Religions Love-hate Relationship with Facial Hair

In Honor of Movember

It was 1697 and Peter the Great, Czar of Russia, had just returned from his grand tour of Europe. No, he wasn’t sight-seeing. He was trying to figure out what made them so modern and successful.

What made Peter’s trip so cool was he went disguised as your average Peter — Pyotr Mikhailov to be exact. Peter was determined to find a way to put Russia on equal footing with the rest of Europe; within the year he had things pretty much figured out.

Being a man of action, he wasted no time implementing his changes. In the middle of his welcome home ceremony, right after the kisses and hugs, he pulled out his scissors and cut off almost every beard in sight.

Peter The Great (Wikipedia)

“From this day on there will be no beards in Russia,” he announced.

“Peter, obviously you ate something in England that threw off the equilibrium of your mental processes. You know we never shave. NEVER. But considering you may have been affected by the English air, we’ll put it to you another way —

It’s just not cricket.”

“Oh come on!” whined Peter. “We’ve been stuck in a rut for 600 years. Beards have feudal system written all over them — It’s time to modernize. Don’t you want to be hip and happening?”

Now, Peters behavior may seem weird and loopy, and you might be wondering how he managed a name like The Great. See Peter knew the beard was an integral part of the countries religion. It was so important, in fact, to cut it was considered sinful. A man willing to cut his beard was a man willing to shake up the status quo and therefore a good ally in Peter’s efforts to modernize the country. Oh, Peter you wily guy, you.

But really, can a beard be that significant? It’s just facial hair after all. Something to keep a guy warm on a cold winter’s day and a convenient place to store last nights leftovers. Sure it can tell you about a guys personality — rugged, intellectual, creative — but religious? Was that ever a thing? What magic lies buried in the whiskers of a beard?

St. Joseph with the Infant Jesus (Wikipedia)

Beards Are Holy

That’s what Ivan the terrible told Russians when he led the country in the 1500s. “Shaving the beard is a sin the blood of all martyrs will not wash away,” he claimed. Obviously, he was way more into his religion than Peter. Yet the idea of the beard as a religious symbol was way older than the Eastern Orthodox church.

The Ancient Egyptians, for example, knew it was a matter of logic. Of course, the gods wore beards — why wouldn’t they? And if the gods did it, then the Pharaohs would do it too. After all, weren’t they just gods on Earth? Later on, Dynastic Egyptians shunned facial hair, but not wanting to give up god status went with the osird. Those very rectangular gold or silver beards you see so often on Egyptian statues.

It seems the Greek gods did lunch with the Egyptian gods and decided on a plan of solidarity. Zeus, Poseidon, Hermes, Pan, and Dionysus all went the way of the hairy chin. Now, if you were a guy in Ancient Greece, wouldn’t you want to be like the gods? Suave, sophisticated, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. Sure you would.

Unless you were Alexander the Great that is. Alex turned the tide against the beard by making his soldiers shave, claiming it was a hindrance in battle. Obviously when “the Great” is part of your name you can buck tradition as much as you want.

Meletios Tipaldos, Greek bishop of Athens, 1661–1714 (Wikipedia)

Meanwhile, Over in Europe . . .

They were having a love-hate relationship with the whole beard thing. By the time the schism was gearing up between the Catholic’s and Peter’s orthodox church, the clergy on both sides had taken a distinct position on whether or not God approved of facial hair. Sure, like most everything else, they all agreed in the beginning. Many saints had beards: St. Augustine, St. Gregory, heck even St. Peter had a beard. Beards showed wisdom and holiness, even chastity.

Then again, couldn’t a beard become an object of pride? And what if the hairs of the beard are really symbolic of the number of sins? A long beard could make a guy look very, very bad. Really, now that we’re talking about it, isn’t a beard fed by all those excess humors in the stomach? It’s a well-known fact excess humors means excess vice and sin. Why, how could we ever have thought this was a good thing!

Well, that’s what some Catholics believed anyway and soon beards were out. Those in the east, however, stood by their beards. Just like the Jews, they believed God ordained them from the foundation of the Priesthood. Just read Leviticus and you’ll find out all about it. And what about Sampson? He lost his hair — he lost God’s power. You willing to take that chance? By 1054 with the ecclesiastical disagreement between the two sides at its height, a certain Cardinal Humbert went to issue a bull of excommunication to the Byzantine Patriarch — among their heretical acts: refusing to shave.

John Locke, British hero of the Enlightenment — without facial hair. ( Wikipedia)

You’re Out!

By the 1600s religion was on its way out, the enlightenment was on its way in, and the beard was labeled dirty and unrefined. Oh sure a mustache might be all right, but beards? By the time Peter arrived in England for his grand tour, a hairy face was out of place.

Despite early Protestant reformers wearing beards to set themselves apart from Catholics, the love affair soon faded. The word beard comes from the Latin, barba, the root of the word barbarian. Although Protestants might have enjoyed differentiating themselves from Catholics, identifying with barbarians wasn’t such a great alternative. Besides that, the French were shaving and we all know how the French lead in fashion. So when the English saw the new trend the court became the first to shave. Eventually, it trickled down to the working classes, like the men that our disguised Peter would have worked with.

And the Beard Goes On

Fear not, this wasn’t the end of the Beard as a religious symbol. In fact, they still play a part in many religions. Jews, Islamics, and Sikhs all promote the beard. And what of Peter’s ban? Did it succeed in removing the beard from the face of Orthodoxy? Nope, the religious ramifications were too strong. You can still find beards in the Orthodox Church.


Gentleman’s Guide to the Beard, Chris Martin

The Philosophy of Beards, Thomas S. Gowling

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