The 8 Most Bizarre Rituals in the World

Editor's note: WARNING: Graphic images and video ahead.

Any ritual, religious or otherwise, has some unusual origins. Do you think tattoo parlors are now available in every nightlife district simply because they were fashionable hundreds of years ago? I think not; tattoos, like many other “tribal” customs, were a way of transforming the canvas (you) into a work of art, imbuing one with power.

Many western customs – religious or otherwise – we’ve come to accept as commonplace are used for a significant transition period: birth, becoming a man/woman, dying, marriage.

“Don’t tell anyone, but on the pagan day of the sun god Ra, I kneel at the foot of an ancient instrument of torture and consume ritualistic symbols of blood and flesh.”

The class looked horrified.

Langdon shrugged. “And if any of you care to join me, come to the Harvard chapel on Sunday, kneel beneath the crucifix, and take Holy Communion.”

The Lost Symbol, Dan Brown

Taken out of their cultural context, these rituals may well be considered “bizarre”, “unnecessary”, even downright insane, but not to those who perform them. They completely believe in what they’re doing, what it represents, and the impact on the receiver.

What are some of the most bizarre rituals around the world?

#1: Birth

We begin our search at a Muslim shrine in the Maharashtra state of India, where it is common practice to toss newborn babies off the side of a 15-meter tall temple. Observed for half a millennium, this ritual is believed to strengthen the children, give them good luck well into adulthood as well as “courage and intelligence.”

It’s worth mentioning the babies do not fall to the ground (naturally), as followers are standing by with a large sheet to catch them.

#2: Marriage

The history of certain wedding customs are bizarre in themselves. The idea of a “best man” originated from the German states, where available women were not always great in number and many bachelors opted to kidnap a bride prior to her wedding night. The groom-to-be chose a friend, usually one trusted and strong, to defend her from other suitors.

In Scotland, however, the bride faces a whole different ball of wax before she can walk down the aisle. The practice of “blackening the bride” involves covering her with some nasty smelling things like eggs, mystery sauces, molasses, flour, whatever else the bridesmaids can dream up to take the pressure off of them … she must taste delicious by the end, I have to say.

The tradition varies from region to region, but for the most part, the bride or groom is covered with something smelly or sticky, bound, and driven around or left tied to a tree or lamppost. Actually, given some of the drunken-induced rituals we see in American bachelor parties, I suppose this isn’t that bizarre. At least you won’t catch a Scot marrying a dog.

#3: Food

Phuket Vegetarian Festival
Phuket Vegetarian Festival, Thailand © KnowPhuket.com

In a world filled with such dangerous delicacies, it’s amazing we can still find rituals surrounding food designed to induce such pain. In this case, the Phuket Vegetarian Festival in Thailand takes the cake (SIDENOTE: there is no actual cake).

In September or October every year, Thai people in the southern city of Phuket refrain from eating meat for nine days. The festival highlights, however, are its incredible masochistic rituals: men and women puncturing their cheeks with spears, knives… almost anything you can imagine, they’ve shoved through their bodies. The belief is that the Chinese gods protect followers from pain and suffering; it’s remarkable how few, if any, people bear scars following the festival.

#4: Death

Sky Burial, Tibet
Sky Burial at Ganden Monastery, Tibet © satellite360

Very few outsiders have had the chance to observe this firsthand. In Tibet, it was once a common funeral custom to dissect the body and place the pieces on a mountaintop. I suppose, in a sense, the majority of funerals throughout the world are a waste of resources and space: we have elaborately-carved coffins, bizarre locations for our ashes (low Earth orbit being one), even specialists to beautify the body following death.

As most Tibetans follow Buddhist traditions, the goal is to provide resources to the world, even after death, i.e. offering the “unneeded” body to vultures. When China first stepped in and quelled most of the local practices, sky burials, as they are known, were illegal. Since the 1980s, however, it is still possible to observe a jhator with the permission of the family.

#5: Fire

Udappu Firewalking, Sri Lanka
Udappu Firewalking, Sri Lanka © indi.ca

Self-immolation is a practice best left to religious zealots and complete lunatics. Historically, using fire in rituals has been an act of purification or testing limits. Although no religion requires its followers to set themselves ablaze (Islamic suicide bombers blowing themselves up don’t count), there are a few that encourage firewalking or walking on hot coals.

In Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples of Japan, monks, priests, and lay people can walk barefoot over smoking embers to attempt to achieve a sudden moment of clarity, overcome their fears, and get the energy flowing. A handful of firewalking customs exist in North Africa, Haiti, the Carribbean, and southeast Asia.

#6: Fertility

Hounen Matsuri Fertility Festival, Japan
Hounen Matsuri Fertility Festival, Japan© zozo2k3

You really don’t have to look far in Japan to locate a giant wooden penis. Even outside the love hotel district in Shibuya, there are scores of sex museums scattered across the country displaying phallic symbols and Kama Sutra-esque caricatures.

In particular, the Hounen Matsuri is well known as the largest fertility festival in the land of the rising sun. Every March 15th, volunteers vie for the chance to carry a long wooden phallus (2.5 meters in the town of Komaki) across town to bestow its regenerative powers on the local crops, and to ensure fertility and fecundity among the residents.

#7: Blood

Maasai Cow Blood Demonstration, East Africa
Maasai Cow Blood Demonstration, East Africa © wendylin20

Before you judge too harshly, look at the first quotation again. All devout Christians believe in the transubstantiation of wine every time they take communion. Some people in different parts of the world just happen to take it a step further, by using real blood. In Kenya, Maasai warriors regularly consume cow’s blood mixed with its milk, but also drink it directly from the vein after a bloodletting.

#8: Coming of Age

Bullet Ant, Costa Rica
Bullet Ant, Costa Rica © emills1

There were so many contenders for this vied category: the tribes in Papua New Guinea, the Aborigines of Australia, inner city gangs of New York. In the end, the winner has to be the Satere Mawé tribe of the Amazon with their incredible gloves.

What harm could a glove be, you might ask? Well, imagine a set filled with giant ants, which are positioned stinger first, then irritated enough that any small disturbance will result in a bite. The Paraponera Clavata, also known as bullet ants – so named because one bite feels like getting shot – have the opportunity to sting the wearer of the gloves to their heart’s content. Initiates don these gloves for 30 minutes, not once, but … 25 times in a row. That’s more than half a day of being subjected to the venom of these aggressive ants. After that kind of pain, how could one not be considered a man?

The Sunday Times Steve Backshall described the ordeal:

Unlike many powerful neurotoxins that are designed to paralyse potential prey, the bullet ant’s sting has evolved over the millennia as a tool for defence. At a biochemical level, it prevents the body from protecting itself against pain, sending the neurones into free flow and creating escalating agony, designed to make any inquisitive animal think it has suffered enormous physical damage ”” and clear off.

I had suffered several hundred stings, and all of a sudden I went beyond pain. The sensations are not describable using simple words or metaphors, so I’ll just try to describe how I reacted.

First, I started wailing, then, once that had passed, the floodgates opened ”” deep, guttural sobbing, uncontrollable shaking, writhing, convulsing. You could see the neurotoxin kicking in, my muscles starting to palpitate, my eyelids becoming heavy and drooping, my lips going numb. I started to drool, and suddenly I wasn’t responding to anything at all. My legs wouldn’t hold me up, and our doctor was shouting at me to keep moving and not to give in to the urge to lie down and let it take me.

Read Steve Backshall’s entire recount of his experience of the ritual.

25 Responses

  1. Richard @ The Bewildered Brit

    What a fascinating post! I remember going to a Russian wedding and what happens there is that after the ceremony, the best man kidnaps the bride and the new husband has to find her. The plan being that the reunited couple arrives triumphantly at the reception.

    Except in our case, the husband couldn’t find the bride anywhere! Those of us at the reception got merrily drunker and drunker as we waited and waited.

    Eventually, the husband called the best man, pleading to know where they’d run off to!

    Reply
  2. Travel News and Stories for 11.02.2009 : Kathika Travel Website

    [...] The 8 Most Bizarre Rituals in the World Any ritual, religious or otherwise, has some unusual origins. Do you think tattoo parlors are now available in every nightlife district simply because they were fashionable hundreds of years ago? I think not; tattoos, like many other “tribal” customs, were a way of transforming the canvas (you) into a work of art, imbuing one with power http://www.vagabondish.com [...]

    Reply
  3. Heidi Ahrens

    Thank you so much for this post. I especially liked the large wooden penis. In Denmark they like to burn witches ( made by the whole family in wood) and cut the head off of cake in the shape of a man.

    I am trying to think of weird French Canadian rituals or things we do in the outdoors but I can’t think of it. I will post again if I think of something.

    Heidi

    Reply
  4. ECF

    It’s simply untrue that “All devout Christians believe in the transubstantiation of wine every time they take communion.” Catholics and Eastern Orthodox believe in transubstantiation, but most other Christians believe in consubstantiation or that communion is symbolic.

    If you’re going to make sweeping generalizations, please check your facts.

    Reply
  5. Nina

    Very, very interesting Turner. Always a pleasure to read the articles you write. Am a big fan of your writing. Great article as always:)

    Reply
  6. sarah

    pretty interesting article. The writer is very ignorant though regarding religions which kinda killed it for me.

    Reply
  7. Charles

    Bullet ant stings are of high repute as to exceptional agony. But other stinging species are fatal in lesser numbers, including the common polistes Carolina (red wasp), as few as 30 stings kill a non-allergic adult. The same is noted for to 40MM Australian bulldog ant—another red species. The Japanese hornet can likely kill with under 20 stings, and dozens of fatalities occur per annum.

    Reply
  8. Anas Shad

    Great article very interesting. These are some of the weirdest rituals I have ever heard of.

    Reply
  9. Becca

    “Blackening the Bride” does not happen in Scotland! Not in the present day. Ever.

    Source-I’m Scottish, been to a lot of Scottish weddings, never heard of this “tradition”.

    Reply
  10. lawrence

    man these practises should be stopped or some day only death will be everywhere . and all the children will become bad and arrogant

    Reply
  11. gilani

    It’s a nice article.
    Though I really do think that the author needs to read about traditions and religions before stating whatever he knows ‘as facts’
    Please get your facts straight writer. I’m sure you can do better.

    Reply
  12. Padma Drago

    Drinking blood is simply efficient use of scarce resources.
    Sky burials are common sense in a culture where the ground is hard rock, firewood is scarce, flesh does not decompose, and the compassionate offering of one’s flesh is considered a highly virtuous act: the last opportunity to create good karma when leaving this life.

    Reply
  13. Elmo Juraman

    I think the wooden penis is simply crazy and wack! I never knew someone would bother to do that!

    Reply
  14. Nishi Jain

    Bizarre indeed, Turner, though the bizarre quotient of anything is highest when we hear of it for the first time. And since I had heard of the body piercing and self-immolation rituals, what amused me most was the blackening of the bride! Gross!
    A similarly violent ritual can be witnessed during Tazia, a procession celebrated by Muslim Shia’s, in which devotees whip themselves mercilessly while mourning the death of their saint.
    And another example of sky burials are the ‘Towers of Silence’ near Mumbai, where the Paris dispose off their dead by hurling the bodies into deep towers where vultures would feed on them.
    Actually, there is no end to bizarre rituals in the world.

    Reply
  15. CanonGirl87

    “All devout Christians believe in the transubstantiation of wine every time they take communion.”

    Actually, this isn’t true. Roman Catholics believe this yes (maybe Orthodox but I am not sure) – but many of the protestant branches of Christianity see communion as a symbolic ritual and do not believe in transubstantiation. Luther expressly rejected the idea believing in the “presence” of Christ but not that it literally becomes body/blood. Same with Methodists – and most Lutherans still believe in Real Presence but not physical changing.

    Reply
  16. jane

    a terrible article a terrible website and a terrible author
    i suspect this comment will not be published
    you are exteremly racist in your comments about muslims blowing themselves up – i am not muslim but at least i know that islam is actually against self harm or any violence whatsoever but i suspect you are an ignorant fool who follows the media blindly. Your ignorance on the religion should tell you not to make comments you are not sure of. i have not read the rest of the article as you have very much annoyed me.

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


five − 1 =