Self-Mutilation in History
Sophocles, Ancient Greece
In Sophocles's play, Oedipus unwittingly kills his father and marries
his mother, Jocasta. After Jocasta kills herself, Oedipus blinds himself
by sticking her golden brooches through his eyes while crying,"Wicked,
wicked eyes! You shall not see me nor my shame- Not see my present crime.
Go dark, for all time blind to what you should have never seen"
Hippocrates's humor theory asserted that one could be "rebalanced
by bloodletting, blistering, purging by vomiting or anal purgatives, or
other potions that would cleanse the body."
200 BCE-200 CE
During the Epic Period in India, Hindu mythology developed. In one myth,
Soordas, a devotee of Lord Krishna, saw Lord Krishna, and, in order to preserve
the wonderful sight in his mind, he enucleated both his eyes. Soordas literally
means "blind disciple."
First Century BCE
The story of Cybele and Attis was portrayed by the Roman poet Catullus.
After having been unfaithful to Cybele, he "Lopped off the load of
his loins with a sharp flint." This example was followed by priests
and other devotees in the Day of Blood festival to honor Attis, March
2nd-4th Century CE
Mark 9:47-48: "If your eye is your downfall, tear it out!
Better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to be thrown
with both eyes into Gehenna, where the worm dies not and the fire is never
Matthew 6:22-23: "What I say to you is: anyone who looks lustfully
at a woman has already committed adultery with her in his thoughts. If
your right eye is your trouble, gouge it out and throw it away! Better
to lose part of your body than to have it all cast into Gehenna."
Self-mutilation as an expression of the Christian faith was practiced
by "flagellant Christian cults from the eleventh century on (Favazza
1987), numerous nuns and saints of the Middle Ages who were
known to starve purge, flagellate, and scar themselves (Bell 1985), and
even in the self-flagellation of today's Roman Catholic Opus Dei movement."
In Marco Polo's Travels, he describes how the Calif of Baghdad
threatened Christians, demanding they move a mountain by faith, or else
die if they would not convert to Islam. A one-eyed Christian Cobbler who
had heeded Matthew's text saved them. Marco Polo commented, "By this
act you can judge the excellence of his Faith."
The first case report on self-mutilation was published. It describes a
guilt-ridden widow who enucleated both of her eyes.
An African Bushman family was exhibited in Berlin. Four of the six family
members had one or more fingertips amputated. Virchow made drawings of
their hands and noted that "in every sickness of what kind soever
it is usual with them to take off extreme joints of the fingers, beginning
with the little finger of the left hand." Finger amputations have
also been connected with African tribal mourning. The extent of the amputation
(how much of the finger was removed) would indicate the closeness of the
amputee's relationship with the deceased.
Artist Vincent van Gogh, angry with a housemate, cut off his earlobe and
sent it to a prostitute named Rachel. It has been asserted that she held
significance because of her name, evoking the biblical figure who "grieved
for her children". Van Gogh "may have wanted her to grieve for
and to love him."
Freud's proposed life and death instincts: "In Freud's theory of
the death instinct, the person withdraws from human connections and retreats
into a narcissistic position, silently driving him or herself toward death.
Freud emphasized that it was only through the activity of the life instinct
that this death-like force was projected outward as destructive impulses
to objects in the outside world."
Karl Menninger suggested that self -mutilation might be an effort to heal
oneself. He wrote, "Local self-destruction is a form of partial suicide
to avert total suicide." Menninger also classified the behavior into
four categories: neurotic, psychotic, organic, and religious.
Traditional scarification among the Bangwa tribe in Africa ceased. It
had been long practiced to enhance beauty and indicate social status.
It also had medical purposes. A star cut on the skin over the liver would
prevent hepatic disease, and cuts all over the body would free oneself
Modern psychiatric interest in self-mutilation was marked by a 1983 paper
by Pattison and Kahan. Using 56 published reports, Pattison and Kahan
classified self-mutilation on the basis of lethality, method, and repetition,
constructing a chart in which all self-damaging behaviors could be classified.
The most widely accepted classification of self-mutilation was constructed
and Rosenthal, presented in the book, Bodies
Under Siege (1996)