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Stigmata are bodily marks,wounds, or sensations of pain in locations corresponding to the crucifixion wounds of Jesus Christ of the Christian religion, such as the hands and feet. There have also been cases in which rope marks on the wrists have accompanied the wounds in the hands. Stigmata is the pluralized form of the word stigma which is Greek in origin and means a mark or brand such as might have been used for the identification of an animal or slave. Stigmatic or stigmatist are the terms used to refer to an individual bearing stigmata.

Generally associated with the Roman Catholic faith, many of the reported stigmatics are members of Catholic religious orders. The term originated from one of Saint Paul’s Letter to the Galatians in which he says, “I bear on my body the marks of Jesus.” St. Francis of Assisi however was the first recorded stigmatic in Christian history. Padre Pio of Pietrelcina of the Order of Friars Minor Capuchin reported stigmata which were studied by physicians for over fifty years. The observations remained unexplained and the wounds were not known to become infected. An overwhelming number of stigmatics are women, perhaps as high as 80%. Ed Harrison, in his work Stigmata: A Medieval Phenomenon in a Modern Age, suggests that there is no single mechanism by which the marks of stigmata occur.

Stigmata cases vary in their actual form with some showing some or all of the five Holy Wounds that were inflicted on Jesus Christ according the Bible. These were wounds in the wrist and feet from nails and in the side from a lance. There have also been reports of stigmata of the forehead similar to the ones produced by the crown of thorns, including repeated photography of this particular phenomenon. Other reports include tears of blood and blood sweat or wounds on the back similar to those from scourging. Some victims of stigmata showed recurring bleeding that appears to stop and start at certain times, notably upon the reception of the Holy Communion. Possibly for this reason, a large percentage of stigmatics show an increased desire to receive the Holy Communion frequently. Another interesting point is that a relatively high percentage exhibit inedia, the ability to live with little or no food or water for long periods of time, with the exception of the Holy Eucharist, and some exhibit loss of weight.

The appearance of stigmata is not taken lightly and all who receive the mystical wounding are said to have suffered greatly. Stigmatics are met with rejection and suspicion until their wounds are authenticated. Saints who suffered stigmata were carefully watched day and night in order to expose evidence of any tampering with the wounds.  Under these methods, many false stigmatics were exposed. However, sometimes these stigmata became invisible through requests and prayers by the Saints who suffered from them.  There are cases of stigmatics claiming to feel the pain of the wounds without any external markings which are referred to as invisible stigmata. In other cases, the markings themselves are accompanied with extreme pain and some stigmatics’ wounds appear to be free from the effects of clotting and infection. Blood from these wounds is sometimes said to have a pleasant, perfumed odor which has become known as the Odour of Sanctity.

There are no recorded cases of stigmata occurring before the thirteenth century, when the depiction of the crucified Jesus in Western Christendom emphasized the humanity of the religious icon. Many of the individuals who have obtained the markings are described as ecstatic and overwhelmed with emotion upon their reception of stigmata. A Christian theologian Ivan Illich suggests as a thesis that stigmata result due to exceptional poignancy of religious faith and the desire to completely associate oneself with the suffering the Messiah underwent, in a paper entitled Hospitality and Pain.

Modern scientific research has indicated that stigmata may be of hysterical origin, or linked to dissociative identity disorders, especially with the links between dietary constriction by self-starvation, dissociative mental states, and self-mutilation, all in context with religious belief. Anorexia nervosa has been known to result in self-mutilation similar to stigmata as a part of a ritualistic obsessive compulsive disorder. Starvation and self-mutilation have been linked due to studies of reports on prisoners of war and during times of famines. A psychoanalytic study of Therese Neumann has suggested that her stigmata may have resulted from post-traumatic stress symptoms expressed in unconscious self-mutilation through abnormal auto-suggestibility. There is more research being done into other cases of stigmata to gain understanding of the phenomenon.

As mentioned, Edward Harrison suggests that there is no single mechanism which is responsible for the markings of stigmata occurring on the body. He, in his study of contemporary cases, found no evidence that the marks were supernatural in origin. However, he reached another important conclusion. Though there may not be a supernatural cause, not all of the cases should be considered as hoaxes. Some stigmatics marked themselves in reverence to the suffering of Christ as a form of piety. Others received the marks accidentally through some other cause and were noted as stigmata by others. Harrison also studied the change in the ratio of male-to-female stigmatics noting that it changed greatly over time. The significant factor however, wasn’t the number of stigmatic males, but that they were all non-ordained. The stigmata gave them direct access to the body of Christ that was otherwise unobtainable without the requirement of permission of the Church through the Eucharist. Ordained priests have only been stigmatized in the last century.

There are cases of stigmata that are not related to the Christian faith. The Warao, a group of people, of the Orinco Delta have a practice through which a contemplation of tutelary spirits may mystically induce “openings in the palms of his hands.” The tutelary spirits are presented by the itiriti snake which makes for a close comparison with the seraph who endowed Francis of Assisi with his stigmata. There are also regular displays of Buddhist stigmata represented in Buddhist art.

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