10 Funny and Fascinating Wedding Rituals from Ancient History
For countless couples across the globe, the wedding day is one of the most cherished days in their life. No matter how it is celebrated or how lavishly, it is the moment of their union - “‘til death do us part”. However, in ancient history, weddings were not always so joyful, and were often filled with some truly quirky and unique rituals. Many things differed to the relationships and weddings of modern times. Here are 10 fascinating wedding rituals from ancient history that can leave you speechless - and glad you got married in the 21st century!
1. Spitting on the Bride as a Blessing (Maasai, Kenya)
Inhabiting the African Great Lakes region, the Maasai peoples are among the oldest in the region. And even today they cling to their ancient traditions and customs, living a lifestyle that hasn’t changed much for centuries. This can be observed in one of their wedding rituals, where the newlyweds seek out the blessing of the bride’s father. The way this blessing is conducted, however, is a bit odd: the father blesses his daughter by spitting on her head and breasts. Afterwards, she leaves with her new husband, but does not turn around under any condition - elsewise she would turn into a stone. Spitting is an important ritual amongst the Maasai, and conveys utmost respect. Traders spit into their palms when shaking hands on agreement, and elders bless newborns by spitting on them.
Young Massai bride. (medicalmission/ CC BY 2.0 )
2. Blackening the Newlyweds with Filth (Scottish)
In the old times, Scots placed great importance on marriage. It was a way to bring two families together, to further the kinship amongst clans, and to seal alliances and mend arguments. However, during the wedding a unique ritual had to be conducted. And its true purpose is quite a mystery today. It is called “Blackening the Bride”, and involves the complete covering of the newlyweds in disgusting substances. The couple is covered - entirely - with things like fish sauce, tar, feathers, spoiled milk, rotten eggs, flour, mud, or anything equally nasty. Afterwards, the couple is “paraded” about, often covering long distances thus dirtied. The exact purpose of this truly odd ritual is unknown, but could date to pre-Christian times. As a similar version is present in Northern Ireland , it can be assumed that it is a Gaelic ritual with an enigmatic purpose.
3. Shooting the Apple as a Heroic Feat (Serbia)
The Slavs still preserve many of their oldest traditions. Amongst the South Slavs in particular, many pre-Christian rituals are still practiced, especially at weddings. In Serbia, weddings are a particularly lavish affair, and specific rituals are diming a dozen. They range from faux “stealing” of the bride, from “purchasing” her with real money, to stealing her shoe and holding it ransom. Then there is the bride’s throwing of the flour sieve above the roof of the house, or the best man’s throwing of coins into the crowd. But the most common wedding ritual in Serbia is the shooting of the apple by the groom. When entering the yard of the bride’s home, the groom is given a rifle (usually a hunting shotgun), with which he has to shoot an apple that is raised high up above the home. That’s a sure way to prove you are a capable man and warrior, even though the days of sword and rifle wielding are long gone.
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4. Throwing the Garter to the Eager Crowd (England)
Not all wedding rituals are cruel or odd. Some are, luckily, straight out cheeky. In English tradition there is the wedding custom called the Garter Toss. During the celebrations, the bride would take off her garter, a piece of lingerie used to hold stockings up. Similarly, to tossing the wedding bouquet, she’ll toss the garter into the crowd, for one lucky attendant to catch. Still, this seemingly innocent ritual has some darker roots. In medieval times, after the wedding was done, the newlyweds were expected to immediately consummate the marriage. The crowd often stood right in front of the door, making sure that the “deed was done”. The groom would afterwards emerge, bringing the bride’s garter as a proof of consummating the marriage. Not the most romantic wedding night, eh? Lucky for all, the Middle Ages are long over.
5. Beating the Feet Brings Good Luck? (Korean)
In Korea, there exists an old and respected wedding ritual that is truly odd. And it survives to modern times, being a common sight in modern weddings. After the wedding ceremony is done, the groom cannot leave with his bride at once - not until the ritual is complete. He must endure a foot beating! That’s right. The men seat him down, tie his feet together, take off his shoes and socks, and then beat his soles with dried yellow fish, and more rarely with a cane or a stick. The ritual is meant to be funny more than painful, but it can still hurt quite a bit! The purpose of the beating is to bring good luck to the newlyweds, and to make the groom stronger and more capable for the first wedding night! How does that work, no one knows.
6. Dancing with the Sword to Impress Your Bride (Afghan)
In some cultures, especially in ancient times, the couple didn’t really know one another all that well. This was especially apparent in cultures where arranged marriages were the norm. And in such cases, the wedding day was the time where they could truly impress one another and create the spark of love. In the Afghan tradition, the men perform a daring sword dance called the Attan, with which they can easily impress the bride. Full of challenging twists and turns, this dance has ancient roots, and requires great skill with the sword. As only the most skilled grooms could master it, the Attan was a sure way to impress your new bride and make certain she falls in love with you. Just had to make sure not to behead anyone.
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7. Wedding Night Dance Procession (Egyptian)
In modern Egypt, there is a particular wedding ritual that predates Islam, and belongs to the old customs of the Ancient Egyptians. It is one of the best known wedding customs in Egypt today, and is known as zaffa. Celebrating the new union, the wedding guests together with the newlyweds begin the lavish dance and party - a musical procession with flaming swords, drums, pipes, horns, belly dancers, and all kinds of fun elements. Once this procession reaches its destination, the party continues and is followed by a dinner for everyone. It is the perfect way to express your joy for the married couple. In Ancient Egypt, this ritual likely had religious connotations, perhaps invoking the deities of fertility and prosperity. Dances were a common form or ritual invocation for the Ancient Egyptians, and this custom could indicate this.
Wedding Procession Cairo. Circa 1912. ( Archivist/Adobe Stock)
8. No Smiling Permitted Whatsoever (Congo)
Who would’ve thought that a wedding ceremony can pass without joy or smiles? In Congo it is a key part of an ancient wedding ritual, which deems that weddings are a thoroughly serious affair. So, during or after the wedding ceremony, the couple or the guests cannot smile, let alone laugh. Similarly, in any of the photos that are created, the newlyweds cannot smile. It is considered impossible to take the ceremony seriously if anyone would smile. Only after the event is over, can the couple finally crack a smile! It is an indication that in ancient times, cultures in Congo saw the wedding as a solemn and serious occasion, as the couple had to spend their life together and bear children - a thing that bears great responsibilities.
9. Everyone May Kiss the Bride! (Sweden)
One strange and quite fun wedding custom from Sweden is all about kissing. We all know that traditional gesture: “You may kiss the bride”. But that only pertains to the newlywed couple. In Sweden, an old tradition states that if the groom is to leave the wedding room - even for a minute - all the male guests are permitted to kiss the bride if they wish to. The same thing goes for the females of the party - if the bride leaves, they can shower the groom with kisses. It's all fun and games at the end of the day, after all - who wouldn’t want to be smothered in smooches? Interestingly though, the custom may have much older origins, dating to the Norse times.
Representation of ancient Norse newlyweds. ( PORTFOLIO studio /Adobe Stock)
10. Chasing Away Those Pesky Vengeful Spirits (Ancient Rome)
Bridesmaids are as much a sight to behold as the bride herself. It is a great privilege to be a bridesmaid, and one definitely has to look the part too. But have you ever wondered why all the bridesmaids are required to dress the same? The answer is part of an ancient wedding ritual from Rome. The Romans believed that the bride - being so pretty - is easy prey for vengeful spirits who would harm her. In order to confuse those spirits and chase them away, the Romans “invented” bridesmaids and their exact same garments. Thus, the spirits would be utterly confused and the bride would be left alone in peace. Talk about ingenuity!
Engraving of the mural "Les époux se doivent mutuellement fidélité secours assistance" in Paris. Depicting a prominent Roman wedding. (Gustave Boulanger/ CC0)
Married at the Right Time, to the Right Person
Reading about these fascinating wedding rituals from ancient history, one has to be glad to be married in modern times. After all, it wasn’t that bad, right? You chose the person you love, got to know them for a few years, and then decided it was the right time for a “happily ever after”. Certainly, beats foot whipping and marriage consummation in front of a crowd. Still, there is no space for prejudice. Ancient rituals are countless and all unique, and closely define the cultures to which they belong. Mentality was also different in centuries past: if quirky rituals were the trend of the day, they were simply accepted as “normal”. After all, who knows what type of weddings we’ll see in a few centuries. What was your wedding day like? And are there any odd rituals in your culture? Let us know in the comments below!
Top image: Blackening the Bride. In Scotland, newlyweds are covered in filth. Source: azazello / Adobe Stock.
By Aleksa Vučković .
Armitage, H. 2016. Unusual Wedding Traditions from Around the World. Available at: https://theculturetrip.com/asia/articles/10-unusual-wedding-traditions-from-around-the-world/
Droesch, K. 2013. 'Spitting On the Bride' & 11 Other Bizarre Wedding Rituals. Available at: https://www.yourtango.com/2013193457/12-strangest-wedding-traditions-around-world
Glusac, M. 2019. 10 wedding traditions with dark and twisted origins. Available at: https://www.insider.com/wedding-traditions-with-dark-and-twisted-origins-2019-2