Rites of Passage

Initiation Rituals from around the World

Europe

“...babies who were judged to be frail by a council of elders were promptly euthanised by being thrown down a gorge...”

In Ancient Greece, the warrior tribe of Sparta was renowned for its militaristic fervour, and our fascination with the Spartans continues today – as evidenced by the movie 300’s cult status. Physical prowess was so valued in Sparta that babies who were judged to be frail by a council of elders were promptly euthanised by being thrown down a gorge of Mount Taygetus. Of the survivors, boys were taken from their parents at age seven to begin the strict military training known as agoge, where they were trained harshly and fed little, for 13 years. To mark the end of the agoge, initiates were beaten until their flesh tore – at which point they were declared ready to move on to yet another institution. At 20, each man had to join a syssitia, or club, to which he had to make financial and other contributions. Only after having passed through all these hurdles could a man be elected for public office from age 30. And you thought your parents were harsh...

We look at the most extreme, grotesque or just plain bizarre initiation rituals from around the world.

North America

“...they drugged their initiates with a powerful hallucinogenic...”

The Algonquin Native Americans of Quebec took the process of severing childhood links to an extreme: they drugged their initiates with a powerful hallucinogenic with amnesiac as well as other toxic effects, which would send the boys on such a powerful mindbender they would “forget” all traces of their childhood. (If they survived relatively sane, that is.) The rider was that if any boy showed signs of recognition of his past, after surviving his ordeal, he would summarily be taken back to a secluded area for another dose of the drug!


Another tribe of Native Americans, the Mandans, would hoist a male initiate up on ropes which were attached to wooden splints that were – get this – pierced through the boy’s chest, shoulders and back muscles. Skulls of his ancestors were hooked onto the splints. Once the boy was unconscious, he was let down, but the torture continued: the splints were ripped out once he woke, and his pinkie finger also amputated as a gift to the gods, and to ensure the boy would become a good hunter. Now that’s extreme.

Africa      

“...the Fula people, found in parts of West Africa, have to undergo a whipping battle, using sharpened sticks with thorns on them...”

Let’s resist the temptation to imagine our “dark continent” as the obvious repository of savage rites. While it is true that hardcore initiation rituals can certainly be found in Africa, for example, boys belonging to the Fula people, found in parts of West Africa, have to undergo a whipping battle, using sharpened sticks with thorns on them, and must try not to show pain or cowardice, before they can be called men. But, there are also other stories.

For instance, in Ethiopia, the Hamer people have an interesting challenge for a man before he is allowed to get married. He has to “jump the cattle”. During the ceremony, initiates mount a row of castrated bulls or cows and must run over their backs, several times, in order to be declared a man. The boys are naked except for a few cords wrapped around them, symbolising the childhood they are leaving behind. Less palatable, however, is the fact that women present themselves for a “whipping ceremony” before the cow-jumping starts. They are beaten by the initiates, usually family members, and the idea is that the scars they bear from the ceremony are proudly carried public signs of their willingness to suffer for their family. Having undergone the ordeal also means the women may reciprocally look to their male relatives for protection should they fall on hard times in later life.

South America

“...some true sadists, literally weave tens of sedated bullet ants into homemade mittens.”

Have you ever heard of an insect called the bullet ant? This ant of the genus paraponera is known as the 24-hour ant in South America, because of the length of time its sting inflicts pain. A bullet ant sting is said to be the most painful experience possible, as measured on the Schmidt sting index, and surpassing the pain of a bullet wound, kidney stone or childbirth. Why are we telling you this? Because initiates of the Satere-Mawe tribe, whose forbears must have included some true sadists, literally weave tens of sedated bullet ants into homemade mittens. The male initiates have to place their hands inside the gloves and dance, wearing them, for 10 minutes at a time, 20 separate times over the course of a few days. The British TV hard man and wildlife presenter Steve Backshall, who has a special interest in poisonous creatures, participated in the ritual a few years ago and subsequently said: “I had suffered several hundred stings, and all of a sudden I went beyond pain. 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.”