Ritual Pain: Valuable pain

Oct 22, 2020 | Glasgow Project

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 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 for their
leather belts, they formed two lines. All the newbies had to run
through the middle of the two lines and take the hits. Oh, 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? Because it was part of the initiation ritual. And my friend is not alone. It is well known that there are initiations where people have to go through an important amount of pain in order to obtain the social status of adulthood. For example, Mariane Lemaire (2008) discusses the initiation process in Cote d’Ivoire. The initiation, grosso modo, consists of seven years where men have to perform intense farming and agricultural labors that entail suffering. 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 cultures, there is one common feature: they all inflict 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 always 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 experience, 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’. Inflicting pain is a common practice or ritual initiations.

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 certain complicity and acceptance of pain.

So, why do MMA fighters and the men in Cote d’Ivoire go through all these painful processes? Because, at least partly, suffering plays an important role in these 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.

Note: This text was extracted from the Blog of the Value of Suffering Project. The drawings were made by the author and the text was originally edited by Jennifer Corns.

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