Understanding the Rite of Way: Shaving as a Rite of Passage




In the United States, we often talk about “rites of passage,” but usually in a very generalized sense and most often simply to denote a moment in time that has particular significance for an individual. But in other cultures, both today and in other times, there are often genuine rites of passage, public rituals that are used to make a statement about a person moving from one status to another – and in many cases, these rites involve some form of head shaving.

If we wanted to stretch things a bit, we could say that America also has some public rituals involving the shearing of the locks. For example, some fraternity initiations include a head-shaving component, and there are a growing number of people who choose to go completely “under the razor” as a way of raising funds for charities. But while such instances do involve ceremonies of a sort, they are neither organized enough nor sufficiently widespread to qualify as rites of passage. The closest we come is probably the haircuts given to military recruits – and even that has changed in recent years.

Although head-shaving could theoretically be involved in almost any sort of ritual, it seems that we find it most often in those related to birth/childhood, with fewer but still significant instances in rites surrounding marriage or death.

Rites of passage: Childhood

Many different cultures mark birth or a significant moment in childhood by removing hair from the child. Many Chinese babies are given their first haircut when they are one month old, removing all hair except that at the top. The cut hair represents the hair grown in the womb, and is tied together with a red string and kept as a memento.

In Maliku, a small island country, a baby’s head is shaved on its 20th day of life in a ceremony known as boabeylun. All the hair is weighed, and its weight in silver or gold is distributed to those in need.
The Yoruba of western Africa don’t wait even 20 days. Their children undergo a head shaving ceremony on either their 7th or 9th day, at which they are also given their names. If a child is born with knotted hair, s/he is not shaved, because the Yoruba believe such hair provides special powers. Twins also are not shaved at this time, although they do get shaved later. (Non-knot-haired males continue to get their heads shaved about once a month until they are old, at which point they let their grey hair grow to symbolize their experience and wisdom.)

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In Thailand, the “fire hair” ceremony is held when the child is one month and one day, when it is believed that the child is now out of reach of any spirits that wish it ill will. Shaved hair is wrapped up in a banana leaf and left to float away on a nearby pool of water, while asking that the child be granted a good life.

In America, the Coushatta Indians of Louisiana have a tradition of an uncle shaving a baby’s head before sunrise on the day s/he turns four months old as a way of ensuring the child’s continued health.

And many Hindus perform the “Chudakarana Samskara” ceremony, which may occur at any of several points in a child’s life. In this instance, shaving the head helps to teach the child to be aware of the dangers of vanity and of the value of humility. It also symbolizes purity and innocence and is considered a way of ensuring long life.

Rites of passage: Marriage

Some cultures include “balding” as part of a marriage ceremony, most often for women. For example, many people in America are familiar with the tradition in which some Hasidic women have their heads shaved (often by their mothers) after they have wed.

The Maasai of Africa shave the head of the bride on the morning she is to be wed; for good measure, they also spread the fat from a sheep upon the scalp. Two days later, her head is shaved again, this time by her new mother-in-law, after which time she and her husband are declared officially married.

In Fiji, women must also be shorn before their wedding, a practice shared by the Nuer people of Sudan and Ethiopia. In Uganda, however, the Bahima people are more egalitarian, as both the bride and the groom must have their heads shaved; however, only the bride submits to a second shaving a few months later.

New beginnings: Even in death

Some societies also create an association between death and baldness, most often as an outward symbol of mourning or grief. For example, among some Hindu families, the eldest son is expected to shave his head when his father dies. Similarly, some Hindu women are expected to be shaved if their husbands pass on.

There are also some other instances in which a ritual involves head shaving. Among the Maasai again, the circumcision ceremony is accompanied by a head shaving. And, of course, head-shaving often accompanies ordination into religious orders, such as Buddhist monks or priests in ancient Egypt or the “tonsured” monks associated with medieval Christianity.

It’s interesting to note that many of these rituals view baldness as a symbol of purity or of new beginnings, or as a means of denoting respect. Those with hair loss might want to consider adopting such a viewpoint as their own: baldness is a symbol that carries with it great power and enormous authority.

So go on and hold those shining heads up high!