We still have practices and traditions today, of course, though we tend to be a bit more skeptical about their connections with the spiritual world. Presidents, prime ministers, and kings are still enthroned or take oaths of office.
In Gloucestershire, England, cheese rolling still takes place every spring, and in Shetland, Scottland, they still burn a Viking ship every year at Up Helly Aa.
These rituals all have long roots, and although the cheese rollers in Gloucestershire no longer believe they’re guaranteeing fertility for the coming season, the traditions are still an important part of who they are.
Thankfully, many of these ancient rituals – often bloody and cruel – are now consigned to history.
Here are some ancient practices and traditions of the world you should be glad are no more!
#1: Self-Mummification of Buddhist Monks
Buddhist monks believe in separating themselves from the spiritual world, and some took that to a horrific extreme of dieting and eventual death.
Self-mummification was only outlawed in Japan in the early 20th century. It took a number of different forms, but many monks believe they can predict the date of their own deaths, and by preserving their bodies, they can show their holiness.
It starts with a three-year diet of nuts and seeds and tough physical exercise to get rid of all that body fat.
Ok, so far, so Buddhist.
Then, for another three years, the diet changes to roots and tree bark and a tea made from the Urushi tree (which is poisonous). The monks would start to vomit and lose their bodily fluids rapidly.
Apparently, this killed off any maggots that might attempt to move in after their death.
To cap it all, the monk would lock himself into a tomb, take up the lotus position and breathe through a tube ringing a bell to let those outside know that they were still alive- until they weren’t, I guess.
The tomb was then sealed up, and the mummy is left to marinate in its holiness.
It took a hell of a lot of dedication to the faith to do this, and so far, only around 20 self-mummified monks have been discovered to date.
The closest thing to self-mummification I’ve ever achieved is getting tangled up in my bedsheets and blanket, and having to take a full five minutes to extract myself.
So, good on them.
#2: Footbinding in China
We like to think we’re above such practices now, but many of us are all too happy to go under the surgeon’s knife for cosmetic surgery to achieve our ideal kind of beauty.
The Chinese practice of foot binding is thought to have started in the 10th or 11th century, when dancers of the Imperial court would bind their feet.
But the practice of footbinding spread, apparently because men found it attractive and women with bound feet had a much better chance of marriage.
Footbinding is a deeply unpleasant process. First, the feet of a young girl were soaked, her toenails were clipped, and she was given a massage, which was nice until all toes except for her big one were broken.
Next, the feet are bound in cloth over and over again. The toes were forced and kept under the feet, and because the girl was usually still physically developing, the foot could be easily trained.
Toes falling off was seen as a good thing, because that meant the feet could be bound even tighter.
Many girls died as a result of complications and infections from the practice of footbinding.
#3: Putting Makeup on Dead Relatives- Mexican Death Ritual
Death probably attracts the most rituals. It’s a painful process, we’re going to miss them, and the debate about what happens to us when we die is still very much alive (pardon the phrasing).
Putting makeup on a corpse is a practice that still exists today. For those who get an open-casket funeral, it is customary for the funeral home to embalm the body and give the face some makeup.
The body is then displayed during the wake until the casket is closed and buried (or cremated, depending on the last wishes of the diseased).
But at least today, the bodies are LEFT ALONE. The ancient Mexicans got over their grief by periodically digging their loved ones up and painting them in all their finest face paints.
The recent discovery of this ancient Mexican death ritual is based around what was then the city of Teotihuacan, located northeast of present-day Mexico City.
Teotihuacan was a major cultural center back then and is now a modern tourist attraction because of its huge pyramids and temples.
Among the spectacular monuments of Teotihuacan were pots of pigments that archaeologists believe were used in the bizarre Mexican death rituals.
The ceremonies were most likely reserved for members of the aristocracy, who were buried for a time before being periodically dug up and made up to allow the living to remember their departed. Ay, dios mio!
One who practiced suttee would end up…sooty. And dead.
Suttee was a Hindu practice in India for many centuries and a horrifying one which has, hopefully, finally been banished. Suttee was the (not always) voluntary self-immolation of widows on their deceased husbands’ funeral pyres.
The British outlawed the practice of suttee in 1829, but it still persists in some parts of the country today.
While suttee was supposed to be a voluntary joining with death, many widows (understandably) got cold feet and were thrown or even tied onto the fire.
One reported incident saw the widow’s arms and legs broken just to keep things dignified.
Seriously, you ladies should be glad this one is gone…considering that statistically, women almost always outlive men.
#5: Spartan Brides Dressing as Men
Sparta is known to be one of the roughest and toughest ancient civilizations in the entire history of roughness and toughness. Spartan weddings exemplified this tradition.
There was no “princess” gown and lingerie for Mrs. Spartan Warrior, oh no- she did everything she could to appear masculine.
The wedding day started with the bride shaving her head and dressing up in men’s clothing. The ceremony was equally, well, Spartan- with the bride simply lying on a wooden platform at her parents’ home until the groom came and stole her away.
They then did the marital deed under cover of darkness before the loving husband returned his wife to the in-laws. This pattern could persist for years, though some lucky ladies got to meet their new men in daylight too.
Historians have debated the reasons behind the Spartan’s strange marriage arrangement.
Some believe that Spartan youths were so used to homosexuality, which was practiced openly without prejudice of any sort, that they required gentle guidance in the ways of womanhood.
However, it has been confirmed that Spartan women dressed like men simply to appear more non-threatening to their male husbands.
#6: Chinese Castration
I like to think that I shoot for objectivity most of the time here on Kizaz.
But as a guy who strongly prefers genitalia to stay right where it is, I say that any society that makes a habit of removing genitals needs to take a good hard look at itself and its choices.
Yet many ancient civilizations practiced castration. In the Middle East, India, much of Southeast Asia, and the Ottoman Empire, eunuchs (men with no genitals) were highly prized members of society.
And if you’re feeling a bit superior (or cocky) look up the castrati, the European eunuchs who were castrated simply for the pleasure of an unbroken male singing voice. The practice wasn’t officially outlawed until 1903.
The Chinese, however, placed particular value on their eunuchs. By the end of the Ming Dynasty, the Imperial Palace alone employed 70,000 eunuchs.
…That’s a lot of excellent singers!
As in many cultures, they were trusted servants and could rise to positions of great power. Such was the attraction of good careers for eunuchs that special laws had to be passed in order to stop people from taking a knife to their own man bits!
Sadly, I personally don’t possess that level of ambition. Call it a character flaw.
#7: Hanging Off Frames with Hooks Through Your Skin
Thookkam is a festival in India, and just one of many mind-bending, religious-inspired feats of physical endurance one can see in that country.
I’d keep it strictly watching unless the idea of being pierced with hooks then hoisted onto a frame for a couple of hours really makes your meatloaf.
Despite its ancient roots, the festival has only just been banned by the Indian government.
It all takes place in South Kerala, within temples devoted to Kali, the Hindu deity of time and change.
There is much dancing before all the fun begins. The blood is said to pacify Kali (who’s often seen as a dark and dangerous deity) and prevent him from getting hangry and going on a terrible rampage.
The hooked worshippers in one of the best-known ceremonies are hung on a sort of scaffolding frame and carried three times around their temple.
#8: Eating Your Relatives
While the Yanomami people of Venezuela are very much alive and well today, it’s fair to assume that their practices long predate their “discovery” by westerners, so the practice of eating the dead counts as a bizarre ancient practice.
The Yanomami have lots of practices that might be considered strange – although, in their defense, you probably would too if you lived in the middle of the rainforest your entire life.
The Yanomami take hallucinogens when they’re sick, and are one of the few genuinely polygamous cultures on the planet.
However, it’s their death rituals that concern me in this case.
The Yanomami believe that the dead are taken by soul eaters who then consume their life force. These soul eaters have an unquenchable hunger, and if the chain isn’t stopped, they will continue to eat and eat presumably until the whole world is dead.
To prevent this admittedly disastrous potentiality, the Yanomami eat their dead first. Not raw, of course. That would be crazy.
People aren’t sushi.
No, first the body is cremated, then the biggest bones are ground up in a pestle and mortar, keeping some in storage and using the rest as the base for a delicious plantain soup.
#9: The Wicker Man Used for Druid Human Sacrifices
And you thought the Wicker Man was just a film, or a festival, or a bad piece of heavy metal stage decoration.
You may be right, but the Romans – who weren’t above using propaganda against their enemies – certainly recorded the use of wicker men to burn sacrificial victims.
The Celts were enemies of the Romans, and as such, were subject to a lot of negative press- much of it built around their religion and their priests, the druids.
Julius Caesar reports the wicker man being used in Gaul by the druids. He’s kind enough to report that the victims were generally convicted criminals (unless there weren’t enough bad guys around, in which case it was slaves or other passers-by that happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time).
Ironically, the Romans had had a very healthy human sacrifice culture of their own.
Nowadays, you should still run away if you see a wicker man. There are almost certain to be New-Age Pagans in the area and very possibly tribal techno musicians too – best to play it safe!
#10: Long Heads of the Mangbetu Tribe (Lipombo)
While the Chinese went mad for tiny feet and the rocking walk they enforced on their owners, the Mangbetu tribe love nothing more than a long head.
The custom is called Lipombo, and no one has yet come up with a particularly good explanation for it. Some people have proposed that long ago, the Mangbetu thought they were giving their brains more room and would therefore make them more clever as a result.
Some goofballs out there even believe aliens taught them to do it. Seems right to me.
They go about it in much the same way as the Chinese attacked little girls’ feet. By starting early, they could influence bone structure before it’s set in stone, as it were, and they tightly wrap the head in cloth to create the elongated skull, which is so easy to spot in Mangbetu art.
Today, the practice of Lipombo is dying out in the Mangbetu’s Congo homelands as Western culture continues to expand. However, oddly enough, the practice of Lipombo is still carried out in parts of Peru.