Naked Hermits: Should a Hermit Wear Clothes?

Karel Innemée (Leiden University): “On the Necessity of Dress: Should a Hermit Wear Clothes?” in “Khil’a. Journal of Dress and Textiles in the Islamic World” volume: 1, 2005, pages: 69-78
Available on-line at
mary of egypt  2
“Nowadays in our western society it sounds strange to associate monks and hermits with nakedness. This seems primarily due to the fact that in mainstream Christianity (as in Judaism and Islam) a religious dedication seems incompatible with exposing too much of the human anatomy. The degree of “orthodoxy” of a person can be strongly displayed in the dress: the longer the skirt, the higher the collar, the simpler and straighter the cut of the costume, all these characteristics seem to be the opposite of nakedness. Yet, we only need to look at the phenomenon of the sadhus, the holy men in Hinduism, to see that nakedness can function as an expression of extreme religious dedication and asceticism. Though they might not belong to the mainstream tradition, we can find also in Christianity examples of parallel cases: monks and hermits stripping themselves of their clothes as an expression of their conviction. In particular I shall be looking at the tradition of nakedness within Egyptian Christianity.
But before discussing the subject it may be useful to define two terms that seem almost synonym, but have slightly different meanings: nakedness and nudity. “Naked” is the past participle of the archaic verb “to nake”, meaning that a person has been dressed, but was undressed. It can also have a slight implication of uneasiness for the person in question. In the case of the term “nude” the absence of clothes has a more neutral sense and there is no allusion as to the question whether the person should be dressed, or has been wearing clothes before. In every day use the words seem to be considered synonyms, but in the case of ‘naked hermits’ we should from time to time make the difference between ‘stripped of clothes’ and ‘not wearing anything’.

Before investigating the reasons why certain hermits rejected the use of clothes we should also consider the reasons why normally speaking people do wear them. The main reasons may be summarized as follows:

1. protection of the body against cold, heat, and sunburn;
2. covering specific parts of the body (very often sexual characteristics and/or the face) which are not meant to be shown in public according to social conventions;
3. embellishment of the body;
4. showing the status or place in social hierarchy of the bearer.

If we see which ones of these functions are applicable to monastic dress, we can assume, as a working hypothesis, that:
Hermits and monks feel the need to protect their body, but that the ascetic ideal would not put too much stress on this. Asceticism includes usually a reduction to the minimum of what we could call physical pleasure. This not only includes the rejection of sexual activity and simplifying the diet, but also reducing the every day comfort of clothes.

Monks and hermits are supposed to comply with social conventions, especially when it comes to modesty and shame. However, this is only valid as long as the person lives in a social relationship with others. Hermits who live in complete seclusion have no reasons to be bothered by such conventions. Embellishment of the body should hardly ever play a role for an ascetic.

The expression of status only plays a role in the context of a society. However, in monastic communities in general, there is the ideal of equality among the monks, with only the head (abbot) being recognizable as such, although even this is not always the case. If by ‘status’ we could also imply a state of self-chosen poverty, it could mean that a hermit or a monk could reduce his costume to the absolute minimum, in terms of wearing a costume which is as shabby as possible.

Considering this, it seems most likely that we should fine find deliberate nudity associated with those living completely outside or at the edge of society.
We have number of sources that provide us with information concerning the life of such solitary desert fathers. There are, for example, the Apophthegmata Patrum, a collection of sayings by and anecdotes about the hermits in the region of Sketis, west of the Nile delta. Collected and written down between AD 350 and 450, they have been handed down in different versions and compositions.
In addition, Palladius is the author of work named Historia Lausiaca, a collection of biographical impressions of hermits from Lower Egypt. Palladius lived as a monk in the region of the Nile delta between 388 and 400 and collected the information for his book during this period.
lives of the desert fathers
A comparable work, compiled by an unknown author, is the Historia Monachorum. The structure of the book is comparable, but it seems unlikely that it was written by an eye-witness of monastic life in Egypt.
paradise 3
In some Syriac editions the texts of the Historia Lausiaca and the Historia Monachorum were joined under the title Paradise of Fathers and are attributed as a whole to Palladius. In addition, certain anecdotes occur in slightly different versions in more than one source; both the Apophthegmata and the Paradise of Fathers have a number of such overlaps.
These texts give us an insight into various aspects of early monastic life in Egypt, including the views of certain hermits on what to wear (or not). In a number of sayings and anecdotes the unimportance of clothes is underscored. In a number of these cases the main stress seems to be placed on wearing only shabby clothes as a sign of poverty. Of course these texts do not guarantee the historicity of the persons described, some of them can even be considered to be completely legendary. But whether historical or not, they illustrate an attitude towards the phenomenon of nudity. In almost all cases it is considered an expression or symbol of monastic virtue, a sign of poverty, penitence or innocence.”

Innemee postulates that for the early Hermits there were four principle reasons for nudity:

“Nakedness as an expression of poverty
Apa Pambo states that a garment can be worn by a monk if he has left it outside of his cell for three days without anyone bothering to take it, in other words, the garment is no more than a rag. Joseph of Panepho demonstrated the unimportance of clothes by changing his normal dress to that of a beggar in front of his fellow monks and then asking them whether it had changed anything in his personality. Their answer was negative, as may be expected. In another saying an anonymous father advises a young monk that one of the monastic virtues is to prefer a dirty tunic rather than a good one. Apparently there was also a difference in attitude towards the degree of luxury one could or would allow oneself….

Nakedness as a form of mortification and penitence
Others would go one step further and instead of simply neglecting or minimising their clothes, they would only wear a single garment made of palm leaf. This material not only gives an absolute minimum of protection from heat or cold, but it also feels uncomfortable against the skin. Abba Ammonas criticised a monk who visits him dressed in this manner, saying that this extreme asceticism serves no goal. The best known hermit who wore a palm leaf dress for most of his life is, of course, St. Paul of Thebes.
paul hermit 6
His biography is known from the Life of Saint Paul the First Hermit, written by Saint Jerome, around 375/76 , according to which he lived in the eastern desert from about 250 till his death in 340/41. Although the text is highly imaginative, St. Paul has become the prototype of the desert-hermit and his tunic, woven of palm-leaf is a fixed element in his iconography.

Others would prefer complete nudity as a form of deliberate self mortification. We have a number of texts where such hermits occur. In one apophthegma, Macarius the Great tells his fellow brethren that he does not yet consider himself to be a monk, but that he has seen real monks. He was in fact referring to two naked hermits that he had met living on an island in a lake in the wilderness. These two, an Egyptian and a Libyan, had been living there for forty years. When asked by Macarius whether the sun and the cold did not bother them, they answered that they didn’t through the providence of God.

Nakedness and the Holy Fools
As seen above, nudity can be seen as a form of mortification of the flesh and in the examples quoted hermits are described as living in perfect isolation, not offending anyone with their behaviour. Another reason for going (almost) naked, sometimes just for just a short time and in the presence of others, is self-humiliation. One apophthegma relates how a monk who had been seduced by the devil for years, even during the liturgy, decided to undress himself in church in front of the other monks. The seduction ceased as a result of his humility. In another case a monk was asked to cure the sick child of his servant. When the monk and the servant were nearly at the house of the servant the family came out to welcome him. Suddenly the old monk took off his clothes and pretended to wash them in a stream. The servant and his family were shocked at this behaviour and thought that that the monk had lost his mind. This was exactly what the monk intended to achieve, namely, he wanted to avoid the honour of being received and to accept the family’s thankfulness for curing the child.

Another, extreme form of such self-humiliation is the behaviour of the so-called holy fools. These people pretend to be insane in order to have scorn loaded onto themselves, thus avoiding the honour they would receive if people would recognise their sanctity. One course of action that these monks could take, and indeed did so, was to walk around (almost) naked.

Two of these holy fools, Mark the Fool (late 4th century) and Symeon of Emesa (d. 590), would walk around towns naked, where their behaviour would have most effect. In the Life of Daniel of Sketis the story is told of Mark the Fool who walked around Alexandria clothed only in a loincloth. His reason for doing this was to escape the temptations of the ‘demon of lust’ that was tormenting him when he was still living in the desert.
daniel of scetis
It would appear that Symeon went even further is his provocation and pretended immoral sexual behaviour as well. Once he approached the wife of a tavern-keeper and started to undress, which, of course, infuriated both the woman and her husband who beat Symeon and threw him out in the cold and rain….

Nudity, baptism and martyrdom
Although nudity is an exception rather than a rule among Christian ascetics, it can be taken as the expression of the wish or the striving for a return to childlike innocence. The Coptic monastic hood, which is derived from children’s tunics, is also seen as a symbol of this innocence.
baptism naked
Nudity as an expression of innocence and virtue is also closely connected to two other important topics in early Christianity, namely its close connection with the symbolism of the monastic ideal: baptism and martyrdom. Becoming a monk means renouncing the world and taking on another identity and a new name; the same applies to a convert who symbolically leaves his pagan life behind while receiving a new name and a new life at his baptism.
baptism early church
Monasticism is also an expression of resistance to evil and was seen as the main path to sanctity after the persecutions of the early Christians had ceased. Asceticism became a way of imposing martyrdom upon oneself and as such ascetics can be seen as the successors of the martyrs.

During the early persecutions some martyrs were stripped of their clothes as part of their humiliation and then were tortured or were thrown to the beasts naked. In the case of the martyrdom of Febronia, a Syrian young woman who was stripped naked during her trial, she reacted by saying: ‘What athlete entering the contest to fight at Olympia engages in battle wrapped up in all his clothes? Doesn’t he enter the arena naked, until he has conquered his adversary? I am waiting in expectancy for tortures and burning by fire; how could I do battle with these while I have my clothes on? Should I not meet torture with a naked body, until I have vanquished your father Satan, throwing scorn upon all your threats of torture?’

Here the martyr compares herself to the athlete, striving for the first prize in the battle against evil. In one apophthegma an anonymous father uses the same metaphor for the monastic life. When a younger monk asks how he could be saved, the old man takes off his garment and stands with only a girdle around his waist, stretches his hands towards heaven and says: ‘This is how a monk should be: stripped of the fabric of life and crucified. The athlete defends himself with his fists in combat and the monk, in case of evil thoughts, stretches his arms towards heaven in the shape of the cross to call to God; naked the athlete is wrestling in his duel, naked and immaterial is the monk, rubbed in with olive oil en well instructed how to wrestle by his master. Only in this way God grants us victory.’

Another Syrian woman, a servant called Mahya, was also stripped naked at her trial, but instead of feeling ashamed, she responded by saying: ‘It is to your shame … that you have done this; I am not ashamed of myself … I have been naked in the presence of men and women [referring to baptism] without feeling ashamed, for I am a woman – such as was created by God.’

Here a reference is made to baptism, another occasion where nudity was apparently an accepted phenomenon in the early Christian world. This was possible by seeing baptism as a ‘desexualising rite’. Stripping oneself as a preparation for baptism was considered a symbol of laying down the old, sinful identity in order to start a new life under the grace of Christ. The candidate for baptism becomes again like a child, unashamed of nudity and not associating nudity with sexual lust. Nudity is here the symbol of the return to a state of innocence, like that of Adam and Eve before the fall……
In conclusion, we could say that nudity can be considered an ultimate expression of monastic asceticism and self-imposed physical deprivation. Most of the reasons for which people would wear clothes, protection, comfort, adornment and expression of status, seem not of relevance for monks and hermits. The only reason that remains would be social convention, but if a hermit lives in perfect isolation, even this reason loses its value. Nevertheless we see a number of cases where the ascetic goes naked or almost naked in the company of others. Here an additional element is present: self-humiliation as a part of asceticism. The holy fools tried to avoid any impression of sanctity, on the contrary, tried to load scorn on themselves, meanwhile trying to prove their dissociation of the material world and their humbleness to the few who would see through their unconventional behaviour. What must have been highly unconventional at the moment itself, became acceptable and even a personal hallmark of holiness. Apart from nudity as a sign of detachment from the material world, there is also the reference to nudity as a symbol of childlike innocence, the return to a state before any personal sins had been committed. Here there is a clear connection to the ritual of baptism, where the new convert would undress and not only be ritually be cleaned of sins, but would also be anointed.
greek wrestling
This is a reference to the nudity of the athlete who wrestles nude, like the true Christian fights evil. The third comparison that occurs is that between the wrestler and the martyr. Monasticism developed in a period when, after persecutions had ceased, self-imposed martyrdom became an important way to sanctity. Thus the monk became the successor of the martyr and as such an image of the athlete fighting the powers of evil. The nudity of the monk, hermit or holy fool has therefore explicit or implicit references to the nudity of the athlete, the martyr and the newly baptised.

Unconventional or even controversial as nudity may have been in the lifetime of certain saints, it became an accepted feature in retrospect, part of their image in hagiography and iconography. This could even have its influence on the image other saints who were not associated with nudity initially. Examples of this are the legend and iconography of Melchisedech in the Coptic Church and the iconography of Macarius the Great in post-Byzantine art.”
innemee 2
Dr Innemee teaches in the Faculty of Archaeology at the University of Leiden. He has also taught at the American University in Cairo. He completed his PhD with a Dissertation on Ecclesiastical Vestments in Nubia and the Christian Near East. He has contributed an introduction to the Gorgias Press modern edition of Alfred J. Butler’s two volume “The Ancient Coptic Churches of Egypt” [2004, original edition 1895].
eccl dress inamee
Karel C. Innemée “Ecclesiastical Dress in the Medieval Near East” Brill Academic Pub, Leiden, 1992 [“Koptische kloosters: Gods levende doden” (Dutch Edition) 1999]

For Dr. K.C. (Karel) Innemée, see further:

For his publications, see:
innemee 1
For his research work on the Syrian Monastery, see


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: