Joanna Pitman begins her book, On Blondes, (Bloombury, London, 2003), with a story based upon her stay in the Samburu district of northern Kenya. The author, a blonde, whose hair had become bleached by the sun, was approached by a native, whose brother has been bitten by a highly venomous snake. He frantically insisted that Pitman should come and help him, seeing her blonde hair as having some sort of magic power. She did go to the village by car, and took the brother to hospital by car, saving his life, so maybe there was something in the native’s belief in the “magic” of blonde hair, or at least, the head under it.

People have been in awe of blonde hair throughout history, seeing its sexual allure and supposed supernatural powers. Aphrodite, goddess of love and fertility in ancient Greece had golden blonde hair, as did the Norse goddess Sif, wife of Thor.  Blonde hair was admired by Homer who depicted Aphrodite as golden haired in all his works. Poets like Alcman (7th century BC) of Sparta praised “lovely yellow hair” and “hair like purest gold” (p. 12)

Praxiteles (4th century BC) made a statute of a naked Aphrodite which was worshipped at Knidos, and praised by Pliny the Elder. The model was a young courtesan/hetaira, named Phryne, who was the Marilyn Monroe of the 3rd century BC (p.18) The story goes that she was charged with profaning the pagan religious occasions, somehow. She was defended by one of her lovers, the orator Hyperides. The case was going badly for him until he ripped open Phryne’s dress revealing her naked beauty, and he asked how such god-given splendour could offend Greek religious sentiment. The judges, with bulging eyes,  all agreed. (p. 19)

Athenian ordinary women lived much like woman today do under sharia law, confined to the home, and appearing in public on rare occasions, wearing veils and concealing clothing. The hetaira libertarian women, however, freely paraded the streets, flaunting their usually dyed blonde hair.

Ancient Greece’s worship of blondeness was followed by Rome, with the cult of Venus, their version of Aphrodite. Poets such as Ovid, Horace, Catullus and many others wrote romantic prose about beautiful blonde woman. Germanic slaves supplied hair for wigs. In Rome, the distinction that existed in ancient Greece broke down, and liberated ladies who were not courtesans also dyed their hair blonde.

There was a change of attitude in the Middle Ages, with Christian preachers concerned about carnal sin, which according to Pitman was blamed upon women, including those who dyed their hair blonde! For example, one fire and brimstone sermon by Saint Bernardino, led to piled masses of false bleached blonde hair being burnt, (p. 41)

 Eve was seen as bringing sin into the world “responsible for the sexuality of the human race, for its guilt and its disenchantment.” (p. 42) Paintings during the mid-14th century depict Eve with golden hair, such as the 1356 painting by Bartolo di Fredi (1330-1410) in San Gimignano; Masaccio’s Crucifixion (1426) and Taddeo di Bartolo’s Hell (1396). Despite all this, wealthy women still made use of cosmetics and blonde hair dye, or used blonde wigs. (p. 46)

However, there was also a counter movement with artistic depictions of the Virgin Mary as an immaculate blonde in paintings such as by Fra Angelico (1395-1455), and depictions of the Archangel Gabriel as a blonde, such as by Stefan Lochner (1410-1451). Hence, the paradox of blondeness that goes through the ages, of on the one hand, lust and lechery, and on the other, the essence of beauty. This was also seen in the cult of chivalry, in the late 12th century, which “codified the worship of a beautiful lady as being close to that of God, and upper-class ladies became the source of all romance and the object of all worship.” (p. 61) Eventually the Church accepted the courtly love movement, and its love of blonde hair.

In any case, by the time of the Renaissance, blondeness once again was celebrated by painters and poets, with the classic example Sandro Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus (mid-1480s), with Venus naked except for her flowing covering blonde hair. Titian (1490-1576) glorified blondes as well, as did poets such as Pietro Aretino (1493-1556). As shift away from blondeness did occur in the French artists of the 17th century, such as Rembrandt (1606-1669) and Vermeer (1632-1675).

Fairy tales typically had blonde heroines, such as Goldilocks, Cinderella, and many others from the Brothers Grimm, embracing the Germanic ethos.

By the Victorian era, blondness was also celebrated in paining and literature, such as by Charles Dickens in A Tale of Two Cities, with Lucie Manette, and George Eliot in Middlemarch, and paintings by Lord Leighton and John William Waterhouse.

Pitman has a chapter on the Aryan ideology, under national socialism, with the usual stuff. But what is interesting is that Stalin, another type of socialist, had a “vision of superior blonde Aryan youth  … crucial in setting a theme of hope and future prosperity  for his regime.” Blondes were thus used for ideological warfare, no fault of blondeness.  (p. 186) “Healthy and tanned, displaying mouthfuls of stunning white dentistry, the young blonde men and women of the Soviet Union were depicted accordingly in art and propaganda posters cheerfully building a technological future for the USSR.” (p. 198)

The rest of Pitman’s book is less interesting, at least to me, probably because most of us know the story of blondes in the post-World War II world. Hollywood treated them harshly and exploitatively, witness Marilyn Monroe, and the blondes of Hitchcock, who famously summed it up thus: “Blondes are the best victims. They’re like virgin snow which shows up the bloody footprints.” (p. 230) And: “Torture the woman.” (p. 230)

In conclusion, Pitman’s book was an interesting read, mainly dealing with the perception of blondeness through art and culture. There are of course, other aspects, such as racial biology and politics, not really dealt with, but for a mainstream book, this one is not bad at all. I enjoyed reading it, and did not throw the book down in anger, like I do so many books I review, and permanently   damage.