Like all church vestments, monastic headgear has a deep symbolic meaning. Despite often being referred to as “veils of humility,” called to symbolize the armor protecting Christ’s soldiers during their struggle with sin, the origin and development of ecclesiastical attire are often determined by fairly mundane factors, or simply by the outfits prevailing during a certain historical period.
Koukoulion is known to be the oldest monastic headdress. Its history begins in the second century when an element of clothing called pallium appeared among the Romans. It was a large piece of cloth, almost completely enveloping the body and leaving only the face, hands and toes uncovered.
Due to its ease of use and manufacture, Pallium quickly gained popularity and became the prototype for other similar cloaks, including the koukoulion, a short hooded cape, reaching the middle of the back. Monastics adopted this headdress almost immediately after the appearance of monasticism itself (late 4th century).
The first mention of the koukoulion appears in De Habitu Monachi by St John Cassian the Roman (4th-5th centuries). In the 6th century, St Abba Dorotheos already mentions the koukoulion among the traditional monastic clothing in both the East and the West. A Western proverb of that time said, “Cuculla non facit monachum” (“a koukoulion does not make a monk”).
The oldest surviving koukoulion, found in an Egyptian monastic burial site and presumably dating back to the 7th century, is now kept in the Louvre Museum collection. The oldest image of a koukoulion is found in the Syrian Rabbula Gospels (c. 586). In both cases, it was a cape with a sharp top, made of a relatively small piece of fabric.
The Menologion of Basil II (9th century) contains a slightly different image of a koukoulion. It includes a cloth sewn to it, resembling a modern analabos and hanging down just below the waistline both in the front and behind the back.
It should be noted here that Orthodoxy, unlike Catholicism, has no monastic orders with specific dress code. Each monastery can make some changes to the usual vestments. Therefore, in ancient times there was a variety of koukoulia. Some of them had a sharp end, others were clamming around the head and some included a shoulder cape.
The main reasons for the wide use of koukoulia in monastic life are likely weather factors, such as the scorching sun, winds, rains and night cold. A koukoulion could be worn in both cold and hot weather, while its ends, tied together around the face, provided excellent protection from sand and dust, common in the desert.
This, combined with the low cost, ease of manufacture and versatility, helped the koukoulion become a characteristic monastic attribute, spread, together with monasticism itself, in various parts of the world, including Russia. The first mention of the koukoulion being worn in Slavic lands appears in Euchologium Sinaiticum (11th century).
In 1280 it becomes mentioned in the Novgorod Pidalion (Kormchaia). It appears in the order of monastic burial as an attribute of the Great Schema. “If it is a monk, tonsured into the great schema, put the koukoulion on top of his head, covering it up to beard”. The final division into Lesser and Great Schemas, taking place approximately at the same time, completely assigned the koukoulion to monastics in Great schema.
A schemamonk’s koukoulion is made as a pointed hood with two long cuts of fabric falling over the chest and back. It is embroidered with crosses and seraphim, as well as the words of the Trisagion, the 50th psalm, the chant “Thy Bridal Chamber I see adorned, O my Savior” or other prayers. Today the koukoulion is worn together with the analabos, a quadrangular veil with an image of an eight-pointed Golgotha cross, the instruments of passions and the skull of Adam. It is noteworthy that after the reform of Patriarch Nikon, the Great Schema koukoulion, unlike other church headdresses, did not undergo any changes.
Currently, the patriarchal cowl (white for the patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church and black for the catholicos of the Georgian Orthodox Church) or the old-believers’ monastic headdress is sometimes called a koukoulion. Confusing these concepts is, perhaps, acceptable in everyday speech, but historically this term can only be applied to the headdress of ancient ascetics from the 4th to 13th centuries (including the one with the attached shoulder cape). After the 13th century, koukoulia are worn only by shemamonks.
The symbolic meaning of a koukoulion can be expressed by a phrase included in the rite of baptism, “The servant of God is vested in the cowl of innocency”. According to St Simeon of Thessaloniki, “A koukoulion descends onto the front and back of the chest for the power of thought and heart. It is sheathed around with scarlet crosses in order to drive away with this regal and formidable sign the enemies attacking us fore and aft”. Abba Dorotheos wrote that a koukoulion is made in the image of a baby’s cap, to signify that a monk should keep his spirit pure and innocent, like a child.