The 5 Most Intense Rites of Passage from Around the World
The process of becoming a grown-up is confused and muddled these days. Sure, we have small milestones that mark our progress toward adulthood, like driver's licenses, drinking, voting, clumsy sex, adult sentencing, and legal drinking. But none of those accomplishments gets us all the way there; we still have 20- and 30-somethings who live with their parents, working dead-end jobs, avoiding marriage. We're becoming adults at a slower pace than ever, with no clear point at which we can definitively say we've made it.
Throughout history, different cultures have handled this transition into adulthood in a much simpler fashion. After reaching a certain age, typically after certain parts of the body drop, the elders would round up all the adolescents and, over the course of an afternoon, turn them into adults. They would do this with rites of passage -- tests used to demonstrate the adolescents' toughness and courage.
It'd be like if you had to pass your driving test with a whole bunch of snakes in your lap.
And although toughness and courage aren't perhaps as useful as they once were, there is something impressive about a teen composed entirely of elbows standing up, facing his fears, conquering them, and emerging on the other side a man.
"Today I am a man!"
So, in the interest of celebrating any process that results in less-elbowy teenagers, below we present a list of some of the bravest rites of passage from around the world, which we encourage you to admire from the safety of your computer chair, not thinking too much about the irony.
Lions are called the kings of the jungle for a reason. They're about 500 pounds of teeth and claws, can run 50 miles per hour (in bursts), and hate everything that isn't in their bellies. They're the perfect example of an apex predator, and until about 40 years ago, humans existed on this planet only because the lions let us.
Basically, if you run into someone who isn't scared of lions, they're lying, or a lion in disguise. Everyone but the Maasai, that is.
And not just because they can hover away from the lions, although they can also do that.
This nomadic group of African tribes has long used a lion hunt as a rite of passage, one of a few steps in the process of turning teenagers into something useful. Using nothing more than spears and shields (and what must be spectacularly large testicles), the young Maasai venture out into the savanna to kill some lions.
In the exact same way our teenagers don't.
This is starting to be phased out of modern Maasai life, as the number of lions dwindles (because of disease, not the Maasai's huge balls). In the future, "getting a degree" is going to be the new "lion kill" for the young Maasai, and while we guess it's nice that they're acknowledging concepts like sustainability and working to adapt to the modern world, it's still a little sad to know that there will be fewer trained lion killers on our side when the lions do eventually rebuild their populations and rise up against us.
"Hey, uh, you got any lion in you?"
Throughout history, various tribes have used beatings in order for their young men to prove their toughness and courage. The Spartans, for example, appeared to do little else but beat their children, a process that ensured that any who survived to adulthood would be pretty tough.
"FLY OR PERISH."
The Matis people from the Amazon have a similar ritual called mariwin, in which village elders dress themselves up as important spirits, enter the village, and whip people. They whip children if the children are naughty, they whip warriors to make the warriors stronger, and they whip pregnant women to make the babies stronger. Obviously, we don't see this too much anymore, and certainly not officially, as we've collectively decided that we prefer our adolescents doughy.
"Man, why am I taking so much guff in this article?"
But one area where the tradition lives on is in Konomiya, Japan, where a very special villager is selected to traverse a sea of enraptured loincloth-clad men. At the Naked Men Festival, the chosen one, or the Shin-otoko, is battered by thousands of men in giant nappies trying to touch him for good luck. It is, obviously, a great honor.
The Hand in a Hole
The way this test of bravery works is that the subject is made to put his hand in a hole. If that doesn't sound too scary, then consider that this hole or hollow stump or haunted crevasse or whatever is also often filled with critters. If you're still not getting it, it's perhaps best illustrated by this scene from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, in which Indiana's shrill friend has to stick her hand in a bug-filled hole to stop a deathtrap.
How much of a test this is varies a lot from person to person; for many, the threat of these little critters evokes some pretty primal fears. If you don't like bugs or snakes, it might be impossible for you to complete this kind of fear-based glory hole.
Stock Image No. 256734. Keywords: golf, ball, glory, hole.
As a rite of passage, this practice is best exemplified by the father/son tradition of noodling. In the American South, where both free time and limbs are readily disposable, it's been discovered that by diving into the water and sticking your arm into any old hole, you can trick the catfish (who happens to call that hole its home) into clamping onto your arm. Then you just haul it out and bask in the glory.
That's a terrifying hole.
This is only mildly dangerous if everything goes right, like if the catfish doesn't pull you under, or the catfish isn't a catfish and is instead a nest of poisonous snakes. At which point it becomes mildly lethal, and your dad gets in trouble with mom for losing another one.
Jumping off something really big and not dying is a neat trick, and was formally used as a rite of passage in Hawaii in the 18th century, where King Kahekili used to jump off cliffs just to show that he could. The Birdman, as he was soon nicknamed, began making his warriors jump off the same cliffs to prove their loyalty and forever earn his respect and whatever the 18th century Hawaiian equivalent of an extreme sports reality show was.
"I hope I at least get some longer shorts out of this."
In the modern era, cliff diving's fallen by the wayside a bit, at least as a formalized rite of passage -- really, ever since we stopped having badass bird-kings and switched to cruddy democracy. Obviously, anywhere there's a lake or pier or jetty and moron teenagers desperate to impress other moron teenagers, there will be cliff diving. This is even quaintly called tombstoning in the English media, supposedly due to the angle at which participants enter the water (straight up and down, like a tombstone) and not, as you might suspect, because that's what's waiting for you on the other side of this ridiculous jump.
The future(?) of England(?!).
That said, this is still a professional sport practiced in various places around the world, even though the reign of King Birdman is long over.
But if jumping into water is too tame for you, consider for a moment the land divers of Vanuatu.
After scaling a wooden tower they've spent the past couple weeks assembling, these men and boys will hurl themselves at the dirt below in order to prove the usual assortment of traits -- courage, strength, gullibility. Yes, they have vines attached to their legs that do break their fall, similar to a bungee jump. Except that these are vines, and, accordingly, a little less consistent than bungee cords. Also, they're measured and matched to the jumper's weight by a process that involves little more than squinting.
"Wait. You mean these aren't ISO-certified vines? Why did I not think to ask about that until now?"
Also, critically, the goal of a successful land dive isn't just to bounce back a safe distance from the ground. It's to hit the ground, headfirst. Only a little bit, but still.
The ground is, to be fair, softened a bit. Although, to be fair, it is still the ground.
Aside from the expected benefits -- ensuring good harvests, turning boys into men -- there's a charming backstory behind land diving. Basically, the legend goes that there once was a wife who climbed a tree to escape her husband's beatings. When the husband pursued her up the tree, she jumped off, using vines tied around her ankles to break her fall. The husband, assuming she'd died and now despondent that he'd lost the wife he loved beating so much, jumped after her, neglecting the vine part. He died, predictably, and ... happily. Right? That's a happy ending? He was the bad guy, right?
Well, not according to everyone. Because after thoughtfully considering this story, the local men of Vanuatu managed to walk away with entirely the wrong lesson, and have since practiced land diving so that they might avoid a similar fate (of being tricked into jumping off trees by their fleeing wives). That their solution to the problem -- risking catastrophic head injuries by jumping off trees -- is exactly the same as the problem they're trying to avoid suggests that maybe a few centuries of catastrophic head injuries have twisted the story up a bit.
Or, more likely, that their wives are even trickier than they thought.
For more insane customs, check out 5 Cultures With the Most WTF Wedding Rituals and The 5 Creepiest Death Rituals From Around the World.