The recent Reuters headline ran “Kids dangle from meat hooks for fun” but in fact, this practice has roots that run deeper than that. A fusion of body piercing and spiritual practice, suspension and flesh hook pulls are slowly making a comeback in alternative communities. The ancient precedents for this type of behavior can be found in a variety of North American Indian tribes, or the religious practices of the Tamil of South Asia. These practices are tied to shamanism, as the effects of the great pain and stress on the body induces altered states.
The Native American Sundance most often happened around the Summer Solstice. The best documented is the Sioux version, whereby dancers are pierced with wood or bone through the pectorals, with lines running to a tall pole. The dancers slowly pull, often for three or four days, until the piercing rips free. The gift of one’s own body is seen as being the greatest form of sacrifice to the gods.
The Tamils of South Asia have piercing practices are part of their worship of Murugan. Again you honor the god with your body and your offerings. The large frameworks of sharp spears, called kavandi, that devotees used to wear have been replaced in more modern times with hooks set into the skin of the back. Pulling against ropes, the worshippers walk for multiple miles to the temple site, their suffering an offering to the god along with being a sign of their devotion. Many also have a thin spike called a “vel,” symbolic of Murugan’s lance, pierced thru both cheeks or the tongue for the ceremony as well.
In the 1980s, Australian artist Stelarc did a series of suspensions in Japan whereby he hung by multiple hooks embedded in his flesh. These were staged at art galleries as formal artistic performances. One fascinating rigging involved rocks as counterbalances, so that the artist was suspended in a near-cross-legged position surrounded by a circle of floating rocks.
These practices have been introduced to a much wider audience via the performances and presentations of Fakir Musafar. Considered the “Father of the Modern Primitive movement” this 74-year-old has engaged in just about every kind of body modification known to mankind, and being a photographer, has well-documented his experiments and experiences over the years. Thru his seminal 90s publication bodyplay, Musafar covered not only the history of many of these rites, but showed ways to adapt them for modern neo-pagan spirituality. He has led public and private ceremonies, incorporating ball dances, flesh hooks and the act of bearing kavandi into performances and group rituals worldwide.
Texas-based Traumatic Stress Discipline has taken hook hangs and pulls and staged performances nationally and internationally. One of the founding members, Allen Falkner, performed at the San Francisco Fetish Ball in 2003 where I took the pictures that accompany this article. Speaking to him at the opening party the night before, he mentioned how people upset with this style of performance had filed legal motions attempting to stop the group, but that the judge in the case had ruled the performances “body art” and saw no grounds that would make them illegal.
In the recent encounter in Islamorada, FL, law officials called to the scene were surprised to find a group of young people doing a hook hang via a bamboo tripod erected near the water’s edge but admitted that no laws were being broken. One of the best lines in the article said that according to authorities, the girl hanging from the tripod when sheriff's and Coast Guard officers arrived “did not seem to mind the hooks.” For such practices, modern piercing techniques are used, and many observers are often surprised there is little or no blood. Despite the personal objections of whomever called the police, no laws were being broken and no citations or legal actions were taken