Even though people hurt themselves “since the earliest times” (Menninger, 1938), non-suicidal self-injury (NSSI) only became studied in the late 19th century. Because of this lack of research until then, it is difficult to know if NSSI as we define it nowadays existed before. Literature relates cases of people hurting themselves as we shall see, but these cases are not NSSI. We define NSSI as “a self-aggressive, intentional and repetitive activity, performed without deliberate suicidal, aesthetic or sexual wish, and that is in no way socially accepted” (Trybou, Brossard, & Kédia, 2018). As we shall see, religious self-harm is usually not a repetitive behaviour, not (at least primarily) due to mental-health issues and can be socially accepted.
There are numerous accounts of socially accepted self-harm in history. They were not necessarily accepted by society as a whole, but were accepted at least by a group of people, being part of a culture or traditions and often being religious. Ritual self-harm was performed all over the world for numerous and diverse reasons such as rites of passage, demonstrations of endurance, sacrifices to the gods and mourning (Gould & Pyle, 1896). In the Bible for instance there are several mentions of self-harm with people cutting themselves as part of mourning:
Other religious self-harm includes sacrifices such as for example, Tootoo-nima which is a ritual by Tonga islanders which consisted in “cutting off a portion of the little finger as a sacrifice to the gods for the recovery of a sick relative” (Menninger, 1938). Similar practices could be found in China and other countries as well. Menninger also mentions the Skoptsi, a religious cult whose members believed Adam and Eve sinned by having sex. Members would cut off their genitals in order not to sin any further. Self-flagellation was also performed by some Christians in the Middle-Age in order to wash their sins away (Trybou, Brossard, & Kédia, 2018). While this practice was not accepted and was banned by the Pope in 1349, it was for political reasons instead of moral or public health issues (Chaney, 2017).
Not all religious self-harm however was socially accepted. In these cases, the idea of self-punishment was usually the motive as well but the act was performed by an individual without it being part of a culture or a tradition. The myth of Cybele and Attis can be an example of such category of self-harm. Different versions of the myth exist. In Ovid’s version in Fasti, Attis who was pledged by Cybele to a chastity vow sinned and lacerated his body and cut off his genitals crying “Such are my deserts: With my blood I pay the deserved penalty; perish those which in me have been the sinning parts!”. Such extreme forms of self-harm that are not socially accepted might be closer to NSSI in the way that the individuals who hurt themselves might suffer from some mental-health issues to commit such an act.
The mutilated body part is often chosen for symbolic reasons in religious self-harm. The genitals are for example a symbol of sin due to sexuality and cutting them off or hurting them is a way not to sin any further and to wash away your sins. As Menninger explains, religious self-harm is a form of sacrifice to god as people would sacrifice a part of themselves to save something bigger (redeem themselves in order not to go to hell or save a seriously ill relative). This idea of sacrifice for redemption can be read in the Bible:
Therefore, the purpose of religious self-harm is usually clear, conscious and well known by people who self-harm. It is however interesting to note that the self-punishment function can be similar to some cases of NSSI.
Although not NSSI, religious self-harm was a focus in early studies about self-harm in the late 19th century and first part of the 20th century as we shall see in another article. At a time when psychoanalysis was developing, studies generalized the idea of self-punishment, often for sexual indulgence, to the notion of NSSI that was beginning to be conceptualized.
Chaney, S. (2017, May 5). The history of self-harm: An interview with Sarah Chaney. Retrieved from The Historian: https://projects.history.qmul.ac.uk/thehistorian/2017/05/05/the-history-of-self-harm-an-interview-with-sarah-chaney/
Gould, G. M., & Pyle, W. L. (1896). Anomalies and Curiosities of Medicine.
Menninger, K. A. (1938). Man Against Himself. Harvest Book.
Trybou, V., Brossard, B., & Kédia, M. (2018). Automutilations: Comprendre et soigner. Odile Jacob.