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Shocking and Bizarre Rituals from Around the World

Written by Matthew Copes 

Shocking and bizarre rituals from around the world.

What could be more self-explanatory?

Let’s just dive in and start with a doozy, shall we? 

Blood Fiestas in Spain


Imagine this…

Somewhere in rural Spain, a man leans over a nearly dead bull covered in horrific wounds. 

Through tortured gasps the exahusted animal grimaces, as one by one, the man slices off its twitching ears with a pitted steel knife. 

Then, as warm blood pools below the defeated beast, the man raises his grizzly prizes skyward amidst shrill cheers from hundreds of frenzied and intoxicated onlookers.

But though this might seem like the final act of the heinous scene, it actually ends with the aforementioned spectators finishing off the poor animal with everything from spears and machetes to clubs and kitchen knives.  

It’s hard to imagine such a brutal act occurring in a developed country these days, but similar scenarios are relatively common in some parts of Spain during the annual blood fiesta season. 

And despite what many of us think, to many locals the fiestas aren’t considered wanton acts of brutality, but sport, tradition, and rites of passage.    

In Spain, traditional bullfights in large arenas are the most well-known and controversial “competitions” between men and beasts. 

They’re popular with some Spaniards and foreign tourists, but according to data and eyewitness accounts, blood fiestas are usually far more gruesome and account for significantly higher animal deaths each year.  

However, blood fiestas have stayed out of the international spotlight, largely because they’re usually practiced in rural areas where outsiders just don’t venture.  

In recent years, outraged animal rights advocates from all over Europe have infiltrated a number of blood fiestas, and much of what they’ve discovered and documented is cringe-worthy to say the least. 

Some have witnessed and filmed animals like bulls, goats and calves being beaten, stoned, kicked, cut and hacked by frenzied mobs. 

Some were even dragged behind pickup trucks over rocky terrain while they were still alive, until all that remained were traces of bone and bloody tissue. 

Most Spaniards disapprove of such activities, but in some remote areas blood fiestas are highly anticipated yearly events. 

Each year more than 10,000 annual blood fiestas may be held across the country, and they’re perfectly legal. 

Even more disturbingly, children often participate. 

Though it’s easy to turn a blind eye and pass it off as a domestic problem, if you live in an EU member state your hard-earned tax dollars may be helping to make it all possible.  

In recent years the European Union provided over £110 million (138 million USD) in subsidies through its Common Agricultural Policy, most of which went directly to farmers who breed animals specifically for bullfights and blood fiestas.  

A number of activist groups have petitioned the European Commission to ban blood fiestas or at the very least cut off outside funding, but chances are they’ll continue, even if the Spanish are forced to foot the bill themselves. 

Hanging Coffins in the Philippines


At the risk of sounding crass, at one time or another most of us have wished that a deceased loved one could’ve hung around a bit longer. 

Ironically, for Igorot families in the northern Philippines, the dearly departed often do just that – hang around.  

For more than two millennia the Igorot have buried their dead in coffins suspended from sheer cliff faces hundreds of feet above the ground. 

But beforehand, the bodies are painstakingly prepared in accordance with tradition, the first step of which is to slow decomposition through dehydration. 

To this end, cadavers are smoked in small caves for up to a week. 

Next, the drawn, desiccated and leathery bodies are tethered to ceremonial death chairs and covered with blankets.  

Then, after multi-day vigils, the corpses are uncovered and taken on bizarre funeral processions, during which mourners take turns handling them, going out of their way to touch areas where blood and other fluids seeped out and congealed during the smoking process. 

These dark and foul smelling fluids are thought to contain the deceased’s very essence, hence coming into contact with them is seen as a means of absorbing wisdom and lifeforce. 

When processions reach the burial sites, the cadavers are placed in colorful and ornate wooden boxes like coffins that are often fashioned from hollow logs.  

Since traditional Igorot believe that a person should leave the world the same way he or she entered it, in the past the dead were buried in fetal positions in coffins far smaller than the bodies themselves. 

Since rigor mortis sets in long before burial, this usually involved breaking the deceased’s femurs so that the knees could be pushed toward the chin. 

These days however, many younger Igorot lack the intestinal fortitude required to crack stout leg bones, so the dead are generally buried stretched out in body-length coffins. 

Either way, prior to burial each body is wrapped in a blanket, the lid is nailed into place, and the coffin is hoisted upward and anchored into place on the side of a cliff. 

To ensure that the living can pay their respects to the dead every day, the fronts of the coffins are always pointed toward the home of the deceased’s closest family members.

Though there’s no consensus on why these rituals are performed, the reasons are likely manifold. 

First, smoking and suspending the bodies cuts down on putrefaction and odors, and makes them inaccessible to scavengers and predators. 

In addition, it’s believed that suspended bodies are closer to the heavens and the spirits of those who passed before them.  

Nonetheless, these days even in remote areas, many young Filipinos identify as Christians, and as such most prefer to bury their dead relatives in run-of-the-mill cemeteries. 

Dancing with the Dead in Madagascar


Not to be outdone by their Filipino counterparts, the Malagasy people of Madagascar actually dance with decomposed and desiccated bodies of their deceased ancestors, some of whom have been dead for years.  

The festivities generally take place during the annual Famadihana ceremony, before which the dead are removed from their balmy crypts. 

Characterized by drawn lips, discolored teeth, patches of missing skin and exposed bone and muscle tissue, to put it bluntly, the cadavers have seen better days. 

In addition, the clothes they were buried in are usually little more than rags stained with reddish-brown bodily secretions. 

Disturbing visuals aside, the dead are stripped, cleaned, and reclad in fresh new duds, after which they’re hoisted over the heads of revelers and paraded through the streets accompanied by loud music and wild dancing. 

So that the dead will remember the living when they’re reinterred after the festival, the living write their names on the new garments, typically in permanent marker. 

Famadihana ceremonies celebrate the lives of the dead, but unlike other rituals on this list, they’re relatively recent traditions, probably originating no earlier than the mid-17th century. 

The macabre custom is based on the belief that in order to convene with the spirits of those who passed before them, the bodies of the recently dead must first pass through a succession of ceremonies and decompose completely, both of which can take years. 

And until then, the dead aren’t technically considered dead.  

Generally held once every seven years, Famadihana ceremonies typically draw family groups from far and wide, but these days they’re far less common than they once were. 

Younger generations tend to find the practice distasteful and antiquated, while in some cases the cost of preparing the body, buying new clothes and paying for the accompanying celebration has become prohibitively expensive. 

In addition, a number of obvious health concerns arise from handling corpses. 

Some evidence suggests that Famadihana ceremonies have been responsible for outbreaks of the pneumonic plague in the region. 

In recent years the government has forbidden the practice for those who’ve died of the plague, but in rural areas where oversight and enforcement are nearly non-existent, the decree is usually ignored. 

Likewise, for more than a century Christian missionaries have actively discouraged the practice. 

But though the Catholic Church once took a hard stance against Famadihana ceremonies, at least officially, the Vatican now regards it as a cultural practice instead of a religious one. 

Cannibalism in Brazil


Whether for reverent remembrance or outright survival, cannibalism has been practiced around the world since the beginning of time. 

Most of us associate the stomach churning practice with ancient history and isolated tribes exclusively, but cannibalism reared its ugly head in the United States in the late 1840s, when the ill-fated Donner Party became stuck in the Sierra Nevadas during a particularly harsh winter while en route to California. 

Then there was the case of the Uruguayan rugby team that crashed in the Andes in mid-October of 1972.

But cannibalism isn’t always about survival or a grizzly act of aggression toward a vanquished enemy. 

Instead, for some cultures dining on human flesh has more to do with respect and reverence, and for them it’s no more bizarre than sitting down to steaming haggis or a Thanksgiving turkey. 

Hidden away deep in the heart of the immense Brazilian rainforest, the Yanomami tribe managed to evade detection until the mid-1700s when Spanish explorer Apolinar Díaz de la Fuente trekked into the Padamo River basin near the Venezuelan border. 

Encountering thousands of indigenous Yanomami living in hundreds of villages across the region, Diaz de la Fuente and his cohorts were fascinated by the culture. 

The Yanomami lived in large, elevated communal structures that housed between 100 and 400 people, but their communities had no chiefs or established hierarchies. 

On the contrary, important matters concerning the community were generally made by consensus, and women had just as much say as the men did. 

There was however, a traditional division of labor within the society.  

While men typically hunted and patrolled the community’s borders, the women spent most of their time attending to domestic chores and foraging for wild edibles in the nearby forest. 

Though all seemed surprisingly idyllic, the members of Diez de la Fuente’s expedition were slightly disconcerted to discover that the Yanomami practiced a form of cannibalism called endocannibalism, in which they ate small, symbolic portions of deceased members of their own community. 

Though painful, most western cultures consider death a natural occurrence, but the Yanomami see it differently. 

They believe that death is caused by evil spirits, often those of enemies intent on wiping them out and taking their resources. 

Immediately after a person dies, the body is wrapped in leaves and taken into the forest far away from the village center. 

To allow nature to run its course, bodies are typically left to decompose for between 30 and 45 days. 

Then, the bones are removed, cremated, and pounded into ash, after which they’re mixed with boiling water and bananas to make a slurry-like soup.

The soup is then shared with the entire community until none remains. 

It’s believed that this funeral ritual helps keep the living strong by providing them with sufficient sustenance to stave off the aforementioned spirits, and that it also helps the deceased find peace in the afterlife. 

Bullet Ant Gloves in Brazil


In cultures around the world, the transition from boyhood to manhood is often accompanied by celebrations and rituals, the latter of which may involve feats of strength, tests of courage, and  painful ordeals. 

From a physical pain perspective, the bullet glove ritual practiced by the Sateré-Mawé people of Brazil takes the cake.

The Mawé believe that to become men, boys must endure the most excruciating pain imaginable.

Thankfully there’s an easy solution, because the jungles in which the Mawé live are teaming with bullet ants, or paraponera clavata.

Bullet ants are so named because their fearsome mandibles are widely regarded as inflicting the most painful bites in the insect world, not unlike being shot. 

In fact, along with North American tarantula hawk wasps, bullet ants are the only insects to rate perfect 4.0 scores on the Schmidt sting pain index, a comparative scale created in the 1980s by entomologist Justin Schmidt to classify and rate the relative pain inflicted by various species. 

While compiling data, Schmidt traveled the world to experience many insect stings firsthand. 

After enduring numerous bullet ant bites, he described the experience as wave after wave of unbearable burning that often lasted for more than 24 hours. 

Before Mawé boys are subject to the trial, elders disperse into the surrounding jungle to collect hundreds of bullet ants after first rendering them unconscious with a sweet natural sedative made with a hodgepodge of indigenous plants. 

Back in the village, the ants are woven into the mesh of large mittens made from pliable twigs and vines. 

Then, the ant-studded mittens are placed over the hands of the wide-eyed and often terror stricken boys. 

When the groggy and disoriented ants regain consciousness, they immediately begin biting the boys’ flesh. 

To pass the test, the boys must keep the mittens on for five minutes while being repeatedly stung by dozens or hundreds of ants. 

But though the gloves are removed after “only” five minutes, the boys may experience severe and often debilitating pain for more than a day. 

Symptoms include nausea, vomiting, hallucinations, muscle paralysis and erratic arrhythmia.

Worse yet, the ritual isn’t a one-time deal. 

Depending on their age, the traditions of the village in which they live and their standing in the community, each boy will have to undergo the ritual numerous times over months or even years, until such time that the elders are convinced that they’ve suffered enough and have what it takes to become men. 

Walking Dead in Indonesia


Located on the eastern Indonesian island of South Sulawesi, the Tana Toraja Regency is often referred to as the “Land of Heavenly Kings.” 

Renowned for its primordial jungles, vibrant culture, and valuable export products like coffee and cocoa, it’s an idyllic place inhabited by the Toraja people. 

Well-known regionally for a particularly eerie funerary practice, the Toraja believe that life and death are largely inextricable.  

As such, deceased members of the community aren’t technically considered dead until they’ve undergone a number of elaborate rituals, after which their spirits are free to pass into the heavenly ancestral resting place known as Puya.   

Hence, physical death should be celebrated not mourned, and as a result funerals are generally larger, more lavish and more expensive than weddings, birthdays and anniversary parties. 

In fact, they’re often week-long affairs that don’t begin until months or years after the deceased have passed on. 

Shortly after death, bodies are mummified and placed in special rooms in the homes of relatives. 

During this time family members continue to interact normally with the decaying bodies, because they believe that they’re in extended states of sleep.  

Then the bodies are buried, but only temporarily, because during Ma’nene festival which is practiced every three years, the corpses are exhumed, tidied up and dressed in new clothes. 

Between festivals, the families of the recently deceased often live in grinding poverty to save money to pay for the extensive ceremonies. 

Another important aspect of the ritual is the creation of lifelike wooden effigies called tau tau. 

During the hours-long funeral processions through the village, the tau tau are carried alongside the bodies that they represent, after which celebrations including song, dance and feasts may last for days. 

When the food and money are gone and everyone is ready to get back to their normal lives, the bodies are once again interred in stone mausoleums, caves, or hollowed out tree trunks. 

Whatever the case, the tau tau are left at the entrances as sentinels. 

As this tradition has become more well-known, the Toraja have turned it into a lucrative tourism business. 

Some claim that this has led to meaningless embellishment and that it somehow lessens the solemnity of the affair.  

Either way, both locals and visitors are urged to leave offerings with the tau tau as payment for their protective services. 

Generally, Coca-Cola, cigarettes, cut fruit and packaged cookies are greatly appreciated. 

Finger Amputation in New Guinea


In most cultures, the death of a loved one is a traumatic experience characterized by shock, grief and feelings of loss. 

That said, in some parts of New Guinea, the living up the ante by adding voluntary finger amputation and excruciating physical pain to the mix. 

Members of the Dani tribe believe that both emotional and physical pain are necessary elements of the grieving process, and in many respects western science backs up this assertion. 

Known as the body’s natural painkillers, endorphins are produced by the hypothalamus and pituitary glands in response to painful and stressful situations. 

Though they’re not cure-alls, both generally produce feelings of well-being, and in some cases mild euphoria. 

Few would argue that wilfully amputating fingertips produces lasting happiness, but it’s been a tradition among Dani women for generations. 

After the death of a loved one, female family members tightly wrap a cord around the middle knuckle of one finger for approximately 30 minutes. 

This decreases blood flow and creates localized numbness, after which the portion of the finger above the tourniquet is severed with a swift hatchet blow. 

Next, the wounds are immediately cauterized to prevent bleeding and infection, and the severed digits are burned into ash and kept in the owner’s home to ward off evil spirits.  

Tradition has it that if this ritual isn’t practiced the deceased’s spirit may linger in the village and cause mischief and turmoil. 

Though the practice is technically illegal in New Guinea, it’s still relatively common in rural areas where enforcement is lax.

In some Dani villages many of the older women are missing the tips of every finger on at least one hand, but the practice isn’t particularly popular with younger women who prefer manual dexterity to honoring the dead.   

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