Elflocks - Dreadlock Origins - Shakespeare | English Folklore

Elflocks - Dreadlock Origins - Shakespeare, UK

Welcome back to dreadlock origins, this is part 2 in our dreadlock origins series and we’re gonna be talking about Elflocks from English folklore.

When we use the term Elflocks we are referring to the early Celts and druids of Briton, Wales Scotland. But to see how and why. We have a few questions we have to answer.

Number 1, We need to look at the origins of the term and trace them back as far as we can. We’ll qualify this with each of the sources. Where does it come from?(Cross references with Guedejas, Samson ect..

Number 2. Why ‘Elflocks’, what does the term mean

Number 3. How have Elflocks changed, developed and cultivated over the generations and why

The most common answer to the question ‘what are elflocks and where do they come from?’ You will hear people say, ah Shakespeare’. This is true, But it’s only a tiny snippet. A single framed image from a HUGE history. But we will cover that here. So let’s begin with that.

Shakespeare's Romeo And Juliet Act 1 Scene 4

In Modern history, the term ‘Elflocks’ springs up as the earliest written record we currently know about. Some time around 1595-1597 in Shakespeares Romeo and Juliet. Here, Shakespeare is referring to a folkloric expression (stories recorded in songs and tales) using a popular term that people in the time knew and recognised. This is where we’ll begin the journey.

It can be found in Act 1 Scene 4 where Mercutio is attempting to deter his friend Romeo from his recent love interest. He explains ‘Queen Mab’. A sprite or pixie by description, creates these ‘Elflocks’ as the verse goes .. 

This is that very Mab

90

That plaits the manes of horses in the night

And bakes the elflocks in foul sluttish hairs,

Which once untangled, much misfortune bodes.

So lets unpack this text. We can see it highlights the fact that the hair is tangled or knotted by its needing to be ‘untangled’. This tells us right away that they’re not simply braids. The hair is tangled, or matted. But additionally, we have a few key pointers here.

1. ‘That plaits the manes of horses at night.’ 

In the aspect of the horses, Is it plaits or is it dreadlocks? Is that relevant?

At first we see that this line refers to plaits. There are many cases of braids with horses hair surrounding the superstition of witchknots and folklore. 

Dr Melissa Harrington published a paper in 2016 entitled ‘The Urban Folklore of Otherwordly horse manes and the persistence of superstition regarding witch knots, from Shakespeare to spiritual warfare’. This is an excellent overview and totally deserves a mention.

https://www.academia.edu/3819433/The_urban_folklore_of_Otherworldly_horse_mane_braiding_and_the_persistence_of_superstition_regarding_witch_knots_in_horses_manes_from_Shakespeare_to_Spiritual_Warfare

There are a number of articles even as late as 2011 of unexplained occurrences with horses acquiring witch-knots in mainstream media. 

In the Media

In 2011 in the BBC’s article highlights the myth of marking them for stealing.

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-14013511 

In 2010 the Argus in Brighton reported on witches being blamed for using knot magic on horses.

https://www.theargus.co.uk/news/4866264.witches-blamed-for-sussex-horse-plaits/

In 2009, there is the telegraph reporting police blaming paganism for spells and knot magic.

https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newstopics/howaboutthat/6744705/Police-force-consulted-warlock-over-horse-plaiting.html

Communities completely unrelated to dreadlocks like the equine community give their account. These independent sources showcase dreadlocks in their horses hair describing them as such with supporting photos. All with the same superstition tales from folklore. 

Those with a less superstitious leaning in equine today tend to use the term wind knots. That these in fact occurred naturally with one owner highlighting that he lived in an offshore island and the plaits/dreadlocks still occurred. 

Dreadlocks and braids have been found in american western, Arabian, Andalusian and friesian horses.  It stands to reason that while braids and dreadlocks occur today in horses. This would also be the case at the time of Shakespeares writings and reference to braids and elflocks. 

2. And bakes the Elflocks in Foul sluttish hairs (demonising)

So what’s going on here. What picture is being painted.

The fact Shakespeare uses term Elflocks following on from plaits also confirms the cases of locks. But we also see the demonising of them using the descriptions ‘foul’ and ‘sluttish’. 

This is a complete contrast from how religious practises tend to refer to themselves and doesn’t suggest its likely original description. No one demonises themselves. But it’s notable that dreadlocks are being demonised as worn by ‘the foul and the sluttish’. 

This goes some way as an insight into the impression people have of dreadlocks over the generations and how it changes.

In india, Jata are worn by only the holy sadhus. In Peru, warriors and priests. But witches, druids, Celts seem to have been given a negative descriptive.

To unpack the history of Elflocks and its demonisation from mainstream society, we have to begin in AD 43 with the Roman conquest of Britain. During the reign of Cunobeline the king of The Britons. This was the introduction of the Catholic Church. The enemy of Elflocks.

AD 43 - The Roman Conquest

Claudias of rome invaded a place that today we all know as Dover in Kent. But in the Roman Britain atlas in what was then known as Canttaci from Frere’s Britannia Atlas.

The earliest evidence for the Britons and their language in historical sources dates to the Iron Age following this roman invasion.

When Rome invaded, it brought with it the Roman Catholic Church. The roman version of christianity which Rome used for power and conquest. 

Anything that was strange or unknown to Catholicism was branded as ‘Pagan’. A blanket term used for anything that wasn’t catholic practice.

This includes terms like, heathens (people that lived on the heath) wizards (originally blacksmiths) (see the nebra sky disc from 1600bc in the Bronze Age) and witches (originally women who had a knowledge of plants health and healing properties. Today, we would probably just call them pharmacists. Can you imagine if a pharmacist traveled back in time offering paracetamol in the Bronze Age?

Magic or Natural ?

I’ve watched a few drama’s on TV recently with women who had medical knowledge being perceived as witches. Versailles and Outlander. Worth a watch. I’ll leave links below at the end.

This mysticism surrounding this knowledge was often referred to as magic by common people. 

This is also echoed all over the world in belief and the rise of spirituality in many forms of religious practises. This took a simple practise of the elements and turned it into a religious practise. The worship and praise of nature and the elements. 

I remember going to pick up a camper van from Ireland a few years ago and decided to stop at the Irish National Heritage Park in Wexford. They have an incredible demonstration of the rise of spirituality and worship through the development of nature and the elements.

It was this spiritual attachment that the Catholic Church sought to demonise as evil and beyond the pale of consumption. Anything attributed to ‘Paganism’. And yes. That very much meant dreadlocks!

Today that is changing

These witch knots known commonly as Elflocks became the subject of demonisation in mainstream society and has continued to this day in many parts of the world. Though today in civilised society, we are increasingly more understanding of personal forms of expression. 

Dreadlocks addition into the world of mainstream society and fashion, has only taken place in very recent years. But this has been making huge changes in the way Dreadlocks are now seen today. It is in fact a huge mission statement and what founded Dreads UK also.

With the rise of the festival culture in recent years, this has also filtered over into mainstream society and fashion, giving way for new acceptance of Dreadlocks.

Springing up in the 70s was Glastonbury Festival which was the 70’s answer to the hippie movement of the 60s’ . The hardcore dreadlocked followers of this ran through into the 80s. But still with much stigma from the mainstream. 

Throughout the 90’s was an era for Dreadlocks in the mainstream pop scene reminiscent of ‘Elflocks’. Artists like Big mountain and Brandon Boyd from incubus, right through to Faye Toser from Steps. You can’t get more mainstream pop than Faye in the 90’s. We’ve done a whole video on these called Top 10 musicians with dreadlocks. Again, I’ll leave a link below.

Where are we now?

As we leave the 90s and hit the 21st century, festival culture became the mainstream. We see the rise of more avant-garde communities adopting dreadlocks. The Cyber Punks of the rave/goth scene began adopting their interpretation using Tubular Crin to mimic Dreadlocks. This look became a complete world of its own expression coining the term ‘Cyberlocks’.

As more and more acceptance of diversity developed. This also inspired a more experimental design in the world of Elflocks. Synthetic dreadlocks became increasingly more popular for their many colour variations and styles and ease of use. All of these aspects have been an aid in pushing the boundaries of acceptance in the mainstream. With dreadlocks becoming more and more the norm.

Today we see such a burst of colour, diversity, creativity. Many of which still identify with the Elflocks sentiments. Some even now refer to their own dreadlocks as elflocks. Largely in response to the uprising of the ‘cultural appropriation’ arguement. 

3. Much misfortune bodes (superstition)

Shakespeare being rather dramatic takes the superstition that little further here saying that if you remove your dreadlocks. Woe betide you! Its not going to go well for you. But we’ve also seen this same sentiment in other places as well.

In Native American culture, long hair was seen as power. It was said to have offer heightened senses when the enemy approached and when tracking. That when the hair was cut short, they lost their abilities. 

In Samson with the biblical nazarite vow, we see his dedication is to not cut the hair from his head. Link below too that. This also came to inspire the Rasta’s to adopt that same practise.

Dreadlocks, Elflocks, Sisterlocks, Jata or loss. Whatever you call them. Whatever you believe. One thing is clear. Everyone who wears them tends to feel very passionately about them. Be it for fashion, faith or superstition. But how should we respond? Let us know in the comments your thoughts on all of this. 

Whats been your experience of dreadlocks? Have you experienced prejudice and demonisation for having them? Why do you think that is? We’d love to know your thoughts?

Until then, I hope this video was helpful. Don’t forget to subscribe to the Dreads UK channel to follow our dreadlock origins series, get all your dreadlock education tips and tricks and also, check out www.dreadsuk.com for all your dreadlock products worldwide.

Elflocks - Dreadlock Origins - Shakespeare