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Not to be confused with acephaly.

In church history, the term acephali ("the headless") has been applied to several sects that supposedly had no leader.[1] The term is the plural of acephalus, a Latinisation of the Greek akephalos, plural akephaloi, from a-, "without", and kephalé, "head". In classical antiquity, the name was given to certain legendary races described as having no heads, their mouths and eyes being in their breasts. These creatures are generally identified with Pliny's Blemmyae.[2]

The term was applied to the Eutychians who withdrew from Peter Mongus, the Monophysite Patriarch of Alexandria, in 482 and remained "without king or bishop" until they were reconciled by Mark II (799–819). With the apparent purpose of bringing the orthodox and heretics into unity, Peter Mongus and Acacius of Constantinople had elaborated a new creed in which they condemned expressly Nestorius and Eutyches, but at the same time affected to pass over the decisions of the Council of Chalcedon and rejected them hypocritically. This ambiguous formula, though approved by the Emperor Zeno and imposed by him in his edict of union, or Henoticon, could only satisfy the indifferent.

The condemnation of Eutyches irritated the rigid Monophysites; the equivocal attitude taken towards the Council of Chalcedon appeared to them insufficient, and many of them, especially the monks, deserted Peter Mongus, preferring to be without a head (akephaloi), rather than remain in communion with him. Later, they joined the partisans of the Monophysite Patriarch of Antioch, Severus.

The deacon Liberatus (Breviarium, P. L., LVIII, 988) supposes the name Acephali (Headless) to have been given to those at the Council of Ephesus who followed neither Cyril of Alexandria nor John of Antioch.

In the Middle Ages the term was resurrected to denote the clerici vagantes, clergy without title or benefice. During the reign of King Henry I of England certain persons were called "acephali" because they had no allegiance to a particular lord.[1]

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  1. ^ a b Brewer, E. Cobham (1978 (reprint of 1894 version)). The Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. Edwinstowe, England: Avenel Books. p. 9. ISBN 0-517-25921-4. 
  2. ^ Matthews, John & Caitlin (2005). The Element Encyclopedia of Magical Creatures. Harper Collins. p. 6. ISBN 0-00-720873-1.