“Violence,” says Rene Girard, “is the heart and secret soul of the sacred.” This is perhaps a shocking statement, and one that flies in the face of the modern tendency to sugar coat certain religions, and to equate spirituality with peace, quiet, and love of humanity.
Girard makes the above statement in his Violence and The Sacred, in which he explores the history of human sacrifice, in particular, as a social phenomenon that binds the community together, and that is both “a sacred obligation” and “a sort of criminal activity.” Although often being treated as an honored guest, or even as a son, during the period leading up to his murder, it is the outsider (often a captive from an enemy tribe) that is usually sacrificed.
Here, in contrast, we will look at violence, the sacred, and the insider, i.e., the member of the tribe. In other words, we will explore violence as an aspect of initiation, especially into manhood or into full membership of the cult or fraternity.
Here, I want to make it clear that we are not talking about hazing. Nor indeed, are we talking about “Satanic abuse” (for those who are interested, this subject is discussed, and largely if not entirely debunked, by Arthur Versluis in The New Inquisitions: Heretic-Hunting and the Intellectual Origins of Modern Totalitarianism).
In essence, hazing is a method for putting new members “in their place” and letting them know that they are at the very bottom of the group that has accepted them. As such, it is intended to humiliate or degrade the initiate. I have personally been told of an obscure fraternity that forced initiates to dress in women’s clothes and parade in the street, under the pretext that this would “teach respect for women.” And I was told by another man of how he joined another such society, which metered out violence to its initiates, though he was too “embarrassed” to describe what exactly took place, citing “the smell” as the reason for his embarrassment. I didn’t push the issue to find out what went on, but this is not what we are talking about in this article.
Violence, danger, and death are a part of life, and will always be with us. This is not something that modern, urban people like to admit. Indeed, many are now convinced that humanity will be able to get rid of these things once and for all — including death — either through science, law, or education.
Yet, violence, danger, and death are part of what makes us human, and, to a certain extent, godlike. We have the power to be violent or not; and we have the power to use violence for evil (to hurt others for selfish reasons, including for political ideology) or good (e.g., to survive an assault or save another innocent human being from an unprovoked attack).
Contrary to hazing, ritual violence — whether real or symbolic — seeks to psychologically empower or prepare the initiate. The violence experienced is, usually, that which was experienced by the mythic founder of the cult or by a particular god, important to it. Hence we find in some modern esoteric Order that the initiate is symbolically bound to some kind of structure, representing Odin hanging on the world tree (Yggdrasil), or Christ on the cross, or that he undergoes a ritual, symbolic act of death and rebirth, in emulation of Osiris.
(It is a curious fact that, as we have noted, in pre-monotheistic religions, the gods are themselves often subject to violence. Osiris is dismembered. Ganesha has his head chopped off by Shiva — though he replaces it with that of an elephant. And among the Norse gods, we find Tyr having his hand bitten off by the giant wolf Fenris, for example.)
From ancient times, tribes have used actual violence in ritual initiations, especially those used to initiate boys into manhood. Among the best-known examples of such violence, we find circumcision, scarring, and tattooing.
Tattooing can be found among numerous cultures from pre-Christian European tribes to the Maori and native American tribes. It not only requires that the initiate endure a certain amount of pain, but it marks the intiate for life as a member of a particular tribe (and, as such, as an outsider to other tribes). Although it has become exceedingly popular in recent years, we should note that the contemporary trend for tattooing really emerged from subcultures where it was still regarded as having initiatic importance — bikers, criminal gangs, and within the world of New Age type spirituality. In the latter case, the aim was, often, to emulate ancient tribes, and getting Celtic or “primitive” tattoos was typical.
Scarring (among both men and women), as noted above, has also been a feature of tribal initiation, and is still practiced by the Yoruba, though, due to Western, secular influence, this practice is now waning. Again in Africa, Masai boys are initiated into manhood through circumcision (without anesthetic). The boy must not cry out in pain or make a fuss, or he will be considered a coward.
Marking the death of Imam Hussein, on the day of Ashura, Shi’ite Muslim men often parade in the street, flagellating themselves with chains (matam) and swords. The scenes are often very bloody, and shocking to modern Western sensibilities — though flagellation, or scourging, was once a part of Christian monastic life.
Symbolic violence is found in some fraternities, as well as in various esoteric Orders and Mystery schools. In Freemasonry, we find (from etchings of the Ritual, from the 18th century), the initiate laying on a carpet on the floor, surrounded by Master Masons, each pointing a sword toward him. Depicted on the carpet, most notably, we find the skull and crossbones and a coffin. Symbols of the skeletons, swords, and the severed head, appear elsewhere in the fraternity — and the latter can also be found in the symbolism of the Hindu goddess Chhinnamasta and in that of Ashura, though there is no historical relationship between these, and their meanings, likewise, vary significantly.
The sacred appears, in the world, as that which we cannot control but which has power over us to determine our fate. “Tempests, forest fires, and plagues, among other phenomena, may be classified as sacred,” Girard says. “Far outranking these, however… stands human violence — violence seen as something exterior to man and henceforth as a part of all the other outside forces that threaten mankind.”
It is certainly true that we find myths of the destruction of humanity — the Biblical Flood, for example. However, in most cases, the violence of concern was that which threatened the tribe or a particular people (not humanity as a whole). Hence, as in the case of the Massai, we do not find ritual violence initiating people into humanity but into full membership of the tribe.
It is precisely this that makes violence “exterior,” and the manifestation of supernatural forces, in the same way as a forest fire, for example. But just as there are forest fires, beyond man’s control, so he controls fire (an act that is often considered sacred — in Greek myth, of course, Prometheus steals the power of fire from the gods and gives it to man), using it for cooking, warming his hut, and even for metallurgy and pottery, etc. Likewise, an attack by another tribe or people is considered demonic or, perhaps, Divine punishment, while defending the tribe is considered to be an act of the gods or God.
We have said that where violence is present (either actually or symbolically), initiations are intended to identify the initiate with the god of the tribe or mythic founder of the cult — and, of course, with the other full members of the tribe or cult. This is true. But such initiations are also intended to give the initiate the experience of enduring and overcoming some amount of pain, and, as such, to empower and prepare him to realize that he has the mental capacity and spirit to withstand it in battle, or on a dangerous hunting expedition, etc., where his actions must be like those of the gods of the tribe. Symbolic violence — such as we find in some fraternities and esoteric Orders — reorientates the initiate so that he becomes aware of his mortality, and his limited time on earth, and, as such, what is important to him with the remainder of his life.
To a world that promotes safe spaces, consumerism, and popular entertainment, this may be shocking and upsetting. But, we cannot deny that, even today, most men want to test themselves, to align themselves with something greater, and to become something greater. Tragically, without authentic initiation, many men lose themselves in strange simulacra — hazing; violent video games, movies and music; hero-worshipping sports stars; and idle dreaming. We cannot escape violence, danger, and death, and, it turns out, we cannot escape initiation, or some replacement for it. The question is, will we be initiated into popular culture, or a degenerate culture, as a replacement for authentic initiation? Or will we find a Way of life that will both test and elevate us?