Flagellation

Monday, February 11, 2008

Devotees of the goddess Isis, priests of Cybele, followers of Dionysus, the ancient Greek cult of the Spartans, and other religious followers of many different persuasions have recognized flagellation, or ritual scourging, as a necessary part of religious rites. In its broadest sense it is a spiritual cleansing.

The life-size frescos on the walls of the Initiation Room at the Villa of the Mysteries, just outside Pompeii, Italy, in clued a scene showing a priestess of Dionysus scourging and initiate. In the Wiccan initiation there is a similar ritual scourging as part of the palingenesis, which is the central theme of all initiations. It is a symbolic death prior to rebirth. Since it is symbolic, it is not designed to hurt the neophyte. The Wiccan scourge, in fact, is a whip made with thongs of silk or a similarly soft material. They are not knotted or in any way enhanced to produce pain.

Flagellation, or scourging, is also used by some witches to raise power when working magic. There are many ways of raising this cone of power—dancing, changing, singing, or sex, for example—and ritual scourging is one of them. Here again, the design is not to bring pain. The recipient (in some traditions this would be the priestess of the coven) is repeatedly scourged, but the thongs of the instrument are drawn across the body repeatedly in an almost hypnotic movement. The Book of Shadows, the coven’s ritual text, states that “the Scourge is used to bring blood to the surface of the skin, not to hurt.”

Yet the witchcraft practiced in the Middle Ages included a scourging that was designed to hurt. In the records of the 1662 trial of the Scottish Auldearne witches, Issobel Gowdie spoke of the leader of the coven beating them: “He would beat and buffet us very sore. We would be beaten if we were absent any time, or neglect anything that would be appointed to be done…He would be beating and scourging us all up and down with cords and other sharp scourges.” Of the Northumberland witches (1673), it was reported, “All of them who had done harm gave an account thereof to their protector, who made most of them that did most harm and beat those who had done no harm.”

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