Every culture, regardless of its level of civilization, practices rites of passage to mark a person’s transition to a new status. In fact, religious baptisms, graduation ceremonies, and death memorials — although rarely referred to as rituals of passage — are actually acknowledgements of new phases in people’s lives. And then there are those rites of passage that are markedly more extreme than others, effectively making modern-day male circumcision seem like a walk in the park.
Here are ten of the most shocking rites of passage practiced around the world:
10. Crocodile Scarification (Papua New Guinea)
Scarification can refer to scratching, burning, or etching the skin in order to leave permanent designs onto it. That may not seem much more outrageous than tattooing, but not the way that the tribes along the Sepik river in Papua New Guinea perform scarification. To prepare for the ritual, the initiates are locked away in a spirit hut for six weeks. Then, at the end of the seclusion, tribal cutters painfully cut into the boys’ flesh with razors, the novices merely chewing on a medicinal plant to dull the sting. Worse, the wounds are smoked in order to infect them. The controlled infection results in the scars resembling the scales of a crocodile, which is considered a spiritual animal among the Sepik river people.
9. Whipping Matches (Africa)
When kids get into fights, parents are usually quick to step in, stop the fight, and reprimand the children. But not among the Fula people. As young boys, a good number of males in the 40-million ethnolinguistic group engage in one-on-one whipping matches. After clans agree to have a face-off, each one selects a boy to represent the tribe. Then, elders prepare the most cut-inducing whips made from tree branches. Finally, when it’s time for battle, each boy takes turns whipping his opponent across the back three times, as hard as he can. Meanwhile, the boy being whipped tries to endure the punishment without flinching. Suffering from open wounds on his back, the boy who is adjudged by male observers to have withstood the whipping more bravely is declared the winner.
8. Vine Bungee Jumping (Pentecost Island, Republic of Vanuatu)
The legend behind this practice goes that there was once a woman who ran into the forest to escape her husband. He chased after her, so she climbed a tree, tied liana vines to her ankles, jumped, and survived. Meanwhile, her husband also jumped to chase after her, but he died because he didn’t tie vines to his ankles as his wife had. It is to avoid being tricked like the man in the story was that the men on the southern part of Pentecost Island in Vanatu perform land diving. Once a boy is around eight years old, he is made to leap from a wooden tower of up to 98 feet with only liana vines tied to his ankles to break his fall. Shockingly, the jumpers actually crash to the ground, their necks and heads bearing the impact of the fall. Mysteriously though, deaths and injuries are very rare.
7. Bullet Ant Gloves (Brazilian Amazon, Brazil)
Bullet ants, scientifically identified as Paraponera clavata, are popularly named for their potent stings and powerful venom that cause all-consuming pain for up to 24 hours. Strangely, however, instead of avoiding being bitten by the ants, males of the Satere-Mawe tribe voluntarily submit to having their hands bitten by the creatures. The ceremony begins with the ants being sedated then woven into gloves. Afterwards, when the ants have regained consciousness, boys slip their hands into the gloves and keep them on for ten full minutes. The rite causes the boys’ hands and forearms to become paralyzed and shake uncontrollably for days. And as if one dose of the venom wasn’t enough, the boys have to go through the ceremony a total of twenty times in order to be acknowledged as legitimate warriors.
6. Bull Jumping (Southwestern Ethiopia)
Numbering about 42,000, the Hamer (or Hamar) tribe in Southwestern Ethiopia are a semi-nomadic people with honey collection and cattle farming as their main sources of livelihood. And because cattle farming plays such an important role in the community, the animal has been incorporated into an important ritual: bull leaping, which young men have to undergo before getting married. In this ceremony, castrated bulls are lined up in a row. Then, the naked initiate leaps onto the back of the first cow, then from one cow to another, until he has leapt over the back of the last animal. All throughout, the Hamer women sing and jump, as the man attempts to successfully traverse the backs of the bulls four times without falling. Strangely, before the actual bull jumping, the initiate’s female relatives demand to be whipped by men who have previously performed the ritual.
5. Warrior Skin Dangling (North Dakota, United States)
In North Dakota, the Mandan tribe of a little over 1,000, seasonally come together for the Okipa ceremony to prove their endurance and please the spirits. The ritual performed by young men involves the participants going without nourishment and sleep for four days, then transferring to a hut, where the men have to smile as their chests and shoulders are slit by wooden skewers that are thrust behind their muscles. Then, with the skewers supporting the weight of their bodies, the men are suspended from the ceiling of the hut as weights are added to their legs until the initiates faint from agony. It is only upon losing consciousness that the men are brought down and made to rest until they awakened. It’s a rude awakening, however, as to additionally glorify the Great Spirit, a masked tribesman proceeds to sever the participants’ left pinkies with a hatchet. Finally, the ritual ends with a race around the village, the skewers and weights still attached to the men’s bodies, to identify which among the men is the strongest.
4. Tooth Filing (Sumatra Islands, Indonesia)
Yes, you read that right. Not “tooth filling” but “tooth filing”, which both actually meet opposing objectives. The latter is performed on young females in the Mentawai Islands in Indonesia, where it’s believed that possessing pointed, beast-like teeth is attractive. In fact, the custom used to be required of all girls once they hit puberty, but the Mentawai people’s customs have been diluted over time, making the ritual mostly an optional one. However, those who choose to undergo the procedure do so the traditional way — with a village elder using a crude chisel and no modern anesthetic. The initiate is only allowed to bite on green bananas to dull the pain while her teeth are chipped and filed until sharp.
3. Catfish Noodling (Southern United States)
No, strange rites of passage don’t just exist in lesser known parts of the world. In the southern United States, fathers and sons (and sometimes even daughters) dive underwater to depths of up to twenty feet. Then, they stick their hands into holes or under brush in particular lakes and rivers inhabited by flathead catfish. They wait for some time until the huge catfish species swims forward and latches onto the noodler’s hand. When that happens, the fisherman hooks his hand around the fish’s gills to capture it. Unfortunately, noodlers are occasionally caught off-guard and either drown from the weight of the catch or are victimized by an alligator, snake or other dangerous creature. Nevertheless, the practice is so popular that it’s a competitive sport in several states, although other territories have declared the practice illegal due to its dangers and dwindling flathead catfish populations.
2. Blood Purification (Papua New Guinea)
The Matausa tribe in the highlands of Papua New Guinea require boys to undergo an extremely patriarchal blood purification ritual before they can be considered true brave men. It takes place along a creek considered sacred, the initiates first bathing in order to wash away the traces of womanhood in their bodies. But bathing is not enough to complete the cleansing. The boys must afterwards slide wooden canes several feet into their throats in order to vomit out the contents of their stomachs. Then, sharp reeds are jammed deep into the novices’ nostrils to expel blood and mucus, which are believed to contain evil air that the boys have breathed in. Finally, the boys’ tongues, which are believed to have touched female-polluted food, are repeatedly pierced by a sharp arrow so that supposedly impure blood can flow out.
1. Infibulation (Northeast Africa)
Most terrible rites of passage are for males, but perhaps the most horrifying one is reserved for young females in certain parts of northeast Africa. There, 20% of women have been infibulated. What exactly is infibulation? It’s the most severe form of female circumcision that involves the initiate being held down and much of the clitoris being cut out with one swipe of a blade. In some cases, the excised part of the clitoris is shown to the initiate’s female relatives, who then decide whether or not enough has been removed. Afterwards, a twig is inserted into the wound so that a small hole, just large enough to allow for the passage of menstrual blood and urine, is created when the wound is healed. Then, to help the tissue bond, the girl’s legs are bound from hip to ankle for up to six weeks. The procedure ensures that a woman remains a virgin until marriage, and when it’s finally time for her to have intercourse, her husband creates the vaginal opening either by forcibly thrusting his penis through the scar tissue (which may take 3 to 4 days or several months) or with the help of a small knife.
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