20 Crazy Cultural Traditions You Won’t Believe Are Real

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Image: Paul Stein

Every culture has rituals that mark milestones in life, while peoples from all corners of the planet celebrate religious events in various ways. Inevitably, though, some customs are more extreme than others – be it being bitten by insanely pain-inducing ants, or stripping naked and jumping over rows of bulls without tripping over. If you’ve got a thick skin and a taste for the unknown, read on, for these are undoubtedly some of the world’s most bizarre and jaw-dropping cultural practices.

20. Amazonian people get deliberately bitten by insane stinging ants.

Boys belonging to the Amazonian Satere-Mawe tribe only become men after inserting their hands into leafy bullet ant-filled gloves for not one, not two, but ten agonizing minutes. And in case you’re wondering just how painful that is, each bite is approximately 30 times more excruciating than a bee sting. Plus, boys only pass the test after completing the ordeal without crying. Harsh.

19. Thaipusam devotees pierce their bodies with metal.

Tamil Hindu devotees across south and southeast Asia celebrate Thaipusam by inserting small spears into their cheeks, tongue or skin. Some even puncture their backs with hooks, which are attached to strings and pulled by other participants. The extreme rituals are dedicated to Tamil deity Lord Murugan, the Hindu god of victory and war. Devotees, meanwhile, claim not to feel pain, because they go into a trance-like state.

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18. Yanomami tribe members eat cremated remains.

The Amazon rainforest’s Yanomami people have some eye-wateringly grim traditions when it comes to death. Instead of deceased tribespeople being laid to rest, their bodies are cremated before relatives consume the leftover bones and ashes. The powdery remains are usually mixed with mashed bananas, presumably to make them more palatable. Such a ritual, it is believed, helps free departed relatives’ souls.

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17. Indonesia’s Toraja people live with their dead.

When Indonesia’s mountain-dwelling Toraja people say that the dead live among them, they’re not talking metaphorically, for when a relative dies their corpse is kept in the house. The bodies – which are symbolically fed and washed – can be left in situ for a period of years, with the bizarre tradition being held to ease the grieving process. Fortunately, the deceased are at least embalmed with formaldehyde.

16. Ethiopia’s Hamar people strip naked and jump over bulls.

Among southern Ethiopia’s Hamar people, a boy doesn’t become a man by getting a job or leaving home; instead, he is required to leap over a line of up to 30 bulls, naked and without tripping. Oh, and he’s also rubbed down – by family members, no less – with fresh cow dung, just to make him a little greasier. The reward for succeeding? Permission to marry.

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15. The Matis tribe inject budding hunters with frog poison.

For a man to become a hunter in western Brazil’s Matis tribe, he must endure three horrific ordeals: poison being dispensed into his eyes, getting whipped and beaten, and being injected with the poison of the giant leaf frog via a wooden syringe. Moreover, while the toxin is said to boost a person’s strength, it’s also known to cause hallucinations, dizziness and diarrhea.

14. Some Shias flog themselves with chains.

The tenth day of Muharram, the Islamic month of mourning, is known as “Ashura” – a time when Shias finish mourning Hussain ibn Ali, who was martyred at the Battle of Karbala. While Sunnis spend the day fasting, some Shias recognize Ali’s sacrifice by effectively recreating the pain he felt, namely by whipping themselves with chains and sharp blades and walking across flaming-hot coals.

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13. Madagascar’s Malagasy people dance with their dead.

The Famadihana funerary ritual among Madagascar’s Malagasy people sees them exhuming the bodies of dead relatives and dancing with them for two days. Moreover, while this may sound morbid, it’s actually anything but; family members drink rum, tell jokes and laugh in honor of loved ones lost. The ceremony can also only be performed by a single family once in a seven-year period.

12. Papua’s Dani people cut off their fingertips.

Rather than mourning the dead, Papua’s Dani people – normally women – sever parts of their fingers. After tying string around the top half of a digit and all sensation ebbing away, a relative simply slices off the required section before cauterizing it. The logic behind the now-banned practice is that the physical pain mimics the emotional agony of losing someone dear. It’s still possible to see missing fingertips among older tribeswomen, too.

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Image: Dave Price

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11. Matausa tribe members thrust canes down their throats.

Members of Papua New Guinea’s Matausa tribe don’t think a female’s body can be pure, so when a baby boy is born he must be rid of his mother’s inherent filthiness. This occurs during adolescence, when a pair of canes are inserted into the boy’s throat, which results in him throwing up blood. When reeds are subsequently pushed into the nostrils, more blood spills, as does a little mucus. Both liquids are symbolic of the contamination supposedly inflicted on said boy by his mother.

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Image: Paul Stein

10. Pentecost islanders risk death by jumping off teetering towers.

In this incredible display of godly devotion, young men belonging to Pentecost Island’s Sa Tribe hurl themselves, tethered only by vines, off 90-foot-tall timber plinths. If the vine is too short, they’ll swing back into the tower; too long, and they risk plummeting into the ground at speeds as high as 40 mph. Known as Naghol in this part of the South Pacific, the potentially fatal feat is regarded as something of a coming-of-age ritual.

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9. India’s Aghori sadhus eat parts of dead bodies.

The Aghori sect, many members of which are found in the Indian holy city of Varanasi, are notorious for eating human flesh as part of their grisly quest for enlightenment. The Aghori have a ready supply of corpses on the burning ghats of the Ganges, too, although these ascetics believe their practice isn’t actually that gruesome; rather, they think it helps ward off disease and is intrinsically linked to purity.

8. The Surma people scar themselves with razor blades.

For the Surma people of South Sudan, inflicting scars on the body is meant to distinguish between tribes and signify the ascension into adulthood. The marks – which frequently take the form of intricate patterns and are, effectively, works of art – are often gouged using thorns and razor blades. Some tribespeople add ash or sap to make the scars become more pronounced once the wounds heal.

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7. Taoist people in Phuket pierce their own faces.

On the Thai island of Phuket, a Chinese Taoist tradition requires devotees to mutilate themselves in the name of virtue. While one aspect of the festival entails going vegetarian, another involves stabbing one’s face with swords, knives or pretty much anything that will pierce a cheek – like a household drill or sharp cardboard signs. Apparently, though, it doesn’t hurt if the gods are within your body.

6. Certain Indian priests throw babies from balconies.

Every year in the southern Indian state of Karnataka, priests hurl babies from a 30-foot-high balcony. The infants often scream while falling, although they’re caught by men holding a blanket below. It may all sound terrifying, but the ritual – which has been practiced for at least a century – is meant to bring the infants wealth and good luck in later life. There are now calls, however, for it to be banned.

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5. Some Aborigines use a stone blade for circumcisions.

The Unambal Aborigine tribespeople of northwestern Australia believe their menfolk should be circumcised at the first sign of facial fluff. Unfortunately, theirs is no normal circumcision; rather, the chap’s manhood – which is pressed flush against a rock – is split along its entire underpart using a stone blade. And while it’s held that the gruesome procedure makes the penis “lighter and more beautiful,” the practice has, unsurprisingly, markedly declined in recent decades.

4. One Native American tribe hung and drew its male adolescents.

Spare a thought for the young men who belonged to the Native American Mandan tribe. Their coming-of-age ritual involved the insertion of timber skewers into the muscles in their shoulders and chest, from which they were suspended from a hut roof until they passed out. It wasn’t even over when they came around, either, for the boys then had both of their pinkies sliced off with a hatchet. Truly brutal.

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3. Young Fulani men hit each other with sharpened sticks.

When boys belonging to the nomadic West African Fulani people reach puberty, they’re subjected to a pretty painful rite of passage. After finding a fight-worthy stick and sharpening it, a given boy faces his opponent and hits him, unopposed, as hard as he can with his weapon. Then it’s his opponent’s turn to unleash similar fury. The crowd decides the winner according to who hit hardest and cried the least.

Fore people
Image: via Ancient Origins

2. A Papua New Guinea tribe ate the flesh of its dead.

When a member of Papua New Guinea’s Fore people died, their relatives would eat parts of their body – specifically the flesh, which was set aside for the men, and the brain, which was devoured by women and youngsters. And while the gruesome practice was considered a sign of respect, it eventually died out after family members contracted various nasty illnesses – the result of a harmful molecule that lived in the dead brains and was consumed by tribeswomen.

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1. In Tibet the dead are hacked up and left for vultures.

When people pass away in Tibet, their bodies are shrouded in white sheets and carried by yaks to typically high-up charnel grounds while monks chant and lead the processions. The corpses are then hacked into pieces by burial masters or “body breakers” and fed to vultures – thought to embody angels. It’s believed that the “sky burial” helps the departed’s soul reach the heavens to be reincarnated.

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