I have always been fascinated by strange rituals. Even the most basic, American variety interest me, like the athlete who won’t wash his jock strap when he’s on a winning streak. Call it superstition if you must, but the world is—and always has been—full of all kinds of weird traditions and yes, rituals. Collected here is a random survey of the ones I find the most bizarre and intriguing. That’s right. The time has come to ritualize it.
I love you, mummy
In northern Japan, there were monks who slowly killed themselves and actually mummified themselves at the same time. These “holy men” would eat an elaborate diet that began with nuts and seeds, while also exercising to strip off body fat. Then they started eating roots and bark, this time washing them down with some kind of poisonous tea. Vomiting would come next and would continue the rapid fluid loss. When the monk was ready, he would enter a stone tomb with an air tube and a bell. Once the bell stopped ringing, he would be dead and mummification would commence.
Only about 24 of these mummified monks have been found. And they are proudly on display in a temple somewhere. I am also happy to report that this practice has been outlawed by the Japanese government and is not practiced… as far as we know, that is.
Off with their heads
The Xhosa people of southern Africa have been known to practice something truly terrifying on their young men: ritual circumcision. Although it isn’t as common as it once was, ritual circumcision accounted for more than 300 deaths since 1994. And it’s been highly successful at spreading sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV. Unfortunately, the tribal “surgeons” performing these less-than-sterile procedures sometimes use the same blades over and over again. And I can think of nothing more pleasant than having a germ-infected scalpel near your hooded penis, ready to slice and dice. Yikes! The very idea makes me shudder in fear.
People: The other white meat
Cannibalism as an ancient ritual makes some sense to me. Warriors in some cultures would eat the flesh of their enemies in order to absorb their power. It’s a little misguided, but I can understand it. I can even fathom the terror that would lead you to consume human flesh, as was the case for the Donner party, as well as that soccer team in Chile from the film “Alive.” You have to do what you have to do, after all.
What really freaks me out is that cannibalism has not disappeared and in fact happens more and more each day, or so it would seem from all the recent news. There was the bath salt loving zombie, Rudy Eugene, who basically chewed the face off a homeless man near a Miami highway; the gay Canadian porn star, Luka Magnotta, who allegedly killed and ingested his lover; and the murderous Russian chef who admitted to making sausage and meatballs from his victim’s flesh. I once hypothesized that human flesh must be the most delicious of all since eating it was so taboo. Now I’m certain that my theory was correct. Bon appétit!
I don’t mean to focus on rituals involving male genitalia so much, but it is unavoidable when you consider eunuchs—boys or men who have either their testicles, penises or both removed, sometimes against their will. In ancient times, young boys were castrated to make them more docile so they could be used as imperial servants. Some Chinese cultures would castrate prisoners of war, presumably so they could never produce future enemies. And the Italians sometimes castrated young boys so they could maintain their angelic voices, transforming them into so-called castrato.
For the birds
Sky burial is a Tibetan funeral practice in which the bodies of the dead—primarily commoners—are dismembered and presented in the open air for vultures to consume. The vultures represent angels in Tibetan culture. And since Buddhists believe in rebirth—that once the body dies, the spirit is released to occupy its next life—they view dead bodies as nothing more than empty vessels. Or in this case, empty vessels of meaty deliciousness. Pretty gross, huh? I will spare you the pictures because they are quite nasty and not for the squeamish. Google them and I promise you will get more than you bargained for.
No guts, no glory
For years, I studied martial arts and took a huge interest in Japanese history, primarily as it related to ninjas and samurai. One ritual that always baffled me was Seppuku, otherwise known as Hara-kiri—basically suicide by self-inflicted disembowelment. This practice was part of bushido, the samurai code of honor. A disgraced samurai warrior would attempt to regain his honor by sitting on the ground with a ceremonial blade and then running himself through, using the blade to open his abdomen and to allow his guts to spill out. If he was lucky, his pain would end with his beheading shortly thereafter.
Why in the hell would anyone do that? If it were me, I would just bolt and find somewhere else to live… somewhere I could escape dishonor and keep my intestines in place at the same time. Thankfully, I am no samurai and Seppuku is no longer a common practice, but it does happen. Famous Japanese author Yukio Mishima staged a coup d’état in the early 1970s, lost and committed Seppuku with his second-in-command, Masakatsu Morita. Both men were beheaded within minutes of starting this ritual, largely to protest Japan’s drifting from the “old ways” and traditions. I guess they became part of that ancient legacy after all.
There is no shortage of strange rituals in the world, and the ones mentioned here are only the tips of the proverbial icebergs. However, as I marvel over these strange, bizarre and downright freaky traditions, I can’t help but remember that somewhere, these weren’t (or aren’t) so unusual. And I am certain there are plenty of American “rituals” that cause others to wonder what the heck we’re doing over here. But that’s what makes human beings so wonderful: we can share the same genetic structure, yet differ so greatly in so many ways.
Just don’t ask me to try a human filet anytime soon. I’m not sure I could stomach it.