A short history of Ascetism – or what you didn’t yet know about Masochists

Eusebius reports that as a young man, Origen of Alexandria, after misinterpreting the Gospel of Matthew, in which Jesus states that “there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven,” paid a physician to castrate him.

The monk Simeon Stylites did something even more extreme. As a young monk, he spent an entire Lenten period without eating. When his brothers found him unconscious in his hut, they brought him back to the monastery and discovered that his abdomen was encased in a palm belt, a device designed to bruise his flesh. The monastery’s management asked Simeon to leave because his asceticism was too excessive. So Simeon became a solitary wandering hermit and spent his life praying, seated on a 15-meter-high pillar without protection from the elements, doing so for 37 years.

This kind of asceticism was not a singular case. There were indeed times when thousands of men and women populated the deserts of the Middle East, eager to torture themselves in exchange for a place in paradise.

Asceticism is a lifestyle characterized by self-discipline and self-denial. While there are varying degrees, extremes can go as far as fasting to the point of starvation or self-flagellation to the point of serious injury. Some ascetics went without food or water for days or even weeks. Others believed in self-mutilation as a form of purification.

What is it that makes us think that masochism would be a praiseworthy occupation?

Here are some examples of what people came up with:


One of the most well-known historical examples of asceticism is flagellation, which was particularly popular among religious Catholic orders of monks and nuns, such as the Franciscans and Dominicans. These orders believed that physical suffering was a means of purifying the soul and achieving spiritual enlightenment. As a result, many of them engaged in self-flagellation, which involved using a whip or other instrument to strike themselves as a form of penance.

Even pious citizens followed the practice. The Italian composer Gesualdo had himself beaten daily by his employees, and kept a special servant whose duty it was to beat him “at stool” to obtain absolution for his crimes (he had murdered his wife and her lover).

The practice of self-flagellation was often carried out in private, but there were also public displays that took place during religious processions and other events. Flagellantism began as a Christian pilgrimage, but was later condemned by the Catholic Church when things got out of control. The first recorded cases of mass flagellation occurred in Perugia in 1259. The prime cause is unclear, but it followed an outbreak of an epidemic and chroniclers reported how mania spread throughout almost all the people of the city. Thousands of citizens gathered in processions, singing and marching with crosses and banners throughout the city, whipping themselves. Similar movements followed all over Europe.

Despite being controversial even in its time, the practice of self-flagellation persisted within certain religious communities for centuries. Today, the Catholic Church discourages the practice of self-flagellation and considers it to be a form of self-harm that is contrary to Christian teaching.

Extreme Isolation

Ascetics throughout history have tended to seek solitude and cut themselves off from human contact, often living in remote locations such as caves or monasteries. Hermitism is one of the oldest forms of consecrated life and also the earliest form of monasticism in Europe. In the Rule of St. Benedict (6th century), the hermit is listed as one of the four types of monks.

Legends about hermits or monks who lived secluded from the world contain historically accurate backgrounds. For example, an Egyptian monk named Apa Bane was described in his biography as always fasting, standing, and not sleeping. According to legend, Bane could go 37 days without food and stood upright in his monk’s cell for the last 18 years of his life.

It is possible that he did not do so by free will. A mummy found in his monastery church showed Bekhterev’s disease, a condition that not only causes stooping, as icons of the Saint still show today, but also loss of appetite, avoidance of lying down, and sleeplessness. Apa Bane’s bones indeed showed that he had mainly been standing.

Many saints throughout history were hermits, including St. Bruno, the founder of the Carthusian order, and St. Francis.

However, there are also people who choose isolation for non-religious reasons. Greta Garbo, the famous Swedish actress, retired from Hollywood at the height of her fame and lived as a recluse for the rest of her life.

Throughout history, ascetics have taken vows of silence and refrained from speaking for extended periods, sometimes for their entire lives.

Ascetism all over the world

The practice of asceticism has a long and varied history that spans many cultures and religions. It can be traced back to ancient times, with early examples found in Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism.

In Hinduism, asceticism was known as tapas, which means “austerity.” In Jainism, asceticism was seen as a means of achieving liberation from the cycle of reincarnation. In Buddhism, asceticism was initially seen as a means of achieving enlightenment. The Buddha himself practiced extreme forms of asceticism before ultimately rejecting it in favor of a more balanced approach.

Asceticism has also played a significant role in the history of Christian monasticism. In Islam, asceticism is known as zuhd, which means “renunciation” or “detachment.”

Throughout history, asceticism has taken on many different forms and has been practiced by people from all walks of life. The interesting thing is that all these religions and cultures arrived at the same concept: self-deprivation and experiencing certain hardships to improve oneself.

Sadhus and ascetics against social standards

Asceticism can either respond to social requests or go against social norms. Sadhus in India, for instance, are ascetics who renounce worldly attachments and dedicate themselves to a life of meditation, yoga, and spiritual practice. While many sadhus follow a moderate path, some are known for their extreme acts of devotion, such as vowing never to use one leg or the other, or to hold an arm in the air for a period of months or years.

The Aghoris among them believe in the power of transcending social norms and embracing everything that is considered impure or taboo by mainstream society. They live in cremation grounds and consume human flesh and urine as a way of achieving spiritual enlightenment.

On the other hand, Naga Sadhus go naked and live in remote forests or mountains. Kapalika sadhus use skulls as a symbol of death and rebirth and wear human skulls as ornaments. They practice meditation and use substances like marijuana and alcohol to induce altered states of consciousness.

The motivation behind it

The question is, why do people do such things to themselves, and why is the belief in the benefits of asceticism so widespread? All major world religions allow for ascetic practices, not just one or two.

The extreme ascetic

Psychiatrists consider that there is something pathological about extreme asceticism. It is suggested that an extreme ascetic feels inadequate to the demands of life (world-phobia), which is manifested by a flight from the world and from life itself, or an immersion of the self in an imagined world. This can have psychopathic traits. The moral overscrupulousness of the extreme ascetic, his tendency to doubt the propriety of pleasure, is described as a symptom of a compulsion neurosis. The tortuous character of the thinking and the manifest predilection for the expenditure of an enormous amount of energy on frivolous theological questions and quibbles are both suggestive of such obsessive thinking.

Research also shows that self-harm, such as that shown by extreme flagellants, frequently starts in adolescence and is prevalent in repressive environments. A factor common to many people who self-harm is that they were taught at an early age that their feelings were “bad” and “wrong.” Even today, such individuals engage in self-cutting to numb feelings of pain. Self-harm can be a psychological release, a way to unravel negative emotions and thoughts. So what fits that context better than over-pious persons being battered with feelings of guilt for sins, whichever they may be (even if it is just Adam biting the famous forbidden fruit)?

‘Simple’ ascetics and the benefits

Yet not everyone is an extreme ascetic. Religious or mystical practice can also enhance a person’s well-being.

Fasting has indeed a measurable beneficial effect on health. Some potential benefits are improved insulin sensitivity, which can reduce the risk of developing diabetes. Fasting can also help stimulate the immune system and promote the production of new white blood cells. It has been shown to reduce inflammation, lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels, which can reduce the risk of developing heart disease.

Isolation as well as meditation (such as in prayer) can also reduce stress levels. Moderation in drinking, less sexual promiscuity, and less extensive eating can also be beneficial and did protect a person’s health in ancient times.

Ascetic practices can also help individuals connect with their inner selves and achieve a higher level of spiritual awareness, willpower, and self-control. Asceticism often involves living a simple life with few possessions, which can help focus on the things that truly matter and develop a greater appreciation for what we have.

Finally, living a more ascetic lifestyle with fewer possessions and a smaller ecological footprint can today also help reduce environmental impact and promote sustainability.

It is difficult to make a definitive statement about whether the ancient practice of asceticism was right or wrong. Asceticism can have benefits, but also potential downsides, such as the risk of malnutrition, self-harm, or negative physical or psychological effects.

But it would not have become so widespread, if there hadn’t been something into it. Given that it was always promoted by religious leaders, everything points to the connection it creates to a cult and to the enhancment of the commitment to a shared fiction.

“Of all rituals, sacrifice is the most potent, because of all the things in the world, suffering is the most real. You can never ignore it or doubt it. If you want to make people really believe in some fiction, entice them to make a sacrifice on its behalf. Once you suffer for a story, it is usually enough to convince you that the story is real. If you fast because God commanded you to do so, the tangible feeling of hunger makes God present more than any statue or icon.”

― Yuval Noah Harari, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century

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