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MORTIFICATION . The term mortification derives from the church Latin mortificare ("to put to death"), a term that appears several times in the Latin New Testament. In the Letter to the Romans, Paul counseled the early Christians, "if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death [mortificetis ] the deeds of the body you will live" (8:13). In the Letter to the Colossians the Christian is exhorted: "Put to death [mortificate ] what is earthly in you: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry" (3:5). This "mortification of the flesh" was intimately connected with the "mortification" of Jesus Christ, that is to say, with his crucifixion. According to Paul, Christians carry this death (mortificatio ) of Jesus in their bodies so that the life of Jesus might also be manifest in them (2 Cor. 4:10). All who belong to Christ have "crucified" the flesh with its passions (Gal. 5:24). The Christian notion of mortification thus derives from this originally Pauline ideal of participation in the passion of Christ through the putting to death of the inordinate desires of the flesh. This ideal was exemplified by the early martyrs, and when the persecutions eventually came to an end mortification began to function as a sort of self-imposed martyrdom. Thus the adoption of practices of mortification made it possible for future generations of Christians, living in more or less settled times, to recapture some of the self-sacrificing intensity of the early church.

In the general history of religions the term mortification, despite its specifically Christian origins, may be extended by way of analogy to refer to a wide variety of practices that aim at the religious transformation of the individual through specific forms of bodily discipline, often entailing a degree of actual physical pain or suffering. Mortification is to be distinct from asceticism in that it is one of the latter's possible components. The term asceticism usually refers to a general regimen or way of life that may or may not include specific forms of mortification. Indeed, if mortification is understood as involving the deliberate infliction of actual physical suffering, then it may be altogether absent from some forms of ascetic life, such as that practiced in Buddhism.

For the sake of the following exposition I will distinguish two general types of mortification: the ascetic type, which is more or less integrated into a general form of religious life (and may include, for example, the wearing of rough or inadequate clothing), and the initiatory type, which is occasioned by specific ritual initiations and is more likely to involve the temporary infliction of pain.

Ascetic Mortification

In Christianity, mortification usually has been an element in a more general practice of the ascetic life. Among its most extreme forms are self-flagellation and the wearing of a hair shirt. Flagellation is intended to reproduce the scourging of Christ, while the hair shirt, an ancient penitential symbol, can function as a kind of continuous flagellation. The semantic history of the hair shirt is informative. Originally it was simply a garment made of very rough cloth. In the Book of Daniel (9:3) the wearing of rough cloth garments is associated with fasting and with strewing ashes on one's head in order to entreat God. In the Gospel of Matthew (11:23), such garments are associated with strewing ashes on the head as a sign of conversion. In primitive Christianity they were the dress required of catechumens; from the fourth century on they were adopted by monks as a means of mortification. In the sixteenth century the name hair shirt was given to what was really a scourge worn as a belt against the naked flesh, the rope made more painful by being knotted or by the addition of metal nails. This type of hair shirt was first used by certain mendicant orders and became a form of private mortification.

These and other less extreme forms of mortification, such as fasting, could be used as means of individual penance for particular sins or as a more general form of asceticism associated in particular with the monastic orders. In both cases mortification was ideally intended to have a transformative effect, aiding in the transition from a life devoted to the gratification of the desires of the body to a higher, sanctified life in the spirit.

The forms of mortification that one finds in various Hindu religious traditions also aim at a radical transformation of the practitioner, but there is a marked difference in the attitude taken to the suffering that this entails. Whereas in the Christian tradition, the suffering is connected with the sufferings of Christ as an imitatio Christi, in Hinduism the suffering lacks this positive aspect and is used negatively as an inducement to rise above the human condition. The practices of Yoga, for instance, aim primarily at the suppression of suffering or at the cultivation of an attitude of complete indifference to it. In itself the suffering involved in mortification has no positive religious significance. The ideal is to reach a state of detachment that is in many respects similar to the Stoic ideal of apatheia and is thus quite different from the intense involvement implied in the notion of the imitatio Christi.

Buddhism is quite similar in this regard, although the Buddhist ideal of the Middle Way served to moderate some of the more extreme forms of mortification found among the ascetics of the Buddha's day. The Buddha's own engagement in mortification led him to death's door before he renounced such extreme practices. To the extent that the idea of mortification implies immoderation it cannot be accepted as a Buddhist ideal. Nevertheless, Buddhist ascetic practices may still be regarded as forms of mortification to the extent that they aim at the cessation of sasāra, the cycle of life.

Initiatory Mortification

In a wide variety of archaic religious traditions mortification occurs in the context of initiation rituals. In some of these cases, practices of mortification seem intended symbolically to assimilate the initiate into a deathlike condition that is to precede an initiatory rebirth. Such practices thus place the initiate temporarily outside of the normal human order. The practices include a number of temporary dietary restrictions, ranging from fasting to complete abstinence, and various forms of imposed deprivations, such as deprivation of water and of sleep. This may also be the motivation behind several practices designed to test the initiate's endurance of extremes of heat and cold.

The keeping of watches and vigils is widespread. Such practices have been attested to among the Andaman Islanders and peoples of New Guinea (the Siana), Africa (the Venda), and South America (the Ocaina). Deprivation of sleep, food, and drink seem to be ways of symbolizing death: the dead do not eat, drink, or sleep.

Other forms of mortification associated with initiation rituals are more difficult to interpret. A number of practices of a punitive character, such as flogging, for one reason or another form an integral part of the initiation process. Some involve torture, such as the practice of biting the initiate's head through to the bone (Australia) or that of hanging the initiate from a rope that passes through a hole made between the muscle and the shoulder bone (as among some Plains and Northwest Coast tribal groups of North America).

Ritual forms of abuse are usually interpreted as endurance tests, an interpretation at times suggested by the requirement that the painful ordeal be undergone without complaint lest the rite be invalidated. But there are also cases in which the initiate is not forbidden to cry out, and even cases in which a cry of pain must be heard by those who are present. If, when faced with such cases, we refuse to characterize such ritual abuses as purposeful (for example, as tests of endurance), all that remains is to characterize them as expressions of violence. Violence may serve to separate the initiate from his earlier natural state (the infantile) and to introduce him to the social status of an adult. It is violence of this sort that the smith, a common initiator among many African peoples, exerts upon the natural elements in order to transform them into the tools of culture, through a kind of symbolic mortification. Violence may have a similar purpose in rituals of initiation. In the ritual hanging mentioned above, for instance, the initiate is made to spin around as he hangs until he faints. This loss of consciousness, which is precisely the attainment of a state similar to death, may well be the final goal of this rather grim form of mortification.

In general, however, violence is of secondary importance; it is not strictly required in order to act out an initiatory death. In some cases symbolic death may be achieved merely by conducting funeral rites over the initiate or over something that represents him. The initiate may be mourned, spoken of as deceased, subjected to a fake interment, or in other ways treated like a corpse.

Initiatory forms of mortification that involve the creation of a symbolic state of death may also be detected in baptismal rites that call for the complete immersion of the initiate. The passage from impurity to purity implies not only a rebirth but also a death of the old condition. Immersion in water may signify a mortification through a reimmersion in the primordial waters of chaos prior to rebirth. From this perspective, one can say with Mircea Eliade (1958) that the same logic has produced both baptismal rites and myths of inundation, both involving initiatory forms of mortification endowed with cosmic significance.

Mortification of the King

There is a cosmic dimension as well in the "mortification of the king," a rite of periodic cosmic renewal. In Babylonia, this annual ritual consisted merely of stripping the king of his regal insignia, slapping his face, and pulling his ears. However, as James G. Frazer argued in The Golden Bough, this seemingly harmless "mortification" may be merely a survival of an earlier practice in which the king was actually put to death.

The practice of the mortification of the king recalls the passion of Christ, who was crucified with the title Rex Judeorum: Christ "mortified" as a worldly king so that he could rise again as the heavenly king. The death of Christ also marks the end of a cycle and the initiation of a new order. It is in this death that the Christian participates, both through the initiation of baptism and through the practice of mortification. The initiatory type of mortification, though not prominent, is nevertheless discernible in Christianity in a somewhat attenuated form. This is but one indication that the types of ascetic and initiatory mortification that I have presented here need not be viewed as mutually exclusive.

As a final note, it is interesting that the expression "mortification of the king" (mortificatio regis ) appears in the literature of alchemy as one of the most frequent symbols of the disintegration of matter. Interpreted spiritually, this mortification regis is a part of what Renaissance alchemists called the "saving Christian mystery." Meditation on the mortificatio regis, therefore, was comparable to meditation on the mistero doloroso of the passion of Christ in the Catholic practice of the recitation of the rosary.


No specific bibliography exists. The reader is referred to the bibliography of Asceticism for sources of more information about mortification of the ascetic type and to the bibliographies of the articles on Initiation for sources of more information about the initiatory type. Also, for the latter category, see especially Mircea Eliade's Birth and Rebirth: The Religious Meaning of Initiation in Human Culture (London, 1958), which places initiatory mortification in the general dialectic between the precosmic and the cosmic. Following this same exegetical line, Eliade's The Forge and the Crucible: The Origins and Structures of Alchemy, 2d ed. (Chicago, 1978) discusses the smith as "maïtre d'initiation" and offers an introduction to the alchemist's mystical theology of mortificatio. For a historical overview of the "mortification of the king," see my Il mito, il rito e la storia (Rome, 1978), pp. 329477.

New Sources

Camporesi, Piero. The Incorruptible Flesh: Bodily Mutation and Mortification in Religion and Folklore. New York, 1988.

Diamond, Eliezer. Holy Men and Hunger Artists: Fasting and Asceticism in Rabbinic Culture. New York, 2004.

Gleason, Randall C. John Calvin and John Owen on Mortification: A Comparative Study in Reformed Spirituality. Studies in Church History 3. New York, 1995.

Oddie, Geoffrey A. Popular Religion, Elites, and Reforms: Hook-Swinging and Its Prohibition in Colonial India, 18001894. New Delhi, 1995.

Schlabach, Gerald. For the Joy Set before Us: Augustine and Self-Defying Love. Notre Dame, Ind., 2001.

Dario Sabbatucci (1987)

Translated from Italian by J. C. Binzen
Revised Bibliography

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