Hanging on hooks and eating corpses: Most terrible rites of passage

(ORDO NEWS) — Rites of passage are perhaps the most numerous group of rituals. Their essence is simple – the transition of a person from one quality to another: from “inanimate” to living (birth), from living to inanimate (funeral), from a bride to a wife, from a boy to an adult man.

But if for us the echoes of these traditions are embedded in such actions as putting on a veil at a wedding, getting tattoos in adolescence or eating kutya at a funeral, then for traditional communities everything is more difficult and… scarier.

However, if you know the symbolic subtext of such rituals, they no longer look so intimidating and are filled with deep meaning.

Any ritual that is dedicated to changing social status is a rite of passage. Take at least the urgent advice of friends to “put down” or “cover a clearing” in honor of a promotion (a person became a boss), the birth of a child (became a father), initiation into a man (service in the army: “did not serve – not a man”).

But today, for us, these are just optional (and often joyful and not at all dangerous) traditions (with the exception of military service, which is prescribed not in customs, but in laws and serves primarily not ritual, but quite practical goals of protecting the state; although this does not cancel its archetypal subtext), but for some Australian aborigines – a reality that carries a sacred meaning.

The most famous scholar of the rites of passage, the French folklorist and ethnographer Arnold van Gennep, died in 1957. But he left behind a rich legacy – his works on the customs and rituals of many wild tribes around the world, which he studied.

Many of them have since lived in the shadow of civilization, so their rituals have ceased to be so bloodthirsty and strange, but some have not lost their former scope.

Therefore, our story is about traditions that were relevant mainly a hundred years ago, but their echoes (and often the entire sacrament) are still present in these tribes.

The meaning of the ritual

Gennep divides the rites of passage into several categories: separation rituals – farewell to the past (preliminary: matchmaking, burial of the deceased, divorce), inclusion – initiation and acceptance of the new (post-limenary: birth of a child, wedding, anniversary of the deceased) and intermediate ones, when the old is no longer , but the new has not come (liminary: engagement, commemoration of the ninth and fortieth day in the Orthodox tradition).

All three categories can be expressed to varying degrees in the same ceremony. Burial rites, for example, mainly consist of separation rites, and wedding rites of inclusion, while during pregnancy, betrothal or initiation, intermediate rites are most common.

At the same time, all three types of rituals include the psychological stages of accepting one or another event in life.

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The literal embodiment of the ritual of “covering the clearing”

Arnold van Gennep was far from thinking that such sacraments belong only to the rites of passage. “Besides the main purpose of these rites, which is to ensure the transition from one magical-religious or worldly community to another, each of these ceremonies has its own purpose.

Thus, wedding ceremonies include fertility rites; ceremonies for the birth of a child – protective rites and rites of prediction; funeral ceremonies include rites of protection; initiation ceremonies – redemptive rites; initiation ceremonies – rites of communion with a deity, and so on, ”he writes in his work“ Rites of Passage ”.

Therefore, we, following him, will consider them in their entirety and complexity, and will try to show that strange rituals look far from being so unusual, if we understand the meaning that their creators put into them.

The main one is to cope with feelings (primarily guilt and sadness) that invariably accompany any person experiencing changes in life. Through symbolic action, even today, we enable ourselves to complete one phase of our lives and prepare for another.

Few people realize, but even happy changes carry a bit of loss: parting with colleagues (job change), classmates and teachers (graduation from school), farewell to a carefree life (birth of a child and marriage).

The ritual allows us to “make room” in the psyche for a new reality, without plunging into the abyss of conflicting feelings and emotions.

This is real psychotherapy – which is why many people even “invent” their own, individual rituals in order, for example, to break the psychological connection with their ex-spouse or accept the death of a loved one (by the way, the same thing is often done by a psychologist who is approached by people who can’t let go of the past).

Therefore, many psychotherapists do not recommend completely abandoning certain rituals.

Pregnancy and childbirth

The rites dedicated to pregnancy and childbirth have been studied in detail, because they are considered the most numerous, and their meaning is obvious. They are intermediate. Here, for example, is the sequence of rites of pregnancy and childbirth of the Indian tribe Toda.

It all starts with a ban – a pregnant woman should not appear in the village and sacred places. In the fifth month, she is completely relocated to a separate hut – she is forbidden to process dairy (“pure”, sacred) products.

After that, she must invoke two deities, Pirn and Piri, and then burn her hands in two places. Only after this is the ceremony of the exit of the woman from the hut performed, in which she drinks the sacred milk. Before the seventh month, the future woman in labor returns home.

After that, the tribe “chooses” the father for the child, recognized by the community (polyandry is practiced in the toda). After giving birth, the woman and her mother are again sent to a special hut for two or three days, then her husband comes to the lady.

After that, all three – wife, husband and child – are considered “stained with impurity” called ichchil. The return to normal life occurs after drinking another portion of the sacred milk.

As you can see, this complex rite only seems ridiculous, in fact, it carries a deep meaning: to accept a new member of the tribe, having gone through a series of “losses” and “rebirths”.

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Dropping a child from a 15-meter height in one of the Indian temples

By the way, the Orthodox rite of baptism, when a baby is dipped into water, and a much more terrible ritual, the birthplace of which is still India, have the same message of symbolic dying and resurrection.

It exists at the intersection between the rite of birth and the first initiation, which are basically similar in meaning. This sacrament is so archaic that dying here is not symbolic, but almost real. It is held in temples, from the balconies of which one-year-old or two-year-old children are thrown.

Before this, the baby is desperately shaken, achieving heart-rending screams. After this, the unfortunate child is waiting for a flight. It’s already good that it’s not on bare ground – joyful relatives are standing below with a stretched sheet in their hands.

They say that not all fly – there were accidents. But psychology in this sense is simple: if the child did not fly, then the gods wanted it.


Social (from the point of view of the European tradition – legal) and puberty do not coincide. This fact is also known to ethnographers. In most countries, including ours, the age of majority comes at 18, and in Vietnam and Cambodia, for example, at 16, in North Korea – at 17, in Canada – at 19, in Thailand – at 20, in Cameroon – at 21.

However, in many States and religions, this age may not coincide with the age of criminal responsibility and marriage, and it also depends on gender.

The lower age limit for girls in Islam is 10 years, for boys – 13, in Judaism – 12 and 13 years, respectively. This is understandable, menstruation for the former and ejaculation for the latter begin much earlier than it is prescribed by law.

Our body can indeed “mature” much earlier than the brain, if we mean by the latter self-determination and a comprehensively developed intellect. It is not surprising that the initiation of traditional communities that feel such subtle spheres takes place in several stages, which often begin in early childhood (dropping babies from a height) and end in adolescence, when boys move into the category of men, and girls into women (however, initiation rites for them are performed less often and they are usually associated with a wedding or childbirth).

“The very differences in the age of those subjected to the rite of circumcision testify that this act is not of physiological, but of social significance.

For many peoples, this rite was performed at fairly large intervals, for example, every 2, 3, 4 or 5 years, that is, over boys of different ages. Moreover, in the same area, inhabited by peoples of the same somatic type, striking differences are observed,” writes van Gennep.

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Okipa is the initiation ceremony of young mandans

At the same time, the final rite of initiation is often associated with mutilation: cutting off the foreskin (among Jews and Muslims), knocking out teeth (in Australia), cutting off the extreme phalanx of the little finger (in South Africa) or, at least, tattooing (it’s not for nothing that they are very often stuffed into adolescence), cutting hair (by the way, this ritual can often be found among our contemporaries: many women, when divorcing their spouse, cut their hair, cutting off “old information”).

This is a rite of separation, which is designed to remove a person from a certain group so that he can be included in another group (instead of a group of children – in a group of adults).

If the handicap cannot be repaired, inclusion in the group becomes final. In addition, it symbolizes the same process of dying, going through strong fear and pain so that a person can be “reborn” in a new quality, become stronger and more courageous.

One of the most striking examples of an initiation rite is the famous okipah among the Mandan Indian people, whose last purebred representative died in 1975. Before the ceremony of initiation of a teenager into a man (and a warrior), the boys were not supposed to take food for several days.

After exhaustion, they were taken to a special hut, where they cut the skin on the chest and shoulders, exposing the muscles, under which long wooden knitting needles were inserted.

For these “skewers” the boys were hung under the roof, and additional knitting needles were stuck into their arms and legs, attaching something heavier to them. And yes, during the ceremony, the young men had to show joy and smile broadly.

This continued until they lost consciousness. Barely waking up and still with knitting needles in their bodies, the teenagers had to offer their left little fingers to the elders, for which they were immediately chopped off.

The rest of the “doomsday” children spent inside the circle of fellow tribesmen, who considered it their duty to pull the needles sticking out of the backs of the initiates. If the boy survived, he would have deep scars on his body for the rest of his life, an object of pride for men and delight for women.

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Teeth filing ceremony in Bali

For the indigenous inhabitants of the paradise island of Bali, the initiation rite is also not very pleasant – they cut off their teeth. Both men and women, without any anesthesia. This procedure, by the way, is not cheap: they say, around three thousand dollars.

Before it is performed, teenagers dress in traditional clothes, apply makeup and expose their teeth to the priest, who will take a file and grind off the snow-white enamel. The latter will later be buried in the family temple.

The fact is that Balinese Hinduism is still widespread on the paradise island – a traditional religion for Bali, which is associated with many local customs and rituals, one of which is just filing teeth. With his help, the Balinese want to move away from animals.

The fact is that sharp teeth (for example, fangs) are an attribute not only of a person, but also of predators. The Balinese believe that if you do not round your teeth, then the path to the conditional “paradise” is closed for them – they simply cannot be distinguished from animals.

Moreover, many believe that such a ritual will help “smooth out” a person’s character, make him softer and more docile.


Wedding ceremonies can be attributed to the most solemn and large-scale. Take at least the well-known ritual of kidnapping the bride. In our modern tradition, it has been transformed into the theft of shoes and a symbolic ransom, but in many traditional communities it remains unchanged.

The theft of the bride also symbolizes the transition – the girl is forever separated from her friends and why at home (the main thing for her from now on will be her husband and children).

This is symbolized by the tears of parents and childhood friends, for example, among the Sinai Arabs, and also by taking the girl not immediately to the wedding, but, say, to the house of the groom’s father.

The dying of a girl as a girl and her rebirth as a woman symbolizes the veil (veil) – it is designed to cover the face (translated into the language of the archaic psyche, this is death).

Among the tribes that lived on the territory of Gaul (Gauls), the “dying” of a girl was accompanied by the custom of breaking or throwing away some thing related to childhood.

“The preliminary defloration of the hymen and any other self-mutilation has the same meaning; it was instructed to break the chain symbolizing virginity; untie the belt, change the menu and temporarily adhere to food restrictions,” writes Arnold van Gennep.

In many traditional cultures, it was not the future spouse who took the virginity of the girl, but the elder or another man from the tribe, or even an old woman – with a wooden knife.

These actions symbolize the stage of transition, as does marriage with a tree among the Kola people in Bengal: “Before you marry or marry a living person, stay with the other half of the log.”

They marry a tree primarily due to various prohibitions. For example, in order not to marry before the older brother, the younger one takes some kind of oak as his “wife”, which, by the way, is dressed up before the wedding. Such is the symbolic marriage.


Needless to say, the funeral rite goes through the same stages. The intermediate stage of the ritual in the Orthodox tradition prescribes to bury the deceased only on the third day, as if making the transition from one state (alive) to another (dead).

This allows relatives to make an initial farewell to the deceased and mourn him. However, farewell to him can stretch for years. For example, in Indonesia, the dead continue to be washed, clothed and fed every day for two and a half years if a man died, and two years if a woman died.

The second part of the rite of farewell very often contains the eating of a dead person in order to literally adopt all his good qualities and turn the page of life associated with him forever. Not everyone realizes that the Orthodox meal of eating kutya in honor of the deceased has the same roots.

The same is with the traditions of the famous Feast of the Dead in Mexico, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Honduras and El Salvador. On this day, they bake sweets in the form of skulls, symbolizing ancestors, and eat them with joy.

Hanging on hooks and eating corpses the most terrible rites of passage
Vultures feeding on severed body parts at a 1985 sky burial in Lhasa, Tibet

In traditional communities, everything is no longer pretending. In the Indian tribe Aghori, for example, they burn the corpse and eat the ashes, the same thing happens with the Yanomamo Indians of South America: they add funeral ashes to food.

In Tibet, the dead are given to be torn to pieces by vultures, which also symbolizes the eating of a corpse (probably through totemic ancestors – birds). As you can see, if we understand the symbolic overtones, even the most terrible and ridiculous ritual is filled with deep meaning.


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