A lot of the customs, habits and quirks from around the world today are more or less familiar to us. While cultural and religious practices may vary between countries or regions, thanks to the spread of information through the media – and not to mention the impact of globalization and modern laws leading to it being unacceptable or illegal to practice certain horrifying rituals – many bizarre and dangerous rituals have died out. Yet, if we look back only a few hundred years, it’s a different story. Our ancestors from around the world used to practice some things that would be considered very strange, dark and even terrifying to us today.
To be fair, some modern-day religious or cultural practices may one day be considered strange and even barbaric. In their time, many of these traditions were considered normal, everyday parts of life. In some cases, such practices were considered quite necessary for everyday life (or for a peaceful death), as they appeased gods or guaranteed healthy, fertile crops. These practices were also performed as a part of worship, in festivals, as a way to honour the dead, or even used as methods to further one’s career prospects.
Some of these historic rituals actually persist into the modern day in certain cultures, even though many have been made illegal. The following are thirteen of the strangest traditions and rituals from history. Fair warning, however: some are very gruesome.
Spartan brides dressed like men
Forget the fluffy white dress and feminine hair and makeup: in ancient Sparta, a woman dressed up in masculine clothing and even warrior gear for her big day. She would start the day by shaving her head, then don men’s clothes. The bride would then be laid alone on a pallet in the dark. The groom would come to her and perform his husbandly duties, then return her to her parent’s home. Sometimes the two would not see each other in the daytime for a long time, perhaps even several years. Some historians believe that Spartan youth were used to homosexuality and women were considered so lowly in society that husbands needed time to acclimate to heterosexual practices.
Up until only the last century in the Western world, a duel was a combat between two individuals with swords or, later, pistols. The practice was obviously risky, although the intent of the ritual was not to kill the other person. Instead, the duelling parties took part in the practice to restore their honour by demonstrating their willingness to risk their life. It goes without saying that it was dishonourable to decline a challenge to a duel; doing so would have definitely ruined one’s reputation.
In the ancient Roman religion, Vestals or Vestal Virgins were priestesses of the goddess of the hearth. They tended to a fire that was not allowed to be extinguished. While the Vestal Virgins were free of social obligations to marry or have children, they held a place of honour in society and had many rights like the ability to own property. They were also required to take a vow of chastity. Considered the daughters of the state, these women were held to a very high standard of behaviour. They could not allow the sacred fire to go out; if they did, they were punished by scourging (whippings). If they broke their vows of chastity, they were buried alive in an underground chamber underneath the city with only a few days of food and water, which allowed the traitorous “Virgin” to “die willingly” for her broken vows.
Men of high economic and social status in several societies often had concubines, or women who were mistresses to the men but held a lower status than his wife. Concubine women usually had limited rights and support from the men, and ranged from slaves all the way to individuals who could enjoy some basic freedoms. Concubines were kept in ancient Rome, ancient Greece, among the Israelites (according to the Bible), and in China.
Turning of the Bones
In Madagascar, a festival that began in the 17th century and continues to take place every couple of years is called Famadihana. During the celebration, individuals dig up their deceased relatives, dance with their corpses around a tomb, and then rebury them. This is done because they believe that the faster the body decomposes, the faster it will reach the afterlife.
Painting dead ancestors
Archaeologists now know that ancient Mexicans used to dig up their loved ones and paint their faces. This ritual seems to have mainly occurred in the city of Teotihuacan, a major cultural centre which once had huge pyramids and temples. Archaeologists have discovered pots of paint that were probably used for this ritual, which provided the living with a unique way to remember their dead ancestors.
Dancing around the Maypole
Traditionally, this fertility dance that dates back to the Middle Ages or earlier in the United Kingdom is performed in May. In the dance, a group of children circle around a pole with ribbons attached. The dance results in the ribbons forming a colourful pattern. Thought to be of a Germanic pagan origin, the Maypole dance is done to herald in spring and bring good luck to crops.
In ancient China, women with small feet were highly desired and considered beautiful. In order to fit this standard of beauty, women underwent an intensely painful ritual that involved binding – and ultimately disfiguring – their feet in order to have the highly prized feet. The process was painful and often caused problems for the women throughout their lives.
Fire walking, or walking barefoot over a bed of hot embers, has been practiced in many cultures throughout history. An early record indicates it was celebrated in Iron Age India as a rite of passage. For a while in the 20th century in the United States it even became fashionable to learn how to perform this ritual. Celebrated to this day in Penang, Malaysia, fire walking is a purification ritual in which hundreds of individuals walk barefoot on burning embers during a festival. They believe the fire helps them overcome impurity and repel evil.
A practice in the Middle East, India, Southeast Asia, the Ottoman Empire and Europe, eunuchs were highly prized throughout history. In these places, men were castrated in order to perform a specific role in society. In China, for instance, castration was a way to obtain the highly prized employment as a servant of the emperor, and was an entry into a position of great power. In fact, career prospects were so good for eunuchs that by the end of the Ming Dynasty there were 70,000 eunuchs. In Europe, eunuchs were valued for their exceptional singing voices and were prized for their contributions to music and the arts.
In this grim practice, which was an ancient Hindu ritual, widowed women would voluntarily (although not always voluntarily) jump into their husbands’ funeral pyres, thus burning themselves alive. This practice of committing suicide was outlawed in 1829, though it is still practiced in some parts of the country.
Societies throughout history have practiced cannibalism. The reason for this ranges from belief that eating another person allows their powers to be absorbed, to a way of overcoming death by allowing the individual that is consumed to become “immortal”. To this day, the Aghori Babas people in India still eat their dead because they believe that eating the dead can help them overcome the fear of death.
It’s well known that many people around the world at one point in time in history practiced human sacrifice. The Mayans and Aztecs were among the most infamous groups of people to perform such ritual killings. In their cultures, people were sacrificed in order to appease the gods or the spirits. In some cases, the victims were prisoners of war, though in other cases, it was considered an honour to be sacrificed, with some families offering up daughters to the gods.