Trial by Fire

December 16, 2017

From fire-walking to the ice-bucket challenge, ritual pain and suffering forge intense social bonds.

On the Day of Ashura, Shia Muslims around the world gather to mourn the Imam, Husayn ibn Ali, and his defeat in the battle of Karbala (in present-day Iraq) in 680AD. They slash their heads and backs using swords or iron chains with blades until the streets are covered in blood. Every Good Friday, Catholics in the Philippines re-enact the suffering of Jesus Christ.

These devotees are voluntarily crucified by having nails hammered through the palms of their hands and their feet. And every October, thousands of people converge on Phuket in Thailand to celebrate the Vegetarian Festival in veneration of Chinese deities and ancestors; practitioners remove parts of their skin, perform bloodletting, and impale their cheeks and limbs with anything from knives and skewers to antlers and umbrellas – all while burning firecrackers are tossed at them by the crowd.

Widespread participation in such voluntary rites over millennia of human history raises an important evolutionary question: Given the high cost, why does the practice go on? To find out, I’ve spent the past decade exploring ritual traditions around the world. My first destination – a literal trial by fire – took me to the rural parts of southern Europe where fire-walking has been performed for centuries.

In Greece and Bulgaria every May, a number of Orthodox communities called the Anastenaria walk barefoot on burning coals to celebrate two Christian saints, Constantine and Helen. And in Spain, the residents of a small village in the central province of Soria stage a fire-walk on the night of the summer solstice. The origins of those rituals are lost in time, reaching at least as far back as the Middle Ages (some even place their dawn in prehistory, but evidence is lacking). And in the case of the Anastenaria, their perseverance defied not only the passage of time but also historical adversities such as the uprooting of their communities after the Balkan Wars and centuries of persecution, often violent, by the Greek Church.

To learn why such costly practices have endured, I started by doing what anthropologists do: I asked the locals. For more than two years, I had fascinating conversations, met interesting people, heard about extraordinary experiences, conducted hundreds of interviews and made great friends. But the answers I got were often perplexing. Some described feeling an undefined ‘urge’ to participate, while others said: ‘We don’t think about our rituals, we just do them,’ or simply: ‘It’s always been done that way.’

In Greece, people referred me to the most senior members of the community, but even the elders had reached no consensus on the importance of the rite. Some argued that fire-walking was done to ensure a good crop; others that it was done to heal the ill, to ask the saints for good fortune, or to thank them for providing for their devotees. Yet others would serve up ancient myths, such as: ‘Our ancestors once emerged unscathed from within a burning church, so we fire-walk to commemorate that event.’ Gradually, I realised that people don’t always know why they perform their rituals, and yet those rituals are of central importance to their lives. What was going on?

Part of the explanation might be found in cognitive dissonance theory, which holds that when the cost or effort spent in pursuing a goal is disproportionately higher than its rewards, the discrepancy (or dissonance) will tend to create mental stress or discomfort. In order to resolve this dissonance, we often attribute greater importance to the goal, a phenomenon called ‘effort justification’.

In a classic psychology experiment conducted in 1959, the psychologists Elliot Aronson of Stanford and Judson Mills of the United States Army found that people who had to go through a highly embarrassing situation in order to join a discussion group subsequently reported liking the group more. In a follow-up study, researchers used electric shocks, and found that those who received severe shocks before entering the group valued their membership more than those who received merely mild ones.

pain or fear, typically thought of as negative, can be transformed into pleasurable experiences – akin to the thrill of the bungee-jumper

Across cultures, people are first drawn into ritual events for no particular reason. Most often, they simply follow their parents or peers. Other times, they might be motivated by curiosity or the need to belong. But whatever the reason behind their initiation, as participants invest more time, effort and resources in these activities, the act of participation itself makes them feel more meaningful and important.

There are, of course, a variety of other factors that contribute to the popularity of risky rites. For one thing, repetitive and predictable ritual patterns might help soothe anxiety and offer a sense of control when the future looks ominous or uncertain. The Polish anthropologist Bronisław Malinowski described in Argonauts of the Western Pacific (1922) how the fishermen of the Trobriand Islands performed a variety of magical rituals before going fishing in the dangerous waters of the open sea where the results were unpredictable, but didn’t do so before fishing in the calm waters of the lagoon, which guaranteed an easy catch.

Another clue comes from neuroscience. As rituals become more arousing, they trigger hormones that stimulate the reward systems of the brain. Sensations such as pain or fear, typically thought of as negative, can be transformed into pleasurable experiences – akin to the sharp thrill experienced by the bungee-jumper – through a spike in the neurotransmitter dopamine. An increase in neuropeptides called endorphins, which bind to the brain’s opiate receptors, produce the same soothing euphoria felt by the marathon runner (the ‘runner’s high’).

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