Ovid’s Amores. I.14: Corinna’s Hair Falls Out After a Bad Dye Job

ainted fresco panel from Herculaneum, Italy. 1st c AD. Naples, National Archaeological Museum.

Painted fresco panel from Herculaneum, Italy. 1st c AD. Naples, National Archaeological Museum.

My hair didn’t fall out, but I did dye my hair in my forties: a lovely glinting brown when I went to the hairdressers, and then a too-white  Clairol blond when I did it at home.  Everyone liked the blond–they were disappointed when I went gray–but I had an allergic reaction to the dye.  My  mother said: “It would take ten years off.”

Possibly that’s what Corinna thought.

In Ovid’s Amores (Loves), I.14, the narrator of the elegy chides his girlfriend Corinna when her hair falls out after a bad dye job. He praises the thin hair she used to have, using hilarious epic similes, and finally teasing her too hard.

The name Corinna is not used in this elegy, but I am calling her Corinna because of convention. Ovid mentions Corinna in several of the elegies, and whether she is called Corinna or not, the women in Ovid’s love elegies have the same character.

Here is a quick literal translation.  The meter is the elegiac couplet, which I have not attempted in English!  (The Latin meter is based not on accented syllables, but on the quantity of vowels, long and short syllables)

Amores, I.14

I said, “Stop dyeing your hair.”
Now you have no hair left to tint.
And what could be longer than your hair, if only you had let it alone?
It fell all the way down to your hips.
Did you dye it because it was thin and you feared to dress it,
like the silks the colored Chinese wear,
or the thread which the spider spins with graceful foot
when it weaves its light work under a deserted beam?
It was neither dark nor gold
but, though it was neither color, every color was mixed,
like the color he tall cedar has in the wet valleys
of hilly Ida when the bark is stripped.
Add that hair was docile and fitted to a hundred styles
and never a cause of grief.
No pin broke it, nor did the teeth of a comb….

Ovid amores book I 41n-zuNNiXL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Then he tells her he especially likes it when it is loose when she wakes up in the morning, “like a Thracian Bacchante, when she heedlessly lies down tired in the green meadow.”

And a few lines later:

Your beautiful hair has perished, which Apollo would want,
which Bacchus would want.
I should compare it the hair which the naked Venus
held in her wet hand in the painting.
Why do you complain that your badly disarranged hair has perished?
Why do you absurdly put down your mirror with your sad hand?…

And he points out:

No charmed herbs of a rival wounded you,
No treacherous witch washed it with Thessalonian water,
nor did the power of a disease harm you (may the bad omen stay away)
nor did a jealous tongue thin your hair.

Ovid tells her it her own fault. “You put the mixed poison on your head.”
And now a wig is the solution.  (Wigs were often sent from Germany.)

Now Germany will send you captive hair;
You will be safe by the gift of a conquered nation.
O how often you will blush when someone admires your hair
and you will say, “I am now esteemed because of purchased hair.
He praises some Sygambrian woman.
I remember when that fame was mine.”
Oh miserable me, she holds her tears badly and covers
her face with her right hand, a flush painted on her cheeks.
She holds her old hair in her lap and looks at it,
alas, a gift not worthy of that place.
Put in order your mind with your face; the damage is reparable;
Soon you will attract attention with your own hair again.

Ovid is witty and very comical–Roman love elegy is based in Roman comedy-but he goes too far, perhaps because the poet was so young when he wrote these, perhaps because it is a macho stance.   At the same time he seems to love Corinna and to sympathize with her trivial loss.   Who wouldn’t cry?  A woman’s tresses are her glory.  Mine could have been my glory, if I could have been bothered to blow dry it.  The only good hair days I have are when I’ve been to a hairdresser who can persuade me not to cut it  when I’m having a REALLY bad hair day.

We try to help our poor hair, and then it all goes wrong. There are so many scenes of hair in literature.  Louisa May Alcott is always writing about hair.

Think of Little Women. when Jo sells her hair to help her family. Her father, away at the Civil War, is very ill,, and Marmee must go to him.

…a  general outcry arose, for all her abundant hair was cut short.

“Your hair! Your beautiful hair! Oh, Jo, how could you? Your one beauty. My dear girl, there was no need of this. She doesn’t look like my Jo any more, but I love her dearly for it!”

I remember laughing my head off when Winona Ryder as Jo was told her hair “was her only beauty.”  I did love Winona as Jo, though.

In Charles Bock’s remarkable new novel, Alice & Oliver (which I will write about soon), Alice gamely sports a blue wig when her hair falls out after chemo and radiation treatments.  But eventually she is too tired to strike an attitude and lets people see her bald head:  she undergoes so much pain in preparation for a bone marrow transplant.

And let me know any scenes in literature that come to mind!

11 thoughts on “Ovid’s Amores. I.14: Corinna’s Hair Falls Out After a Bad Dye Job

  1. Dante Rossetti “Lady Lilith”, Rapuntzel, fairy tales, Germanic and classical myths worked upon by the Victorians (and then worked upon again by AS Byatt and John Fowles in “Possession” and “The French Lieutenant’s Woman, for instance), Portia in “THe Merchant of Venice”, “The Rape of the Lock”… Hair is such a powerful symbol of feminity and women…

  2. Doesn’t Jo March cut her hair in order to make money? I remember the cutting of her hair, her upset, how it was going to be used, everything but the specifics of why — it was an act of charity, self-sacrifice. She loved her beautiful long richly textured brown hair ….

  3. Apologies. I see you have it in your blog. I did read it but forgot for the moment. It is shown in every Little Women film I’ve seen, including the 1970 mini-series from the BBC with Angela Downs, which if you’ve not seen I recommend it.

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