For most young men in the United States, male initiation happens in a handstand over a keg of beer. Some inner-city initiates, described by Michael Gurian in his book The Wonder of Boys, are taken by their fathers to visit prostitutes. Despite being respectively vomit inducing and a little sleazy, these rituals are pretty light. They don’t particularly separate the wheat from the chaff, the men from the boys, the cajones from the lower abdomen.
But certain coming-of-age ceremonies from around the world are fascinatingly brutal. Compared to beating back a lion with a stick, pounding cheap beer or sleeping with an escort seems like literal child’s play. In these foreign cultures, the attitude towards becoming a man is much less whimsical; it is a serious transition that often happens much younger than you’d expect and where sometimes childhood is erased altogether.
There are also various women’s initiation rituals, but those are often uncomfortable things done for a queer beauty standard, not acts of bravery or downright masochism. (Not to say that women wouldn’t be capable, they just aren’t compelled by the town elders, like boys are.)
If you’re curious to find out how much more pampered we are than some other boys on earth, stick around, and see for yourself the 10 most brutal male initiations from around the world.
10. Mandan Torture
The Mandan tribe of North Dakota had a religious ceremony called the Okipa where it celebrates the creation of the Earth. At the ceremony, the eight year old boys are tortured to mark their entry into manhood (logical, since when a woman says she wants a “real man” she’s thinking of a freshly minted 9 year old…) These third graders are forced to fast for several days, after which they are suspended by ropes with skewers inserted into cuts all over their bodies. Those who endure with the least whinging are made into Mandan leaders (personally, we would trust Obama a lot more if he had been suspended and tortured in elementary school like WHAT THE HELL.)
9. Spartan Serf Killing
In traditional Spartan culture, boys were trained in martial arts for ten years, between the ages of seven and seventeen. At the end of their training, they needed a final assessment of readiness, so they were released in the fall in a group called the Krypteia to stalk and kill any serfs, or slaves, they could find. Those who failed, either by ‘wussying out’ or by being consistently outwitted by the slaves, were whipped and tortured as punishment. Those who succeeded were lionized for essentially being serial killers.
8. Maasai Lion Fighting
Although the practice of lion fighting by the Masaai people of Kenya and Tanzania is now defunct, previously the only way of becoming a man was to spear a lion. Then, the warrior class rotated every six to ten years, giving way to a new group of chief protectors of society. To determine who those would be, young men were circumcised (long after birth, unlike North-Americans and worldwide Jews) and then sent out, sometimes in groups and sometimes on their own, to hunt down and kill a lion. As anyone who has tried to get a cat into its crate without injury would know, that is a frightening task.
7. The Algonquin Indian Trip
Similar to the American tradition of the keg stand, the Algonquin Indian Trip forces young men to ingest a massive amount of an intoxicating substance causing intense physical and intellectual effects. Coming out the other end intact signals readiness for manhood. However, the Algonquin trip lasts much longer and the substance is more intense. Young boys are secluded for twenty days and fed wysoccan, an intense hallucinogen. The drug also sometimes causes memory loss; another purpose of the ordeal is to wipe away memories of childhood.
6. The Fula whip battle
The Fulani of West Africa only become men after they have beaten another boy (literally and figuratively) in a battle of whips. Each competitor must, using a knife, sharpen a stick into a point. When the weapon is ready, he must face his challenger in a sort of duel. Each boy is given three blows. He who hits the hardest and winces the least is the victor, as determined by the overwhelming opinion of the crowd. The losing boy must do it over lest he wants to be stuck in boyhood.
5. The Satere-Mawe bullet ant glove
The Satare-Mawe tribe lives in the Brazilian Amazon, the biggest rainforest in the world. Among them lives the bullet ant, an insect whose sting is so painful is has been likened to a gunshot, hence its name. To initiate their male members, the Satere-Mawe embed dozens of sedated bullet ants into a glove and make a boy put it on both hands. As the ants regain consciousness, they struggle to escape the glove and sting its fleshy core. The boy must quietly endure for ten minutes. After this is done, he must repeat nineteen times until he becomes a bone fide man. The pain lasts for months.
4. Sepik Scarification
In the tribes along the Sepik River in Papua New Guinea, boys become men by being carved like a holiday turkey. A young man is given cuts all over his body in the pattern of the scales of a crocodile. The members of the tribe believe that the reptilian divinity consumes the boy’s immaturity, spitting him out as a man. All the while, the boy is subjected to humiliation rituals, including being referred to and treated as a woman. This is meant to toughen him psychologically, although it is hard to imagine how being cut up all over your body wouldn’t do that on its own…
3. Vanuatu Land Diving
On the South Pacific island nation of Pentecost, boys as young as five become men by diving headfirst from a 100-foot structure. Essentially, they climb to the top of the structure and tie a vine rope around each one of their ankles. They then bravely salute the brethren behind them in line and they plunge off the structure towards the ground. The closer they get to the grass, the better they perform. The tradition is almost 1,500 years old so the tribe has amassed some expertise, but it is performed with neither experts nor safety precautions, making it still very dangerous for the young skulls and easily severed spinal cords.
2. Adult Circumcision
Circumcision is the practice of trimming the foreskin of the penis. It is traditionally done on a newborn because the pace of convalescence is so fast. But amongst the Xhosa people of South Africa, circumcision is performed on grown boys to mark their entry into adulthood. The abakwetha, male initiate, is shaved then celebrated with a feast. Afterwards, he’s taken to a hut erected by his family in the mountains. Without anesthetic, a surgeon operates on the boy. He must then stay in the hut without food or water until he is fully recovered. The risk of infection and STDs is high.
1. Blood Initiation
Another ritual in Papua New Guinea, this Matausa rite attempts to rid the boy of all female influences, supposedly infantilizing. He must use thin reeds to induce vomiting, emptying the contents of his stomach (a mother’s cooking, for example.) Then, similar reeds are inserted into his nose for him to further expel bad influence. After this is completed, he is stabbed several times in the tongue, letting blood and purifying him. Only after all of this is complete is the Matausa boy truly a man, with the vigor and strength of his forefathers.