A Short History of Suspension

by on 12/10/2013

One of the newest members of Life Suspended, Brandon, who has taken to suspension like a duck to water and become one of our rising stars, brings us an account of the history of suspension.

Flesh suspension has a couple of different histories, which I find especially interesting because this means that there exists something within human nature that draws us to such an act, as strange as that act may seem to some people. Of course there are passage-into-manhood ceremonies in cultures all over the world, but even the specific act of piercing the flesh and hanging from those piercings originates in two completely independent parts of the world. This also tells us that enduring the kind of pain that suspension produces isn’t just an act of showmanship, as so many lay observers tend to infer; rather, it’s an act of vulnerability, honesty, and pure human emotion.

In India the practice has been documented for at least 5,000 years. Practitioners of sects of the Hindu faith would take part in ceremonies in which participants, usually men, would be flogged, pierced, and in some cases, hanged from hooks placed in various locations around the body. The practice, they believed, brought them closer to a higher power or demonstrated devotion to God.

As taboo as the practice appears at first glance, it’s not too surprising to learn that these body suspensions became outlawed in India, perhaps out of concern that these celebrations were literally taking place in the streets of heavily populated, urban areas. After being outlawed in India however, it spread to neighboring countries where it’s still practiced today.

The history of contemporary suspension, most would argue, has its roots in North America. Unlike India, the written record of North America only date back as far as white man’s presence, which in the big picture, is not that long; the culture of the Native American planes Indian was one of oral history.

An explorer affiliated with the Louis and Clark expeditions, George Catlin, was the first to formally document the practice of human flesh suspension when he encountered the Mandan tribe along the Missouri river around what’s now North and South Dakota. The Mandan called it the “Okeepa” and it differed significantly from modern-day suspension. The suspension in the Okeepa was preceded by four full days of physical torment, starvation, and sleep deprivation. Young men taking part would go all four days without any food, drink, or sleep, and after that, they were taken into the village lodge where their chest or sometimes back were pierced with a knife and a bone was immediately inserted into the fresh wound. The young men were also pierced about the arms and legs where weights were hanged, or sometimes buffalo skulls. Then they would be hoisted up off of the ground by ropes tied to the piercings in their chest.

Those who expressed agony were considered weak, so they remained calm and quiet throughout the entire process. They would hang for minutes, or sometimes hours until losing consciousness. After losing conscious, it was believed, they could convene with the “Great White Sprit” who had come down from the mountains generations before to give the Mandan the gift of the Okeepa.

Upon losing consciousness, they would be lowered back to the ground, and by some accounts, the strongest of participants would offer their pinky to be severed by a knife. Then, as a final test to show who was the toughest of all those participating, they would race around the village with the buffalo skulls or rocks still dragging behind them, supported only by the piercings in their limbs. It was called the “Last Race” and if a man lost consciousness during the bloody run around the village, he would be dragged the rest of the way, often times ripping the piercings from his body.

It was a gruesome practice, but it held meaning to the Mandan. Its documentation only dates back around 500 years, but it very well could have been practiced for untold centuries or even melena before then. Just like in India however, the sight was too shocking for those who didn’t understand and both Canada and the United States eventually would come to pass laws outlawing the practice of the Okeepa.

Suspension is rooted deep within the human condition though, and it didn’t go away in the states after that. Instead, it spread south and west and changed into something new: the “Sun Dance.” The Sun Dance is still seen around multiple southern and south western native American cultures. In the Sun Dance, two piercings are made in the chest and ropes are tied to bone or sticks that are inserted into the wound. The dancers then tie the ropes to a tree and dance and lean against the piercings for days.

The objective of the Sun Dance is to eventually rip the piercings out, and only then will the participant be able to achieve the highest state of enlightenment. By most accounts, a traditional Sun Dance would last around four days, during which time the dancers would do nothing but tug and pull at the wounds in their chest until the flesh gave and the piercings ripped out.

Modern suspension is often credited to Fakir, father of the Modern Primitivism movement. He adopted and adapted what had been documented in the Okeepa and Sun Dance and made it more well known in the larger world. From there contemporary body piercers, performance artists, thrill seekers, spiritual gurus, and body modification artists started pursuing and refining the practice until it became what it is today.

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