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Self-mutilation encompasses a wide variety of acts performed on the human body, including scarification (cutting), flagellation, branding, tattooing, and piercing. Although the meaning of these and other body modifications varies greatly according to place and time, the practices themselves are widely found in religious rituals throughout the world, including in North America. The ritual act of marking the flesh may have a number of functions, including mapping relations between human bodies and cosmic forces, serving as visible signs of rites of passage or initiation into a particular status or association, and promoting healing. Until recently, scholarly literature has associated rituals of self-mutilation with preindustrial or even archaic societies. Such practices as body piercing, scarification (cutting), and tattooing existed in the modern West but were thought to be folk expressions of sailors, criminals, gang members, or outlaws, conveying no particular religious significance. North American mental health professionals continue to consider most forms of self-mutilation as a pathology requiring medical intervention, not as a ritual expression to be understood within its various social contexts. As a result, very little attention has been given in North America to the spiritual dimensions of self-mutilation.

Wherever acknowledgment of self-mutilation has surfaced, so have sensationalist accounts and even legal proscriptions. Two examples include the Lakota Sioux sun dance and the practices of the Penitential Brotherhoods of the American Southwest. Many Native American ceremonies involve self-mutilation. The various sun dances of the Lakota Sioux and other Great Plains tribes typically include the piercing of a devotee's chest, tethering the dancer to a central pole until he (or, in rare cases, she) tears the flesh and breaks loose into freedom. From 1883 to 1934, at the insistence of U. S. Army officers and Christian missionaries who labeled the dances as pagan, the federal government completely banned them, and piercing as a sun dance ritual remained outlawed until the 1950s. Since the 1960s, however, there has been a revival of interest in the sun dance as an expression of Native American identity and spirituality. Another well-known example of self-mutilation is in the rituals of New Mexico's Los Hermanos Penitentes, a Catholic confraternity. Some members practice self-flagellation with whips and shoulder heavy crosses, particularly during Holy Week observances. At various times these practices have been restricted or even condemned by Catholic authorities.

The association of self-mutilation with renegade, archaic, or "primitive" cultures may explain the surge of interest in body modifications in North America in recent decades. A loosely organized cultural movement known as modern primitivism arose in San Francisco and other American urban areas in the 1970s. Its proponents self-consciously embraced paganism, primitivism, and tribal identity as a challenge to biblical traditions and medical models of understanding the relationship between spirituality and human bodies. Modern primitives practiced elaborate tattooing, cutting, and the piercing of nipples, navels, and genitalia. In the performance of ritual practices adapted from ethnographic reports on Oceanic, African, and Native American cultures, many modern primitives claim to have discovered pain as a path to spiritual ecstasy. Driven in part by media visibility in the 1990s, the aesthetic if not the spiritual practice of self-mutilation had quickly spread outside the subcultural niches where it first flourished.

See alsoBody; Ecstasy; Native American Religions; Practice; Religious Experience; Rites of Passage; Ritual; Spiritual Path; Sun Dance.


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Rosenblatt, Daniel. "The Antisocial Skin: Structure, Resistance, and 'Modern Primitive Adornment' in the United States." Cultural Anthropology 12 (1997): 287–334.

Torgovnick, Marianna. Primitive Passions. 1997.

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Jesse T. Todd

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