Most of us are familiar with the concept of stigmata from movies and books. They're usually associated with the wounds of Christ and the Catholic church, although there are echoes of earlier sympathetic magic in the concept. Are stigmata real? And what - if anything - do they mean?

What Are Stigmata?

The term stigmata comes from St Paul's Letter to the Galatians where he talks of bearing the marks (stigmata) of Jesus. The most familiar forms of stigmata are the visible ones - actual marks or even wounds on the body, sometimes accompanied by bleeding. There have also been cases reported of invisible stigmata where there are no physical wounds but there is internal pain.

The location of the wounds usually corresponds to some part of the body of signifance in the story of Jesus. Common examples are the five Holy wounds that Christ suffered on the cross - hands and feet where the nails were hammered and in the side where he was pierced by the sword. Another common location is the forehead, representing the crown of thorns.

There have been many hundred cases of stigmata reported, stretching back to the 13th century. The most famous is probably that of St. Francis of Assissi in 1224 although an English man by the name of Stephen Langton apparently had a similar experience in 1222.

Even if we exclude the invisible cases and those where there is little documentary evidence we are still left with the conclusion that stigmata do exist. But what are they?

What Causes Stigmata?

The first thing to say is that if you suspect you are suffering from stigmata you should see your doctor - you might have a perfectly normal medical condition that requires treatment.

This has also been put forward as an explanation for some cases of stigmata in earlier times. Natural medical conditions could, in a fit of piety, possibly have been interpreted as divine messages. With imaginative retelling the story of a single unexplained sore could have become a full-blown stigmata incident.

Most skeptics tend to think of stigmata as self-induced. That doesn't necessarily mean that the stigmatic is consciously fraudulent. Self-harm is not uncommon and it's possible that some stigmatics were suffering from Munchausen Syndrome.

An alternative skeptical hypothesis is that the marks are self-induced subconsciously in a psychosomatic manner. It is suggested that someone who truly associates with Christ could subconsciously bring about appropriate personal pain and injury through entirely natural and normal physiological means.

The skeptics are bolstered by the fact that recorded cases of stigmata only began at around the same time that the image of Christ on the cross became the dominant Christian symbol. Believers might say that's precisely the point: the divine link will present itself through the most appropriate mechanism for the time.

To many believers there is no doubt about the origin of true stigmata: they are the marks of Christ. Why would the Christian god inflict such suffering on those who worship him? One suggestion is that these "graces" are a trial that allows the truly holy person to experience enhanced closeness with Christ.

An alternative non-religious hypothesis is that stigmata represent the unconscious release of some psychic power. According to this idea, stigmata are part of the same spectrum of experience as poltergeist activity and telepathy. In the case of a stigmatic, their religious belief simply causes the undirected psychic power to manifest as stigmatic wounds.

As with so many wyrd things, there is not necessarily a single explanation. It's possible that all the above ideas are correct. It's also possible that they're all wrong.