The precise origin of the hairstyle is unknown. Dates range from 500 BCE to 5000 BCE. They can be trailed from the Aztecs to Rastafarians of Jamaica. Its even said they originated with eastern holy men that renounced the world, personal grooming and possessions (not even a comb) hence the inevitable dreadlocks.
In Europe the Celts also wore dreadlocks and were described as having 'hair like snakes'. Dreadlocks in Germanic, Viking and Nordic tribes may have been an indicator of the social status of individuals. Slaves mostly wore their hair cropped so it was a sign of rebellion. In battle it provided a more imposing persona and thereby helped intimidate their enemies. Unmarried Viking girls sometimes wore dreadlocks and heavily braided hair to mark a festival or formal occasion. Variations such as the Polish plait were initially treated as an amulet supposed to bring good health and were often worn in combination with extremely long fingernails.
In Ancient Greece Kouros sculptures from the Archaic period depict men wearing dreadlocks. Spartan Hoplites wore locks as as a symbol of strength, often into the battle field for intimidation. Ancient Egyptian Pharaohs locked hairstyles have appeared in drawings and tomb carvings. Wigs and even mummified remains have also been recovered from archaeological sites with their Dreadlocks still intact. In Africa the oldest historical record of locks can be credited to the monks of Ethiopia. Also the Ashanti, Galla, and Fulani tribes, but most notably the Massai warriors of Kenya, famous for their long, thin, red locks dyed with red root extracts.
Among the Sadhus and Sadhvis, Indian holy men and women, locks are sacred. Their formation a religious ritual and an expression of their disregard for profane vanity, a manifestation of a spiritual understanding that physical appearances are unimportant. According to the 'Hymn of the longhaired sage' in the ancient Vedas, 'Jata's' (long hair) express a spiritual significance which implies the wearer has special relations with spirits, is an immortal traveller between two worlds and the master over fire. They only let their Jata down for special occasions and rituals. The strands are then rubbed with ashes and cow dung, considered both sacred and purifying, then scented and adorned with flowers. The locked Hindu deity Shiva and his followers were described in the scriptures as "wearing twisted locks of hair". Shiva is thought to take the weight of the mighty Ganga in his locks, she is released through the his hair bringing purification to the planet and preventing the river's force from destroying earth.
The indigenous Maori people of New Zealand had a wide variety of hairstyles and were commonly associated with social status and rank within communities. These hairstyles are believed to reflect mythological origins like that of the Atua or god known as Rehua. It's been known to keep the hair untidy and frazzled during mourning, until the death of the loved one had been avenged. To Māori, the head is considered a tapu, or sacred part of the body and certain behaviours and protocols are associated with the head, touching the head of others is frowned upon.
In the Caribbean the term dreadlock was first recorded as a derogatory term. People had ceased to copy the particular hair style of Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia and began to wear locks as an act of rebellion. It was said that they looked 'dreadful' with their locks, hence the term ‘dread’ or dreaded. This gave birth to the modern name 'dreadlock' for this ancient style, and was later reclaimed by the Rasta community.
Rastafari associate dreadlocks with a spiritual journey that one takes in the process of locking their hair. Combined with certain diets and restrictions, it is taught that patience is the key. A journey of the mind, soul and spirituality. Its pattern and religion resonated with the ideologies of the day. It was therefore, seen as a threat to Christianity and came under attack by the authorities that tried to suppress the movement. So close is the association between dreadlocks and Rastafari, that the two are sometimes used synonymously. As important and connected with the movement as the wearing of locks is, it is not deemed necessary for, or equivalent to, true faith.
Native Americans, Papua New Guineans, Pacific Islanders and Indigenous Australians have historically worn their hair in a locked style, usually adorned with feathers, bones and hand painted wooden beads. In Northern Australia, the tradition is for the dreadlocks to be coated with sand and red ochre. Again, its believed there is an inner transformation. The public symbol of matted hair is thus re-created each time an individual goes through these unique experiences.
Fast forward through the years and things have changed, but dreadlocks remain prevalent. They have became increasingly popular, and there are many reasons in various cultures and races for wearing them. They can be an expression of deep religious or spiritual convictions, a manifestation of ethnic pride. They can make a political statement, or simply be a fashion preference.
They become popular among the "anti-globalization" movement and with environmental activists, sharing a sense of a rebellion against the establishment and norms. Popular in the Hippie era of the 1960's and in the punk and rave subcultures. Apart from anti-establishment, political and spiritual reasons, locks also can be a means of creative self-expression, a symbol of individualism and a form of rebellion against traditional ties and restrictions.
The rise in popularity of reggae music in the 1970s prompted an interest in locks internationally. The anti-establishment philosophy of Rastafari, echoed in much of the reggae music of the time, and had a particular resonance for left-leaning youth of all ethnicities. A trend for the secular, worn by prominent authors, actors, athletes, politicians, rappers. Dreadlocks have gained particular popularity among certain subcultures. Though, while dreadlock hairstyles are widely associated with these sub-cultures, they are not exclusive to them.
Dreads will always have religious, social and political ramifications. For some people locks are a statement of ethnic pride. Some see them as a repudiation of Eurocentric values represented by straightened hair. Others wear locks as a manifestation of their political beliefs and view locks as symbols of unity and power, and a rejection of oppression and imperialism. They have never been more widespread than they are today. Ultimately there are many influences to how we present ourselves and many things we reject. Dreadlocks can take on many different meanings to a lot of different people and everyone's personal and spiritual journey should be respected.