Whether you call them carrot tops, strawberry blondes or gingers, redheads have attracted unwanted attention throughout history. The target of objectification and abuse, animosity towards fiery locks has resulted in hate crimes and mistreatment. From accusations of witchcraft to their association with immorality, these unfounded claims have inspired a host of myths, cultural practices and insults, as well as a lot of redhead-related misinformation, that continue to this day.
Modern estimates hold that redheads make up just 2% of the world’s population, and this rarity has fueled curiosity for centuries. An unmissable mark of otherness, red hair has often been linked to negative traits like impulsiveness, a bad temperament and promiscuity. Even within nature, the color red is charged with symbolic meaning, as a warning of potential threat or as a way to attract mates during time of reproductive readiness.
The connection between redheads and violence can be traced to ancient Greek and Roman societies, where groups such as the Scythians and Thracians, known for having a significant number of redheads, were portrayed as aggressive barbarians. These stereotypes fueled their subsequent enslavement. “The Classical suspicion of redheads probably derived from the fact red hair was so rare in the Mediterranean regions,” explained History Collection .
During the Middle Ages, red hair was sometimes associated with immoral acts. By the time of the Spanish Inquisition , red hair was even being used to identify Jews. This helps explain why supposedly treacherous characters, such as Mary Magdalen and Judas Iscariot who are identified as Jews within Christian tradition, were depicted with red hair in certain artworks of the era. According to some sources, red hair was used as a justification for targeting alleged witches during the European witch-hunts of the 16th and 17th centuries.
Artistic rendition of a redheaded Judas Iscariot, guilt-ridden after his betrayal of Jesus and wearing a diadem of thirty pieces of silver, by Edward Okuń in 1901. ( Public domain )
By the 19th century, a New Year’s tradition called ‘first footing’ gained popularity in Scotland and northern England. It held that the first person entering a home after midnight could bring good fortune , though redheads were believed to bring bad luck .
Dubbed the “ unicorns of the human world,” redheads are actually the result of a genetic mutation. Some scientists believe that it originated in the Central Asian Steppes as humans adapted to low sunlight, developing pale skin and light hair (including red hair) in the process. This mutation allowed them to absorb additional UV light needed to synthesize vitamin D more efficiently. Carried as recessive genes, red hair can appear in individuals worldwide through dormant traits passed down over generations.
Anti-ginger prejudice and enduring stereotypes persist today, rooted in remnants of these historic superstitions. But redheads are now fighting back! Events such as World Redhead Day, celebrated on the 26th May, or the Dutch festival Redhead Days , where gingers from around the world come together each year, are spreading awareness in the hope of a more inclusive future.
Top image: Redheads have attracted unwanted attention throughout history. Source: Anastasiia / Adobe Stock