Flagellation (usually with whips) has been associated with religious
fervor from pagan times. In ancient Egypt devotees of
the goddess Isis scourged themselves at an annual festival. According
to Pausanias, women were flogged in the temple of Dionysus.
Plutarch states that the priests of Cybele were flogged
in the temple of the goddess.
In the Christian religion, flagellation found many rationalizations.
It was used as an official punishment for priests and
monks, a self-inflicted penance, and a dramatization of the sufferings
of Christ. There was an epidemic of flagellant sects in
Europe during the tenth and fourteenth centuries, associated
with penance and love of Christ, and the Catholic authorities
took extreme measures to suppress what they considered a
morbid enthusiasm for the act. In Latin American countries,
flagellation still occurs at religious processions of penitentes.
Symbolic whippings have also been associated with certain
Tibetan and Mongolian sects, and some American Indian
tribes used whipping to test the endurance of young males in
ritual ordeals. In the witchcraft movement of the mid-twentieth
century, flagellation was introduced by Gerald Gardner; it is
used both as a means of exciting psychic awareness and as a
disciplinary measure.
The persistent and widespread practice of flagellation both
as a religious ritual and in sadomasochistic deviations appears
to be based on the intense emotional and sexual sensations it
arouses, sometimes culminating in paranormal consciousness.
Although there is widespread sadomasochistic literature for
those addicted to flogging and related practices, there has been
little attempt to analyze the psychosomatic basis of flagellation.
In his book The Function of the Orgasm (1942) Wilhelm Reich
explains masochism as a compulsion neurosis arising from sexual
anxiety; he does not accept that real pain is desired—rather
that the suggestion of pain evokes inhibited pleasure sensations
in individuals with long-established sexual inhibitions. This inhibited
pleasure, Reich says, is a longing for release from tensions
and is expressed biologically in the organism as in well as
the psyche. The historical facts of the association of actual pain
and injury with flagellation, however, would indicate that
Reich’s explanation does not go far enough.
On a more everyday level, devotees of the sauna bath will
testify to the overall tonic effect of scourging with twigs. It
would seem that flagellation certainly elicits biological and psychic
excitation, sometimes involving intense sexual and emotional
release, and when associated with religious fervor it may
induce almost mystical states of transport, although of a psychopathological
Cooper, William M. [James Glass Bertram]. Flagellation and
the Flagellants A History of the Rod in All Continents from the Earliest
Period to the Present Time. London, 1868. Rev. ed. Paris C.
Carrington, 1900.
Gibson, Ian. The English Vice Beating, Sex, and Shame in Victorian
England and After. London Duckworth, 1978.
History of Flagellation Among All Nations. New York Medical
Publishing, 1903.
Reich, Wilhelm. The Function of the Orgasm Sex-Economic
Problems of Biological Energy. New York Orgone Institute Press,
1942. Reprint, New York Farra, Straus and Giroux, 1973.
Valiente, Doreen. An ABC of Witchcraft Past and Present. New
York St. Martin’s, 1973.
Weigle, Marta. Brothers of Light, Brothers of Blood The Penitentes
of the Southwest. Albuquerque University of New Mexico
Press, 1976.