The beard doesn’t have a vital purpose for the survivor of the species, but it goes beyond its real essence to assume a symbolic meaning. Like hair, but even more circumscribed.
Aside from women – transgender who took hormones, freak show phenomenons or East German athletes excluded – not even every man has the possibility to choose between growing one or not.
It’s a matter of genetic predisposition. It seems that Chinese or native American DNA mutated the EDAR gene around 35 thousand years ago, implicating a different density and thickness of hairs. So, finding a Chinese man with beard or bald is harder (for those interested, the scientific magazine Nature Communications published a detailed study on the subject).
The beard represented the passage to adulthood in almost every civilization. Also shaving it was considered manly, something that a kid wasn’t able to do. A thriving bushiness mostly indicated a high status and wisdom, when it wasn’t just oldness and negligence.
The highest Assyrian representatives showed off long and well-groomed beards, enriched with essential oils and precious metals. In ancient Egypt, on the contrary, only foreign poor people let it grow, because they couldn’t afford to pay a barber. Maybe the Semitic influence made the most recent dynasties use fake beards in public events.
Judaism dictates – Leviticus – forbade the shaving of the cheeks, associating it with idolatrous practices, Islam has basically the same rules.
The Greeks started with shaving the mustache, a custom that faded away in time, surviving just among the Spartans. According to Plutarch, they obligated the cowards to leave the beard on one cheek only. With the Macedonian age men began to shave regularly, only philosophers kept showing beards proudly.
It’s possible that the Etruscans got inspired by the Greeks, once they had contacts with them. They represented men looking like Homeric heroes, with beard but no mustache. Bronzes and masks from the VII-VI century b.C. depict shaved characters instead. This shaving trend was adopted by the Romans around the III century b.C. and it seems that Scipio Africanus was the first one to do it daily. At least the historian Plinius said so.
There were strict rules: the younger ones didn’t shave their early “fluff” but waited the growth of a real beard and until their 40’s they kept a so called barbula. Unlike other cultures, the beard wasn’t associated to the old wise man, but to young people. The emperor Hadrian avoided shavings to hide some facial imperfections, but it was an exception. Also Julian the Apostate was a beard fan. He even wrote a satirical work, Misopogon, which aimed at beard detractors.
During proto-Christianity the beard was almost banned. Even Christ and Noah were depicted perfectly shaved, Peter and Paul were the exceptions because they were influenced by the Roman style. The clergy started to differentiate from the Eastern monasticism, more ascetic and characterized by thick beards. It wasn’t an ideological choice, though, more of a hygienic rule. Until the XVI century Church Councils gave express restrictions on the topic. Only after the 1500’s popes began to show themselves in public with beards, but in XIX century there was a return to basics.
In Eastern Europe growing mustache and beard, even entwined as we can see from their coins, was very common. After they came into contact with the Romans they began to import razors. Northern populations were hirsute too, like historians and myths narrated. In Central Europe the trend of showing beards ended around the XII century, when knights had to embody the ideal of elegant, clean-shaven young men, unlike peasants and pilgrims. Across the Channel there was the most imaginative and fanciful range of beard styles, especially during the Elizabethan era.
Throughout the Italian Risorgimento beard and mustache were a sign of rebellion, sometimes the police arrested people just for not being shaved. When the detention was justified by a felony against constituted powers, the officers performed a forced shaving on the prisoners.
After all, this isn’t the only time when beard and fight went along, arousing the idea of virility: just think about Che Guevara and Castro in Cuba. It was the opposite in World War I, for logistic reasons. Chemical weapons were used for the first time and having beards was too uncomfortable while wearing gas masks.
As we saw at the beginning, DNA is crucial in the predisposition to grow beards. Eastern Asians or sub-Saharan people are more refractory, for example, but we travel, mix, and we level our differences. The Japanese had many contacts with Oriental Siberia, so now shaving is a cultural habit more than genetic.
The cycles of trend made beard styles more or less popular through centuries, dragging with them the importance of a figure: the barber (to be continued…)