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January 26, 2014

One of the great things about working on a commentary is the random avenues it leads you down. What starts out looking like an unpromising bit of text turns out to raise issues about the ancient world that you’d never have thought of. Before you know it, you’re discovering all kinds of obscure debates, bizarre ancient texts, and random pieces of trivia: it’s the scholarly equivalent of link-surfing on wikipedia.

My most recent experience of this began with one of Archilochus’ least known fragments, 217 West, 'with hair shorn away from the shoulders close to the skin'. Not a line that sets the world on fire, all things considered. It might well have been really interesting in its original context, but we don’t know anything about it, since the line is quoted simply as an example of accentuation. But where it led me to was the wonderful world of Greek haircuts, and in particular to two notorious haircuts of the modern era, the bowl cut and the mullet.

It seems that in Greek times too, an untrained family member could give you an embarrassing haircut by putting a bowl over your head and cutting off all the hair that stuck out. We know this because the Greek term for a pudding bowl is skaphion, meaning a small bowl - disturbingly, it also means ‘chamber pot’, which would add a whole new layer to the horrors of a bad hair day. The Greeks didn’t appear to think much of the skaphion cut, since it tends to feature in passages that describe haircuts designed to humiliate the wearer: for example, in Aristophanes’Themophoriazusae, the chorus leader, in a passage discussing the ways in which women contribute to political life, suggests that the mother of an incompetent or cowardly man should be made to have a bowl cut to atone for the damage her son has done to the community (838).

Even more fascinating, however, is the Greek attitude to the mullet, which in contrast to the bowl cut, seemed to have enjoyed a happy status. Specifically, it seems to have been the hairstyle of heroes. Plutarch tells us that this hairstyle was known as the ‘Theseus cut’, after the story that Theseus dedicated just the front part of his hair at Delphi and left the back and sides long. For Plutarch, sporting a mullet was a sign of being a fine warrior: he tells of a fierce tribe called the Abantes, who adopted the mullet to prevent their enemies grabbing onto the front of their hair in battle. The martial overtones of the mullet also come out in another name for the mullet, the ‘Hector hair’, which suggests that this was a style particularly associated with that eminent hero. As far as I'm concerned, it gives Astyanax’s tears over Hector’s helmet in Iliad 6 an entirely new meaning.

Disclaimer: any Classicists proud of their bowl cuts or mullets should note that my flippant remarks about these styles are not the official views of the APA. The author has no doubt that the Association welcomes all members, regardless of their hairstyle.