In folktales, fairy tales, myths and legends you rarely see humans and heroes with hair loss, but among monsters and ogres, baldness is well represented.
When was the last time you read a child a story that began “Once upon a time, there was a prince whose bald head …”? Do many myths come to mind about a hairless Hercules?
Folktales, fairy tales, myths and legends tend to ignore hairless humans. Yes, there is baldness but usually only among ogres, dark wizards, humanoid monsters and other less-than-admirable characters. Occasionally, one does find a kindly old shoemaker who is bereft of hair or a smooth-headed centaur, but these are few and far between.
Baldness in this genre is also frequently used as a form of punishment. For example, there are at least three stories – one from Aesop, one from France and one from Korea – that tell about a middle-aged man who is involved with two women. One mistress does not like to see his hair turning from a youthful black to an elderly gray, and so she tends to pull out his gray hairs. The other mistress, not wanting to look older than he, likes to pull out his black hairs. Between the two of them, all of his hair is eventually pulled out, leaving him unattractive to either.
The Korean version implies that this baldness is simply a punishment, to both the man and his two mistresses, but the other versions delve a little deeper. Aesop’s moral is the commendable “Yield to all and you will soon have nothing to yield.” The French version teaches the value of not giving up your independence to those who would change you.
Baldness as punishment is implied in other tales, as well. The African folktale “How the Tortoise Became Bald” details how a tortoise tricks a family of dogs into leaving their home so he can eat an entire kettle of porridge himself. When the dogs return, the tortoise pours the remains of the porridge into his hat and puts his hat on his head, but the scalding soup burns off his hair. (This same premise is used in the German tale of how St. Peter lost his hair, in which he hides some hot pancakes in his cap, rather than share them with Christ.)
In one of the early tellings of Rapunzel, baldness also features as a punishment. In this version, when the Witch discovers that Rapunzel has lied and has been letting a prince climb her hair, the Witch shaves Rapunzel’s head entirely bald. Interestingly, a more recent variation of Rapunzel – 2007’s Golden, by Cameron Dokey – has a more satisfying take on baldness. After expelling Rapunzel from her life, the Witch finds a little bald girl and chooses her to be her daughter.
In 1901, Edith Nesbit wrote a charming story that is considered a variation on Rapunzel, as well as on Sleeping Beauty. In this version, an evil fairy curses a princess named Melisande at her birth, causing her to be bald. Fortunately, the King has a wish that he has been saving, and when she becomes a young woman, he presents it to her. Although Melisande is quite happy as she is, she agrees to make the wish, but things go awry and she ends up with hair that grows an inch every day and doubles the growth whenever it is cut, resulting in hair that is torturously long. Several other complications ensue before her true love discovers a way to cure the princess of her excess hair.
Turkey has a number of fairy tales that feature a bald hero. Several related tales concern a young bald man named Mahomet, whose personality and ability seem to vary from story to story, suggesting that originally these tales were about different people altogether. Essentially, however, Mahomet is presented as a not very bright young man who seems to have a lot of “fool’s luck” and who matures into a respected figure, especially after he gets his hands on three enchanted objects: a table that magically creates delicious meals, a pepper mill that produces silver and gold and a pair of cudgels that mercilessly beat enemies into submission.
Even more interesting is the Turkish tale of “Madjun,” in which a poor, bald young man catches a glimpse of the Sultan’s daughter and decides that he will settle for nothing less than her hand in marriage. He approaches the Sultan, who is appalled at his bald head and sets him an impossible task: Bring him all the birds of the world and he shall let the lad marry his daughter.
The young man meets a dervish, who tells him of a tree where all the birds in the world gather. He also reveals to him a magic word – “madjun” – which will cause all the birds to stick fast where they are, enabling him to gather them and bring them to the Sultan.
Unfortunately, the Sultan reneges on his promise and makes plans to marry the daughter to another. In revenge, the boy uses his magic word to freeze the daughter and her betrothed where they are, as he does anyone who comes to help them. Eventually, the Sultan must honor his promise, and the bald hero and his bride are joyfully wed.
A story in which a bald man is the plucky hero who uses his wits to win his true love and live happily ever after?
Now that’s the kind of fairy tale we should see more of.