The adherents of the new religion soon developed an obsessional horror of sex and a system of self-torture quite different from the asceticism of the mystery religions. Wild-eyed monks retired to the burning deserts of North Africa to mortify their flesh: fasting, flagellating themselves, going without sleep and refusing to wash. Ammonius tortured his body with hot irons until he was entirely covered with burns; Macarius went naked in a mosquito ridden swamp and let himself be stung until unrecognizable; St. Simeon ulcerated his flesh with an iron belt; Evagrius Ponticus spent a winter’s night in a fountain so that his flesh froze. (81) How closely connected with sexual desire these extravagant practices were is shown by the confessions of the fathers themselves. Thus Jerome says:
How often when I was living in the desert which affords to hermits a savage dwelling place, parched by a burning sun, did I fancy myself amid the pleasures of Rome. I sought solitude because I was filled with bitterness…. I, who from the fear of hell had consigned myself to that prison where scorpions and wild beasts were my companions, fancied myself among bevies of young girls. My face was pale and my frame chilled from fasting, yet my mind was burning with the cravings of desire, and the fires of lust flared up from my flesh that was as that of a corpse. I do not blush to avow my abject misery.
The attraction of Christianity was that it confirmed the sense of guilt and authorized self punishment to relieve it. It was the inevitable culmination of forces which had been at work for many hundreds of years. A steadily increasing sense of guilt and isolation demanded some new myth. The early fathers skilfully provided the rationalisation which was needed to justify men’s desire to turn Thanatos against themselves and to deny Eros.
How closely the whole psychological process depended upon the suppression of sexual desire is shown by the preoccupation of these early Christians with the subject of castration. The tonsure of the priest is a recognized symbol of castration, and his adoption of a skirted cassock perpetuates the adoption of female clothes, in just the same way as the priests of Astarte, after castration, assumed female attire. The Jews had adopted circumcision— another symbolic castration— as part of a religious convention which made every man a priest, and thus entitled him to read the sacred books. The Christians perpetuated this. But symbolic castrations were not enough for many of them. Thousands hastened to castrate themselves in truth— Origen is only the best known instance— and a sect sprang up so enthusiastically addicted to the practice that its members castrated not only themselves but also any guest rash enough to stay under their roofs. (124)