Why would a person stick a knife through their skin? Well, maybe because it is part of a ritual.
A good friend of mine, who happens to be a great cognitive psychologist, and a probably even better MMA (Mixed Martial Arts) fighter, once told me the following anecdote:
So, one day, after the first month I was training with the MMA team, all the old members went to the lockers searching their leather belts, they formed two lines. All the newbies, had to run through the middle of the two lines and take the hits. Ow, god, it hurt so bad and yet it was so much fun! Now we really were part of the team.
So why did my scientist muscled friend agree to receive those harmful hits? Well, because it was part of the initiation ritual. And my friend is not alone.
It is well known that there are initiations where men have to go through an important amount of pain in order to obtain the social status of adulthood. Mariane Lemaire (2008) discusses the initiation process in Cote d’Ivoire. The initiation, grosso modo, consists in seven years where men have to perform intense farming and agricultural labors that entail pain. During their initiation, they also have to be isolated and during the seven first days of their initiation they have to overcome several tests: to be completely naked and harmless in the woods during a cold night, to run in the rain through the rocks, and sink their heads into spicy water.
Pierre Clastres (1973) focuses on the idea of torture and pain inflection in ritual initiations. He argues that although the means of initiation may differ among the cultures, there is one common feature: all cause pain to the initiated.
On pourrait à l’infini multiplier les exemples qui tous nous apprendraient une seule et même chose : dans les sociétés primitives, la torture est l’essence du rituel d’initiation.
We could multiply to the infinite the examples which show us one and only thing: in primitive societies, torture is the essence of an initiation ritual. (ibid. p.16-7)
But the term ‘torture’ can be tricky. When we think about it, many negative connotations seem to be present. Torture seems to us always to be bad. However, the ritual initiation, although painful and sometimes denigrating, seems to entail other positive things such as courage, wisdom, and so. Although pain infliction is constitutive of torture and initiations rituals, there is a crucial characteristic that makes them different:
Whereas torture pushes the victim beyond the bearable limits of pain, in ritual initiations suffering remains beneath a tolerable threshold (Houseman, 1996). In Houseman words: ‘Dans un cas, les morts sont exceptionnelles, dans l’autre, elles sont monnaie courante’, which translates into something close to ‘On the one hand, deaths are exceptional, on the other hand, they are the usual thing’.
Given the typical awfulness of pain, it is easy to figure out why it is used in torture; inflicting pain is a way to punish and the purpose of torture is, arguably, to punish the victim until the torturer obtains what he wants. In contrast, in ritual pain there’s a certain complicity and acceptance of pain.
So, why do MMA fighters and the men in Cote d’Ivoire go through all these painful processes? Well, at least partly, because they want to be initiated and pain is part of the initiation rituals.
Which raises the interesting question: why do we use pain in our initiation rituals?
Clastres, P., 1973, “De la torture dans les sociétés primitives”, L’Homme 13 (3) : 114-120.
Houseman, M., 1996, “Quelques configurations relationnelles de la douleur”, in F. Hérituer De la violence II, Paris, Editions Odile Jacob, 1999, pp.77-112.
Lemaire, M., 2008, “Le doute et la douleur: Initiations et affects en pays sénoufo (Côte d’Ivoire)”, Systèmes de pensée en Afrique noire, 18, 2008, 193 -218.