With the recent rise in popularity of dreadlocks, there has been in increase in the discussion about dreads. Some see dreads as a fashion statement, stylish and a look of distinction. Others see them as a way to express political sentiment or a religious statement made by Rastafarians and thus often rejected. Bob Marley said in interviews that his dreads were his identity.
But dreadlocks have a much longer history.
King Tutankhamun and his sister were depicted with dreads which, in ancient Egypt, were used to show status and power. Other mummified bodies were found with wigs and dreads. Medusa, the Africa serpent goddess of female wisdom wore ‘hair of snakes’. This was in actual fact dreadlocks. And in Biblical times John the Baptists and Samson had dreadlocks. When Julius Caesar invaded Britain, he described the Celts as having ‘hair like snakes’ – dreadlocks.
Across the planet the use of dreadlocks has been associated with Yogis, Asian emperors, Indian Veda scriptures from 1800 BC, Germanic and Pacific tribes, ancient Greeks, Aborigines and Indian sages, but it is widely believed that dreads have their roots in Africa, specifically in the Horn of Africa with the Maasai and the Somali, and in North Africa. Cavemen and women were probably the first to have dreads, for the simple reason that they did not have combs, their hair was just left to grow and it formed mattered curls.
The Himba tribe in northern Namibia have red dreadlocks which they colour using a paste called otijze which consists of ground ochre (red oxide earth pigment) and butterfat. The symbolism is important - the colour represents the earth from where we all come.
In Mali, West Africa, the Dogon tribe use dreadlocks as part of the ‘ritual of the damas’, where the spirit of the dead is led to the final resting place through ceremonial dance. The dreads are a connection with the divine and thus have a spiritual status.
More recently the Mau Mau tribe in Kenya, an ethnic rebel group, who in the 1950s fought to overthrow the British Colonial government, hid in the forests for many years. During this time they grew dreads and at the height of the rebellion images of the rebels with dreadlocks were broadcast around the world. It has been said that this inspired the Rastafarians and encouraged them to wear dreads.
Some tribes believe that because the hair is filled with nutrients, keeping hair as dreadlocks will keep a person health, vibrant and youthful.
Most dreads are intentionally formed and because hair comes in different textures, there are various methods used to encourage their natural formation. The most common method is to leave curly hair to grow and not to brush it, which will encourage the hair to knot and tangle naturally. This method is called the ‘Neglect’, ‘Natural’, ‘Organic’, ‘Patience’ or ‘Free-form’ method. It can take over a year for the dreads to form and during this time it doesn’t look much like dreadlocks. Techniques such as back-combing and teasing, twisting, braiding, dread perm and looming are used to create the ultimate look. Then of course, people have them put in too, which is the quickest method.
From ancient times dreadlocks have played an important part in the spiritual life and social status within the community. This has fed into the modern world. Today, dreadlocks still have a close association with divine energy. Because hair is connected to millions of nerve endings which lead to the brain and ultimately to the ‘third eye’, dreads are believed to enhance spiritual awareness and play a role in the art and skill of telepathy. They are also used as a channel to communicate with the Creator.
Whatever personal opinions people carry about dreadlocks in the twenty first century, they seem popular with young and old. Many still view dreadlocks with an element of unease, but with most things we fear or find uncomfortable with, it is simply something we didn’t know or understand.