Hearts Through History Romance Writers

Flame-Haired Pharaohs & the Desert of Death

by | January 18, 2016 | 6 comments

The title for this post sounds like a good book title, but in fact, I’m referring to historical facts about ancient Egypt. Who were these flame-haired pharaohs? What is the desert of death? Read on to learn the surprising answers.

The stereotypical image of an Egyptian pharaoh depicts him black-haired and bronze-skinned. These ideas arose from two aspects of Egyptian life in ancient times: 1) many people, particularly the elites, wore black wigs; and 2) they spent a lot of time outdoors, which tanned their skin. Tomb paintings and scroll artwork provide the most copious evidence of what ancient Egyptians looked like, and those sources show tanned men wearing dark wigs. Men were painted with red skin to represent their sun-bronzed skin; women were painted with yellow skin to indicate they spent less time outdoors and thus had lighter skin. Women took charge of the home, while men worked the fields.

Ramses II's mummy

The mummified head of Ramses II, photographed by Emil Brugsch in 1889. Public domain image.

But the artwork that’s survived thousands of years fails to tell the whole story. For the rest, Egyptologists must turn to experts in the field of paleopathology–the study of the physical remains of ancient people. With ancient Egypt, mummies provide the best evidence. In her book Conversations with Mummies, paleopathologist Rosalie David relates the story of when the mummy of Ramses II (aka Ramses the Great) was refurbished by Parisian experts between 1976 and 1977, to protect the already damaged remains from decaying any further. During their examination, the French experts discovered something surprising. Ramses’s hair had been dyed red when he died because it had, naturally, turned gray; however, he had been born with red hair. It was dyed to restore his original color.

Today, in most western nations red symbolizes passion and romance, and also our life essence in the form of red blood. To the ancient inhabitants of Egypt, however, the color red (desheret) represented far different concepts. They associated the color with the god Seth (or Set), known to the Greeks as Sethos. Seth embodied discord and chaos, as well as male sexuality. Red also symbolized the vast and ruthless red desert that surrounded the rich, black (kem) soil along the Nile. Because of the desert’s dangers, and the importance of the setting sun in Egyptian mythology, the western desert became associated with death and the afterlife.

The association of red with Seth led parents of red-headed babies to give them names honoring the god, such as Setka or Seti. Ramses II’s father was named Seti because, like his son, he sported a head of fiery-red hair. To be named after the god of chaos may seem strange, but to the Egyptians chaos was a necessary element for keeping the universe in balance. Given that Seth also embodied male sexuality, Seti must’ve felt pretty good about bearing the god’s name!

The next time you draw a red heart to illustrate your fondness for your significant other, take a moment to consider what the color meant to the ancient Egyptians. To them, the heart was the seat of intellect and emotion, but desheret carried an altogether different connotation. Since kem represented fertility, maybe you’ll want to draw a black heart instead. Hmm…On second thought, better not!


Anna Durand is an HHRW member, an award-winning writer, a freelance librarian, and an audiobook addict. She specializes in steamy romances featuring spunky heroines and hunky heroes. As a member of Romance Writers of America, she volunteers for its chapters to give back to the romance community. In her previous life as a librarian, she haunted the stacks of public libraries but never met any hot vampires hunting for magical books. Her latest release is Tempted by a Kiss, an erotic contemporary romance published by The Wild Rose Press.

Learn more about Anna and her books, and read her Spunk & Hunks blog, on her website at AnnaDurand.com.


  1. Barb H

    How fascinating, Anna. I’ve had an interest in Egyptology for years, and I really enjoyed learning something new from your post. Thank you!

    • Anna Durand

      Thanks, Barb. I’m glad you enjoyed the post. Ancient Egypt is a passion of mine.

  2. Jenn!

    Wow. This I never knew. Ancient Egypt has always fascinated me. Like Barb, I have an interest in Egyptology, too. I am fortunate that our city has an amazing exhibit that I visit every year.

    Thanks for the wonderful tidbit, Anna. Great stuff to file away.

    • Anna Durand

      Thanks, Jenn! I always love sharing unusual tidbits about Ancient Egypt. Unfortunately, I don’t live a museum with Egypt exhibits. I’m so jealous! 🙂

  3. NancyC

    Red hair! Oh that just brings up all kinds of questions, doesn’t it. I had no idea about the significance of red in their culture. Thanks for the enlightenment, Anna.

    • Anna Durand

      You’re welcome, Nancy! Most people don’t realize there were red-haired Ancient Egyptians. Just one of many surprising things about the civilization. I’ll be sharing more in the coming months.



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