A hood-like hat with a pointed top, the Phrygian cap was introduced to ancient Greece around 500 b.c.e. from the nearby land of Phrygia, in what is now Turkey. The Phrygian people of the sixth and seventh centuries b.c.e. had many influences on ancient Greek culture, among them a tight-fitting cap with a pointed top which angled to the front. The Phrygian cap is brimless, but may have flaps over or in front of the ears, and also sometimes has a long flap in the back to protect the neck. The caps were sometimes made of stiffened fabric or leather, which made it sit up on the head like a helmet, with the pointed top curving towards the front of the head. Other Phrygian caps were made of soft felt, with the point either flattened onto the crown of the cap, hung to the side, or stood up softly. The Phrygian cap was later popular during several different time periods and has been seen on a wide variety of people from French revolutionaries of 1789 to the seven dwarves in Walt Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937). The style is still echoed in some types of modern stocking caps.
The Phrygian cap became popular wear for many Greek men, from soldiers to farmers, and the style continued to spread after Greece was conquered by the Roman Empire in 146 b.c.e. Men continued to wear Phrygian caps at various times throughout the Middle Ages (c. 500–c. 1500 c.e.), and they rose to tremendous popularity again during the French Revolution, which began in 1789. An ancient Roman custom of giving Phrygian caps to slaves who gained their freedom inspired French revolutionaries to adopt the cap, which they dubbed the "liberty cap." The soft felt cap was dashing enough for freedom fighters, yet simple enough to provide a contrast with the stiff three-cornered, or tricorne, hats of the aristocracy. The Phrygian cap, often made from red cloth, became the symbol of French liberty.
Phrygian caps have continued to be symbols of freedom, and pictures of them are often found on official seals and banners, such as the state seal of West Virginia, the presidential flag of Argentina, and the Treasury seal of Paraguay. A 1992 song by the rock group XTC, "Then She Appeared," describes a woman who appears "Dressed in tricolour [the French flag] and Phrygian cap."
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Cosgrave, Bronwyn. The Complete History of Costume and Fashion: From Ancient Egypt to the Present Day. New York: Checkmark Books, 2000.
Sichel, Marion. Costume of the Classical World. New York: Chelsea House, 1980.
Hargrave Jennings, in his book The Rosicrucians: Their Rites and Mysteries (1870), argued for the common ancestry of the Phrygian Cap, which is the classic cap of the god Mithra; the sacrificial cap; and the miter. The Mithraic or Phrygian Cap is the origin of the priestly miter in all faiths. The Phrygian Cap was worn by the priest in sacrifice. When worn by a male, it had its crest, comb, or point set jutting forward; when worn by a female, the same prominent part of the cap is in reverse, or on the nape of the neck, as in the instance of the Amazon's helmet, displayed in antique sculptures, or that of the goddess Athena.
According to Jennings, the peak of caps or hats (the term "cocked hat" is a case in point) all refer to the same idea. This point had a sanctifying meaning afterward attributed to it, when it was called the christa, crista, or crest, which signifies a triumphal top or tuft. The Grenadier Cap and the loose black Hussar Cap derive remotely from the same sacred Mithraic bonnet, or high pyramidal cap.
The Phrygian Cap comes from the highest antiquity. It is displayed on the head of the figure sacrificing in the celebrated sculpture it Mithraic Sacrifice (or the Mythical Sacrifice) in the British Museum, London. This loose cap, with the point protruding, gives the original form from which all helmets or defensive headpieces, whether Greek or not, derive.
When a Phrygian Cap, or Symbolizing Cap, is bloodred, it stands for the cap of liberty, a revolutionary symbol; in another way, it is even a civic or incorporated badge. It marks the needle of the obelisk, the crown or tip of the phallus, whether human or representative. It may have had its origin in the rite of circumcision. The real meaning of the bonnet rouge or cap of liberty is obscure, but it has always been regarded as a most important hieroglyph or figure. It signifies the supernatural simultaneous sacrifice and triumph. It has descended from the time of Abraham, and it is supposed to be an emblem of the strange mythic rite of the circumcision preputii.
The Phrygian Cap stands as the sign of the Enlightened. The heroic figures in most Gnostic gems have caps of this kind. The sacrificer in the sculptured group of the Mithraic Sacrifice, among the marbles in the British Museum, has a Phrygian Cap on his head. He performs the act of striking the bull with a dagger, which is the office of the immolating priest. The bonnet conique is the miter of the Doge of Venice. Cinteotl, a Mexican god of sacrifice, wears such a cap made from the thigh-skin of a sacrificed virgin. This headdress is shaped like a cock's comb. The Scotch Glengarry cap also seems, upon examination, to be "cocked."
Besides the "bonnet rouge," the Pope's miter and other miters or conical head-coverings derive their names from the terms "Mithradic," or "Mithraic," and the origin of the whole class of names is Mittra, or Mithra.
Cumont, Franz. The Mysteries of Mithra. LaSalle, Ill.: Open Court Publishing, 1903. Reprint, New York: Dover Publications, 1956.
Jennings, Hargrave. The Rosicrucians: Their Rites and Mysteries. 3rd ed. 2 vols. London: J. Nimmo, 1887.
Vermaseren, M. J. Mithras, The Secret God. London: Chatto & Windus, 1963.
Wynne-Tyson, Esmé. Mithras, the Fellow in the Cap. London: Rider, 1968.