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Tonsure is the practice of cutting or shaving some or all of the hair on the scalp, as a sign of religious devotion or humility. The term originates from the Latin word tōnsūra (meaning "clipping" or "shearing") and referred to a specific practice in medieval Catholicism, abandoned by papal order in 1972. Current usage more generally refers to cutting or shaving for monks, devotees, or mystics of any religion as a symbol of their renunciation of worldly fashion and esteem. Tonsure also refers to the secular practice of shaving all or part of the scalp to show support or sympathy, or to designate mourning.
Tonsure is still a traditional practice in Catholicism by specific religious orders (with papal permission). It is also commonly used in the Eastern Orthodox Church for newly baptized members and is frequently used for Buddhist novices and monks. It exists as a traditional practice in Islam after completion of the hajj and is also practiced by a number of Hindu religious orders.
Tonsure was not widely known in antiquity. Tradition states that it originated with the disciples of Jesus, who observed the Torah command not to shave the hair around the sides of one's head (Leviticus 19:27). There were three forms of tonsure known in the 7th and 8th centuries:
St. Germanus I, Patriarch of Constantinople from 715 to 730, writes "The double crown inscribed on the head of the priest through tonsure represents the precious head of the chief-apostle Peter. When he was sent out in the teaching and preaching of the Lord, his head was shaved by those who did not believe his word, as if in mockery. The Teacher Christ blessed this head, changed dishonor into honor, ridicule into praise. He placed on it a crown made not out of precious stones, but one which shines more than gold, topaz, or precious stone – with the stone and rock of faith. Peter, the most-holy, the summit, beauty, and crown of the twelve stones, which are the apostles, is the hierarch of Christ."
- 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 Minor 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 Ireland and Great Britain and was connected to the distinct set of practices known as Celtic Christianity. It was despised by those affiliated with the later Roman custom, who considered it unorthodox and associated it with Simon Magus. However, there is no evidence to connect Simon Magus and this tradition. All that can be said is that the very earliest Christians in the British Isles followed this more ancient tradition, which the later Roman tradition opposed. Many adherents to the Celtic tradition continued to maintain the old way well into the 8th and 9th centuries. Some sources have also suggested links between this tonsure and that worn by druids in the Pre-Roman Iron Age.
- 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 of the Catholic Church.
Beda Venerabilis (1896). Venerabilis Baedae Historiam ecclesiasticam gentis Anglorum, Historiam abbatum, Epistolam ad Ecgberctum, una cum Historia abbatum auctore anonymo, ad fidem codicum manuscriptorum denuo recognovit,. Charles Plummer (ed.). Oxonii: e typographeo Clarendoniano.
Archbishop Averky. "Liturgics". Liturgics (by Archbishop Averky, d. 1976)
Saint Germanus of Constantinople (715–730). Meyendorff, Fr. John, ed. St. Germanus of Constantinople on the Divine Liturgy. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press (published 1984). ISBN .
McCarthy, Daniel (2003). "On the Shape of the Insular Tonsure" (PDF). Celtica. 24: 140–167.
Robinson, Nalbro Frazier (1916). Monasticism in the Orthodox Churches. Milwaukee, WI: Young churchman Company. ISBN .
Sokolof, Archpriest Dimitrii (1899). . Jordanville, New York: Holy Trinity Monastery (published 2001). ISBN .
The Great Book of Needs: Expanded and Supplemented (Volume 1): The Holy Mysteries (v. 1). South Canaan, Pennsylvania: Saint Tikhon's Seminary Press. 2000. ISBN .
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