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Corporal mortification

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A 1493 woodcut of two men self-flagellating
Preach to the choir
Icon religion.svg
Crux of the matter
Speak of the devil
An act of faith
Not to be confused with Corporal punishment

Corporal mortification or mortification of the flesh is the spiritual or unnatural practice of causing pain to one's self through bodily injury. This is done for self-exploration and spiritual growth, self-sacrifice to the gods or community, or atonement of sins.

Corporal mortification is not intended for sexual pleasure, self-harm, beautification or mere body modification, though those aspects may play a role.


There are various forms of corporal mortification, ranging from simple denial of "earthly pleasures" through fasting, celibacy, or teetotalism; acts of external pain such as wearing a ciliceWikipedia or flagellationWikipedia; or permanent injuries such as scarification, tattooing or body piercing.[1]

Why would people do this to themselves?[edit]

  • Self awareness, focus or growth: Many people who are pursuing a higher understanding of themselves, and believe that their "deeper aspects" (whatever that means) will induce pain as part of this exploration.
  • Heightened esoteric experience: So-called states of "higher consciousness" such as out-of-body experiences, meditative trances and other altered states can allegedly be achieved or heightened by inducing pain.
  • Sacrifice to a god or community: The shedding of blood, and enduring pain, are often associated with practices like the Lakota Sun Dance, where the goal is a stronger community. Gods, throughout religious history, have demanded sacrifice, including the pain of their followers.
  • As an overt (and often competitive) display of faith, devotion, willpower and possibly machismo.
  • The belief that it is healthy (physically, spiritually, or both). In some cases it actually can be (see caloric reduction)
  • Who are we to say they don't like it?

In Abrahamic religions[edit]

The Abrahamic religions practice forms of corporal mortification, the most common being fasting before or during certain holidays such as Passover and Eid. Giving up certain pleasures such as meat or alcohol is common for Christians during Lent; prohibition of alcohol or particular foods altogether are tenets of Judaism (e.g., kosher meals), Islam (see halal) and Mormonism (whose practitioners cannot consume alcohol or most caffeinated beverages). Vows of celibacy among Roman Catholic priests and nuns are also forms of mortification.

The more extreme sects, such as Opus Dei, practice external mortification as a form of experiencing the pain that Jesus supposedly experienced during his crucifixion. Ignoring Leviticus 19:28, they look to 1 Corinthians 9:24 and Colossians 1:24 to justify their practice.


Karen Armstrong claims the corporal mortification that she was subject to while she was in a convent was tantamount to abuse:

But the sisters ran a cruel regime. Armstrong was required to mortify her flesh with whips and wear a spiked chain around her arm. When she spoke out of turn, she claims she was forced to sew at a treadle machine with no needle for a fortnight.[2]

One author has suggested the cilice is unhealthy.[3]

See also[edit]

External links[edit]


  1. All the three latter options are of course abominations forbidden to all biblical literalists as per the Book of Leviticus; tats are completely out, but whether the Big Guy allows scarification or piercings when not done "for the dead" (Leviticus 19:28) is less obvious; then again, why take chances?
  2. Vanessa Thorpe. "Karen Armstrong: The compassionate face of religion." The Guardian. 2010 October 2.
  3. Mitchell Stevens. "The Cilice and the Discipline." Without Gods. 2006 May 19.