The Concise History Of Dreadlocks

History Of Dreadlocks

The Concise History Of Dreadlocks

This history of dreadlocks, chronicles the UK's untold cultural heritage of dreadlocks from origin to date.

Before we begin, let us start with the word 'dreadlocks'.
Dreadlocks refers to a whole sector of hair styles from many areas of the world. The literal definition is matted hair, sometimes described as locked or uncombed hair. Depending on the origin location, the expression of dreadlocks differs.

Among these are the indian 'Jata' as worn by shiva, the kenyan 'locs' as worn by the massai warriors, 'sisterlocs' as commonly called in Africa American communities, or the 'Elflocks' from the celts and the britons.

'Elflocks' - The Celts, Druids and Britons (2000BC)

The Britons were ancient celtic people. They were among some of the earliest inhabitants of Britain. Celts were simple living worshippers of life, nature and the elements. Elflocks are recognised as an expression of the natural embrace of life and the elements.

Very little is known or recorded about Elflocks. But if we can follow back the tales of old English folklore, we see the story begin to unfold as evidence emerges.

Folklore stories were not traditionally written. The tales were traditionally passed around the fire, and sung in song through the generations. Today we can see this expression still surviving among the new age travellers (modern day britons). We also see this around many underground UK festivals. As little was written about the Celts, Britons or Druids, its hard to pinpoint the exact moment in time Elflocks emerged. Archaeological finds like stone henge can attest, that they may be traced back as far as 2000BC and beyond.

After rome invaded sometime around AD45, the britons we're misrepresented and forgotten by mainstream culture, along with their stories and traditions. The Roman invasion and the introduction of the Christian/Catholic church rebranded these traditions coining the term 'Pagan or Occult to encompass any belief other than Christian', but some stories still remain.

Whilst the rise of Christianity, combined with Neo-Romanic Capitalism write their history books. The original spirit of Celtic and Briton ways have began to break through. The new age traveller movement through the 80's, with the battle of the beanfields, brought media attention to these underground communities. Along with the rise of the festival culture with huge mainstream artists, bringing new audiences to our original traditions.

The new age traveller movement was on the rise and dreadlocks were back in the mainstream eye. The 60's hippie movement and the 70's response to the hippies, brought the Punk movement. It was the combination, and bridging of these two communities in the 80's, that reconnected the messages and traditions of the early celts once more to Britain.

british musician with dreadlocks british musician with dreadlocks

Pictured Left: 4 Non Blondes 'Linda Perry' Right: The Levellers 'Jeremy Cunningham'


Earliest written recorded evidence of 'Elflocks'.

The earliest written record we have of Elflocks in folklore, comes from the 15th Century, the popular story of Shakespeare's 'Romeo and Juliet'. A well known story inspired by english folklore . Act 1 Scene 4. In the beginning of the story, before Romeo meets Juliet. Romeo and Mercutio are discussing a girl who caught Romeo's attention. A gypsy girl who is painted very poorly by Mercutio.

QUOTE - Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. 'Mercutio' Act 1 Scene 4 line 88-91
"This is that very Mab. That plaits the mains of horses in the night, and bakes the Elflocks in foul sluttish hair, which once untangled, misfortune bodes"

Mab - A fairy queen known to control the dreams of men. (From european, english and irish folklore).

The following video captivates beautifully the heart of ancient celts.


Dreadlocks Today

Once seen as a symbol of holy-ness or spirituality, they came to be seen as dirty, unclean and scruffy. As dreadlocks have become more exposed to mainstream culture, dreadlocks are being adopted by more and more communities with new expressions. The history of Dreadlocks is still being written.

Bob Marley was the most mainstream example of dreadlocks for a long time. Popular belief was that dreadlocks come from reggae, Rastafarianism or smoking weed. This leads to why mainstream culture held this opinions of dreadlocks. But with the boom of the festival culture in the last few years, dreadlocks can be seen everywhere. No longer are dreadlocks limited to underground communities in the arts, but can now bee seen in high professions, high-street promotional material such as harrods and slowly breaking into the fashion world.
See our article 'JOBS WITH DREADLOCKS' and meet some of these professionals that work in the law/legal professions, the kitchens as chefs and high finance roles.

Dreadlocks are now available to everyone like never before. With more and more dreadlocks businesses on the rise, dreadlocks are even more accessible and better understood. The quality of dreadlocks are now so, that their condition can be seen as often healthier and better kept than regular hairstyles.

References : -

Concise History Of The Common Law - by Theodore Frank Thomas Plucknett

A History Of Celtic Britain - BBC Documentary
The Golden Age Of Coach Travel - BBC Documentary
New Age Travellers - BBC Documentary

Celtic Britons - Wikipedia (more references on the wiki page)
New Age Travellers - Wikipedia
High Professions with dreadlocks

The Levellers
4 Non Blondes

Underground Festival's To Visit
Small World
Green Gathering
Cambridge Folk Festival

10 thoughts on “The Concise History Of Dreadlocks”

  • Cassie Hall

    The article is well done! Loved it!

  • Tati :)

    I am a young English girl living in Devon. I have what some people would call 'dreadlocks', that is, tangled locks of hair. I recently uploaded some photos of myself to Tumblr. I expected a couple of comments, maybe the odd bullying jibe. I didn't expect the reaction I got. Suddenly I was being accused of cultural appropriation, branded a racist, jeered at and threatened. Why? Because I am white and I have locked hair. I was shocked. Naively, it hadn't occured to me that people would look at my hair and presume i'd appropriated black culture.

    You see, i've never thought of, or called my hair 'dreadlocks'. To me they are elflocks (or as I call them, simply 'locks'), and they are an interesting part of my culture, a part of English folklore which can be traced back to at least the 16th century.

    The Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary (1913) defines the word elflock as: 'hair matted or twisted into a knot as if by elves'

    Wikipedia says: 'English Folklore: It can refer to tangles of elflocks or fairy-locks in human hair. When young children, especially girls, wake from an evening's slumber with tangles and snarls in their hair, mothers with a tradition of fairy folklore might whisper to their daughters that they had caught fairy locks or elf-locks. Fairies, they say, tangled and knotted the hairs of the sleeping children as they played in and out of their hair at night.

    Our famous English poet William Shakespeare writes of elflocks in his world renowned play Romeo and Juliet, written in 1592, where he talks of the mischeivious fairy, Queen Mab, who tangles people's hair at night:

    "She is the fairies’ midwife, and she comes
    In shape no bigger than an agate stone.......

    That plaits the manes of horses in the night
    And bakes the elflocks in foul sluttish hairs,
    Which once untangled, much misfortune bodes."

    As he implies in the line 'once untangled, much misfortune bodes', it was said that to undo the tangles would cause bad luck, and so many believers would intentionally leave these locks to continue to tighten ('dread') up throughout the rest of their lives.

    But Shakespeare is not the only one to speak of elflocks. Indeed they feature frequently in poetry and literature, both English and otherwise:

    - 'She wore no hat, and her grizzled black hair streamed in elf locks over her shoulders' - The Golden Road by Lucy Maud Montgomery, published 1913

    - 'His jet-black hair hung in elf-locks over his savage-looking features' Windsor Castle by William Harrison Ainsworth, published 1842

    - 'ELF-LOCK, tangled hair, supposed to be the work of elves' Volpone; Or, The Fox by Ben Jonson, first performed 1606

    - 'But my fingers still grasped my friend's kind elf-locks, and her goose-nose brooded beside mine upon that water of undivulged delight' Henry Brocken by Walter J. de la Mare, written 1904

    - 'His long hair hung in elf locks over his shoulders' The Heart of the Desert by Honoré Willsie Morrow, written 1913

    - 'It grew on the hinder part of her head, and was matted together like an elf-lock' Salem Witchcraft, Volumes I and II by Charles Upham, published 1867

    - 'The backs of his hands began to grow cold and his unwashed forehead was damp beneath matted, red-brown elf locks' The Long Roll by Mary Johnston, published 1911

    - 'She brushed back her elf-locks, and gave a low grunt like some wild beast' Fairy Book by Sophie May, published 1866

    - 'Her scarlet kirtle was torn, her hair flying in wild elf-locks, and her face was the face of a mad thing' Black Amazon of Mars by Leigh Brackett, published 1951

    - 'Thus, Norna appears in long, gray robe, to which are attached the hood and elf-locks of the witch' Comic Tragedies by Louisa M. Alcott, published 1893

    - 'Her face was half hidden by the twigs and leaves, and by her own disarranged hair, which hung in black elf-locks about it' The Girls of Central High on Track and Field by Gertrude W. Morrison published 1914
    - 'The soft, cool breeze lifted her dark elf locks, and lingered and cooled her hot brow like a friend's kiss' The Actress' Daughter by May Agnes Fleming, published 1886

    - 'So too a tangle in the hair was called an "elf-lock," as being caused by the mischief of the elves' Encyclopaedia Britannica, 11th Edition, Volume 9, Slice 3 by Various, published 1910

    - 'He was dressed entirely in black, his clothes in disarray, and the thin hair upon his head was matted in fantastic elf-locks with sweat' House of Torment by Cyril Arthur Edward Ranger Gull, published 1911

    - 'His unkempt elf-locks were more wild, his uncleanly linen more disordered, his eye more bright and restless, than of yore' My Lords of Strogue, Vol. II (of III) by Lewis Wingfield, published 1879

    - 'Tears rolled down her cheeks; blonde elf-locks hung over her eyes' My Lords of Strogue Vol. III, (of III) by Lewis Wingfield, published 1879

    - 'Her brows are bound with bracken-fronds,
    And golden elf-locks fly above;
    Her eyes are bright as diamonds
    And bluer than the sky above'
    Merrow Down by Rudyard Kipling, published 1902

    I have known of elflocks for as long as I can remember. As a child, I remember waking up from a peaceful night's sleep to find my hair wildly tangled, mini locks already forming, already difficult to tease out. My Mother would mutter curses to the fairies as she fought to seperate the strands of hair, and i'd wriggle and squirm and cry every time it pulled.

    I've always had an interest in the ancient traditions and folklore of my country, and this has only increased as i've gotten older. My hair has never stopped tangling and my resentment at fighting to tease the locks out has only grown. I've always known that folklore deemed it bad luck to comb out my elflocks, but as a child, the decision was not mine. As a young adult, I am free to let my hair do it's natural thing. And it has! The faeries have worked their mischief and my hair has knotted faster than I could have imagined. Whoever believes that caucasian hair cannot lock up by itself is hugely mistaken. I have never backcombed, nor used wax, never crocheted in loose strands nor palm rolled, although I don't think there's anything wrong with doing those things. Save from washing them regularly and seperating them at the roots every once in a while, my locks are entirely the creation of the faeries and of themselves.

    And yes, i'd be lying if I said I didn't like the way they look. I do. But to me they aren't simply a fashion statement. They certainly aren't an attempt to appropriate another's culture. They are a reflection of my love for my country with all it's quirky history and tradition, a reflection of my love of folklore and of the fae, a link to fond, magical childhood memories and a desire to let my hair grow as nature intended, free and wild and untamed.

    I cannot claim to speak for all English people with locked hair. I daresay not all of them will have the same reasons, the same motivations as me. But I can say that there is more than one people, more than one culture for whom locked hair is a part of their tradition and a part of their history. Do not take something at face value or judge a book by it's cover, there may be more to the story.

    • Elijah

      Great post tati. Thank you so much for sharing your story :)

    • Goblin

      Yaay great writeup Tati!
      As a child it seemed obvious to me what dreadlocks 'meant.' To comb them out seemed symbolic of civilization, of sterilization, of the domestication of that which is feral. To allow then to form is symbolic of resistance to that machine - of allegiance with the forces of Nature over the whims of Humanity.
      In India the sadhis who wear dreadlocks are worshippers of Shiva (as opposed to Vishnu,) while in ancient Scandinavia followers of Loki (as opposed to Thor) are said to have had 'snake hair.' In both of these instances, the duality between Shiva/Vishnu and Loki/Thor are representative of the duality of the foces of nature versus the forces of human civilization, and in both instances the dreadlock wearers are those on the side of nature. This seems to hold true in modern culture as well, as dreads are generally considered scary, nasty, 'dreadful' by 'civilized' people.
      The word 'dread' itself is a symbol of the destruction of traditional nature-worshipping cultures. Why is the word 'dread' a negative word, meaning fear/paranoia? It comes from the same root as 'Druid,' and is a reference to the 'Dreyads' who were nature/tree spirits similar to elves/fairies. Our ancestors worshipped the Dreyads, so why are we told to fear them? The same of the word 'Demon.' To the ancient Greeks, the daemons were divine teachers, and protectors of nature, who were to be respected and revered. Same of the Djinn, or Genie, from which we get the word 'Genius,' meaning a person who is able to interact with Jinn/Genii/Daemon/Dreyad/Naga/Fey.
      The same force that benefits from the destruction of nature, is also responsible for the dissemination of religions that teach paranoia of the spirits of nature, and cultures that teach disgust of natural things, like dreadlocks.

    • Julie McAdam

      This response is amazing. Thank you.
      (53 in elf locks, 17 years long)

  • Toby

    "archaeological finds like stone henge can attest that they may be traced back as far as 2000BC and beyond."

    hi, what's the archaeological evidence for dreadlocks in Stonehenge?

    • Elijah

      Hi Tody,

      To our knowledge, the only evidence we have are the folk-loric tales passed down the generations about the celts and the britons. The nature of these communities were not ones written or recorded. But we know that the celts and britons existed around the time of stone henge and beyond.

      This doesn't give hard evidence of dreadlocks being present at stone henge but does allude to the rationale that they were likely present at that time.

  • Donna Millermcnutt
    Donna Millermcnutt April 15, 2017 at 6:38 pm

    I am about to undertake my "lock journey" for the second time. I am a professional, and work in an industry where (unfortunately) they see black people wearing "dreads" as "normal" and now when I come onto the scene (white, Christian, no tattoos, no piercings, very clean, don't smoke, and preparing to wear my locks up in a professional bun every day while at work) and I will be criticised and chastised, I am sure. So I am compiling a lengthly dissertation about the history of "dreadlocks, elflocks, locks" to present to my company when they inevitably call me in for a meeting and inform me that I need to remove them "because they are inappropriate in the workplace". It is sad that we live in a world where we have to explain our every personal choice, and this hairstyle to me is simply that....MY CHOICE.

  • Justin

    Hello mate. I am currently wrangling with the issue of having dreads and recently being accused of cultural appropriation. I have since first letting my hair dread up (26 years ago was the first time, I am since on my fourth lot of dreads) felt that dreads were the natural way to wear my hair. As a young man I occasionally attracted comments mostly positive from black Rastafarians, which felt both flattering but also uncomfortable, as I was not a Rasta and unlike a lot of young white dreads did not feel comfortable appropriating the trappings and phrases of a religion that meant nothing to me, (never been that much into most Reggae either). When i was 24 I went to India and got temporarily adopted by a Saddhu who like most Siva devotees wore his hair in locks. I also got called Siva thrughout my travels in India by the locals. I adopted a lot of the trappings of Hinduism for a while but it still felt inappropriate. Then at a squat party in Brixton a young Black Dread called Ras Simeon questioned my wearing the locks and out of my unconcious mind came the answer that I wore them as a connection to my own Celtic roots! I later found some of the same refrences as yourself after a friend mentioned the term Elf Locks. This has been the cornerstone that I have based my right to have dreads on since. Until last night when i was challenged by a young Ethiopian woman who was further validated by a white German punk friend who claims that Celtic dreads are a fallacy perpetrated on us by Hollywood films like Brave Heart and that in fact the Celts spiked their hair using mud a visual reference i am familiar with from the 2000AD comic strip Slaine. The thing is there is no real evidence that the Celts or Britons wore their hair i dreadlocks. Your refrencing of New Age Travellers unfortunately holds no water as dreads would have cone to them via the Post Punk/Reggae crossover that occured as a result of the Rock Against Racism movement most likely and tbf most travellers sported the unfortunate mullet dread style anyways because of practicality. And you mentioning Stonehenge is neither here nor there. So my point is really other than a shared sense that it feels natural and that there are numerous literary refrences to the Faerie folk having matted hair is there any further evidence... i hope so....i like my dreads and should we have to justify it anyway? Thoughts?

  • Sara

    Hi there, excellent articles thanks.
    I'm caught up in the cultural appropriation stuff at the minute and looking round at articles/history/perpectives. I guess most folk (myself included ) have seen dreadlocks as orginating from black communiites and traditions. The cultural appropriation arguement carries some weight from this perspective mostly in the sense that because we are white and have provilidge we can wear dreadlocks when africans struggle to get jobs and be viewed as something other than 'ghetto' with locks. My privilegde allows me to where them though i can honestly say i dont experience privilidge wearing them, i do have to deal with the negative sterotypes of being work shy, lazy, dirty, drop out anti establishment (!!) I'm stil thinking, happy to listen to others thoughts. Loved the Elflocks stories xx

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