Flagellation is a term that we used to constantly confuse with another term for something that occurs almost as regularly in Wiccan circles: flatulence. But now that we’re passed that (get it?), we’d like to explore this practice and its place in human spirituality over the last several centuries and how it may be used to enhance one’s practice of witchcraft.
When you use the arbiter of all things (Google) to define the word flagellation, you get a very interesting definition:
noun: flogging or beating, either as a religious discipline or for sexual gratification.
It’s important to note here that flagellation is being described as being used for either religious discipline OR sexual gratification. It doesn’t say “AND.” It says “OR.” Can it be both? Well, maybe, if you happen to have some sort of awesome religion involving BDSM or whatever the term for that is. But in pretty much all cases of historically recorded use of religious flagellation we’ve come across, its purpose is purely religious.
Instances of flagellation, specifically self-flagellation that have been widely documented in the West, occur within the two Abrahamic faiths of Christianity and Islam. The flagellation of Christ in christian mythology is an important part of the Passion of Christ, the name given to the suffering of Jesus which occurred in the days leading up to his crucifixion. In ritualized practices meant to align devout Christians with Christ’s experiences of suffering, especially in the Middle Ages, many Catholic monks, nuns and other lay and ordained orders practiced self-flagellation as a spiritual discipline. The mortification of the flesh is a well-documented practice undertaken by many Catholics throughout history, including such notable people such as Saint Therese of Lisieux and Pope John Paul II. Flagellation is only one type of mortification of the flesh that can be practiced in Catholicism. In the modern day world, self-flagellation is still practiced, especially around Easter time, in Catholic countries like the Phillipines, Mexico and Peru. (Thanks Wikipedia!)
Another well-documented instance of religious self-flagellation occurs in the Muslim world during the Shia festival of Muharram, which commemorates the death of Shia imam Hussein, the grandson of the prophet, Mohammed. In Shia communities in countries including Iran, Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Lebanon and India, Shi’ites still march in massive parades today while flogging themselves on the back with a variety of instruments involving knifes, whips, and chains as an expression of grief associated with mourning the loss of the imam.
Flagellation and the Scourge in Witchcraft
Flagellation, among other religious practices such as sleep deprivation, meditation and fasting, is known to produce altered states of consciousness. As the focus of this article is to explore the potential use and effect of flagellation within modern day Wicca or witchcraft, it is important to focus on its use in ritual to achieve trance states and the resulting change in consciousness. As one of the main goals within witchcraft is to produce an altered state of consciousness, the use of flagellation within a witchcraft would ritual makes perfect sense.
Gardner, during his life, was aware of the use of flagellation for religious purposes in Christian history, as he mentions the practice in his fictional book, High magic’s Aid (1949). You can read one such passage on page 63 in the previous link. The fictitious witch in this book, Morven, says that the scourge purifies the soul, adding a potential aspect of purification to the already long-established use of flagellation toward producing altered states of consciousness. This use is presented with an emphasis on a much more gentle use than that found in Catholicism or Shia Islam, as Morven also says that the witches prefer not to bring blood.
Many people like to accuse Gerald Gardner of proposing the use of the scourge in this fictional novel because he preferred it for the latter half of the above definition: sexual gratification. But such ad hominem accusations do a disservice to the simple fact that flagellation has been used in acts of religious and spiritual exploration for centuries in multiple religions. Gardner was a nudist, certainly, but over the last decade of exploring Wicca, we have found no indication that he practiced BDSM or any type of flagellation outside of the practice of witchcraft. He certainly spent plenty of time at naturist camps and retreats outside of Wicca.
The popular concept of the 8 Paths to Power or ways of magick magic within Wicca can be found in A Witches’ Bible by Stewart and Janet Farrar. The scourge itself is listed as one method, for obvious reasons all described above, and although a rare occurrence within the entirety of witchcraft, when utilized it would ideally be practiced in combination with meditation and breath work. The blending of different practices in complementary ways is a practice essential to working witchcraft and growing within our religion. When the use of flagellation and self-flagellation so historically documented and at times wide-spread within religious history, it should be of no surprise to anyone paying attention that this tool can also be utilized toward achieving altered states of consciousness with great effect in modern day witchcraft as well.