I recently was having a discussion with a peer about play piercings, a format of body piercing you can learn about here. That discussion segued into one of blood rituals and rites. Now- when you hear the words “blood ritual”- what is it that springs to mind? If you google it, many of the first results are about South American and African cultures. Many people automatically go to depictions of mayan temples and human scarifies. Few people think of Jesus, the Church, and Catholicism. Personally I find catholic and christian rituals fascinating. I also find it interesting how many of us who grew up in and around the church never learn about these elements of the church's history. There are many reasons for that, the majority rooted in years of corruption, colonization, and racism on behalf of the church. My hope is to shed light on these practices, and on the innate human desire to modify our bodies, to use our bodies as tools in religious, spiritual, and emotional processes. To encourage folks reconnecting with these elements and experiences and examining what drives us to use our bodies in this way.
“Body Play is the deliberate, ritualized modification of the human body. It is a deep rooted, universal urge that seemingly transcends time and cultural boundaries.“ Fakir Musafar
"Stripped of blood and torn flesh, most religions become no different then fairy tales. The True Cross is not sparkling clean or silver plated." Armando Favassa- Bodies Under Seige
I can not start this blog without mentioning the Eucharist, or taking communion. For me, raised in my very early years in the Catholic Church, this was always the part that stood out to me. Now, when I say I was raised in the Catholic Church, I mean my grandfather attended many hour long masses, in latin. And when I say very very early years, I mean like four or five. So, for a young child, the part of the morning that included eating a cracker and drinking grape juice was what stood out to me. For those unfamiliar, many christians partake in eating bread and drinking wine (or a cracker and grape juice for a small child) to be representative of the last supper, and a memorial for Christ. For some sects, this is all it is. But for most, the wine and bread representing the blood and body of Christ. Often it is quite literally felt that by the consecration the substances of the bread and wine become the substances of the blood and body of christ. There is debate between different churches about specifics, but the gist is the genuine belief that you are consuming the blood and body of christ and allowing him into you. It is the genuine belief that you are drinking the blood of Christ. The Eucharist is a blood ritual.
I strongly remember this standing out to me as a child and having questions about it for my grandfather. (Some part of me definitely went ‘eww, blood?’) But when I think back, my earliest exposure and understanding of blood rituals happened at an incredibly young age, and in direct relation to my experiences in the Church. You may be thinking that simply eating a communion wafer and drinking some wine is a far stretch from a blood ritual but, that is just the starting point, and a good example of a modern take on ritual that survives today. It’s in the deeper history of this religion that we find the more unique rituals.
Things get really interesting when we examine the mortification of the flesh. This is the concept of mortifying or killing your sinful nature in the process of sanctification (becoming holy). The idea is that this allows you to repent for sins you have committed. If a person commits a sin, they can be assigned a task to repent for these sins. Many are familiar with the idea of going to confession and being told a certain number of prayers to say to repent. This is a modern take. If we look back through the centuries it often looks more like confessing for sins and being told how long to fast, how long to kneel for, and even how many times to be whipped. Yes- traditional mortification of the flesh often entailed acts that were quite uncomfortable, and included breaking the skin, bleeding, and leaving scars. This was in part because mortification of the flesh was also thought to bring folks closer to the passion of christ(1)- the last days of Jesus’ life often including his arrest, trial, crucifixion, and resurrection. Interestingly, many many cultures have practices of self-denial including secular beliefs. Fasting, abstinence, pilgrimage, and further rituals that include the body like scarification, coal walking, immersion in water, piercing, carrying heavy loads, tattoos, etc are practices that exist in cultures across the world. These practices are not unique to Catholicism, nor are catholic and christian practices somehow separate from these rituals. As religious have grown, fallen, merged and separated nearly every religion has borrowed or stolen from others, and thus we see similar acts and rituals throughout.
Many of these more extreme actions were willingly done to allow the practitioner to be closer to Christ. In the New Testament it is written that Jesus willingly accepted his crucifixion and death in order to repent for mankind’s sins. Notably, Jesus fasted for 40 days and 40 nights to prepare to minister. The cross he carried was estimated to weigh 80-110lbs. And of course, all the experiences surrounding his crucifixion, including flogging. According to Christian texts, he did all of this willingly and with love in his heart knowing it would save his followers. Early christians, in recognition of this, practice these mortifications of the flesh in honor of Jesus. The concept of confessions of the faith came about, or accepting torture and pain in a joyous way. As christians were persecuted many accepted their suffering or torture and even embraced it. It was believed their love of christ transformed them and allowed them to endure these extreme experiences. Many who were killed these ways were considered martyrs and entered sainthood. Others who were not persecuted chose to willingly undergo similar suffering and experiences to honor Jesus and and their faith. As non-believers watched christian's suffer torture and pain either willingly or by their own hand, with joy and bliss, they were moved to convert to experience this passion of God's love. There was a common belief that suffering the literal pain of christ brought you closer to god. Paul the Apostle was known for alluding to using bodily harm to feel closer to god in his letters.
While there are many mortifications and methods for this, Self Flagellation is one of the most documented and discussed. This is the practice of flogging yourself with whips or other instruments. Flogging brings practitioners closer to Jesus, imitating his whipping during his crucifixion. Often times specific whips called disciplines were used in this practice. These are Seven tailed whips, representing the 7 sins and 7 virtues. Often three knots are tied into each of the tails, representing the three days of the resurrection. Sometimes spikes or metal pieces were added to these knots. Often times this practice just left welts, but it is well documented many clergy were known to do this till blood was drawn, and even scars were left. This practice became so widespread and popular in christianity that a group called the Flagellants were formed. This group started in the 14th century and grew rapidly. Both in private and in public these christians would whip themselves in responses to war, famine, illness, or ritual practice falling along christian holidays, most notably lent. This practice was very wide spread with a number of clergy members encouraging and practicing it. Villagers would swarm to welcome groups of flagellants to their village, where they would gather and watch in awe as they whipped themselves. In some regions across Europe they were seen as healers, and it was believed their blood could heal the sick. People would dip bread or sugar cubes into the blood of the flagellants and feed it to the sick, or the blood of the flagellants would be wiped onto wound or injuries to heal them.
One of the most notable examples would be Dominic Loricatus, an Italian monk who would become Saint Dominic of the Iron Cross. He is best known for his 100 years penance, completed over one Lent, the holiday commemorating Jesus’ 40 day fast. It was believed that a way to find penance was to recite a psalm aloud while whipping oneself- 100 lashes during the course of the psalm. Reading and whipping of 30 pslams was believed to make penance for 1 year of sin. Reading the entire psalter (of 150 psalms) redeemed 5 years. 20 psalters redeemed 100 years of sin, however it meant 300,000 lashes. St Dominic was said to have preformed this in 6 days.
Eventually the church declared this group heretics and a cult, but the practice survived and has continued into the modern day. Even recent popes have practiced the act of self flagellation. You can travel Europe and see this practice as part of modern parades across the Mediterranean, most commonly as part of Lent. Self flagellation is not unique to Christianity either, and is also found in Judaism, Islam, Greco-Roman Religions, and across Asia, most notably India and Japan.
Self flagellation is also by no means the only blood ritual in christianity. Among the mortifications of the flesh there are other instruments of penance that can be used for these practices. A Spugna was a round piece of cork filled with metal studs, spikes, or needles used to strike the chest. When in public practitioners cover their face so attention is not drawn to themselves, but to the penance being practiced. Men, women, and children participated. As this often drew blood, white wine was poured over the wounds as they were made to prevent infection.
Other instruments include hair shirts, garments made of coarse animal hair and worn against the body to cause discomfort. Chain cilice, wire chains worn around the legs to cause mild discomfort. Both the hair shirts and chain cilice were related to sins of the flesh and lust. And bearing the cross- most notably during lent processions will carry full size crosses on their backs. Other mortifications including fasting, which can range from simple fasts to extreme food and water fasts done to mimic the fast of Jesus. Some groups don crowns of thorns allowing them to puncture the head in reference to the crown put upon Jesus Christ during the crucifixion.
Other Christian beliefs and rituals worth noting include the Stigmata. During the crucifixion nails were driven into Chris’s hands and feet. The reoccurrence of these wounds or scars from these wounds on a person, is called Stigmata and considered a miracle. The wounds happen in the hands, feed, sides, and brow of someone, and are often accompanied by bleeding that will not stop. The stigmata is considered a holy miracle, one that only occurs for those who most deeply desire it. St Francis was among the first to experience this and it is written
“Then suddenly streams of fire and blood shot from His wounds and pierced the hands and feet of Francis with nails and his heart with the stab of a lance. As Francis uttered a mighty shout of joy and pain, the fiery image impressed itself into his body, as into a mirrored reflection of itself, with all its love, its beauty, and its grief. And it vanished within him. Another cry pierced the air. Then, with nails and wounds through his body, and with his soul and spirit aflame, Francis sank down, unconscious, in his blood.” -A Treasury of Catholic Reading
St Francis is often depicted with wounds or scars in his hands. While the Stigmata is considered a miracle to believers, many doubters suggest the act of self hypnosis, trance states, and unconscious mortification creating these wounds manually. Many of the accepted cases of Stigmata are recorded on clergy members known for other extreme practices including limited sleep, extreme fasting (eating only handfuls of herbs a day) and other acts that could induce altered mental states. Whatever the cause, many consider it to be among the highest miracles to receive these wounds, experience this endless bleeding, and suffer in turn with Christ. Another item of note is that Stigmata is most often experienced by women. Of the 26 best known stigmatic saints, only two are men. This miracle is considered one of the closest relationships that can be experienced with Jesus, and is marked by often intense pain and suffering accompanying these wounds and bleeding. While this miracle isn’t expressly gendered, some have hypothesized that women are uniquely able to access these sufferings of Christ and this relation to him. As an armchair scholar and body modification historian I can’t help but see similarities in the ability to endure great pain, and rituals involving profuse bleeding being uniquely linked to women. Versions of this belief and ritual can be found all around the world if one looks closely enough.
In 1918 Padre Pio writes of receiving the stigmata. “All the internal and external senses and even the very faculties of my soul were immersed in indescribable stillness. Absolute silence surrounded and invaded me. I was suddenly filled with great peace and abandonment which effaced everything else and caused a lull in the turmoil. All this happened in a flash.” St Cathrine spoke of experiencing visions and conversations with christ. She claimed to enter a trance and see heaven, hell, and purgatory, and be called to enter the public world and spread the faith.
Across Christianity there are beautiful, sacred rituals that invoke the body and blood in order to experience higher states of being, altered consciousness, and explore the abilities of their body. These rituals often included experiences of pain that allowed the practitioners to strengthen the bond between their body and spirit to become more spiritually aware. Rituals also often incorporated an element of modification, leaving permanent scars or marks on the skin which were cherished and honored as signs of great sacrifice, endurance, and a closeness to god. These scars were worn as badges of honor. And these rites were used to mark significant religious holidays, coming of ages, entering of the faith, and major world events. These practices of abstinence or pain allowed practitioners to own or take control over their bodies, in that case to prevent sin or to repent from it, to purify thoughts and spirits, and to allow their bodies to be the vessel for their spirituality. These rituals could be at once humbling and empowering.
And if you think that description could fit the rituals and rites of hundreds of religions, cultures, secular practices, and experiences, you’d be correct. There is an innate human desire and drive to explore states of higher and altered consciousness through intense physical experience. We as humans often utilize our bodies in times of extreme emotions- ever just wanted to scream when angry or felt like you are literally floating when happy? With these strong innate senses it makes perfect sense we would be driven to explore even further. Long before Christianity dominated, these practices existed in most other religious groups. Many folks already know that a number of christian traditions and days align with pagan traditions and other religions that came before. As Christianity absorbed those cultures so did it take from them. And even if it hadn’t we see a precious few religious that don’t include experiences with the body- consider how many religions practice fasting, a prime example of spirituality through body.
In an attempt to distance themselves from “savage, pagan practices” the modern church has often tried to hide and cover up these practices- even those referenced in the pages of the Bible itself. Despite this, many of the most devout in the most religious sects are those who still embrace these traditions. And as this is an innate human desire many have come full circle- in fact I’d dare say there’s more people now sporting Christian tattoos then there were when it was customary of many clergy to receive religious tattoos (yes, there’s a history of christian tattooing too!) This desire to hide away these practices was one both of racism, sexism, and attempts at suppressing other cultures as Christianity swept across the globe. To hide away from and deny these elements of Christianity and Catholic culture furthers this inherent racism and viewing of these practices as somehow lesser or “uncivilized”. Versions and forms of these practices always have and always will exist. We as humans will always embrace our innate desire to decorate our bodies, to celebrate with our bodies, and to offer our bodies to our gods.
In an industry full of folks who often look to historical record for inspiration and motivation behind their own modifications and experiences in their bodies, I would strongly encourage many to look to the rich history of body modification in Christian and Catholic culture. Many in the modern industry particularly in america and the UK have close personal ties to christian and Catholic culture, more so then many other cultures modification practices. I would love to see these rituals and rites translated into modern practice and honored in modern practice the way we see others rituals and rites referenced and celebrated in modern piercing. There is a rich history and culture to draw on here, and doing so preserves these things so they are not lost to time. Christian ritual, blood rites, and scarification are all parts of Christian culture and their connection with body piercing, body modification, and even the modern industry are so important and fascinating! I hope this blog inspires many to learn more about their own culture and history with these practices. With that I leave you with this advice-
Flagellation and the Flagellants: A History of the Rod
Culture and Spirituality in Medieval Europe
In the Flesh: The Cultural Politics of Body Modification
Bodies Under Siege
1- Passion here from the latin root-patior “to suffer, to bear, to endure”.
This blog post is dedicated to Angel, who embodies what it means to be christian, and to give God's love, more wholly than most others. To a dear friend, cherished client, and someone keeping christian rituals alive today. You are so loved.