The most painful religious rituals in the world

The most painful religious rituals in the world January 4, 2021


Religions around the world include rituals that require physical pain. Self-flagellation. Body mortification. Fire-walking. These are just some of the most painful religious rituals in the world. But why do humans engage in these extreme, painful rituals? Most people want to avoid the trauma of physical pain. But for participants in extreme religious rituals, and for the onlookers, the pain is an inherent part of the appeal of these rituals.  Whether it is dragging altars hooked through their own skin or piercing themselves through the tongue or whipping their own backs, the extreme bodily mortification of these painful religious rituals is what makes extreme rituals such an enduring and intriguing aspect of religious practice. We can find painful religious rituals in almost corner of the globe. Why do such rituals emerge, and what are the benefits in participating?

As it turns out, these religious rituals often have a strong social component. Painful religious rituals around the world are not just about the individual enacting the ritual. They can also be about the reactions and emotions of the crowds who have gathered to watch the religious ritual in action. In many cases, these crowds have their own role to play in the ritual. Sociologists and anthropologists have discovered the ways in which these rituals can inspire empathy, compassion, and a sense of communal comradery. The role of friends and families is crucial to the social bonding such rituals inspire.

Watch this video to learn more about some of the world’s most painful religious rituals. We consider the work of anthropologist Dimitris Xygalatas, and theories like anthropologist Emile Durkheim’s theory of collective effervescence, to explore the most painful religious rituals in the world, and the role they play in their own societies.

Religion For Breakfast launched as a video series in 2014, and now has over 200,000 subscribers on YouTube and over 7 million views. It is commonly used as an education tool in the classroom. Written and produced by religion scholar Andrew Henry, Religion For Breakfast covers a wide range of introductory videos on religion and religious practices around the world, from the rise of Christianity to the role of Japanese religion in the development of Pokemon, to the world of myth and apocryphal literature.

About Andrew Henry
Andrew M. Henry has a PhD from the Graduate Division of Religious Studies at Boston University specializing in Ancient Christianity. Andrew’s research focuses on magical ritual in the late antique Mediterranean with a particular interest in the material evidence of these practices such as ritual space, “magical” artifact assemblages, amulets, and apotropaic inscriptions. You can read more about the author here.

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