The documented history of dreadlocks starts back about 3,600 years ago, in the Minoan civilization, Crete. Later, Julius Caesar said Germans had hair like snakes. The first dreadlocks have not been historically documented, though. Scientists assume prehistoric humanoids naturally developed dreadlocks.
Dreadlocks were later seen in many other cultures, including Indian sages and Hindu yogis who found refuge in the Caribbean islands – but more on that later. Dreadlocks have different significances across many cultures, but they have one thing in common: they are a spiritual journey that teaches patience.
History of Dreadlocks in Ancient Times
Sculptures from the Archaic period of Ancient Greece depict dreadlocked men. Magistrates from Sparta followed this archaic Greek tradition, too, and braided their hair in long locks. Aztec priests kept their hair untouched, long, and matted.
Significance of Dreadlocks in Ancient Cultures
In many cultures, dreadlocks are a statement of disregard for physical appearance and earthly possessions. they symbolize focusing on spiritual growth and leaving vanity and physical appearances behind. Rastafarians, however, believe their dreadlocks are a sanctuary for physical, emotional, and spiritual strength.
The oldest documented examples of dreadlocks come Egypt, with Tutankhamun and other rulers. His mummy still wears the dreadlocks, more than 3,300 years later. There are also plenty of illustrations that prove signified a high social status. Many considered dreadlocks attractive in the Egyptian culture.
Various African ethnic groups wear dreadlocks of different styles. Across cultures they mirror social status or certain talents. Warriors of the Maasai tribe, for example, wear long, thin, red locks of hair. In other cultures, shamans keep their long, in locks, yo distinguish themselves. Some Nigerian children are born with natural locks of hair and are called Dada. Priests from the Yoruba culture wear dreadlocks.
In medieval South Asia, many esoteric Buddhist rituals required the participants to have dreadlocks. Tibetan and other forms of Buddhism, however, substituted dreadlocks with shaving their heads over the years. They see hair as an excessive attachment, a material vanity even.
The Aztecs in Central America only considered high ranking priests worthy of this hairstyle. Once a man entered the priesthood, his head was shaved. The longer the locks of hair, the more experienced and powerful the priest.
Judaism & Christianity
At least 7 of the most important figures in the Abrahamic religions wore dreadlocks. The Hebrew Bible’s Book of Numbers has an oath that asks followers to display their devotion by not cutting their hair:
„No razor may be used on their head. They must be holy until the period of their dedication to the Lord is over; they must let their hair grow long.” – The Nazarite Vow
It also required to abstain from alcohol and grape products and not to come in contact with corpses or graves. This part of the bible had an impact on how the Rastafari movement developed in the 20th century. In fact, it might very well be the source of dreadlocks in the Rastafarian culture.
The History of Dreadlocks & their Significance in Jamaica
The Rastafarian culture quickly incorporated the piety of the abovementioned yogis and their knotty hairstyle. However, unlike eastern yogis for whom the locks were not a priority, Rastafarians highly valued theirs.
This hairstyle appeared after Jamaica’s emancipation in 1838. Rastafarianism appeared on November 2nd, 1930, in Jamaica – almost 100 years after the emancipation. Those who dreadlocked their hair did so to defy the Euro-centrism forced on ex-slaves. people were also calling it a dreadful, but the term later evolved to the current international term dreadlocks. Jamaicans, however, also call them Natty Dreadlocks.
The Significance of Dreadlocks in the Rastafarian Culture
For Rastafarians, growing hair into dreadlocks is part of the Nazarite Vow. Inspired by the Bible’s Nazarites – specifically, Samson, whose hair was a weakness, together with untrustworthy women. Others dreadlock their hair in honor of the Lion of Judah, a tribe that descended from Judah. In addition, the lion is the king of the jungle, a gentle but powerful creature. Many consider the history of dreadlocks part of the Rastafarian culture, but this oversimplifies the matter in question.
They believe bodily, mental, and spiritual energies enter and exit through the top of our head and hair. Rastafarians believe the knots trap the energies and conserve strength and health.
History of the Term “Dreadlocks”
The word is formed from dread, a feeling of aversion, and locks, or curls. Contrary to the popular belief, the word dread does not symbolize from the fear East African warriors induced in their victims. The Rastafarian word dread means fear of the Lord and is also expresses the feeling of alienation from contemporary society. The term likely developed with the Rastafarian culture and religious movement.
History of Dreadlocks in the ‘70s
Dreadlocks were made popular by reggae music and have been also called Jamaican dreads. Reggae artists like Bob Marley made dreadlocks more accepted worldwide with their success. Many other artists wore their hair dreadlocked: authors, actors, rappers, or athletes.
The modern version of Rastafarianism in Western societies includes, apart from wearing the hair in dreadlocks: avoidance of alcohol, vegetarianism, and ritual use of marijuana.
Given their popularity, though, not all who have dreadlocks today are Rastafarians. Because dreadlocks do not belong to the Rastafarian culture – or to any other one. They go beyond spirituality, religion, or race.