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Cilice: Wikis


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Mary Magdalene in cilice. Polychrome wood carving by Pedro de Mena, Church of San Miguel and San Julian, Valladolid

A cilice (pronounced /ˈsɪlɨs/) was originally a garment or undergarment made of coarse cloth or animal hair (a hairshirt) used in some religious traditions to induce some degree of discomfort or pain as a sign of repentance and atonement. In more modern religious circles, the word has come to simply mean any device worn for the same purposes.



The word derives from the Latin cilicium, a covering made of goat's hair from Cilicia, a Roman province in south-east Asia Minor. The Latin word for hairshirt is cilicium, and the reputed first Scriptural use of this exact term, rather than some other earlier term, is in the original Latin Vulgate of Psalm 35:13, "Ego autem, cum mihi molesti essent, induebar cilicio." This is translated as hair-cloth in the Douai Bible, and as sackcloth in the Anglican Authorized Version and the Book of Common Prayer ("But as for me, when they were sick, my clothing was sackcloth." in the King James Bible). Sackcloth is often mentioned in the Bible as a symbol of mourning and penance, and probably was a form of hairshirt. Sackcloth may also mean burlap.


There is some evidence, based on analyses of both clothing represented in art and preserved skin imprint patterns at Catalhoyuk in Turkey, that the usage of cilice predates written history. This finding has been mirrored at Göbekli Tepe, another Anatolian site, indicating the widespread manufacturing of cilice. Ian Hodder has argued that "self-injuring clothing was an essential component of the Catalhöyük culturoritual entanglement, representing 'cleansing' and 'lightness'."[1]

To show deep repentance, it was the custom in Biblical times in the Hebrew religion to wear a hairshirt (sackcloth) and ashes as a sign of repentance and atonement. Such garments or adornments have been worn at various times in the history of the Christian faith, to mortify the flesh or as penance for adorning oneself. Being made of rough cloth, generally woven from goats' hair, and worn close to the skin, they would feel very itchy. When worn continuously, it could form a breeding-ground for lice, which would heighten the discomfort.[citation needed]

It was in common usage in monasteries and convents throughout history up until the 1960s, and has been endorsed by popes as a way of following Christ who died in a bloody crucifixion and who gave this advice: "Let him deny himself, take up his cross daily and follow me."[2][3] Supporters say that opposition to mortification is rooted in having lost (1) the "sense of the enormity of sin" or offense against God, and the consequent penance, both interior and exterior, (2) the notions of "wounded human nature" and of concupiscence or inclination to sin, and thus the need for "spiritual battle",[4] and (3) a spirit of sacrifice for love and "supernatural ends", and not only for physical enhancement.[citation needed]

Closeup of a metal cilice with inwardly-pointing spikes

Some religious orders within the Roman Catholic Church use the cilice as a form of "corporal mortification", as well as some lay people, notably some faithful of the Prelature of Opus Dei.[5] According to John Allen, an American Catholic writer, its practice in the Catholic Church is "more widespread than many observers imagine".[6] Thomas Becket was wearing a hairshirt when he was murdered, St. Patrick reputedly wore a cilice, Charlemagne was buried in a hairshirt, and Henry IV, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Germany, famously wore one in the Walk to Canossa during the Investiture Controversy. Prince Henry the Navigator was found to be wearing a hairshirt at the time of his death in 1460.[citation needed] In modern times it has been used by Mother Teresa, Saint Padre Pio, and slain archbishop Óscar Romero. The Russian author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was also known to wear a hairshirt.[7]


In Ayn Rand's novel, The Fountainhead, Gail Wynand describes his relationship with Howard Roark as "in the nature of a hair shirt." Wynand seems to view Roark as a penance that will absolve him of his sins.

In Dan Brown's novel, The Da Vinci Code and the 2006 motion picture based on the novel, one of the antagonists, an albino monk named Silas, who is associated with the religious order Opus Dei, wears a cilice. In the film Silas' cilice clearly draws blood, though even modern devices fail to do so, according to Allen.

In Hex (TV series), the Archangel Raphael gives Ella a cilice to force her to concentrate on her mission to kill Malachai (her demonic nemesis).

In the song What A Good Boy, the Barenaked Ladies refer to a hairshirt.

See also

Hessian (cloth)


  1. ^ Ian Hodder, "Çatalhöyük: The Leopard's Tale", Thames & Hudson, 2006.
  2. ^ Luke 9:23
  3. ^ "The Da Vinci Code, the Catholic Church and Opus Dei". Opus Dei Official Site. Retrieved 2006-11-27. 
  4. ^ "The consequences of Adam's sin for humanity". Catechism of the Catholic Church no. 405. Retrieved 2007-06-13. 
  5. ^ Opus Dei and Corporal Mortification
  6. ^ John Allen, Jr. Opus Dei, Double Day, 2006
  7. ^,0,6603224.story

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