It comes as no surprise that there are some very scary customs (well, scary to those of us in the West, at least) around the globe that do not make much sense to cultures outside of their own. Many of these customs, rituals, and traditions are deeply rooted in a culture or tribe’s ancestry and history, and while some especially brutal practices have been abolished or changed in ways, many are the same as they were hundreds of years ago and have no plans to ever change.
Third-world countries are mainly the places where such things take place, countries like Papua New Guinea, Brazil, and many places across Africa. But even some places we think of as “first world”, like Australia, have some common but terrifying rites of passage (although I am not talking about Sydney or Melbourne, but the Outback).
When it comes to young adults, things are already hectic enough in life, but these cultures like to throw in some extra challenges- often excruciatingly painful or downright disgusting ones, at that. The following are 16 coming-of-age traditions from around our planet that are freaky AF. Prepare to cringe just thinking of the pain, or to be nauseated with disgust. I warned you!
16. Facial Scarification
Located in South Sudan and Ethiopia, the Nuer tribes are one of the largest ethnic groups in East Africa. So you can imagine, then, just how many youth must endure their painful pubescent practices. As part of their initiation into manhood or womanhood, the teenagers receive facial markings called gaar. The males most commonly get six horizontal lines across their foreheads, carved with a razor and dipping in the middle above their noses. The lines each represent something, for example the first scar means that you have reached manhood, and the second means you must not be afraid of anyone. And so on and so forth. The females more often receive a dotted pattern on their forehead.
15. Gloves Full of Bullet Ants
Back in the Brazilian Amazon rainforest, another tribe, called the Satere-Mawe people, have their own traditions concerning puberty. The young men there experience a ritual that is excruciating both mentally and physically. Boys as young as 12 years old gather bullet ants from the forest, and then weave the bugs into pairs of gloves, stingers pointed inwards (they do get points for creativity, because WTF?). The ants have been sedated with an herbal solution, so when they wake up they are angry as hell. Then, while performing a dance, the boys wear the gloves for 10 minutes as the bullet ants sting them. If this does not sound like complete and utter agony to you, know that the sting of a bullet ant is said to be 30 times more painful than a bee sting, and both ant gloves contain dozens of the nasty little things. Over the course of a few months, the boys will endure this rite of passage 20 times. This ritual, like many others we have discussed, is done in part to teach the youth a lesson. This ritual’s lesson specifically is that “a life lived without suffering anything or without any kind of effort is not worth anything, at all”.
14. Breast Ironing
Farther north, Cameroon is another country in Africa with some pretty messed-up traditions during the time of puberty. The practice of breast ironing (also known as breast flattening) is a common rite of passage in Cameroon, and it is terrifying- and not only because here in the West, the idea of making breasts smaller is preposterous to most men. At puberty, the girls in Cameroon undergo the flattening of their chests to “protect” them from rape and sexual harassment. The “procedure” consists of the chest being pounded with hot objects such as large stones, a hammer, or a spatula to compress the breast tissue. According to the United Nations, 58% of the time, it is the girl’s mother who performs this procedure, and approximately 3.8 million girls and young women have been subjected to it. Richer families use an elastic belt instead of the more primitive method of actually pounding the chest, in order to prevent the breasts from growing. In most cases, it happens in the privacy of their own home between mother and daughter, and the father may not even be aware of it. Obviously, besides the exorbitant amount of pain this causes the girls, they can suffer from cysts, abscesses, infection, tissue damage, and the loss of one or both breasts.
For an Australian Mardudjara Aborigine teenaged boy, circumcision and subincision are par for the course when they hit puberty, or shortly thereafter. When it comes time for the first part, the circumcision, the boy lays down by a fire, while tribal elders sing and dance around him. A second group of men, called Mourners, wail and cry while he is circumcised right then and there. It is done while an elder sits on the boy’s chest and two men cut the foreskin with “magical” knives. The boy gets to bite on a boomerang during all of this. Then he is made to eat his own foreskin that he is told will then grow inside him and make him strong.
A few months later when things have healed, a similar ceremony involving fire, singing, and an elder sitting on the boy’s chest takes place. A small wooden rod is inserted into his urethra to back the knife, which cuts the underside of the penis up to the scrotum. When this is completed, the boy stands over the fire, his blood dripping into it. For the rest of his life, he will need to squat like a woman to urinate, and some anthropologists surmise that this is done so that they will sympathize with the women of the tribe.
12. Drinking Elders’ S—-n
If you are a boy on the verge of becoming a man in the Etoro tribe of Papua New Guinea, you can expect to drink your elders’ sperm as a rite of passage. Doing this is thought by the tribe to enhance their true manliness. It is their belief that the vitality of machismo lies in the semen of an elder. As gross as it sounds to us, they probably grow up knowing this will happen one day, and hopefully have thus adjusted to the idea by the time they reach puberty. When it is their time, the boy is matched with a male partner to go through the process with, and later must marry a relative of this partner. The essence of this practice of drinking their elders’ semen comes down to the fact that they believe the semen holds a life force that is necessary to ingest in order to become a man. Only about 400 people make up the Etoro tribe, but they are well known for the high amounts of homosexual practices. In fact, the boys drink the semen by performing felatio on an older boy or man.
11. Crocodile Scarring
The Sepik River tribe of Papua New Guinea practice a scarification ritual upon their pubescent boys. While scarification (the scratching, etching, burning/branding, or cutting of designs into the skin) is by no means unheard of among tribal people around the world, the Sepik River people add an intriguing twist: their scarification is done with the sole purpose of making the boys’ skin look like that of a crocodile. Hundreds of two-centimeter-long razor cuts are used to achieve this look, and the cuts are filled in with clay and tree oil to maintain their raised shape and scale-like appearance. The purpose of this is to pay tribute to the crocodile, which they believe they descended from. The extremely painful ritual sometimes ends in death, but is meant to teach discipline, focus, and dedication. Of course, they are allowed no pain-killers, save for the plants they can eat that have healing properties.
10. Forced Hallucinogens in Cages
Youth of pubescent age in the Algonquin Indian tribe of Quebec, Canada, are force-fed hallucinogens to become an adult. Now if you think this does not sound that bad, think again. The boys are taken to a secluded area, caged, and given wysoccan, which contains an extremely dangerous hallucinogen called datura that is said to be 100 times more powerful than LSD. The boys spend 20 days with a racing heart, amnesia, and hypothermia. The purpose is to induce memory loss of their childhoods. If a boy shows memory of his childhood in any way after the 20 days, they have to repeat the tortuous weeks. Unfortunately for them, if they manage to survive the first round (and the second), the memory loss also affects memories of their family, how to speak, and even who they are. Drinking semen for a few minutes sounds more appealing than all that, huh?
9. Full-On S-x Ed
In the Southern African country of Malawi, both boys and girls go through a coming-of-age ritual called “initiation”, sometimes as young as eight years old. At the initiation camps, the girls are accompanied by elder women who teach them to cook, clean, and have sex. But the sex is the main focus of the two-week tutorial. The girls are told to lie on top of each other and “get a feel” for the different positions. They are encouraged to practice what they were taught, and must have sex with a man at the end of the initiation. Mothers and grandmothers keep the practice up for the sake of tradition, but also because some women hope their daughters will become pregnant very young and get married off. In Malawi where most live in poverty, this could be seen as a blessing, or at least a burden relieved. Some other troubling facts about initiation include that sometimes, young men are hired to take girls’ virginity, and the girls are encouraged to have sex to cleanse them of their “childhood thing”, usually without protection.
8. Male and Female Amputation
Although this Russian cult has mostly died out today, there was a time when they were more prevalent, and some do still exist. The Skoptsy were Christians who believed in “baptism of fire” or “bleaching”, which essentially means castration. For men and women alike, the process consisted of two steps. The “lesser seal” was the removal of the testicles for men and the nipples for the women. Two years later, the men would have their penises fully removed, and the women would have their breasts and labia minora (and sometimes their labia majora and clitoris) fully removed. Only after this second step was complete could they escape the flames of hell.
7. Separating a Son’s Blood From His Mother’s
In the highlands of Papua New Guinea, pubescent boys must expel their mother’s blood that they got during childbirth by undergoing the bloodletting process. Extremely painful, the process is done by various, excruciating methods such as shoving canes through their throats or reeds up their nostrils or arrows into their tongues. Of course, modern medicine tells us that this is ludicrous, but the Sambia tribe does it anyway, in an attempt to separate the boy’s blood from his mother’s, thus making him into a man. This blood filtration is considered a puberty law and it is as dangerous as it is brutal. The elders let out a war cry once the blood has begun to flow, and beatings and lashings follow in order to toughen the boys up. It should be noted that this tribe is the same tribe that drinks the elders’ semen.
6. Whipping Match
The North African Fulani tribe uses violence to determine if and when a boy becomes a man. Rival clans gather for these fights, which consist of two shirtless young boys in a ring. Each holds a long cane or a whip as his weapon. The boys each take turns striking the other three times across the ribs and back as hard as they possibly can. A winner is chosen by the crowd who has gathered to watch, and this winner is the boy who has managed to gouge the deepest, bloodiest wound in his opponent and who flinches the least when it is his turn to be beaten. The girls, not to be forgotten during pubescent rituals in the Fulani tribe, endure hours-long facial tattooing in which they are to show no discomfort.
5. Shackles to Prevent Movement and Calorie Loss
Pubescent girls of the Okrika tribe in Nigeria are force-fed in a “fattening room” for five weeks. To force growth, they are fed fatty things like goat’s milk because the bigger the better when it comes to women in Nigeria; there, big is considered beautiful. Sometimes, before the fattening, the girls will appear bare-chested before a crowd for an inspection so that the community may ensure she is a virgin. While some then go to the fattening rooms, others are actually shackled down to decrease their movement and thus expenditure of calories. Women can be kept in the rooms or shackled for up to six months. They are paraded in front of the crowd then as new women. For most, it is a time of pride and signifies that they are ready to be married. The whole process is called the Iria Rite. Fattening is also a big thing in Mauritania.
4. Frog Poison- “Nature’s Death Juice”
The Matis people of Brazil are indigenous to the jungle, and live in two separate villages in the far West of the country. The Amazonians have a harsh and scary ritual for initiating the boys of their villages into men, and into the ranks of hunters. First, a bitter poison is dropped into their eyes to improve vision and enhance their other senses. Then there are torturous beatings with rattan sticks before the final test to determine if one is eligible to become a hunter: the injecting of “nature’s death juice”. The Phyllomedusa bicolor, a frog, produces a poison that is injected into the boys’ body with a wooden needle after that area of the skin is burned in preparation. The poison, called kampo, causes lightheadedness, vomiting, and violent diarrhea, although in the end, it is said to enhance strength and endurance. After becoming official hunters, the Matis men will endure these treats before every hunt.
3. Controversial Circumcisions
Between the ages of 13 and 16, a male belonging to the South African Xhosa people will be initiated into manhood in a controversial ritual that has made headlines in recent years for the deaths caused by complications (969 have died since 2005). During the one-month-long seclusion phase, the male paints himself white, and will be punished if he does not. When he is circumcised, the foreskin is then attached to the initiate’s blanket. Roughly 2000 of these procedures have resulted in penile amputation. Several cases of HIV have occurred from using the same knife for multiple procedures. Nelson Mandela himself spoke out about his own experience at the age of 16: “Without a word, he took my foreskin, pulled it forward, and then, in a single motion, brought down his assegai (spear). I felt as if fire was shooting through my veins. The pain was so intense that I buried my chin to my chest. Many seconds seemed to pass before I remembered the cry, and then I recovered and called out, ‘Ndiyindoda! (I am a man!)”
2. Worthy Only if They Do Not Die
In Brazil yet again, we find another horrifying custom enforced upon the youth that live there. In the Uaupes area of Brazil, girls are made to undergo rigorous beating sessions once they hit puberty. As if going through puberty were not terrible enough, these poor girls are paraded naked through the streets of their town or village, then beaten until they are either unconscious or dead. If the girl wakes up and is indeed not dead, then she is considered womanly, and thus worthy of marriage. This is one of the worst puberty punishments (uh, I mean rituals) that I have come across, and it is truly sickening to think of young girls- children, really- who are forced to go through this.
1. Forced Tattooing
Staying in the same geographical area of Brazil and Paraguay, this region brings us yet another fun rite of passage for the teenagers living there. At least this one may sound and feel more familiar to us in the West- until you consider that the ritual is forcible and painful and irreversible. I am talking about the practice of extensive tattooing all over young girls’ bodies once they reach a certain age. And it is not even for any sort of divine or ancestral purpose. Its purpose is to sexualize the female, and make her more attractive to the men. Mainly, the tattooing is done on their stomachs, breasts, and backs, all places that sound pretty painful, especially if that is not what you would want for your body anyway. Luckily, most girls have probably accepted their fate by the time it arrives, as that is all they know.