The 5 Most Terrifying Initiation Rites in History
Being a full-fledged member of any society was an important thing in many of the world’s oldest cultures. To be a part of the community, of the tribe, or the family, is one of the strongest human needs. Because those that are left ostracized and unaccepted, will suffer hardships and possibly death. But in remote corners of the world, not everyone was deemed fit to become a part of the society. That’s why complex and often brutal initiation rites were invented. These were tests of prowess, manhood, or womanhood. Those who passed these difficult initiation rites were accepted as full-fledged members of the family. But these tests were simple or peaceful. Often enough, they were straight out horrifying.
Initiation Rite #1: Surviving Stinging Ants in the Amazon
The Sateré-Mawé people are one of the oldest native tribes of Brazil . They live deep in the Amazon, and nowadays number a little over 10,000 people. Like many of the tribesmen living in the Amazon jungle, they have complex and intriguing initiation rites. And theirs is by far the most brutal one.
The Sateré-Mawé devised a complex test of manhood. Those who pass this initiation rite would become full-fledged warriors, with a fearsome reputation to boot. The rite involves surviving ant stings! The elders of the tribe catch a whole bunch of Bullet Ants ( Paraponera Clavata ), which are known for their extremely painful bite, equal to a bullet shot (hence their name).
The elders proceed to render the ants unconscious. They do so by placing them into a natural sedative they create. This allows them to handle the insects easily. Following this, each ant is woven into a pair of specially crafted gloves. Made out of palm leaves , the gloves resemble large oven mitts. Hundreds of ants are densely packed into these gloves, their stings pointed towards the inside. And then, the young boys of the tribe enter the initiation rite by wearing these gloves for more than five minutes. The ants sting his hands repeatedly, and the boy is exposed to extreme agony. It is said that such pain is unlike anything a man can experience.
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When the ordeal is done, the boy is in terrible agony. The ant venom courses through his body, numbing it and causing hallucinations because of the intense pain. His hands become paralyzed and violent tremors shake his body continuously, sometimes for days. But that’s just the first part of the initiation rite. To become a warrior, the boy must complete the same process twenty times over the course of several months.
A sculpture of Maasai warriors on a lion hunt, which was also an initiation rite for individual potential warriors. ( Transitions ABROAD )
Initiation Rite #2: Africa’s Maasai Lion Hunt
The Maasai are one of Africa’s best known ancient tribes. Dwelling near the African Great Lakes , these people pride themselves on their unique dress, traditions, and a very old way of life. And one of the most important parts of their culture is a complex tradition, historical practice, and an initiation rite: the lion hunt.
A very demanding rite of passage, the lion hunt was meant to initiate skilled boys into the rank of brave warriors. But the challenge was immense. Those who undertook it would show great bravery, and this would be a sign of personal achievement. In ancient times, before contact with the outside world, populations of both lions and the Maasai were very high. That’s why the elders encouraged young men to go on solo lion hunts . Without anyone’s help, a warrior would expose himself to incredible danger, facing a male lion with little more than a spear. Only the bravest “future” warriors would succeed in this task.
To make things more challenging, the rule stated that the warrior could not hunt lions that were sick, poisoned, snared, or otherwise incapacitated. What is more, the rules prohibited the hunting of lionesses. The Maasai considered them the bearers of life in every species. So, only the most dangerous male lions were hunted.
However, over the years, the lion populations shrunk considerably, and hunting them became difficult. Thus, the Maasai developed olamayio, the group hunt that ensured more success. But even so, the practice remains one of the most terrifying initiation rites in history.
Just imagine yourself facing a raging lion, armed with a spear. You’ll quickly understand why this would be a rite reserved only for the bravest.
The deadly Vanuatu land diving platform with a young boy ready to leap! (Paul Stein / CC BY-SA 2.0 )
Initiation Rite #3: The Deadly Vanuatu Land Diving Ritual
The country of Vanuatu is an archipelago comprising 83 islands of various sizes. On one of these, Pentecost Island, the tribesmen perform a death-defying initiation rite that is listed amongst the world’s deadliest tribal practices. The rite can very easily end in death.
It is best described as the earliest form of and a precursor to bungee jumping. As an initiation rite, it is a sure way for a young man to prove his masculinity and to be initiated into the rank of the bravest warriors. As a ceremony, it is considered as a way to enhance the health and the abilities of all who jump. The ceremony is also believed to cure illnesses and physical ailments that come with the annual wet season.
The rite begins with the construction of a tall tower . It is made over the course of five weeks and can be up to 20 to 30 meters (66 to 98 feet) high when finished. Essentially, it is a series of scaffolding platforms, and the jumpers can choose a height that is suited to their age. Once they commit, they tie special vines around their ankles, which are designed to prevent them from hitting the ground and dying. As an added precaution, the ground at the bottom of the platform is tilled to soften the impact.
The men who jump are defying death. Their goal is to brush their shoulders against the ground, after plummeting down to the ground from an extreme height. The ramshackle tower creaks and bends, and the barely elastic vines tug violently on the man’s legs. In the end, their bodies stop just barely off the ground, and they are able to walk away safely. But one simple mistake, and all can end in death and disaster.
This initiation rite can be undertaken by both boys and grown men. When boys receive their ritual circumcision around age seven, they become eligible to make the jump. By completing this incredible challenge, they prove their masculinity to all the members of their tribe.
The four-stage initiation rite of the Matsë Tribe in the Brazilian jungle involves injecting the poison of the Giant Monkey Frog into a tribe member's blood. ( Xapiriground)
Initiation Rite #4: The Excruciating Trials of the Matsë Tribe
The Matsë Indians, also known as Matis, are one of Brazil’s most remote Amazonian tribes. Living deep in the isolated jungle areas of Western Brazil, the Matis were only discovered in the 1970s. Up to that point, the tribesmen believed that the passenger planes flying high above the tree canopies were the spirits of their ancestors. And the smaller two-man planes that flew lower were considered to be harmful demon spirits. Outside contact nearly wiped the tribe out, as smallpox was something their immune systems couldn’t endure. Luckily, the tribe managed to survive, although in small numbers. Their straight-out terrifying initiation rites take place in four separate stages.
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Before reaching manhood, a boy of the Matis tribe needs to prove himself worthy of hunting alongside other men. To do so, he needs to pass their initiation rites, a complex four-stage trial that places him in great danger and great pain.
The first part of the trial consists of temporary self-blinding. The boy puts a concoction of bitter and dangerous poison straight into his eyes. The elders believe that once the sight returns (if at all) it is enhanced and will make the boy a better hunter, enhancing the senses and improving vision.
Next, the boy endures a series of brutal whippings and beatings by the other men. These are done with the stems of the rattan plant . The whipping is supposed to help remove laziness.
The next step of the four-stage trial is even more extreme. The young man is injected with the poison of Phyllomedusa Bicolor (Giant Monkey Frog) , a small poisonous frog native to the jungles of Brazil. The poison is placed directly into the bloodstream, and its effects are brutal. If the boy proves his courage and does not vomit at once, he is injected again. What follows is light-headedness, violent vomiting, and uncontrolled bowel movements. In the end, it is believed that the frog poison will greatly increase the man’s strength and endurance.
Finally, in the fourth stage, the initiate is body rubbed with the leaves of a poisonous plant. This causes a heavy painful rash that lasts for hours and is believed to help the man with patience.
Only after completing these demanding initiation rites are the men deemed worthy of accompanying others in the hunt. The only catch is that these trials are repeated many times before every important hunting trip.
The Mandan Okipa Spirit Ceremony, depicted in this painting by George Catlin, involved hanging initiates by their muscles and beating them. ( George Catlin / Public domain )
Initiation Rite #5: The Mandan Okipa Spirit Ceremony
The Mandan tribe of the Great Plains region of America is one of the best known and best documented tribes of the continent. They lived in the area of what is now North Dakota and were one of the great trading tribes and excelled in corn production. They also had a complex set of traditions and beliefs, all of which were well documented by European explorers in the late 1700s and early 1800s. One of these was the Okipa or Sun Dance ceremony. It was a religious ceremony that was of the highest priority for the tribe, but it was also an initiation rite, offering a chance for young warriors to become respected and admired members of the tribe.
There were at least three purposes to the Okipa: the annual commemoration of the tribe’s salvation from the primordial flood (according to their myths), to communicate with ancient spirits and summon buffalos, and to give the chance for individuals (usually men) to complete vows given to the almighty spirit to prove their bravery and dedication. But not everyone could endure this brutal ceremony. Only the bravest of warriors could get through this violent rite of passage.
Before the ordeal, chosen warriors would not eat, drink, or sleep for four days. Afterwards, they were led to the great hut where the ordeal began. They were required to sit smiling, while elders pierced their shoulders and chest, thrusting skewers behind the muscles. Next, ropes were tied to the skewers, and the warriors suspended in mid-air, hanging there until they fainted.
Elders would add more weight to their legs, in order to increase agony and tension on their muscles. Next, they were removed from the skewers, and upon awakening the approval of the great spirits was confirmed. In gratitude, the warriors would offer their left little finger, which was cut off as a sacrifice with a hatchet.
In the last step of the ordeal, the men would race around the village, dragging their weights behind them, until they ripped out of the skin alongside the skewers. This marked the end of a grueling ordeal. Men who completed the rite twice in their life would gain everlasting fame in their tribe.
The Hamar people of southwestern Ethiopia are famous for their bull jumping initiation rite, which is also dangerous and sometimes deadly! This photo shows them preparing for this rite. ( veleknez / Adobe Stock)
What Would You Do to Become a Part of Your Community?
In primitive societies, young braves and would-be warriors were ready to complete anything just so they could become a proven member of the community. It was the adventure of a lifetime, the annual event that everyone spoke of in hushed voices. Men and women who didn’t complete these tests would be looked down upon, lacking bravery and the attributes of their sex.
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There’s no doubt that these initiation rites required great courage and endurance, and that they left the initiates tougher and bolder for the rest of their lives. But they were also foolish and dangerous, and put the young people at great risk. Sometimes, these rites of initiation would end in death. But for the people who practiced these rites, death was the will of the great spirits.
Top image: The super painful initiation rite of the Sateré-Mawé people, one of the oldest native tribes of Brazil, involved wearing gloves full of stinging Bullet Ants. Source: Mongabay
By Aleksa Vučković
Broude, G. J. 2015. Adolescent Initiation Rites. World History. [Online] Available at: https://www.worldhistory.biz/sundries/32544-adolescent-initiation-rites.html
Gennep, A. 2013. The Rites of Passage. Routledge.
Miller, W. I. 1993. Humiliation: And Other Essays on Honor, Social Discomfort, and Violence. Cornell University Press.