What a beard did these Langobards have!

In this period of enforced quarantine, with no chance to go to the hairdresser, the Internet is plagued by tutorials, posts and advice on how to take care of our hair.

Long, short, straight or curly hair has always been considered an ornament of great charm but also of great anthropological, cultural and symbolic significance. Just think of the myth of Samson.

But, what was its value to the Langobards? And who were they?

To discuss this people, we need to go back in time to the first century B.C. when the Winnili (mad dogs) left their homeland, Skåne – now Sweden’s southernmost Landskap (ancient country subdivision) – to move to northern Germany. This was the beginning of a long migration process that lasted more than five centuries, constantly seeking new, richer lands. The origin of the name of the gens Langobardorum is intertwined between mythical elements and data supported by archaeological findings.

Le tappe della migrazione

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Legend has it that the dukes of the Vandals demanded tribute from the Winnili and threatened to wage war if they did not pay. The Winnili leaders, Ybor and Ajo, together with their mother Gambaruc refused. Before engaging in battle, the Vandal dukes turned to the god Wotan and asked him to grant them victory over the rival people. The god replied that he would grant victory to ‘those whom he saw first at sunrise‘.

The defeat of the Winnili seemed beyond dispute, so Gambara prayed the goddess Frea, Wotan’s wife, to help her people. Frea’s advice was: show yourselves to Wotan at sunrise looking much more numerous, gathering not only the men but also the women with their long hair loose and tied around their faces to simulate a beard.

At sunrise, the goddess, before waking Wotan, gave the Winnili further help by turning her husband’s bed so that he would be facing east. Inevitably Wotan woke up and saw first the Winnili, with their wives with their hair loose around their faces, and asked: “Who are those long beards?” And the goddess Frea answered him: ‘As you have given them a name, give them also victory. And so it went.

Since that time the Winnili have been called Langobards” (from Origo gentis Langobardorum).

But their name could also be tied to their cult of Odin-Wotan, long-bearded supreme god. Hence Longobards/Langobards, i.e. “by the long beard”.

Another hypothesis suggests their name derives from their ‘long halberds‘.

Disegno degli studenti dell'ISS Sansi-Leonardi-Volta

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Paul the Deacon in his Historia Langobardorum writes: «[…] thus named after their long beards, untouched by razors. In their language, lang means long and bart means beard»

In fact, the Langombards cared a great deal about their hairstyle: once in a lifetime, men underwent a ritual tonsure, in a traditional ceremony that marked the transition to adulthood. This cutting of the hair and beard was a sort of initiation for the Germanic warrior, which was completed with the killing of the first enemy in battle. In the age of migration, the Germanic tribes carried out practices of this type, linked to the idea that the magical strength of the warrior resided in the hair; after settling in the Italian peninsula, the long hair would fall out of favour.

Paul the Deacon describes them like this:

The nape of the neck was shaved, the long hair, parted in half on the forehead, fell down the cheeks to the mouth, thus joining the beard, which seemed to start from the top of the head and was never shaved.

For men, beards and hair were therefore of extreme importance: the length of the former was even proportional to the prestige of the person. The Edict of Rothari (promulgated in Pavia at midnight between 22nd and 23rd November 643), referring to the caste of free men, included a series of punishments for those who hurt them physically. Among the crimes was the ungentlemanly act of pulling a beard.

Prisoners and slaves had their beards and hair cut, to highlight their inferiority.

As for women, maidens wore their long hair in braids, an attribute of their beauty, and only cut it at the time of marriage; married women wore their heads covered. Noblewomen held their hair in place with gold wire netting or metal pins. In the women’s tombs of Castel Trosino (Ascoli Piceno), pins of fine workmanship and ridged gold needles have been found. The latter were used to fix the cap to the hair.

Combs have been found in both male and female burials instead. Made of bone (ox, horse or pig), horn or ivory, they are generally decorated with hoop motifs, with or without etchings.

Pettine di Teodolinda, Regina dei Longobardi (586-616)

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In the Germanic culture, the comb had a magical value linked to the property of the hair to continue to grow even after death; it was also a sign of social distinction since, to be produced, it required a long cycle of work by highly specialised craftsmen. It was also an object of personal, practical use, evidenced by signs of wear due to repeated passing through the hair and beard.

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