Vision Quest 1#: Blood Loss April 17, 2013Author: Beach Combing | in : Medieval , trackback
Around the world different peoples have pioneered different methods to ‘open the doors of consciousness’ through what doctors call hallucinations. Possible keys to said doors include mushrooms, toad poison and smoked grasses (of various descriptions). Beach knew about all these but he was surprised, recently to read about blood loss causing hallucinations. The science behind this is (allegedly) straightforward. As you lose blood your body rushes to produce endorphins and these can canker reality. Thinking about it this might be the reasons that men and women in car accidents so often sense presences or claim to see angels. In any case, any reader who has ever given blood will know that medical services do everything to coddle you when even small quantities of blood leave your body. Losing blood is, after all, potentially very dangerous. Given this danger Beach was unsure if he would find ever systematic and historical application of blood loss as a way to push hallucinations. Did, for example, Irish monks puncture their femoral arteries to see the other side? It seems so unlikely. However, there is one case on record where toads and mushrooms were rejected in favour of spilt blood: the Maya.
Here, as always with pre-Columbian peoples, we are plagued with a lack of documents and so much of our understanding of the Mayan religious system is, after all, based on educated guesses… However, the material is suggestive. First, the pre-Columbian peoples of Central America generally and the Mayans in particular were unquestionably obsessed with blood. Blood was not only the life of individuals but of the universe and by spilling blood the universe gathered up the necessary force to grind on through the years and the seasons. There were two main methods for gifting blood to creation. First, blood was taken from captives and slaves: either milked slowly or hemorrhaging catastrophically (if the victim was actually being sacrificed). Second, blood was given by willing participants in rituals, the best records for which are the kings and queens who would use spines to open various parts of the bodies (tongues and penises are frequently depicted bleeding). Beach will concentrate on the second here for scholars have suggested that severe blood loss helped these willing and bleeding Mayans experience visions.
If the blood giver was able to lose enough blood then it is possible that, in the heightened atmosphere, of a religious ritual, with exotic smells, smokes and sounds, the blood giver would be more likely to re-elaborate the reality around them. They would be even more likely to if they had fasted beforehand and it is not impossible that they also imbibed or smoked some sort of drug that may have aided the vision quest: the last point is interesting but controversial. What is clear is that in the ritual of blood-letting the blood giver was expected to make contact with the Great Serpent. The Vision Serpent led the giver into the world of the gods or of the ancestors (were these the same?): it is even possible that the giver believed that they passed into the Vision Serpent’s mouth. If blood loss had been severe enough then a pillar of smoke could, of course, have been transformed into a large-fanged serpent. But how much blood could penis cutters and tongue piercers actually lose? And how much would they need to lose to start the endorphins firing madly? drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com What is certain is that the Maya did not just nick the skin. They deliberately drew barbed spikes and other wounding objects through holes they had created: see the image above with Queen Xoc pulling a barbed rope through her tongue. Surely this would be more likely to cause infection than blood loss?
30 April 2013: Count writes: I’m a little doubtful about your new theory concerning deliberate blood-loss as a way of inducing visionary experiences. Let me point out one fact that escaped you. For a very long time indeed – from the Middle Ages right up until the early 19th. century – draining copious amounts of blood was a standard part of European medicine, and was used to treat almost everything, including anaemia! If this led to religious visions, or indeed visions of any kind, on a regular basis, nobody seems to have noticed! I think that the amount of blood-loss you’re talking about here would have to be not merely weakening but life-threatening. I suspect that the illustrations of South American religious fanatics with bleeding tongues or penises do not show that blood-loss was the main factor, since that could be accomplished much more efficiently by opening a vein in the arm. The amount of damage you’d have to do the aforementioned bits to lose several pints of blood doesn’t bear thinking about! What I think they’re doing is deliberately harming the most sensitive bodily tissues – these parts are shown bleeding to emphasize that they have been wounded, not to indicate that significant amounts of blood are being lost. Severe pain will release endorphins much more efficiently than bleeding yourself half-dry, and at considerably less risk to your life. Look at all the religious masochists of just about every faith throughout the ages, many of whom do indeed report sublime visions! These characters were doing almost exactly the same thing as those Christians in – I forget, but isn’t it Seville? – who to this day hold an Easter procession where, in an atmosphere of incredible religious fervor, the faithful flog themselves until the blood flows. And many of them cease to feel pain and experience profound religious ecstasies, which is the whole point of doing it in the first place. So there’s your explanation. Deliberate massive blood-loss as a way to release endorphins and thereby have visions makes about as much sense as taking a great big hammer and breaking your own leg. That would release plenty of endorphins all right! But I don’t know of any religions that have ever gone in for it. On a related note, if you’re looking for a method of releasing lots and lots of endorphins which South American people wouldn’t have had any trouble at all discovering, and which might be worth looking into in this context, consider this… Then Chris from Haunted Ohio Books: You asked And how much would they need to lose to start the endorphins firing madly? Perhaps none. The very act of “cutting” causes the release of endorphins according to a number of stomach-churning sites online geared to either stopping or “cutting safely” for those who use it as a form of stress/trauma control. As for the barbed rope causing infection, people pierce their tongues all the time without incident. I’ve read that the barbs were thorns or cactus spines, some of which contain saps high in vitamin C, which might boost the immune system or provide quick healing for such apparently ghastly self-inflicted injuries. I’m afraid I’m one of those people of whom they say, “reality is for people who can’t handle drugs,” and the idea of drawing blood to alter consciousness makes me woozy to think of it. Thanks Chris and the Count!