Locs, also known as dreadlocks, have been around for centuries and are worn for many different reasons. They hold deep cultural and spiritual symbolism for many people around the world. Here we will explore the history, meanings, and symbolism behind locs.
What are locs?
Locs are rope-like strands of hair that have been intentionally knotted or twisted together. The term “dreadlocks” comes from the English word “dread” meaning fear or terror, which was associated with the look in the mid-20th century. However, those who wear locs see them as symbols of pride and identity.
Locs can be formed in a few different ways:
- Neglect – Stop brushing, combing or cutting your hair and allowing it to naturally mat and tangle together over time.
- Twist and rip – Sectioning hair and twisting it until the strands knot and coil around each other.
- Palm rolling – Rolling sections of hair between your palms until it forms a coil.
- Salon methods – Using wax or gel to encourage sections of hair to fuse together.
Once formed, locs do not need much maintenance besides occasional washing and separating to prevent them from matting together. Locs are permanent but can be cut off if desired.
Origins and history
Although often associated with Rastafarian and Jamaican culture, locs have appeared across almost every culture at some point throughout history including:
- Ancient Egyptians wore structured braid-like locs as wigs indicating social status.
- Loc hairstyles adorn Greek and Roman statues and paintings.
- Hindu holy men and women vowed to never cut their hair and wore twisted long matted locs called jaTaa.
- Aztec warriors wore locs to differentiation themselves in battle.
- Sufi Dervishes and followers of Islam wore locs as a symbol of religious devotion.
- Some Native American tribes like the Blackfoot, Cheyenne, Navajo, and Pawnee tribes wore locs.
- Sadhus monks in India keep their hair in long twisted locs called jata.
- Maasai warriors of Kenya wear long thin locs dyed with red clay.
- The Mbuti people of Congo form locs using mud and palm fiber.
In the 1960s and 70s the rise of Rastafarian culture brought locs, or “dreadlocks” as they were known, into the Western mainstream. Rastafarians wore uncut, matted locs as part of religious vows based on biblical texts.
Throughout history, locs have held deep cultural, spiritual and religious symbolism for many peoples across the world. Here are some of the main meanings and symbolism associated with wearing locs:
Connection to the divine or natural world
For many cultures, allowing hair to loc naturally is seen as sacred and spiritual. It can symbolize a connection to the divine or natural world. Hindu sadhus, Rastafarianism, Sufi Muslims and Nazarite Jews all share this belief. Uncut locs represent unleashing the innate power within hair to return to its natural coil-like form and channel divine energy.
Letting go of vanity
As hair locs it can go through awkward messy stages before maturing into neat uniform locs. Letting go of control over the styling process requires patience and acceptance. This surrender of vanity is seen by some as virtuous and spiritual.
Locs emerged from the Rastafarian movement as an act of protest and rebellion against Euro-centrist ideals of beauty and society. Over time locs became a political symbol of black identity, power and liberation. The phrase “dreadful” was proudly reclaimed by Rastafarians.
Freedom and unconstrained identity
Locs are free, wild and natural. Many cultures saw them in opposition to straightened hair which required harsh treatments and constraint. Locs came to symbolize the freedom to express black identity and beauty on one’s own terms.
Permanence and commitment
Locs cannot be easily undone. The journey to grow and loc hair requires time, patience and commitment. For some cultures this permanence signifies spiritual devotion, strength of convictions or a rite of passage into adulthood.
Status and power
Throughout history locs have been connected to status and power. Egyptian pharaohs wore loc wigs to show their stature. Warriors like Aztec and Maasai tribes wore locs to intimidate enemies in battle. Locs remain a symbol of confidence and inner strength.
Locs in Rastafarian culture
For Rastafarians, wearing locs (or “dreadlocks as they’re known in this culture) is an expression of black identity, protest and spiritual devotion. Here are some of the key meanings behind Rastafarian locs:
Rastafarians grow locs based on biblical texts that state hair should not be combed or cut. Most cite the Nazarite vow in Numbers 6:5: “They shall not make baldness upon their head, until the days be fulfilled in which they separate themselves to the Lord. They shall be holy, and shall let the locks of the hair of their head grow.”
Locs are seen as a manifestation of innate vital energy that allows a stronger connection to Jah (God). Allowing hair to loc naturally without manipulation is sacred and spiritual.
Rejection of Babylon
“Babylon” refers to Euro-centric Jamaican society, oppression and slavery. Straightening hair was seen as conforming to white Western ideals of beauty. Locs are an act of protest and rejection of Babylon’s pressures to look a certain way.
Locs represent the mane of the Lion of Judah which symbolizes emperor Haile Selassie I who Rastafarians consider divine. Wearing locs shows alignment with Rastafarian beliefs and ideals.
Locs have become a symbol of black identity, confidence and self-acceptance in the face of discrimination. The mass criminalization of locs was seen as an attempt to suppress Rastafarian culture and ideals.
Locs in African tradition
Within traditional African cultures, locs hold deep symbolic meaning:
Coming of age
Locs can signify entering adulthood. Maasai warriors loc their hair during initiation rites before they become moran (warriors). Loc hairstyles demonstrate their strength, status and eligibility for marriage.
Locs represent ties to ancestry and traditions passed down through generations. Sudan’s Gole people believe loosening or cutting locs severs ties to ancestors and invites misfortune.
Wisdom and judgment
Elders who have loc’d their hair for many years are seen as possessing wisdom. In parts of Nigeria, elders act as community judges and their dreadlocked hair signifies their knowledge and fair judgment.
Some Nigerian cultures indicate women’s marital status through locs. Unmarried women wear “single locs” with intricate cornrow patterns, while married women often cover locs in cloth.
Wealth and status
Historically, having the time and resources to groom and loc hair was associated with wealth and high status in certain West African kingdoms. Elaborate loc styles demonstrated nobility, prosperity and high social standing.
Modern perceptions and controversy
While locs symbolize deep cultural identity and heritage for many, they remain controversial in mainstream society. Here are some current perceptions and debates surrounding locs.
Locs in the workplace
Discrimination against natural black hairstyles like locs still occurs in school and work environments. Some see locs as unprofessional, messy or extreme. However, locs have become more socially acceptable and many workplaces now embrace them.
When those outside black communities wear locs without understanding the deep cultural symbolism behind them, it can be seen as cultural appropriation. Appreciation and honoring of the roots of the hairstyle is encouraged.
Black people with locs are still sometimes perceived as dangerous or criminal in society. Associating hairstyles like locs with deviance, violence or illegal activity leads to harmful stereotyping.
Politics and activism
The choice to loc hair remains politically loaded for some. Locs represent power, self-acceptance and rejection of Euro-centric beauty ideals. Others see the politicization of black hairstyles as limiting personal freedom and promotability.
While locs originated from sacred religious and spiritual practices, today they are worn around the world by people from many cultures and backgrounds. Here are some contemporary perspectives on locs:
For many, locs now represent a personal choice to express oneself freely. Unconventional hairstyles symbolize confidence and individuality rather than any specific spiritual or religious meaning.
Fashion and style
Loc styles have expanded into the mainstream fashion world. Loc maintenance products cater to the desire for fashionable locs of different sizes and patterns. However some argue commodification dilutes their original purpose.
Art and music culture
Artists, musicians and counter-culture communities frequently embrace locs. They symbolize creative identity, rejection of social norms and alignment to natural ideals. However, this also leads to stereotyping.
Connection to nature
With rising environmentalism and simple living movements, loc’d hair has come to represent a physical connection to untamed nature. Locs can reflect spiritual roots as well as environmental values.
Health and beauty
A growing natural hair movement embraces locs for health, simplicity and self-acceptance reasons. Avoiding harsh chemical straighteners and high-maintenance styling is seen as beneficial.
Locs hold a complex blend of historical significance, cultural meaning and personal symbolism. At various times they have represented spirituality, black identity, power, protest, freedom, wisdom, natural beauty and more. Their roots run deep in many cultures across the world. Today locs are worn by diverse peoples for both traditional and contemporary reasons. Understanding and honoring the heritage behind them remains important, as does the freedom to wear them with pride.