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Roman tonsure
Tonsure is the practice of some Christian churches, mystics, Buddhist novices and monk, and some Hindu temples of cutting the hair from the scalp of clerics, devotees, or holy people as a symbol of their renunciation of worldly fashion and esteem.


The origin of the tonsure remains unclear, but it certainly was not widely known in antiquity. There were three forms of tonsure known in the 7th and 8th centuries:

  • The Oriental, which claimed the authority of Saint Paul the Apostle (Acts 18:18) and consisted of shaving the whole head. This was observed in the Eastern churches, including the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Eastern Catholic Churches. Hence Theodore of Tarsus, who had acquired his learning in Byzantine Asia Minormarker and bore this tonsure, had to allow his hair to grow for four months before he could be tonsured after the Roman fashion, and then ordained Archbishop of Canterbury by Pope Vitalian in 668.
  • The Celtic, the exact shape of which is unclear from the sources, but in some way involved shaving the head from ear to ear. The shape may have been semicircular, arcing forward from a line between the ears, but another popular suggestion, less borne out in the sources, proposes that the entire forehead was shaved back to the ears. More recently a triangular shape, with one point at the front of the head going back to a line between the ears, has been suggested. The Celtic tonsure was worn in Irelandmarker and Great Britainmarker and was connected to the distinct set of practices known as Celtic Christianity. It was greatly despised by those affiliated with the Roman custom, who considered it unorthodox and associated it with the heretic Simon Magus.
  • The Roman: this consisted of shaving only the top of the head, so as to allow the hair to grow in the form of a crown. This is claimed to have originated with Saint Peter, and is the practice of the Latin Rite Roman Catholic Church. While not required, it is still a common practice of Roman Rite Friars, such as the Franciscan Missionaries of the Eternal Word.

These claimed origins are possibly unhistorical; the earliest history of the tonsure is lost in obscurity. This practice is not improbably connected with the idea that long hair is the mark of a freeman, while the shaven head marks the slave (in the religious sense: a servant of God). Other theories are that the tonsure mimics male pattern baldness in an attempt to lend artificial respectability to men too young to display the real thing , or that the tonsure is a ritual created by balding superiors in act of vanity and power over young non-bald subordinates.

Among the Germanic tribes, there appeared the custom that an unsuccessful pretender or a dethroned king would be tonsured. Then he had to retire to a monastery, but sometimes this lasted only until his hair grew back.) The practice of tonsure, coupled with castration, was common for deposed emperors and his sons in Byzantium from around the 8th century, prior to which execution, usually by blinding, was the normal practice.

Tonsure today


Western Christianity

In the Latin or Western Rite of the Roman Catholic Church, "first tonsure" was, in medieval times, the rite of inducting someone into the clergy and qualifying him for the civil benefits then enjoyed by clerics. Tonsure was a prerequisite for receiving the minor and major orders. Failing to maintain tonsure was the equivalent of attempting toabandon one's clerical state, and in the 1917 Code of Canon Law, any cleric in minor orders (or simply tonsured) who did not resume the tonsure within a month after being warned by his Ordinary, lost the clerical state. Over time, the appearance of tonsure varied, ending up for non-monastic clergy as generally consisting of a symbolic cutting of a few tufts of hair at first tonsure in the Sign of the Cross and in wearing a bare spot on the back of the head which varied according to the degree of orders. It was not supposed to be less than the size of a communicant's host, even for a tonsuratus, someone simply tonsured, and the approximate size for a priest's tonsure was the sizeof a priest's host. Countries that were not Catholic had exceptions to this rule, especially in the English-speaking world. In Englandmarker and America, for example, the bare spot was dispensed with, likely because of the persecutions that could arise from being a part of the Catholic clergy, but the ceremonious cutting of the hair in the first clerical tonsure was always required. In accordance with Pope Paul VI's motu proprio Ministeria quaedam of 15 August 1972, "first tonsure is no longer conferred". Since that time, however, certain institutes have been authorized to use the first clerical tonsure, such as the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter (1988), the Institute of Christ the King Sovereign Priest (1990), and the Personal Apostolic Administration of Saint John Mary Vianney, (2001).

Apart from this general clerical tonsure, some Western Rite monastic orders, for example Carthusians and Trappists, employed a very full version of tonsure, shaving the head entirely bald and keeping only a narrow ring of short hair, sometimes called "the monastic crown" (see "Roman tonsure", above), from the time of entrance into the monastic novitiate for all monks, whether destined for service as priests or brothers. Some monastic orders and individual monasteries still maintain the tradition of a monastic tonsure.

The fuller form of clerical tonsure led to the wearing of a skull cap in church to keep the head warm. This skull cap, called a zuchetto, is still worn by the Pope (in white), Cardinals (in red) and bishops (in purple) both during and outside of formal religious ceremonies. Priests may wear a simple black zuchetto, only outside of religious services, though this is almost never seen except as a practical garment used for warmth by some monks. Some priests who held special titles (certain ranks of monsignori and some canons, for instance) formerly wore black zuchettos with red or purple piping, but this too has fallen out of use except in a few, extremely rare cases.

Eastern Christianity

Today in Eastern Orthodoxy and in the Eastern Catholic Churches of Byzantine Rite, there are three types of tonsure: baptismal, monastic, and clerical. It always consists of the cutting of four locks of hair in a cruciform pattern: at the front of head as the celebrant says "In the Name of the Father", at the back of head at the words "and the Son", and on either side of the head at the words "and the Holy Spirit". In all cases, the hair is allowed to grow back; the tonsure as such is not adopted as a hairstyle.

Baptismal tonsure is performed during the rite of Holy Baptism as a first sacrificial offering by the newly baptized. This tonsure is always performed, whether the one being baptized is an infant or an adult.

Monastic tonsure (of which there are three grades: Rassophore, Stavrophore and the Great Schema), is the rite of initiation into the monastic state, symbolic of cutting off of self-will. Orthodox monks traditionally never cut their hair or beards after receiving the monastic tonsure as a sign of the consecration of their lives to God (reminiscent of the Vow of the Nazirite).

Clerical tonsure is the equivalent of the "first tonsure" in the Latin church. It is done immediately prior to ordination to the minor order of reader but is not repeated at subsequrent ordinations. This led to a once common usage that one was, for instance, "tonsured a reader", although technically the tonsure occurs prior to the prayer of ordination within the ordination rite.


In Buddhism tonsure is a part of the rite of pabbajja and also a part of becoming a monk. This involves shaving head and face. This tonsure is renewed as often as required to keep the head cleanly shaven.


In Hinduism, the underlying concept is that hair is a symbolic offering to the gods, representing a real sacrifice of beauty, and in return, are given blessings in proportion to their sacrifice.

Hair cutting (Sanskrit cuda karma, cuda karana) is one of traditional saṃskāras performed for young children:

"According to the teaching of the revealed texts, the Kudakarman (tonsure) must be performed, for the sake of spiritual merit, by all twice-born men in the first or third year."

In some traditions the head is shaven completely while in others a small tuft of hair called sikha is left.

In some South Indian temples like Tirumalamarker, Palanimarker and Tiruttanimarker it is customary for pilgrims to shave their heads in or near the temple of the god they are visiting.

There has been an Indian custom to perform a tonsure on widows after their husbands' death. It is not uncommon to tonsure the head of a child after the death of a parent (usually father).

K. Jamanadas has argued that tonsure was originally a Buddhist costum and that Brahmanic practices always considered tonsure inauspicious.

Tonsuring in the in the Hindu culture serves multiple purposes and is used as a symbol. One of Its most prominent purposes is to show ones love for the God by washing away their past and starting anew . Moreover tonsuring can be used for punishment or to show that someone is an outcast in society because of the law they have broken . It is also used as a way to raise money for local synagogues which is where women across India become victims of the more powerful leaders .Firstly, the art of tonsuring originated before the Common Era . The original purpose for tonsuring was to show ones devotion to the Gods by shaving their heads clean, women included, and start their lives anew. By shaving their heads, it enabled these people to free themselves from their past sins and continue on with purer lives. However over the course of thousands of years, tonsuring has found new functions. Tonsuring can denote ones social class or personal standing. For example, someone with a closely shaven head is practicing celibacy . A social outcast will have a completely bald heads while men that are ardently religious will shave their heads only leaving a sihka 1.Seoncdly tonsuring can be used for punishing people for dastardly crimes. For example in mid June 2009, a Hindu woman was accused of killing her husband alongside her two sons. She was then beaten in public and shaven bald, which is also symbolic of social ostracizing . There are many other cases of tonsuring being used for that purpose however when used for that, people are shaven clean leaving them completely bald. Punishment for women with tonsuring is more severe, sadly, than with men. This is due to the social injustices that women have to face within the Hindu culture. In the modern era, tonsuring has been used as a way of generating income for the Hindu community while unfortunately victimizing the female community. For example, the American hair industry uses the free trade process to make profit not only for them but the people of India . The free trade works as such: the American hair industry buys the hair materials directly from the Hindu populace to later use in their community; after generating an amount of income a percentage of it (usually more) is given back to the Hindu community. This money is used by the Hindu people to fund the expansion of their synagogues and helping their community. Unfortunately, many Hindu women are forced to shave their heads against their will and face brutality from their community leaders. This has become a problem within this community and higher leaders are trying to find ways to solve the issue. Even so, it is a very gray area and it has proven to become hard to stop because it has moved to an “underground” state . Political leaders are not stopping and are still trying to find ways to prevent the persecution of their women by these community leaders.


It is a ritual for pilgrims on the event of Hajj to shave their heads before entering Meccamarker. Shaving off hair from the head was considered an ancient symbol of becoming a slave in Arabia and when a pilgrim shaves his head, he declares himself to be the slave of his Lord.


Martin Luther held that the mark of the beast was the tonsured haircut worn by Roman Catholic clergy.

See also


  1. McCarthy, pp. 147–150
  2. McCarthy, p. 140.
  3. McCarthy, p. 141.
  4. Gregory of Tours, History of the Franks, II.41.
  5. Byzantium by John Julius Norwich Published by Viking 1988
  6. In the West, the minor orders were those of porter, lector, exorcist and acolyte, and the major orders were subdiaconate, diaconate and priesthood, with the rank of bishop usually being considered a fuller form of priesthood. In the East, the minor orders are those of reader and subdeacon, (and, in some places, acolyte); the orders of doorkeeper (porter) and exorcist (catechist) now having fallen into disuse.
  7. Manu samhita 2.35, Georg Bühler translation
  8. Antiques Digest. "Hindu Tonsure." Old and Sols. Google, 14 Mar. 1998. Web. 29 Oct. 2009. [1].
  9. "Heads of woman, 2 others tonsured for murder." The Tribune. N.P., 14 June 2009. Web. 29 Oct. 2009.
  10. “Shame and Glory: Sociology of Hair”. Anthony Synnott. The British Journal of Sociology Vol 38 No. 3. Sep 1987 pp 381-413. Blackwell Publications.
  11. Javed Ahmad Ghamidi, Mizan, Hajj, Al-Mawrid
  12. Plass, Ewald Martin. What Luther Says: An Anthology‎, St. Louis: Concordia. p. 1141.


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