One of the first things I do upon rising in the morning is to comb my hair. In my mind, detangling my hair is a way of sorting out my thoughts, helping me to think clearly.
Some readers of this blog are old enough to remember being given a comb, brush and mirror set for a special “big girl” birthday. It would be the finest set a family could afford — expected to be used the girl’s entire life. Ivory, tortoiseshell and silver were the most fashionable materials, valued as much for their dearness as their utility. Today, a comb is not an item of conspicuous consumption, and wooden combs are preferred because they detangle without leaving a static charge. Still, a comb is a very personal object, and most women value one with size, shape and tooth-spacing conducive to her particular hair.
Not surprisingly, women (and sometimes men) were once buried with their combs, and the quality and workmanship of the comb provides information about the status of the individual. The oldest extant combs are carved of bone, ivory or antler, although very rarely, a wooden comb survives the passage of time. A few mucky-mucks went to the other world with a gold comb. Since some mummies have been discovered with lice, it’s a good thing the ancient Egyptians included nit-combs in their burial goods, although I personally prefer to envision an afterlife without head lice.
Despite the importance and ubiquity of the implement, little has been noted about the comb and its symbolism. Marija Gimbutas has identified a comb symbol going back to the painted vultures at Catal Huyuk (6,000 bce). She finds the comb symbol on a variety of pottery and goddess figures from Neolithic and Iron Age Europe. Combs from the Switzerland area portray stylized feminine forms with breasts or vulvas. Gimbutas adds that:
To this day, European peasants use the comb for protection against diseases and other evils and for healing purposes. Children and women after childbirth wear comb pendants on their front or back, a custom inherited from prehistory when it was considered necessary to appease the Vulture (Death) Goddess during the period of her rule in order to secure a safe and healthy life.
The comb as women’s symbol refers not just to hair combs but combs associated with processing textiles, once exclusively women’s work. The goddess Athena murders her rival Arachne with a loom comb. The comb symbol often appears on spindle whorls. Hittite tablets record a rite for newborns performed by the midwife involving a sheep’s wool comb.
There is a strong connection between hair combing and water. Sea goddesses like Venus are pictured with combs. In folklore, rain can be caused by combing hair. Sometimes pearls, which come from the ocean, are combed out of hair—although a witch can also cause hideous things to be combed.
Pre-Christian and medieval symbol stones from Scotland, called “Pictish Stones,” frequently show a comb-and-mirror combination. It is not known exactly what the comb-and-mirror signifies, except that it is believed to be a feminine symbol. In Scottish lore, seductive mermaids are famous for sitting on rocks combing their hair, a special magic they perform to lure sailors to their death.
The Irish goddess Medb, with her legendary sexual appetite, has a comb as her symbol. Sexuality, particularly women’s sexuality, has been considered a malevolent force by Christianity, but the mermaid with her comb and mirror is carved on many Irish churches, indicating the symbol may once have had a more benign interpretation. Perhaps the power of the mermaid combing her hair symbolized the fertility of the sea, offering a bounty of food.
In Germanic folklore, mythic creatures with combs also perform mischief. If a man chances upon a water nymph combing her hair, he must assume she has called him there with her magic and marry her within three days, or he will die. Sprites come out at night to comb the manes of horses or the beards of goats, presumably to gain power from these animals.
In a Russian fairytale, a cat with a magic comb appears, and this comb is like no other. Drawing on the contrary nature of the domestic cat, this comb tangles instead of detangles. The heroine uses the cat’s comb to create a tangled forest behind her as she escapes her pursuer.
The Christian church at one time recognized the ritual power of the comb. Liturgical combs were widespread in the early Middle Ages, although their exact symbolism and function is unknown. There are obscure references to ritual hair-combing of priests that may still occur in some Christian churches but details are not available.
A comb spell for Halloween surfaced in colonial America that probably has older precedents. A woman (always a woman) would light a candle and sit before a mirror, combing her hair while looking for her future lover behind her shoulder. This form of divination remained a popular Halloween game to the early twentieth century.
Comb spells are surprisingly scarce in books about modern witchcraft, and the comb is not listed as one of the core magical tools in any book I have run across. Ed Fitch, in Magical Rites from the Crystal Well, has offered a comb-and-mirror spell for women that is somewhat well-known. The comb is a powerful magical tool, almost exclusively a woman’s magical tool, and we should make better use of it. Comb-and-mirror spells are simple and need little elaboration.
Though I’ve combed only a limited geographic region for this article, I have no doubt that women’s magical traditions around the comb could be found in West Africa, China, India, and probably many other places as well. Though combs have gotten some attention as art history, the comb as a shamanic tool has not been adequately explored.
Answers.com “Liturgical Comb.” http://www.answers.com/topic/liturgical-comb-1
The British Museum, “Liturgical Comb Made of Ivory.” http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/highlight_objects/pe_mla/i/liturgical_comb_made_of_ivory.aspx.
Edwardian Promenade. Hallowe’en in the Guilded Age. http://edwardianpromenade.com/amusements/halloween-in-the-gilded-age/
Fitch, Ed. Magical Rites from the Crystal Well. St. Paul, MN: Llewellyn, 1984.
Gimbutas, Marija. The Language of the Goddess. San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1989.
Grimm, Jacob. Teutonic Mythology. 1883. http://archive.org/stream/teutonicmytholo02grim/teutonicmytholo02grim_djvu.txt
Monaghan, Patricia. The Book of Goddesses and Heroines. St. Paul, MN: Llewellyn, 1990.
Monaghan, Patricia. The Encyclopedia of Celtic Mythology and Folklore. New York: Checkmark Books, 2008.
Nayland, Carla. “Pictish symbol stones – the comb and mirror symbol.” http://www.carlanayland.org/essays/picts_comb_mirror.htm
Radford, Patricia. “Lusty Ladies.” http://homepage.eircom.net/~archaeology/three/mermaid.htm
Starkston, Judith. “The Hittite Hasawa: Prietess, Healer, Diviner and Midwife.” http://www.judithstarkston.com/articles/the-hittite-hasawa-priestess-therapist-healer-diviner-and-midwife/.
Walker, Barbara. The Woman’s Dictionary of Symbols and Sacred Objects. San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1988.
WiseGeek. “What is a Nit-Comb?” http://www.wisegeek.net/what-is-a-nit-comb.htm