Pagans and Self-Injury

Young woman standing by window
Self-injury is intentional, but should not be confused with suicidal behavior. Tara Moore / Getty Images

Please note that if you are someone with a history of self-injury and you find that reading about self-harm is a trigger for you, you may wish to skip reading this article.

There has been occasional discussion in the Wiccan and Pagan community as to whether self-harm, sometimes referred to as self-injury, is counter-intuitive to Wiccan and Pagan belief and practice.

Basic Facts About Self Injury

Self-injury is the term used in reference to deliberate acts that harm the self–cutting, intentional bruising, infliction of burns, etc. These acts are often non-suicidal in nature. In general, according to Kirstin Fawcett at US News, NSSI, or non-suicidal self injury, is:

“the direct, deliberate damage of one’s body without the intention of suicide, and for purposes that aren’t socially sanctioned,” such as tattoos or piercings, says Peggy Andover, a professor of psychology at Fordham University and president of the International Society for the Study of Self-Injury. There's not one underlying reason why people engage in NSSI. But psychologists generally agree it serves as a method of emotional regulation: People use it to cope with sadness, distress, anxiety, anger and other intense feelings or, on the flipside, emotional numbness."

It's important to realize that self-injury is an actual psychological problem, and very different from ritual cutting or scarification.

Ritualized Cutting and Scarification

Ritual cutting or scarification is when the body is cut or burned in a ritual setting as part of a spiritual ceremony. In some tribes in Africa, facial scarification is done to mark a tribe member's journey into adulthood. According to National Geographic, some high priests in Benin may go into a trancelike state and cut themselves with knives, as a sign that deity has entered their body.

"Scarification was most widely practised in Africa and among Australian Aboriginal groups not incidentally because the other way of permanently marking the skin–tattooing–is not as effective on dark skin... Pain and blood can play a large part in the scarification process to determine a person's fitness, endurance and bravery. This is especially the case in puberty rites since a child must prove they are ready to face the realities and responsibilities of adulthood, in particular the prospect of injury or death in battle for men and the trauma of childbirth for women. This transformative element of many scarification processes can be linked to the real physiological experience; the pain sensation and release of endorphins can result in a euphoric state conducive to spiritual attunement."

Self Injury and Paganism

Let's get back to self-injury. If someone has a history of self-injury, such as cutting or burning themselves, is this addiction incompatible with Wicca and Pagan belief?

Like many other issues of interest to Pagans and Wiccans, the answer isn't a black and white one. If your spiritual path follows the concept of "harm none," as laid out in the Wiccan Rede, then self-injury addiction might be counter-intuitive–after all, harming none includes not harming oneself. However, not all Pagans follow the Wiccan Rede, and even among Wiccans there is a lot of room for interpretation. Certainly, obsessive self-harm is not encouraged by the tenets of Wicca or other Pagan paths.

Regardless, the Wiccan Rede should never be interpreted as a blanket condemnation of those who self-harm. After all, the word "rede" means guideline, but it's not a hard and fast rule.

A caveat to this is that for people who self-injure, sometimes this behavior is a coping mechanism that prevents them from causing themselves larger harm. Many Pagan leaders might concede that a small injury is an acceptable sacrifice if it prevents a larger one.

"Through the years, I used to shred scabs to draw blood. During my senior year, the occasional cutting episodes began in earnest. It had never been about self-destruction, though maybe a little self-loathing was there underneath... It was too much stress, too much pressure." 

So, if someone has a tendency towards self-harm does it mean they can't be Pagan or Wiccan? Not at all. However, those who are in a position of leadership should make sure that if a member of their group is predisposed towards self-harm, they should be as supportive as possible, and provide help when needed. Unless a leader is has been formally trained on how to deal with this sort of thing, that help should include referral to a licensed mental health professional.

If you are someone who has a self-injury compulsion, it's important to seek out professional help. Most Wiccan and Pagan leaders are spiritual counselors but are not trained in treating specific medical or psychological issues such as compulsive self-harming.