What did you do when you "became a man"? - No, I don't mean losing your virginity, though in many cultures, coming of age is intricately linked to sexual maturity. Did you celebrate by buying a Lotto ticket? Drink a yard glass full of beer? Become a Bar Mitsvah?
Well, weaklings, be thankful that you didn't grow up as an aborigine in Australia, in the Satere Mawé tribe in the Amazon, or in the Sepik River tribe of Papua New Guinea. As you can see below, some cultures take the rites of manhood very, very seriously.
Let's take a look at six of the Strangest Coming of Age Rituals in the World:
In the walkabout, adolescent Aborigine boys are sent to live in the wilderness for as long as six months. It's not just about camping - they go on a spiritual journey to trace their ancestor's songlines, which include navigation instructions and other ancient wisdoms encoded in songs.
Initiation with Bullet Ants
To become men in Amazon's Satere Mawé tribe, boys as young as twelve have to first wear ceremonial gloves filled with stinging bullet ants. They're called not bullet ants without a very good reason: being stung by these suckers feels very much like getting shot. Each ant packs neurotoxins that cause pain 30 times more agonizing than the sting of a common wasp.
And if you think that's bad enough, wearing the gloves once just doesn't cut it - you have to wear it for 10 minutes 20 times to become a man ...
Steve Backshall went through the ritual and described it in The Sunday Times:
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.
If there’d been a machete to hand, I’d have chopped off my arms to escape the pain. The other boys were in a similar state, but, interestingly, my host, who had been through the ritual before, seemed far more in control.
It took three hours for the pain to ease a little, and shortly after that I was back playing footie with the kids — though with a hand clasped in each armpit and a pause every few minutes to scream a bit. Twelve hours later, my hands were swollen up like inflated washing-up gloves. If I pressed a thumb into them, it took two minutes for the impression to disappear from the fluid-swollen flesh.
You don't have to go to remote corners of the world to find this next ritual. Circumcision, the cutting of the foreskin of the penis, is practiced (or forced upon, depending on your perspective) by as many as 1 in 3 males in the world.
There is a lot of controversy about circumcising a male infant right after birth, but at least the baby is too young to remember the painful ordeal. Nay, as a coming of age ritual in Turkey (amongst other cultures), circumcision is practiced on adolescent boys.
The origin of circumcision is lost in time. The most commonly accepted version is that circumcision came from ancient Egyptians, who noticed that a snake is reborn after it sheds its skin. And what part of the male anatomy is closest to a snake? You got the general idea ...
British zoologist Desmond Morris noted in the documentary "The Human Sexes" (clip above) that "I can't help feeling that if male circumcision didn't exist today and someone tried to introduce it, they'd be arrested for child abuse. But it's traditional role as a major rite of passage is too entrenched to bow to common sense or objective medical opinion."
In the tiny South Pacific island of Pentecost, boys as young as five years old engage in a tradition that can be best described as the ancient precursor to modern day's bungee jumping.
In Naghol (N'gol) or the land diving ritual, suicidally brave men jump from makeshift rickety towers as high as 100 feet up in the air with vines tied around their ankles. Land diving is kind of a multipurpose ritual: a rite of passage, a way to appease the gods to ensure a good yam harvest, and now, a tourist attraction.
So it's like bungee jumping - big deal, you think. Well, actually it's a little bit more complicated than that. The whole point of land diving is that the jumper's head touch the ground. But obviously if you're the jumper, you'd want that to be as briefly done as possible: if your head doesn't touch the ground, then it'll be a bad yam harvest. If your head touch too much ground, the yam will be blessed but you'll die. The difference between a good jump and a fatal one is about 4 inches of vine. It's no surprise then, that a jumper is allowed to say anything he wants to anyone before the jump and not be held responsible for his words (Source).
In the highlands of Papua New Guinea, the Matausa tribesmen believe that in order for timid boys to become brave men and attract women, they have to expel the contaminating female blood that they got from their mothers during childbirth. In order to do that, they undergo a brutal bloodletting rituals that involve shoving canes down their throats, sharp reeds up their nostrils and plunging sharp arrows repeatedly into their tongues.
If you think that the initiation rites above are bad, this one is downright horrifying: the crocodile scarification of the Sepik River tribe of Papua New Guinea (what is up with Papua New Guinea?!)
I'll leave the National Geographic video clip above to fill you in on the details (warning: it's TERRIFYING!), but suffice it to say it involves getting hundreds of razor cuts on their bodies to get that fashionable "crocodile skin" look.
Obviously, the article above only covered coming of age rituals for men. This doesn't mean that women don't have it rough - many coming of age rituals for girls are very physically demanding, like Na'ii'ees or the Apache Sunrise Ceremony, or the downright horrible ones like the Sunna circumcision or female genital mutilation practiced in many parts of Africa.
I'd be the first to admit that the article is woefully incomplete (Cracked also has an article on this - I've taken steps not to repeat many of theirs) - if you know of any other strange coming of age rituals, please add them to the comment.