More Than Skin Deep: The Magick of Painplay and Body Modification

More Than Skin Deep: The Magick of Painplay and Body Modification
by LaSara Firefox on 2006-08-28 10:08:06
tags: body modification, lasara firefox

While cutting has only recently gained the attention of the media, the medical establishment and pop-culture, many of us have been using cutting, pain play, blood play and other body modification (hereafter referred to as “body mod”) techniques and practices as magickal tools for years, or even decades.

A notable pioneer in the body-mod-as-magickal-practice field is Fakir Musafar who brought together and commingled suspension rituals, piercing rituals, and other pain and transformation rituals from diverse cultures. In collaboration with his partner Cleo DuBois, Fakir melded these practices into his Hook Pull ritual, more recently titled Spirit+Flesh.Slowly but surely suspensions, hook pulls, sundances and other feats of physically-based transformation and expansion are becoming more available to those who want to move beyond the known edges of body-limitation, and connect with the expansive nature of overcoming physical moderation.

Some of us found our way to s/m, pain play, sensation play and other body-oriented tools for transformation via exposure to teachers such as Fakir and other luminaries of the Modern Primitives movement. Some of us gravitated to these tools before we knew there was a name for them, much less a community attached to the name. Some of us practice these arts in group settings – such as the famed Black Leather Wings festival – and some of us practice alone.

Some of us have a desired outcome (be it gnosis, getting high, releasing tension, gaining control of our emotional states, spell-casting, or any number of other possible goals), and some of us have a nebulous urge to partake in these practices. What starts out as a nebulous urge sometimes stays exactly that, and sometimes becomes more formed over time, imbued with any number of personal intents or meanings.

Body Mod As Magickal Act

Whether a fully conscious and intentional act or not, body mod is nearly always some sort of magickal undertaking. Many who use body mod consciously have a wide array of uses for these practices. While not widely discussed, these techniques are known to serve many purposes.

At the basic level, many of the more “superficial” (and by superficial I mean “on the surface,” not “shallow”) body mod practices such as tattooing, scarification and piercing are directly related to creating change in conformity with will, if only on the rudimentary level of image and appearance. This, in and of itself, is a magickal act. The desire to modify one’s appearance may stem from a desire to hold oneself apart from others (stating individuality) or the desire to identify with a subculture (stating affiliation), and therefore may be a way of creating identity by isolation or by joining a recognized subgroup.

On a more intense level of image in relation to identity, a prime example of using body modification to create change in accordance with will is that of sexual reassignment surgery; the surgical aspect of the sex-change process. While hormone therapy begins the process of changing the appearance of one’s body, many who transition from one binary gender representation to the other (male to female or female to male) opt for at least some amount of surgery. Breast removal and breast augmentation are two of the more common sexual-reassignment surgeries, but many who transition from one sexual identity to another also undertake genital surgery. In addition, many male to female (MTF) transsexuals also undergo permanent hair removal surgeries, and some who transition FTM and MTF go for cosmetic surgeries “feminize” or “masculinize” appearance.

In addition there are those who identify as third-gender, gender fluid, gender neutral, gender queer, bois, girlboys, trannies, chicks with dicks, berdache, gender rebels, gender outlaws and many other identifiers that fall outside of the binary gender and sex system. Those who identify in this wide and fluid realm are more likely to choose surgeries that feel in context with how they wish to present in reference to gender and sexual identity, instead of in context of the binary system of male/female.

Beyond appearance and identity, many who practice body mod do it for other reasons that vary in levels of complexity. Many of these diverse reasons are deep and relevant on a personal level. I have used tattooing, light cutting, scarring and piercing, both temporary and long-term, to charge spell-working and sigil casting, to commemorate sacrifices and victories, to focus magickal intent, to recognize and mark magickal initiations and dedications – or as a magickal component of said dedications and initiations, to externalize internal pain, to create an opportunity for healing, to move the process of healing to the surface as an act of sympathetic magick, to create an opportunity for catharsis, to induce gnosis, and to change my energy or state of mind. I know many others who have used these practices for many of the same purposes.

Of course, the bonus in this case is that while performing an act of dedication through, say, piercing, one may also reach gnosis, thereby charging the magickal intention behind the act. I contend that body mod can be a profound, quick, multi-purpose, sweet and to-the-point exercise of personal growth and transformation.

Painplay (aka Masochism) as A Spiritual Practice

Painplay as a practice has a rich history. Masochism is a theme central to the Christian faith, from the image of Christ suffering on the cross, to the sacrifice required of the Sacred Mother, Mary, and of God, to the reward-based desires for physical, sexual and ego-based self-denial. Much of the imagery of Christianity is rooted in a form of “triumphant masochism,” which is a belief in the righteousness of suffering, especially in the case where the suffering is undertaken to prevent the suffering of others, as is the basis of the Christ mythos. Christ suffering on the cross was a gift to the redeemed, in which His suffering supplanted their need to do so.

To this day, masochism is a valid form of Christian, and especially Catholic, worship. Semana Santa o Pascua, or Holy Week of Easter, is celebrated in many parts of Spain and Mexico. An aspect of the celebration of Semana Santa is El Sobrecogimiento, which means to be seized upon. This is brought about in many ways, including extreme pain indulgence by way of techniques such as flagellation, being bound by the arms and shoulders to a yoke of briars, and long processions. Sometimes all of the above at once. The celebration of Semana Santa also includes varying levels of Dionysian excess, and self-denial – both time-tested routes to gnostic breakthrough.

Masochism was named a “perversion” only about a hundred years ago. Freud was instrumental in defining masochism as an expression of immature sexual development. Before Freud’s interpretation of masochism as an unhealthy sexual expression, painplay had a large role in the seeking of altered spiritual states, with ecstatic states of awareness being the goal of many voluntary experiences pain induction. This practice has been widely utilized in the Christian faith, is employed as a training technique within Zen Buddhism, is a pronounced part of ritual in some American Indian tribes, and there is a Hindu God named Lord Murugan to whom piercing is sacred.

Painplay as Shamanic Path of Initiation

In the course of my informal research on the topic (chats at cocktail parties, random interrogations with interesting strangers, getting to know play buddies at sex parties), many who employ painplay in their magickal workings have a history of chronic pain. (It would be interesting to do a study on the topic. If anyone wants to collaborate on such, let me know. You can find contact information in my bio note.) I have dealt with chronic pain since I was young, and have come to recognize my relationship with pain as part of my Shamanic path. Learning to feel the pain, and then let go of it, is a magickal act.

Many of us who have a long-term relationship with pain (emotional or physical) may be drawn to painplay because it is pain that we have more control over. The pain we encounter in a ritualized setting (whether on the rack in a dungeon, in front of an altar, or at our body mod practitioner.s shop) is pain we have invited, pain that has a distinct purpose, whether that purpose is getting high, getting off, or getting to know our own edges of tolerance and desire.


In my experience another strong component of pain play and body mod is finding edges, and then surpassing them. These edges may be pain tolerance, image-related, identity-based, or magickal. The edges may be internal, external, emotional or physical. Cutting is a simple example of edge-play, and there are many edges we can look at in regards to the practice of cutting. One edge is the actual edge of the body. Our skin is a basic boundary, and in cutting, we are changing how that basic boundary works. Boundaries and edges are somewhat synonymous, and so boundary play and edge play are, for me, interrelated.

Another edge we can look at is that of the forbidden. Cutting is an act imbued with cultural iconography. And as we cut, we are doing something transgressive. In my personal mythology, the addition of a transgressive element may heighten the intensity of any act, magickal, sexual or psychological. There is the edge of masculine/feminine, the edge of active/receptive, or the edge of healthy response to stimulus/a cry for help. And we may be on either side of any of these edges, or even straddling the edge in perfect balance, at any moment. Dangerous? Possibly. Effective? Often.

Chiron: The Wounded Healer

Chiron is a celestial feature that was recently “found,” but has, of course, been there all along. “Discovered” in 1977, Chiron eluded definition, owning attributes of both a comet and an asteroid. In 1978 the name Chiron was proposed for this object hurtling through space, because of the fact that it fit into not one, but two categories.

The name Chiron comes from Greek mythology. Chiron was a centaur sired by Kronos (God of Time) and a nymph named Philyra. Kronos was caught by his wife in the act of play, and turned himself into a horse so as not to be recognized. Thus Chiron was born half man, half horse. Chiron was a wonderful being who loved the arts and sciences. However, he ended up wounded in an accidental battle, and as Chiron was immortal he lived on and on, in horrible pain. His pain drove him to learn medicine. The medical knowledge he gained never worked for him, but was offered handed down to us mortals via Chiron’s student, Asklepius.

As much as Chiron tried to heal his own pain, he was not successful. Chiron escaped his pain and bargained himself out of immortality by offering his life in exchange for the release of Prometheus, another God who had lived in unending pain. Through Chiron’s willing sacrifice, two great beings were saved from interminable suffering.

Chiron is the planet I associate with body modification and pain play. The wounded healer seems the perfect planet to preside over our active participation in our own wounding and healing. There is a chance that many of us who employ this practice may have Chiron in a certain sign (perhaps Aries, like myself). Placement of Chiron in a certain house may influence the motivations behind the practices, or the type of practices we employ. Someone with Chiron in their 2nd house may cut for scars, while one with Chiron in their 4th house, like me, might cut for the nurturance of it, without the desire for scars.

Chiron is a sign of wise wounds; wounds that have the power to teach us who we are, who we can be.

Using Pain to Charge Spells, Sigils and Other Workings

A quick and easy way to power magickal workings, cutting ranks right up there with orgasm for me. But sometimes a quick cutting is more easily administered than masturbating to orgasm. I have used cutting in my car (please pull to the side of the road and park before attempting this!), at the computer, in the bathroom at an event, in every room in my house, in group ritual, in solo ritual, during sex, during emotional catharsis.

I have also used flagellation, administered by others (not self-administered . I just can.t whip myself as well as others can whip me) as a spell propellant, as a catharsis-induction, and as a magickal purgation technique. It has proved highly effective for me in all of the above.

Blood Magick

Blood of all sorts can be used to charge talismans and spells. Most women are fortunate to have an approximately monthly supply of life-blood that comes free of wounding. This blood is also special because it reminds us of our power to create. However, when using blood from cutting, there is the added element of possible gnosis, catharsis, or heightened senses.

Blood can be burnt over incense as an offering of your life force to the spirit world, it can be dabbed on talismans, used to consecrate magickal and divinatory tools, and more.

Some practitioners of magick claim strict rules about when, and for what, blood magick should and should not be performed. I am not so sure that there are as many rules to it. Let your conscience be your guide. One thing to remember though; dabbing your blood on a talisman will send some of you with it, so be choosy about where it goes, who it goes with, where it ends up, and what it might be used for.

Blood is a part of our bodies. Our blood is information encoded into a readable pattern. As such, I would want to really think about whether I would entrust this potent fluid into the possession and care of another person. For me, this is true also about whether I would want my organs to live in the body of another person (I am currently not a registered as an organ donor, but I would offer up a kidney to my child if she needed it), or whether I would want another person ingesting my fluids, or whether I would want the fluids of another person on or in me.

That said, I have sent blood-charged talismans with those I cared about, as protection and binding. Decide what you are comfortable with, where your ethics lay, and proceed accordingly.

Marking as Magickal Commemoration

Using scarring, tattooing, branding, implants, piercing or other markings to commemorate a rite of passage, a personal loss or gain, a magickal initiation or other momentous occasions has always made sense to me. And again, this practice has the added benefit of being an opportunity for energy-raising or spell -working in relation to the topic of commemoration.

I got my first tattoo on the heels of my first abortion. My most recent was an act of dedication to the Hellenic myth of the Abduction of Persephone, and as a dedication to the gods who I have gained relationships with through study and magickal enactment of that myth. I have used cutting to commemorate, and even transform, experiences small to large.

A dual-purpose act including the individual components of dedication and energy-raising, magickal marking can be a ritual in and of itself, or may be employed as part of a larger ritual.

Safety First!

Self-administered cutting, blood play, scarring:

. Make sure you know your blade.

. Be aware of any reason cutting might be more dangerous for you than others. (Are you a bleeder? Are you taking blood-thinners?)

. Be aware of the risk of exposure to blood. Blood is a virulent vector for pathogens. Do not expose anyone to your blood with out their negotiated consent.

. Always use a clean blade.

. Never share paraphernalia. In the case that you are doing blood magick with others, you may use sharps, .exacto. blades, or some other disposable implement.

. Dispose of or clean used blades or other implements responsibly. (Easy route: Use disposable implements and dispose of them in a sharps container.)

. Cut gently, and with great respect for your tool.

. Cutting with a very sharp blade can be dangerous. Be careful not to cut too deeply. (In the case that you cut too deeply, you may require medical care. If you hit an artery or vein, there is the risk of bleeding to death. Err on the side of moderation.)

. Cut as far as possible from surface veins and arteries. This is especially important with a very sharp blade.

. In the case that you are performing any deep cutting (for scarring or any other purpose), have someone present in case of excessive bleeding.

When having work done by a practitioner, make sure:

. their shop is clean

. that they are aware of risk levels and operate their business responsibly

. that they know at least as much as you do about what you want to have done (preferably MORE than you do)

. that you like their work

. that they will furnish references

. that they are comfortable with how you want to have the work done. (Do you want to have a few minutes to ground before hand? Do the LBRP? Have your lover holding your hand? Have your lover jacking you off? Just make sure your practitioner is down with your scene.)

Quick review of some important points:

. Never share blades or sharps unless you are fluid-bonded with the other cutter.

. If you are performing deep cutting, have someone there in case bleeding gets out of control.

. Make sure you dispose of used blades in a sharps container (can be picked up at your local drug store)

Sterilizing blades:

If the blade is fresh and you are performing only light cutting, it is not necessary to sterilize the tool. If you are cutting more deeply or have used the blade before (on yourself or someone you are fluid-bonded to), sterilize with flame or by other means. Don’t burn yourself!

Skin prep:

It’s a good idea to clean the area to be cut or punctured with a sterilizing solution. Alcohol may be used for surface cutting, but something stronger should be used to prep for more invasive work. I use Betadine, but others use different solutions. You can find out a lot about the risks and how to be prepared by researching on the internet.

Tools of the Trade:

Inexpensive and easy-to-find tools for cutting and other practices:

. Exacto-Knife refills or Razor blades. I always get the ones in a nifty little case that has a section for the used blades.

. Cotton pads or cotton balls for blood.

. Gauze and medical tape.

. Always have a towel on hand to staunch bleeding if necessary.


Body Mod:

Australian Museum Online, Body Art An amazing site with outstanding images and informative and illuminating commentary:

BME Online Extensive, in-depth photos, stories, a message board, and how-to for a wide array of body mod practices.


An amazing interpretation on placement of Chiron, by Esther Leinbach. The site is too busy, and kind of hurts the eyes, but the info is worth the pain! (How’s that for a Chironian statement?)

A great article on Chiron.


SICK: The Life and Death of Bob Flanagan, Super Masochist An intensely emotionally touching, challenging look at one man’s relationship with pain.

Suspension and Painplay Ritual:

Spirit+Flesh Hook-pull ritual with Fakir Musafar and Cleo DuBois.

Rites of Passage:

A collective of regional groups who practice suspension as ritual.

[Editor’s Note: This excerpt comes from LaSara Firefox’s submission to the Magick on the Edge anthology set to be released by Immanion Press. She has been gracious enough to donate it to Key 64.]

LaSara FireFox is a writer, ritualist, sex-positive activist and educator, and designer/facilitator of a variety of interactive, exploration-based workshops and rituals.

Her first book, Sexy Witch, was published in 2005 (Llewellyn Worldwide). LaSara believes that the most revolutionary, and perhaps evolutionary, act we can engage in is to become healthy, strong and empowered. She lives with her two daughters and husband in the wilds of northern California.