Hold on to your wig, this one’s even more hairy than usual.
On August 3, 1492, in the evening, Christopher Columbus and his three ships set off to discover a passage to the East Indies. He called into port in the Canary Islands for almost a month, then, five weeks later, on October 12, his lookout, Rodrigo de Triana, sighted land an island in the Bahamas that Columbus would soon rename San Salvador.
He found the island inhabited by three tribes, the Lucayan, Taíno, and Arawak, who Columbus described as peaceful and friendly, noting that, “They ought to make good and skilled servants,” adding that, “I think they can very easily be made Christians, for they seem to have no religion.”
It is hard to know exactly how many people were living on San Salvador and other Caribbean islands that Columbus visited, which were later settled by Europeans. Estimates say that there were at least 60,000 Taíno but may have been as many as 8 million. Just a few decades later, by 1548, there were only 500 Taíno left.
They had been decimated by diseases such as smallpox, typhoid, measles and influenza which the Europeans brought with them. Having never been exposed to these diseases before, the Americans had no resistance or immunity and quickly succumbed to these plagues that destroyed the people and their culture.
A few months later, Columbus and his ships set sail back to Spain, but ended up arriving in Lisbon, Portugal on March 4, 1493. And it is likely that just as they had carried with them Old World diseases to the New World, they also brought back a new strain of bacteria, Treponema pallidum, which causes the sexually transmitted infection syphilis.
Syphilis spread slowly though Europe for a couple of years.
In 1494, Charles VIII of France decided to claim the throne of Naples, which had been offered to him by Pope Innocent VIII (who had died a couple of years earlier). Accompanied by 25,000 soldiers, he headed over to Italy. However, when he reached Rome, Pope Alexander VI threatened to excommunicate the French king if a single salvo was fired. Charles, who was a religious man, had no choice but to hang out in the city peacefully for the next few weeks. With nothing better to do, the French availed themselves of the Roman brothels (they weren’t that religious).
Charles then moved on to Naples and took the city without much opposition. Once again, with nothing better to do, the French army visited the brothels, little knowing that they were generously sharing syphilis with the local populace.
But Alexander, who had refused to declare neutrality, formed an alliance known as the League of Venice to prevent Charles from taking the crown of Naples. You see, Alexander wanted to secure fiefdoms for his children (Alexander wasn’t all that religious either when it came to fathering illegitimate children).
Charles was forced to beat a tactical retreat, but from then on, syphilis was known to the Italians as “the French disease.”
Fast forward a couple of hundred years, and the French disease had spread throughout Europe, including to members of the top echelons of France.
In 1682 King Louis XIV converted a hunting lodge outside Paris into the Palace of Versailles and moved his entire court to this opulent monument to his wealth. Louis called himself Le Roi Soleil, the Sun King, because he likened himself to Apollo, the Greek god of the sun (and not because he thought the sun radiated from his backside, though I’m pretty sure he did think that too).
Louis’s reign of 72 years and 110 days was the longest of any monarch in European history. If you take a look at his face, you’ll find that he appears to have been comfortable with becoming fabulously rich as the peasants around him starved. In fact, the image used to illustrate “resting bitch face” on Wikipedia is the Sun King himself.
To justify the enormous costs of the palace, it was decided that all the materials and construction had to be French. However, this made it difficult to construct the famous Hall of Mirrors (where a few centuries later the Treaty of Versailles would be signed).
Since the 15th century, Venice had a monopoly on the manufacture of high-quality mirrors. Their painstakingly produced mirrors were works of art that could only be afforded by the very richest of aristocrats. The top-secret manufacturing process created the purist reflection for those who could afford to admire their faces and hair in the looking glass. At one time, the cost of a single mirror was about the same as that of a naval ship. The Venetians guarded the secret of mirror making so zealously that they would send assassins to take out any artisans who left the city and were likely to tell others how to make mirrors.
Nevertheless, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, the French finance minister who also conveniently owned a glass factory, managed to entice a few of the Venetian mirror makers to Versailles and there they divulged their secrets and made the mirrors for the hall. Colbert protected them and their families from the Venetians trying to kill them, and thus brought an end to the mainstay of Venice’s economy.
The king and his advisors had mirrors and could admire themselves, but Versailles was rampant with syphilis. In the 17th century there was no cure, though doctors prescribed mercury, which meant that patients had both syphilis and mercury poisoning. Without treatment, the disease causes open sores, rashes, and all sorts of other skin conditions. So, those mirrors would have reflected the shame of sexual impropriety.
It is likely that syphilis caused Louis XIV to start losing his hair at the young age of 17. But as king, he didn’t want everyone to see his bald pate. So, he ordered a wig or two. Actually, he hired 48 wigmakers to create the finest, biggest wigs to cover his denuded bonce. These powdered wigs were called perukes, and the bigger the better. This is the origin of the term “bigwig” to denote someone in a position of power or authority.
This started the fad for wigs. Everyone who was anyone, or who wanted to be anyone, needed a mop of human hair, horsehair or even goat hair perched atop their nut. The perukes were covered in scented powder to cover any unpleasant aromas emanating from the wig or the syphilis sufferer underneath it.
One side effect of the wig craze was that head lice stopped being such an issue. It was not such a big deal to boil a wig to get rid of nits and lice, removing at one source of itching and scratching.
In France, wigs were the thing until the French Revolution in 1789, when the guillotine put an end to the need for wigs. Not only were some of the heads now sitting in a basket, but nobody wanted to be associated with the bigwigs who had aroused the wrath of the populace. In the UK, the bigwigs wore their wigs for a few more years, until William Pitt the Younger levied a tax on hair powder in 1795. Anyone wishing to wear a powdered wig had to pay for an annual certificate which cost one guinea (equivalent to about $185 today).
Ironically, Pitt levied the tax to fund the Napoleonic wars against France, meaning that the “French disease” led to the wearing of wigs, and the French Republic put an end to it.
Someone who might have benefited from a wig was Korach, who gives his name to this week’s Torah reading. Like Louis XIV, he was also phenomenally wealthy, bald, and probably had an excellent resting bitch face.
The Talmud (Sanhedrin 110a) explains that the reason Korach rebelled against Moses and Aharon was because they shaved off all his hair, leaving him bald. In fact, his name means “bald one.”
In Beha’alotecha, the Torah reading from two weeks’ ago, Moses was commanded to purify the Levites by shaving off all their body hair (Numbers 8:7).
And this is what you should do to them to purify them, sprinkle purification water over them, and pass a razor over all their flesh, and wash their clothes so that they may become pure.
Moses was the king, Aharon and his sons were priests. But the rest of their tribe, the tribe of Levi, were given the role of serving in the Tabernacle (and later the Temple) and assisting the priests. To inaugurate them into that role, they had to be shaved.
It is not surprising that the Levites were inaugurated into their role through shaving, because Egyptian priests also shaved off all their hair. Actually, most of the ancient Egyptians – men, women and children — shaved their heads. But the Greek historian Heroditus (History II:36-37) stated that:
The priests of the gods in other lands wear long hair, but in Egypt they shave their heads… The priests shave themselves all over their body every other day.
Of course, the instruction to shave the Levites came from God, but it would have resonated well with the former slaves.
Korach was a cousin of Moses and Aharon. He expected, based on the laws of nepotism, that he would have a good role in the new society that the two leaders had established. Instead, he was shaved from head to toe, and came home to his wife humiliated (Sanhedrin 110a):
Korach’s wife said to him, ‘Look what Moses did. He is king. He made his brother High Priest. His nephews are regular priests… but for you, he shaved off your hair…’
It was this humiliation, this lack of hair, that led Korach to rebel against Moses and challenge his leadership. In the process, Korach destroyed himself, his family and all those who joined his rebellion. The earth literally swallowed them up. And this made an impact on the entire nation (Sanhedrin 109b).
‘And Korach took,’ (Numbers 16:1). Reish Lakish said, ‘… He made a bald spot in Israel.’
The only person who had initially joined Korach’s rebellion but was saved was named On, son of Pelet. And according to the Talmud (Sanhedrin 109b) he was saved by his wife’s hair.
Rav said, ‘On, son of Pelet’s wife saved him. She said to him, “What can you gain from this? If this one wins, you will be a subordinate, and if that one wins you will also be a subordinate.” He replied, “What can I do? I was part of the plot and I am bound to them.” She said… “Sit, I will save you.” She gave him wine and got him drunk. She put him to bed and went to sit at the entrance of the tent and uncovered her hair. Everyone who came, saw her, and left.
Korach’s baldness killed him but On’s wife’s hair saved him.
Many hundreds of years later, one of the Talmudic rabbis visited the place where the ground had swallowed up Korach. It is interesting to note that to discover the exact spot his guide used wool, the hair of a sheep (Bava Batra 74a).
[Rabba bar bar Hana said: My guide] said to me, ‘Come, I will show you where the ground swallowed Korach’ (Numbers 16:32). I saw two cracks in the ground and smoke was coming from them. He took a bundle of wool, dipped it in water, tied it to the end of his spear and inserted it [into the cracks]. When he pulled it out it was scorched. He said to me, ‘What do you hear?’ I heard that they were saying, ‘Moses and his Torah are true, but we are liars.’
The fire of the underworld torments Korach and his sons, forcing them to admit that they were on the wrong side of history and their rebellion against Moses was false.
For Korach and his sons it was literally a case of hair today, gone tomorrow.