Andrew here. Recently, I was involved in a discussion concerning a quote commonly attributed to Caesar: “[The Celts]…wore their hair like snakes.”. Many people interpret this as evidence towards the Celts wearing dreadlocks, and I occasionally see Vikings portrayed on television and film depicted as having them as well. Many people use this “hair like snakes” quote as evidence that dreadlocks originated from Northwestern Europe, and therefore all other cultures are misappropriating and copying them. If you find this, like myself, to be absurd, read on and allow me to present my hypothesis regarding this interpretation.
In Ancient Gaul and Germania, good grooming was highly regarded, much more so than the Roman sources give credit to. I suspect it was part of the ancient Roman propaganda campaign, meant to further sway favor to Caesar’s subjugation of the Gallic peoples! (as we all know, propaganda is a very potent tool in a war!) Here is what Pliny the Elder had to say regarding the cleanliness of Gallic and Germanic peoples, in his excellent Historia Naturalis:
Prodest et sapo, Galliarum hoc inventum rutilandis capillis. Fit ex sebo et cinere, optimus fagino et caprino, duobus modis, spissus ac liquidus, uterque apud Germanos maiore in usu viris quam feminis.
Translation: “Soap is the invention of the Gauls and this is used to clean the hair. It is made from fat and ashes — the best is beech wood ash and goat fat, the two combined, thick and clear. Many among the Germans use it, the men more than the women.”
Also, here is a quote from the Voluspa, concerning the state Woden was in after the death of Baldr, which I interpret as evidence that hair was left unwashed only in times of mourning/despair:
His hands he washed not nor his hair combed
Till Baldr’s bane was borne to the pyre:
Deadly the bow drawn by Vali,
The strong string of stretched gut,
But Frigga wept in Fensalir
For the woe of Walhalla. Well, would you know more?
Now this is pointing towards the fact that they did not wear these things. Dreadlocks naturally form in the uncombed and unwashed of people with tight curly hair. In high school, I had an acquaintance with straight hair who was very into the hippie counterculture i.e. lots of tie dye shirts/smoking haschish etc. He wanted to get dreadlocks, so he resolved to not wash his hair or comb it for many months, resulting in many locks of various sizes and one large clump tangled in the back of his head. Nothing like the character depicted on the old Roman denarii I have seen.
Also the Celts wore their hair at times of war in fearsome spikes! The Roman historian Diodorus Siculus wrote:
The Gauls are very tall with white skin and blond hair, not only blond by nature but more so by the artificial means they use to lighten their hair. For they continually wash their hair in a lime solution, combing it back from the forehead to the back of the neck. This process makes them resemble Satyrs and Pans since this treatment makes the hair thick like a horse’s mane.
Analysis of some remains of warriors and citizens found in peat bogs feature not lime, but a mixture of saps/resins that would have stiffened the hair much like lime.
In conclusion, my hypothesis is that the ‘snake-like’ hair was many individual braids, colored perhaps with Woad, from a distance the curls of the braid would perhaps resemble scales, and the ‘twisting’ of the snake produced with a mixture of hardened lime or pine resin or the like! A fearsome appearance indeed if you were to meet them on the battlefield! Beware the Celt and German, they have tamed snakes and made a home for them on their heads!