by Mikel Marton
Tonsure is the practice of cutting or shaving some or all of the hair on the scalp, as a sign of spiritual devotion or humility. Current usage more generally refers to the practice by devotees or mystics as a symbol of renunciation of worldliness and esteem. A style of tonsure was present in the post-Pagan Celtic world, the exact shape of which is unclear from sources, but in some way involved shaving the head from ear to ear.
Sources link this tonsure and that worn by Druids in the Pre-Roman Iron Age. “Celtic tonsure” is thought to have been worn long in the back but shaved across the front of the head from ear to ear forward in some fashion. The shape may have been semicircular, arcing forward from a line between the ears, with the entire forehead shaved back to the ears or in a triangular shape, with one point at the front of the head going back to a line between the ears. The later two styles have been suggested more recently.
In the early Christian monastic era, what became known as “Celtic tonsure” was worn in Ireland and Great Britain and was connected to the distinct set of practices known as Celtic Christianity. It became despised by those affiliated with the later Roman custom whereby the hair was shaved on top but left around the head in circular fashion supposedly to commemorate the “Crown of Thornes” which was placed by the Romans on the head of Christ during the judgements and mockeries prior to the crucifixion.
Leaders in the Roman church considered the Celtic tonsure unorthodox and associated it with Druidry or Simon Magus (for which there is no evidence to corroborate). It is highly probable that it is connected with Druid tradition because the early Insular/Celtic Christians did maintain a continuing respect for the Druids and their wisdom. In Druidry, not only was the head shaved from ears forward but the longer back sections may have been worn in braids with beads or bells attached.
All that can be generally said is that the very earliest Christians in the British Isles followed a more ancient tradition possibly informed by Druidic practice, which later Roman monastic tradition opposed and replaced. Many adherents to the Celtic tradition continued to maintain the old way well into the 8th and 9th centuries…
photo courtesy Dreoilín