An Intimate Look at Ritual Pain
by Amanda Silvers
“A person can’t be creative and conformist at the same time,” J.A. Meyer, “Brick Wall”
The night is dark when we set out, with a cool silver moon the only illumination. I am blindfolded and bound as soon as we begin. I wonder where we are going, for one of the rules is that I must not know until after (and if) I endure the ordeal. It is a cold clear evening, and I can think of nothing save the knot in my stomach and the shaking of my knees.
We arrive at the appointed site; it smells slightly of hay, cows maybe. It is frigid and crisp, and I am beginning to chill; I should have dressed more warmly.
We enter some type of building; the blindfold is scratchy on my face, and I can’t see, but it is warmer, and I sense other people. I hear the crackling of a fire. My bonds are removed, and my coat and gloves come off; the others are silent except for the terse instructions, “Take off your clothes!” I am wishing I were anywhere but here right at this moment. I am freezing, and they want me naked? I vaguely remember them telling me this ritual was skyclad, but I’d forgotten.
I am naked now, and warmer, but still feel as though I can’t get warm enough. I kneel on the floor, which seems to be made of hard and uneven boards. My knees hurt, my shins hurt, my arms hurt, and there is a pain in my back that gets worse as the seconds fly by. I am cold and colder, and the hair on my arms and the back of my neck stands up like a dog’s hackles. I sense movement as they come for me.
I am afraid. I am inclined to say forget it, I don’t really want this. I have no idea what to expect and all of my worst fears flash before my eyes, as someone helps me to my feet. My stiff legs protest with loud cracks and pops, as I attempt to put my weight on them. I hope that I have used good judgment; all of my father’s warnings come back to me, scenes from Rosemary’s Baby and all of the stories about “Satanists” fly before my eyes. Can I trust these people? Do I know them well enough? I guess at this point I really have no choice. So I follow where they lead, carefully instructing me on where to step and when to stop.
I am in the circle now; no… not yet, I am nearby. I can feel the proximity of maybe a dozen people. I can feel their breathing, their excitement. I am still frightened, I am fidgeting and shaking like a leaf. I hear the priestess’s voice; it is familiar, and it comforts me. I hear her ask me if I wish to continue. I pause, then answer feebly “Yes,” and I am brought in. I can tell I have entered the circle because it’s so much warmer, and I feel it close around me. I feel momentarily safe; then I remember what I’m here for.
The ritual continues; some parts are familiar, and I pass each test. I say the right things by some miracle of my memory or subconscious, and then the time arrives for the ordeal. I am asked to kneel again on the hard uneven floor; my hands are bound behind me; I am bent over in supplication when I feel the lash of the whip.
The whip goes up with a whooshing sound and comes down with a crack that slices the skin on my back as if it were butter, and it feels as if I am bleeding. I feel the pain, and the pain from my childhood comes up with it, up from deep inside of me. It comes bubbling to the surface as I count the lashes and hope each is the last. I feel tears squeezing out through my clenched eyelids under the rough blindfold. A thought about whether they will see me cry passes though my mind just as another lash follows on its heels chasing it away. I allow the tears to come. I let the feelings surface, and I wail with the sound of an animal, a cat. I growl, and I resist moving away even as I feel my body grow warmer and warmer still. I think that blood must be running out of me at this point, and I pray to the Goddess that they will stop, as each of them lashes me with the cruel whip. I feel myself beginning to slip out of my body, and I hear my priestess say, “Stay with us, dear one, it is for naught if you go away.” So I try to focus my energy as I shift my weight on my knees, and the lash continues.
I don’t know how many times I was lashed that night. I do know I was really surprised that there was no blood at the end. It felt as if the whip was cutting me. There were some welts that went away in a day or two; I wore them as a badge of courage. Maybe it was the fear that made it seem so bad, or maybe something more happened that night than I can explain.
When this ritual took place, I was very young and full of myself; I thought I knew everything. I didn’t, of course, and the important thing is that this initiation served to point that fact out to me. I had begun in the Craft not taking it seriously, and after the ritual I felt charged, changed; I was a different person from the girl who set out that night. I knew I had endured, and my childhood pain had been spent like so many coins as payment for my innocence.
Humans have utilized, and continue to utilize, pain in ritual to accomplish different goals: as a ceremony of purification, as a means to an altered state of mind, as a technique to travel astrally, as a healing for past pain and as an ordeal to suffer and endure before being allowed to move from one level to another, as in my first initiation. Why do we use pain in this fashion? As Doreen Valiente said, “The reason we use the scourge, is that it works!” Pain stands as a proven technique for reaching the subconscious, raising energy and achieving altered states.
Pain is used as a marker for rites of passage. “The Olmec, Mesoamerica’s oldest civilization, provides the earliest, and one of the most graphic illustrations of genital sacrifice,” according to Wes Christensen. “A remarkable mural found inside a cave in the modern Mexican state of Guerrero, shows a crouching jaguar, symbol of the priest-king in later times, emerging from the stylized jaws of a serpent whose body, in turn, reveals itself to be the greatly enlarged penis of a human figure. The obligation of ritual blood sacrifice was one the Maya later shared with the other cultures that inherited Olmec patterns of ceremonialism.”
A similar rite of passage that continues today, circumcision is a religious ritual that has been practiced in both ancient and modern times to mark the transition from boyhood to manhood. Circumcision is practiced today in Jewish culture as the religious ceremony it is. Modern-day mainstream medical circumcision is one example of how society can embrace a religious ritual and change it into a medical procedure.
E. Royston Pike states: “Circumcision was practiced by the ancient Egyptians as far back as the Fourth Dynasty, or 3000 B.C., and probably long before that. The ceremony is clearly portrayed on a temple at Thebes. Circumcision is to be regarded as a ritual tribal mark or badge.”
Tribal or “gang” tattoos are popular with young people as a mark of their allegiance; they also use pain as a ritual to enter into the gang. Called being “jumped in,” the gang challenges and beats the initiate till they either give up, or until they can’t move. Some people die as a result of this initiation. It shows their level of commitment to the gang, as well as how tough they are. They wear the tattoos of the gang proudly, to show who they are.
The body’s ability to override the sensation of pain is incredible; when we are in pain, we manufacture natural substances much more powerful than most drugs. Some people get almost addicted to pain and body modification, as if it were a drug. Fakir Musafar is one of the most extreme body players that I have seen; he has been experimenting with all manner of body modification and ritual since the ’50s. At one point, he whittled his waist to a mere 14 inches in a reenactment of the rituals of the Ibitoe from New Guinea, who use the itiburi (wide waist belt) as a sign of manhood. Fakir says he “became an Ibitoe to see what it was like, and fell in love with the practice…. The tight waist training of the Ibitoe teaches them that you are not your body, you just live in it.” He adds, “Times have changed, people have changed. The way I see it is, people need these rituals so desperately; that’s why piercing and tattooing have blossomed. People need physical rituals, tribalism…. They’ve got to have it, one way or another.”
The majority of the rituals Fakir does are reconstructions of tribal rituals that have been acted out for hundreds of years, like those of the Indian sadhus who sew coconuts all over their bodies, stitch fruit with chains to their backs or hang by hooks from their backs. Fakir hangs weights from hooks in his skin, puts clothespins all over himself, dangles a large weight from his penis and lies on a bed of razor-sharp blades. He has accomplished numerous enactments of these practices, which he has documented with pictures.
When asked why he would want to do these extreme things, Fakir says, “We’re suffering from a lot of repressive conditioning, which you can’t undo in just a mental way. Most of it has to do with sexuality and sexual energy. If you get into any practices of other cultures, you’re bound to be involved with a lot of sexuality in other states and guises that aren’t even acknowledged as being in existence in this culture. And a good shamanistic answer to why do these things is because it’s fun!… I mean, what’s wrong with that? Is there a law against having fun?”
Fakir is also one of only a few white men who have performed the O-Kee-Pa Sundance ceremony, wherein the person pierces the flesh on his chest and puts claws, horns or hooks through it and hangs from the Sundance tree till the skin rips and he falls down, the duration of which may be many hours.
This ceremony was illegal and relatively unknown to the white man until the film A Man Called Horse; then Fakir and famous body piercer Jim Ward made the film Dances Sacred and Profane in 1985, in which they included an O-Kee-Pa ceremony.
George Caitlin in O-Kee-Pa: A Religious Ceremony, and Other Customs of the Mandans, published in 1867, writes; “An inch or more of the flesh on each shoulder, or each breast, was taken up between thumb and finger by the man who held the knife, and the knife had been hacked and notched to make it produce as much pain as possible, was forced through the flesh below the fingers, and was followed by a skewer which the other attendant forced through the wounds (underneath the muscles, to keep them from being torn out), as they were hacked. There were two cords lowered from the top of the lodge, which were fastened to these skewers, and they immediately began to haul him up. He was thus raised until his body was just suspended from the ground…. The fortitude with which every one of them bore this part of the torture surpassed credulity.” The ceremony used to be illegal; the government tried to outlaw the Indians’ rights to their religious rituals. Some of those rights were not regained in court until 1967.
The assemblage is held each year at the summer gathering or Sundance to take part in the ritual, you must be an Indian, and each year they change the location where it is held. I have spoken of the Sundance with several people who have performed it, and I have seen the cruel scars the skewers leave where they tear the skin. The scarification is a badge worn by those who do the sacred rituals, a reminder of the experience, a medal of courage, an imprint in their skin of the climacteric of their life.
When I questioned Bear-dreamer why he does the Sundance ceremony, he related his experience: “Our selves are the only thing we have to sacrifice. Everything else we offer to the gods has come from the earth; this is a way to give back to the Mother something which we did not get from Her. This way you spill your blood and endure the pain as your offering to Her.”
Everything comes back around; there is nothing new under the sun. In many cultures, we find people inflicting pain on themselves and others; with sadomasochism (SM) recently become a cultural phenomenon, this sexual/sensual practice seems to have reevolved. It has even progressed into a bizarre fad in the last 10 years. In the ’70s and ’80s, you had to really search for fetish clothing; these days, Madonna has made it a mainstream fashion statement. Studded black leather and chains appear on the runways of French clothing designers almost as often as in some gay bars. If it were merely a vogue, I wouldn’t be all that interested, but SM has grown as a sexual penchant for people from the hip to the middle class.
No matter what class or educational background you hail from, enduring pain can give you an incredible feeling of power: power over your own body, power over your circumstances. If you can refuse to feel the pain, or to react to it, you can control your life.
There is an exchange of power that happens in SM that I have yet to find in many other places. Some SM activity may be understood as a ritual “sacrifice,” the person being tortured sacrificing their power, pain or blood to the person doing the beating, cutting or piercing. Some people are in SM for the endorphins and the “high” produced by the person on the bottom (the one being beaten or whatever), which is empathed by the top, who then gets a contact high. This may also be true for many others in situations where they are inflicting pain, like phlebotomists, physical therapists and so forth.
What is the enchantment of pain? Why are young people nowadays piercing everything visible as well as many of the unmentionable parts? What about tattoos? Talk about pain! I am also a tattoo artist, and I get wonderfully high from the pain I visit on my customers with the tattoo machine it’s unavoidable. I ride their energy, their endorphins, for as long as they want to or can take it. It is a lot of fun, a harmless way to experience that high, and they gain something from it too. It’s far superior to drugs; I actually get paid for it, and it’s desirable all of a sudden, in a kinky sort of way! A tattoo as a rite of passage marker is a wonderful experience, as you may suffer from real pain as an ordeal, which is not unbearable, and it leaves a beautiful reminder of your process and transition.
The Craft has its own interpretation of pain in ritual; there are a number of traditions that employ flagellation. Doreen Valiente said, “Rumors and allegations have been frequent, that present day witches make use of ritual flagellation in their ceremonies. The truth is that some covens do make use of this, and others do not. Those which do, however, have the warrant of a good deal of antiquity behind them; the truth of which has hitherto been obscured by the difficulties encountered by anthropologists and students of comparative religion, in the frank discussion of this subject. The reason for this seems to be that, while strict moralists have no objection, indeed all are in favour, of flagellation being used for penance and punishment, to inflict pain and suffering; nevertheless, the idea of this very ancient folk rite being used in a magickal way, not to inflict pain but as part of a fertility ritual, for some reason upsets them very much.”
To learn, you must suffer and be purified. Are you willing to suffer to learn?
The Encyclopedia of Witches and Witchcraft states that “Religious mystics have used flagellation for centuries. In witchcraft, it is ideally light, slow and steady. Not all (witchcraft) traditions use scourging. Its use in those that do has declined since the 1960s.” The reason the scourging is ideally slow and steady is that it should build energy. It begins slowly and softly, in my experience, and builds over time in rhythm and intensity, so as to mount the neophyte’s rapture. Think of a musical piece that starts soft and slow and builds into a crescendo of power. It feels something like that.
In traditional Gardnerian and Alexandrian rituals, the scourge is employed quite readily to raise energy; there are numerous examples of this in diverse types of rites where this is apropos, for example during a third degree initiation. Gardner’s Great Rite includes three sequential scourgings. Some observe that he was a bit too taken with the ritual asceticism and hint that he was “kinky.”
Doreen Valiente replied to this, “What old Gerald had described is a very practical way of making magick. I speak from experience when I say that it does what he claimed it to do, and I don’t care about what anyone says about being ‘kinky’ or whatever. Perhaps it has become associated with ‘kinky’ sexual matters, but long before that it was part of a very ancient mystical and magickal practice. You can find mention of it in ancient Egypt and from ancient Greece; and no doubt you are familiar with the famous scene from the Villa of the Mysteries in Pompeii which shows a new initiate being scourged a point which Gerald referred to in Witchcraft Today.” Doreen added, “I disliked the elements of flagellation and bondage in the rituals at first, but I came to accept it for one good reason it worked. It genuinely raised a cone of power and enabled one to have flashes of clairvoyant vision.”
In my tradition, Sylvan, we used to practice ritual scourging as a suasion to dance the circle round, faster and faster. The high priest and priestess would stand bordering the circle of dancers and flail us with cats o’ nine, to make us step in a more frenzied manner, so as to elevate the energy. We were then a skyclad tradition, and when the dance climaxed, the priestess would motion and we would all fall to the floor as she funneled the cone of power. We don’t perform skyclad very frequently any more, and we don’t dance the frenzied circle as we once did. We do continue to use various methods involving pain as tools to an end, such as an ordeal in an initiation.
I find it fascinating that more and more people are finding the tool of pain an appropriate one to use, whether they be modern primitives, native American Indians, SM dykes or witches. We, as a national culture, seem to be attempting to reclaim our lost rituals. Humankind is beginning to reinvent many rites and customs, some including pain.
Pain can act as a doorway to other realms; it can take you places you have never been. It is one thing that can definitely move you from one place inside yourself to another; in the initiation I related, it moved me from my childhood to being a true believer. It has moved me in many ways at other times in other places; if you can endure, you can triumph. I have used pain as a tool for growth, for sensory overload, to achieve states of bliss, as a tool for illumination, for achieving astral travel, for inner exploration, as a tool for dramatic personal growth and for reliving and healing my past. These ceremonies have existed since the beginning; humans have a deep need for them, and to deny them is to deny our gods.
In the center of the circle stands a man; he has been challenged, has made the promises. He is asked if he desires the purification and the mark. He says “Yes” solidly, assuredly. People approach from three sides, a man and a woman go behind and beside him, to sustain him, to support him.
“By the fire that gives you strength, by the water that quenches your thirst, by the earth that holds the secrets of being, by the air that inspires you, by the fey that share their magic, the last stage of your purification has arrived…. You must call upon your strength to help you attain the center.”
The third woman stands before him with a glowing scarlet firebrand; the star blazes for a moment before she presses it to his chest. The smell of burning hair, a whiff of melting flesh, and it’s over. He does not cry out. He is transported; you can see it; he has a foolish smile smutched across his face that he can’t wipe off.
He is positively in the center now, of the gods. It is a night he will remember always, and particularly any time he notices the star-shaped scar the brand left over his heart.
For a moment, in pain, he was one with the gods. If pain can assist you in attaining the center, why not use it? I say it can’t hurt!