my first time attending a pagan event with the intention of participating in and embracing the ritual aspect of it. The head-shaving happened on Sunday, the last day of the event, and took place in the driveway of the farm hosting the weekend, as that was the closest source of electricity. My teacher at the time buzzed off my long mohawk with clippers and we bagged up the hair. One bag went to my then teacher, one bag went home with me, and one bag went to a person who had a significant role in my life at the time. That person stepped up next and took off what hair was left behind by the clippers with a razor. I grinned the whole time, as it felt incredibly freeing to be completely bare to the world in that specific way.
As the hair fell around my shoulders, the reasons why I had been asked to undergo this particular ritual were crystal clear. I had become too attached to how I looked and valued my appearance in a way that was not healthy for me. The Powers wanted me to lose that security blanket and face the reality that I was, and am, different than many of the people I saw on a day-to-day basis. It was also the understanding of my former teacher, and myself, that hair holds spooky stuff. That is, it hold energy and connection and magic and all manner of other spiritual and potentially unseen things. Hair, to me, is kind of like a cosmic dish sponge. It soaks up everything until it’s full and starts dripping. Sometimes it molds and then you have to throw it out and start anew, and sometimes you remember to wring it out and put it to rest slightly damn instead of saturated.
I really enjoyed having my head shaved and I kept it for a few days. However, as I said, I missed the point. I had recently gotten into a relationship with a guy who made it very clear that he did not want to be in a relationship with someone who had a shaved head. This is when I missed the larger pointy bit. I relented and grew my hair back, and kept it long throughout the entirety of the relationship. I was given a choice, not just by my partner at the time, but by the Powers at large and I chose in a way that wasn’t good for me and, in a lot of ways, held me back. As the relationship progressed, I grew to resent having to keep my hair because I really, really wanted to shave my head. When the relationship came to an end, the first thing I did—literally, within fifteen minutes of us deciding that the relationship was no longer worth maintaining—was shave my head. I haven’t had hair since and that was over three years ago. I still have the hair from that head shave in a bag under my altar. It stands as a reminder of what was.
I kept it up at first because it was kind of a fuck-you to my ex, as my hair had been so valuable to him. I know now that it was kind of a backdoor move by my Patron [also known as Mr. Mister] to get me to keep my head bare. I didn’t get it for awhile and, once I figured out that He wanted my head shaved, I rebelled a bit. Two winters ago, I tried to grow it out for awhile and it felt so wrong it wasn’t even funny. I went back to buzzing it down with clippers on a regular basis, but even that wasn’t enough. He wants my head absolutely bare—shaved right down to skin.
The reasons are both simple and complex. The simplest reason is that He requires it because He can. In our relationship, the Mister is the shot-caller. I have some autonomy, but not much as it pertains to my appearance. Having me keep my head shaved is a reminder for me of His authority over me. I’m not His slave, but it’s not a coincidence that in many cultures, there are records of slaves and other people kept under the authority of others, such as prisoners, having had their heads shaved as a symbol of their captivity.
I never thought of this as particularly odd or unusual, but the more I tell people that I keep my head shaved as an act of devotion and obedience towards my Patron, the more reactions I get that say that this is bizarre. Part of the reason that it doesn’t seem strange to me is that, in my particular spiritual community/group, I am surrounded by other folks with hair taboos. I know a shaman who is not allowed to cut his hair at all and I know a spouse of Loki who grew her hair out at His behest. I even know other folks who shave their heads as an act of devotion. Wintersong, the other editor of this blog, also shaves his head as an act of devotion to his Patron. When I met him, he and his other partners, who all serve the same Deity, had long hair. Not hair that touched their shoulders or brushed their spines, but hair that, if they wanted to, they could have sat on. At the time, they were not allowed to cut their hair. Since then, all of them have cut their hair to some degree of short. Winter specifically shaved his head to mark his transition from magician to shaman- magician in the service of his Lady.
That’s the other reason I shave my head—it marks me. My bald head is a bit like a signal beacon. If I’m in a crowd, everyone can see me. Strangers comment on it and want to touch it. I get intrusive questions fairly regularly about why I shave my head or if my chemotherapy is going well [I do not have cancer]. The most recent comment was a client of mine remarking ‘don’t you want to have long hair?’. It’s a lighthouse and, whether I like it or not, it pulls people to me. It sets me apart as somehow different from every other person in the room.
In that way, it ties into some of my sacred work. I identify as transmasculine, which means I was assigned female at birth. I have not had any medical intervention [chest surgery, hormonal therapy] and I likely never will. This means that I am often labeled as female by people who inspect me visually and it seems to be quite shocking to many people that a person they recognize as female would shave their head. It’s something kind of…queer. It leads strangers and even people I am close with to question their understanding of gender, sexuality [as I am often assumed to be a butch dyke when I do not have sex with female-identified folks and I am quite upfront about that], and what they know about themselves. It’s also a beacon to other queers and other gender-variant folks that they are not alone where ever they are at. It doesn’t matter if they speak to me or know me at all, but I can be a visual reminder that it is possible to live a life outside the accepted boxes and be relatively happy and stable.
But, myself and my close spiritual contemporaries are not the only spiritually inclined folks who have hair taboos. Almost all Buddhist monks and nuns shave their heads, as do many lay Buddhists. You’ll find that Hare Krishnas keep a down-to-the-skin shave, as do many men who make the pilgrimage to the Hajj. I don’t know what the specific reasons are that these folks shave their heads, as I am not a member of those religious traditions, but my understanding is that it is tied deeply to their religious and/or spiritual practices.
Of course, restrictions or rituals around hair are not limited to the shaving of it. There is a long and well-documented history of both Orthodox and Roman Catholic nuns covering their hair and head. Orthodox nuns were a traditional habit that conceals all of their hair, while the style of habit worn by Roman Catholic nuns varies greatly depending on their affiliation. Some nuns wear the traditional black and white habit that encloses all of their hair and head save for their faces, some wear simple veil or stylized kerchief over their heads that leaves some of their hair visible, and some wear no habit or head covering at all. In some branches of Roman Catholic monasticism, nuns cut their hair severely AND cover it with a full habit as a symbol of renouncing their vanity and other attachments to their appearance in pursuit of their relationship with Christ, YHWH and the Holy Mother. Male monastics in that tradition also often have hair restrictions. The stereotypical monk’s tonsure, though more obsolete now, has been employed for centuries to mark a male monastic’s renunciation of worldly associations. Some orders, such as the Franciscans, still use it and, in addition to representing their spiritual renunciation, I have seen some orders state that it leaves their head open to their God so that they may hear His voice clearly. It has only been recently that I stumbled across the fact that, historically, priests of one of the Deities I work with kept their heads [and bodies] shaved bare as a symbol of their purity and service. It certainly made my head shaving make even more sense.
However, it’s not just mainstream female monastics that cover their hair. There is a growing movement within the general pagan community of individuals who cover their hair at the behest of their Gods or of their own accord as a symbol of their devotion to them. From what I have seen, pagan head covering runs the gamut from a simple kerchief or bandana tied over the hair to a tichel-style head-wrap to a hijab. I have personally seen mostly female-identified folks doing it, and, again from what I’ve seen, it seems to be mostly concentrated among followers of the Hellenic Gods and Kemetic Gods. I’m certain there are male-identified folks who cover their heads for their Gods, I just haven’t met any. There is, or was, a blog and website devoted to pagan veiling, but I am failing at finding a link to it. If you have the link, please comment so I can include it.
General religious and/or spiritual head covering doesn’t end there, either. In African Diasporic Religions, one often wears a head covering to signal one’s initiatory status. In Thailand, many women carry a doa gaun with them so they may stop at a place of prayer at any time. Some Jewish women wear a tichel after they are married or even wear wigs to cover their natural hair, as in some branches of Judaism, hair should only be viewed by one’s husband and by one’s God. Many folks are familiar with the head covering often worn by Muslim women as well, ranging from the hijab to a full burkha.
Even then, we’re not done with the treatment of heads in religions and spiritual communities. In many traditions, anointing the head with oil is a blessing or a ritual purification. I have had my head anointed as a means of protection and as a way to boost my signal clarity as well. In African Diasporic Religions, Lwa or Orishas are seated in the head via Lave Tet [in some vodou lineages] or Asiento [‘making the saint’ in Santeria], as the head is the seat of the soul in those religious traditions. Additionally, one can have a ‘hot’ head that needs cooling off, or a cool that could use some heat and there are specific practices that facilitate that. In some communities that do possessory work, a way to make sure a Power is gone is to either asperge the head with Florida Water or holy water, or, in general, get the head wet [I once had a bottle of water dumped on me]. Often, when possessory work is done, the Power enters through the top or the back of the head, where an energetic ‘door way’ is located.
When I shave my head, it’s not just an act that allows me to enjoy my appearance. It is an act that is connected to a much larger network and has much larger repercussions than my own vanity. For many of us who are religious and/or spiritual, how we treat our head and our hair is a vital part of our personal practice and orientation to our Powers. It can create a welcome and/or needed separation from common society, allow to stand out so that others in need can find us, or provide a reminder of our religious and/or spiritual commitment. It serves as a reminder that we carry with us at all times of our devotion and, moreover, of our choice to continue to live in the ways that we believe are right for each of us.
If you have hair or head taboos, be they altering, not altering, wearing your hair in a particular way, or covering it, what does it mean for you and your relationships with your Powers and/or your spiritual or magical practices? If you don’t have hair or head taboos, how does your hair or how you treat your head contribute to your understanding of yourself and/or your spiritual/religious/magical practices?
Edit: Thanks to a few readers, the name of the blog/website detailing pagan veiling is Covered in Light.