Beards might be the only thing not invented in China. Asians and Indigenous Americans don’t grow them, but Europeans and Africans do. (Always good to start off with a vast and unsupported generalization about race, is what my Writing teacher once told me.) They are worn or not worn by the males of the species–except in old-timey carnivals, in which beards were worn by one lady–and are as governable by fashion’s breeze as women’s haircut or shoes. Beards have been political symbols, statements of purpose, or cultivated to hide weak chins.
The story began like this:
A VERY LONG TIME AGO
“I gotta get this fucking thing offa me. It’s like nine pounds of ratty tangles and berry skins.”
“This! The thing I’m itching.”
“That’s your face, Thog.”
“No, it’s not. It’s growing out of my face.”
“Your nose is growing out of your face. Is your nose not part of your face?”
“Not an apt comparison.”
“Apt as fuck.”
“It’s not part of my face, Og. It’s on my face. It occupies a separate category.”
“All is one. That which comes from, is.”
“What did I tell you about inventing religion?”
“You hit too hard!”
“What did I tell you?”
“Ah, I’m sorry, Oggie buddy. I’m crazed lately with this thing that isn’t my face that’s on my face. We should really come up with–”
“–a word for this new concept. Beard? Yes. Fine, and let’s just move forward. If a beard isn’t a face, then it can be removed.”
“Faces can be removed. Remember what the sabertoothed owl did to Bur?”
“I need you to pay attention, Oggie.”
“You want to get rid of your beard. Have you tried hitting it with a club?”
“As you’d expect.”
“Did you take a shit by the magic tree?”
“Dude. Am I a child?”
“First thing I did.”
“Okay, just checking.”
“I go every morning. Sometimes in the afternoon if we find those red berries that have the gods in them.”
“The ones that make the goats all jumpy?”
“Love those suckers. They make me poop, too.”
“So, yeah, I’ve taken numerous shits of varying consistencies by the magic tree, yet my troubles remain”
“Thog, what we need is to attack the problem at the root.”
“Dude, you just invented puns.”
“Awesome! Let’s keep the streak rolling. We know hitting the beard and making doody doesn’t work. Oh, I got it. You know how your wife’s hair can just yank right out of her skull when you’re dragging her back to your cave?’
“We don’t actually do that.”
“Are you suggesting I violently tear the beard from my face like a man possessed by a demon?”
“Not violently. Calmly.”
“Not a great suggestion. I’m thinking I cut the hair off.”
“All of it? Right down to the bone?”
“Skin, Oggie. To the skin. Like a boy.”
“I still don’t understand why you want to do this.”
“I told you: it’s itchy and it stinks. And plus…you know.”
“It’s just that, you know…every guy in the village has one.”
“You’re just terrible.”
“Hey, man, I’m an individual.”
“What I need is a material that will take an edge, yet retain its strength. Does anything like that exist?”
“Can we make some this afternoon?”
“Fuck. Ah, well. Hand me that vaguely-sharpish rock.”
“I’ll go take a shit by the magic tree for you.”
“You’re my guy, Oggie.”
And so on.
The Vikings had scary blond beards; the Celts and Scots had scary red beards; pirates had scary black beards, although only of them got famous for it. The Greeks didn’t shave, but the Macedonian kid who conquered them all did, and so the Greeks started to shave their beards. Romans, too. The plebs went to the barber, and the patricians had their slave do it. The razors were made from iron and called novacila, and there is a reason razors are no longer made from iron. Neither shaving cream nor gel had been invented yet, and so I think all those Roman movies are lying to us: all those toga-wearing gloryhounds would have had some chewed-up faces. Caesar used to get his beard plucked hair-by-hair with a pair of tweezers, so I’m assuming he walked around looking like a balding tomato.
But they could not wear beards, you see. The Germanic horde grew beards, and so did the rest of the pants-wearing savages outside the Empire; Romans were clean-shaven, no matter how much of a pain in the ass it was.
When the Roman Empire collapsed, everyone was like “Yay, we can grow beards,” but then the Roman Empire was all “Haha! Fooled you! We didn’t go anywhere, just turned into the Catholic Church,” and everyone went “You got us! Totally got us, Roman Empire Good trick,” and then there were no more beards for a while.
Several presidents have sported facial hair, but only five had a full beard–Garfield, Grant, Harrison, Hayes, and Lincoln–plus “full beard” is pushing it: none of them were even within sight of Full Muppet status. Nixon could have had a thick, Phil-in-the-Grateful-Dead-Movie-type beard within twelve hours of shaving, but for some reason chose not to.
Now fashionable and omnipresent, the beard was considered a sign of sloth or lunacy throughout most of recent American cultural life. Bearded men were generally considered to be inappropriate masturbators. Now, every asshole’s got a beard.
Yours will come in one day, slugger.