Like many of you, I imagine, I get the itch to do some intense cleaning, reorganizing and casting away of clutter (physical, mental and spiritual) around the spring and fall equinoxes. And maybe like some of you (or maybe I’m alone in this), I often express my determination to cut through stagnant energy by cutting off my own hair. There is an ancient cross-cultural thread that tells us our hair contains something of ourselves – Samson’s might, a woman’s virtue, a man’s honor, a baby’s innocence. By extension, our hair also carries with it our emotional traumas, our negative experiences, and our bad habits. I’ve known more than a few dear people in my life that, in the ultimate gesture to signal the release of a past hurt, the end of a bad relationship, to officially move on to a new stage and a fresh start, have chopped off their hair. I also notice that when my hair reaches a certain length, it starts to weigh me down emotionally & mentally until I take some off. I see this in a smaller scale in fingernails as well. Personally, my fingernails will frequently give away my anxieties by developing white streaks and ridges during times of stress, and I always feel a sense of relief that the worst is behind me when I can trim away the last of those physical markers.
At any rate, usually in March and again in September/October, I find myself wielding the scissors again, but then I’m left with the question of what to do with the clippings. I would guess that some rational people in the world don’t think twice about sweeping their hair up into the bin with the rest of the garbage. But even when I have envisioned the trimmings as bearing the parts of myself I want to be rid of, perhaps because at these times I am especially aware that this is a ceremonial act more than a cosmetic one, I feel like there should be special rules for the disposal of the remnants. As a child, I collected and saved the lengths of braids I would cut off (I’m sure my parents weren’t concerned at all), but in recent years I have had a strong compulsion to scatter my hair among the trees. I tried to make sense of this by imagining that – particularly in the spring and fall – the little woodland creatures could use my luxurious locks to give a fresh lining to their nests and dens. Finally I decided to consult the archives of folklore for any rules on the discarding of cut hair, and it turns out this approach is NOT AT ALL ADVISED.
Let’s take a look at some of the folk-wisdom on the matter and re-evaluate my instincts:
- If a bird retrieves your hair for its nest, you will become bald.
- If a bird or rat gets a strand of a person’s hair for nesting, that person will lose her mind.
- If a bird gets your hair trimmings, you’ll get a headache, or toothache, or die.
- If someone cuts a piece of your hair and puts it in a hollow tree, you’ll go crazy.
- Don’t let anyone step on your fallen hair or you will get a headache.
- If someone else cuts a piece of your hair, or obtains a piece of your hair, they have power over you.
- Hair cuttings thrown in the wind bring bad luck.
- If your hair combings are blown away in the wind, it will make you forgetful.*
*This last entry is actually somewhat along the same lines as the desired effect – forgetting past troubles – but to become entirely forgetful is a bit much.
For those of you out there who might have, like me, already DONE this, all hope is not lost:
- If a bird gets your combed hair and you go crazy, you can undo it by getting your hair back from the bird.
- If you save the nest a bat makes of your hair, your luck will change and be good.
But what about alternative methods of disposal? Opinions vary:
- If you throw your hair in the waste basket or on the floor and step over it, you’ll go bald.
- Don’t throw your hair on the ground or your ghost will come back and pick up all the hair you once discarded. Burn it instead.
- On the other hand, if you burn your hair combings, you will go crazy.
- To throw or place a strand of a girl’s hair in a stream of running water, it will run her out of her mind.
- But, put your own hair combings under running water and it will grow.
- Be sure to put some of your cut hair in the tire tracks or it won’t grow anymore.
- Use hair combings to stuff cushions and you’ll never go bald.
- Put hair beneath a large rock to prevent headaches.
- Better yet, find a rock where the house eaves drip and put it there to grow your hair long and smooth .
- Cut hair should be buried by a young tree.
- Collect the hair and toenails of your enemy, put them in a bag under his doorstep and the enemy will go crazy.
- If you put a piece of hair under the doorstep, it will cure someone who is sick in the house.
This idea of using trimmings of hair to cast away illness is also reflected in plugging rituals. Cory at New World Witchery posted a brilliant and thorough investigation of these practices a matter of days after I composed my first draft of this entry last spring, so I won’t bother recapping what he already covered. You can read that post here.
One fascinating approach to using plugging to undo someone else’s magic wrought with your hair is referenced in Catherine Yronwode’s Hoodoo Herb & Root Magic:
“If someone gets your hair and uses it to force you into love, you can break their power over you: Pull out one of your own hairs from the mould of your head and wrap it tightly around a nail, then walk into the woods with a hammer and drive the nail all the way into a Sweet Gum tree, walk back the same way you came and don’t look back.”
Many sources agree that a plugging ritual – inserting your hair or the hair of a loved one into a tree – somehow marries the fates of the tree and the person whose hair was used, so that if one dies the other does too. I wonder what effect the plugging would have on the sap of a tree if you were to tap it – would you capture some of the life force of that person in the sap? You could make a magical maple syrup in that way, perhaps?? This gives me all kinds of weird ideas about vampiric pancakes and symbolic cannibalism…
Moving on… Along with what to do with hair once it’s cut, there was also a great deal of (sometimes conflicting) folklore on when to do the actual cutting:
- Cut hair immediately before the moon is full, or trim it in the new moon.
- The best time is in the sign of Cancer, but not on the fourth of July.
- Cut hair on the night of the new moon and dream of the face of your future husband.
(Fellas, you have to rely on some kindly matron cutting her hair for you: Put a lock of a woman’s hair under your pillow and dream of your future wife.)
- If hair is cut on Good Friday, you will never go bald
- Snip a small strand of hair on the first of March and you will never go bald
- Wash your hair or let it fall in the first May rain for growth and luster
- Comb your hair in the moonlight for enchanting hair
- Comb your hair after dark, comb sorrow into your heart
Two other tangentially related bits about hair that I thought were of interest include:
- If you have a stray hair on your person, remove it and put it on the back of your hand and make a wish.
(I grew up with a similar kind of practice that involved wishing on fallen eyelashes.)
- To make or keep a lover (depending on whom you ask): pull out, swallow, carry, burn/bury, or hide in your home his/her hair or put your hair in his/her clothes or under his/her doorstep.
Let’s make sure we have this straight: Your hair under your own doorstep put there by you = healing power. Your hair under someone else’s doorstep put there by you = together forever. Your hair under your own doorstep put there by someone else = mental breakdown. Proceed with caution.
So to distill all of this reading we’ve done into some takeaways, the first thing I noticed was that very few superstitions about hair cutting (in my sources at least) actually agree with each other on whether something portends very good things or very bad things, and the exact same actions can be both promoted or proscribed. The second thing I noticed was that there were still a lot of common elements that tended to show up again and again, regardless of the positive or negative spin. It seems that certain places, actions, and times are significant, and while individuals might disagree on what exactly will happen when these elements line up, the consensus seems to be that SOMETHING will happen. With regards to your hair (washing, cutting or combing), there is potency in Fridays, the months of March and May, moonlight and moon phases, burying or hiding under trees/rocks/doorsteps, and giving it away to water/wind or animals, with anticipated effects on health, love, beauty, and especially one’s mental state.
Being a practical and not very fearful witchy person, I am inclined to take this as a fabulous set of tips on when and how to employ hair cutting magic, and that with your intent, you can utilize these ingredients to create the outcome of your will, be it positive or negative. As for the hair I’ve already scattered to the four winds and tucked in nearly every tree of my stomping grounds, openly inviting birds and critters to have at it, I’m inclined to believe that it will alter my mental state. By offering this very powerful piece of myself to the animals in my geographic sphere of influence, I’m forming relationships and acknowledging that my fate is thrown in with theirs. I’ve invested in their survival (even if just symbolically) and strengthened my connection to the spirits of my place, which I find fulfilling, comforting and empowering.
I also heard somewhere, and I wish for all our sakes that I remembered where, whether it was in a book, a dream, or a conversation, that part of the belief behind losing one’s mind from birds and animals running off with one’s hair is about exactly that connection that is forged – a part of you exists with that bird or animal, sharing in its journeys and fears, seeing through its eyes. That could be awfully distracting – even maddening – for someone unprepared, but for witchfolk like us? It sounds like a beautiful opportunity, and I for one choose to continue throwing my hair – and my caution – to the wind.
Love and health to you all in these blustery toddler days of autumn.
Unless otherwise cited, folklore that I wasn’t raised with is culled from Popular Beliefs and Superstitions: A Compendium of American Folklore from the Ohio Collection of Newbell Niles Puckett, edited by Wayland Hand, Anna Casetta and Sondra Thiederman (1981).