10 Insanely Brutal Traditions That Were Meant To Do Good
Most of us think of traditions as warm and fuzzy customs that were passed down through the years to remind us of a simpler time as well as the love of our friends and family. Then there are the insanely brutal traditions that may have started out with good intentions but now make us wonder why anyone would engage in such barbaric rituals in the 21st century.
Just as Lord Voldemort is known as “He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named” in the Harry Potter book series, mingi is the tradition that must not be named among the Kara, Hamar, and Banna tribes in the Omo Valley of Ethiopia. There are about 225,000 of these tribe members isolated in primitive villages, practicing their ancient ritual in secret.
Mingi means that a child is cursed and must be killed to protect the tribe. (Although we’ll use male pronouns, this tradition applies to both male and female children.) A child is mingi if his top teeth come in before his bottom teeth, if he breaks a tooth or injures his genitals, if he is born to unwed parents, or if his parents do not have the ceremonial blessing of the village elders to have children. Adults who don’t cooperate with these traditions are also designated as mingi and banished from the tribe.
If a child is mingi, the tribal elders will snatch that child from his parents and drown him in the river, leave him to starve or be eaten by animals, or push him off a cliff to his death. The elders may also suffocate the child by filling his mouth with soil.
These Omo Valley tribes believe that a mingi child will bring evil spirits to their village, resulting in drought, famine, and sickness for the tribe. Although no one knows the exact number, as many as 200 to 300 mingi children may be killed annually.
Even among the members of the tribe, mingi is a taboo subject. Children under 15 are never told about the ritual killing. It certainly isn’t something to be discussed with outsiders. Yet Lale Labuko, a young man from the Omo Valley who was the first of his tribe to be educated at a boarding school 105 kilometers (65 mi) away, found the courage to tell an adult outsider. Together, they’ve spearheaded efforts to save mingi children. In some cases, the government has imprisoned mingi executioners. The tradition is still practiced today—just more discreetly.
9 Pig Slaughter Festival
Each year in the small village of Nem Thuong in northern Vietnam, hundreds of people watch the ritual slaughter of two well-fed pigs to bring the village residents luck for the coming year. Always occurring on the sixth day of the first month of the lunar calendar, the Pig Slaughter Festival is held to honor Doan Thuong, a local protector deity.
According to legend, Doan Thuong was a general in the Ly Dynasty who drove invading forces off the villagers’ land. He fed his starving troops with slaughtered pigs, which is supposedly how the festival started. The pigs’ blood represents good luck in the forms of a good harvest, reproductive ability, monetary success, and good health.
As music is played, the villagers parade the live pigs around the village. Participants in the ritual lay the animals on their backs, pull their legs away from their bellies with ropes, and use swords to hack the squealing pigs in half in front of the crowd. The villagers rush to smear banknotes with the pigs’ blood so that they can place the notes on altars in their houses for good luck.
Animal rights activists have tried to convince the government to stop the festival. Although Vietnamese officials have pressured the village elders to be less publicly cruel to animals, the government has refused to ban the festival. Officials seem to be less concerned about animal cruelty and more apprehensive about the world’s opinion of their local festivals now that pictures can be disseminated over the Internet so quickly.
8 La Esperanza Rain Ceremony
Nobody likes a drought, especially farmers, so many cultures have rituals designed to bring rain. Even today, some Native Americans perform rain dances. In Takhatpur, India, the villagers conduct elaborate frog marriages to call upon their rain gods to end a drought. The frogs dress for the occasion and even kiss after they exchange vows.
But the village women of La Esperanza in Guerrero, Mexico, prefer a different approach. Each May, as the male farmers get their fields ready for planting, the women prepare a large feast of cultural foods like chicken, turkey, mole, boiled eggs, rice, and tortillas. They bring the food to a ceremonial site to share with others from the village. It’s a traditional day of offerings to their deities to ensure that the village has enough rain for the crops.
After they recite their prayers and offer food and flowers to their gods, they form a large circle and wait for people from neighboring villages to arrive. The children ready their cell phones to take pictures and videos of the festivities. And then the fun begins.
Inside the cheering human circle, the able-bodied women—young and old—find opponents from neighboring villages and beat each other to a pulp with their bare hands. Sometimes, men and children fight, too. This is a day-long blood fest for the female warriors. The goal is to make as much red liquid stream down their faces as possible. There are no winners or losers. No issues of revenge. At the end, they hug each other.
As a sacrifice to the gods, the spilled blood is collected in buckets and later ploughed into the fields where the crops are grown. The fights continue unabated until dark, when the proud and bloodied women walk home, happy that their sacrifice will help to feed the village for the next year.
7 Coconut Head Smash
In Tamil Nadu in southern India, thousands of devotees go to the Mahalakshmi temple to engage in a tradition in which they ask their gods for success and good health or offer thanks for wishes already granted. As a crowd gathers to watch, a priest smashes the head of each believer, who is seated on the ground, with a large coconut. A devotee must be at least 18 years old to participate.
The ritual takes place on the second Tuesday of the Tamil month of Aadi every year. It’s believed that the tradition started in the 19th century when the British tried to build a railroad through the village. The residents protested, so the British sarcastically offered to reroute the transportation line if the locals would break large stones with their heads. When the villagers complied, the railroad was built elsewhere.
The stones were soon replaced by coconuts as the preferred instrument to break over the devotees’ heads, but this tradition still comes with considerable risk depending on the coconut’s size and the force with which the head is whacked.
According to neurosurgery professor Anil Kumar Peethambaran in an interview with National Geographic, “What happens is . . . there is a certain amount of tolerance for the skull beyond which it will cause damage to the skull. So, if the coconut is big and if the coconut breaks, that means that a part of the energy is dissipated and the damage done is less and if the coconut doesn’t break, more damage is done to the skull.”
Dozens of people are treated for serious head injuries every year. Ironically, this good health tradition may be deadly.
6 People Trampled By Cows For Luck
A lot of cultures have rituals designed to bring them good luck. But in villages around the Ujjain area of India, the annual tradition of male residents getting trampled by their cows on Ekadashi, the day after the Hindu festival of lights known as “Diwali,” is probably one of the strangest. Stranger still, they’ve been doing this for centuries.
Cows are sacred to the Hindus in India, which may explain why the villagers claim that no one has ever been hurt in such a seemingly dangerous tradition. Before the ritual trampling, the cows are decorated with henna patterns and brightly colored baubles. As others crowd around to watch, the men lie with garlands in the street while their herds of cows literally run over them. In this way, the trampled men believe that their prayers will be answered by the Hindu gods and that they will receive good luck in the coming year.
5 Easter Rocket War
Just off the coast of Turkey, the villagers of Vrontados on the Greek island of Chios celebrate Greek Orthodox Easter a little differently than most believers in the faith. As the Sun sets on Easter Saturday, they like to pelt each other with tens of thousands of homemade bottle rockets in a traditional rocket war known as “Rouketopolemos.” The two sides in this mock war are the followers of the town’s two Orthodox churches, Agios Markos and Panagia Erithiani, who continue their battle into the wee hours of Easter morning.
Although the goal is to hit the opposing church’s bell while services are being held inside, there’s never really a winner. There can be a lot of property damage despite the protective wire mesh that covers the churches and surrounding houses. There have also been serious injuries and even deaths from the rockets.
Technically, it’s illegal to make rockets in Vrontados. The annual celebration is a big tourist attraction, so the local police usually pretend not to notice the deafening and illuminating illegal activities that have been going on around them for at least 125 years.
The origins of this battle are unclear, but there are two competing stories that the locals like to tell. In one version, cannons on local ships that were first used to battle pirates were eventually fired each Easter as part of the holiday’s celebration. When Ottoman invaders took the cannons in the late 1800s, the villagers began firing rockets on Easter instead.
A second version of the story is that the villagers wanted to celebrate the Easter services that the Turks had prohibited. The Greeks faked a war between their churches to keep the frightened Turks away while they celebrated Easter mass.
Some residents don’t like this rocket war. “We live as hostages to this tradition,” said one unnamed villager to the BBC in a 2004 interview. “We can’t breathe when it takes place, we have to be on standby in case a fire breaks out because if you are not careful you can even lose your house.”
To outsiders, santhara (or sallekhana) is often confused with suicide or euthanasia. To the followers of Jainism, an ancient religion in India that focuses on spiritual discipline through a simple life that eschews physical pleasure, santhara is a religious right to worship as they choose. Every year, as many as 500 believers in Jainism starve themselves to death to liberate their souls from the cycle of death and rebirth through reincarnation. Instead, they believe this is the way to attain nirvana, the ultimate state of bliss.
Unlike Christians, who consider the body a temple of the soul, Jains see their bodies as prisons of their souls. Santhara can be a cause for celebration and pride for those left behind because the person who made the starvation oath took control of their own path to salvation.
Jains don’t see santhara as suicide, which they view as a violent act against the body, because santhara is nonviolent. It is physically painful but supposedly punctuated by moments of euphoria as the soul is transformed. Throughout the process, people near the starving person continually touch and hold that person. When it is time for the person to die, they are raised to a sitting position because divine beings in the Jain religion are never seen sleeping. They always appear in a sitting position or a half-sitting position.
Those practicing the ritual are seen by other Jain followers as living saints. Other Jains may travel from across the country to witness, endure, and be blessed by the sacrifice of the person who has taken this oath. As the person dies, the witnesses chant the names of divine beings.
Both monks and laypeople, the healthy and the dying, take the starvation oath. More women than men do it. The practice has been controversial for years among the general public. On August 10, 2015, the Rajasthan High Court in India declared santhara to be illegal. However, that ruling is being challenged in the Supreme Court as of late August 2015.
3 Costa Rica Bullfighting
Unlike bullfighting in Mexico and Spain, which usually ends with the death of the bull, Costa Rican bullfighting is a more humane tradition that elevates the status of the bull to that of a celebrity. No one can hurt the bull, although he’s free to hurt or kill anyone he chooses without reprisal. The rules may have less to do with love for the animal than with practicality. Thousands of farming families depend on cows for their livelihoods, so they don’t want their bulls killed. Even so, some animal rights activists believe that the animals are mistreated.
When a bull enters the ring in Costa Rica, an announcer introduces him by name and gives his weight and information about his background, including his father’s bullfighting history. Then the improvisados, or rodeo clowns, face him down. Most improvisados are untrained young men who either stay close to the fence for a quick getaway or foolishly taunt the bull to amuse the crowd. They try to be as daring and entertaining as possible to win cash prizes from the festival’s organizers and sponsors.
The trouble is that when these bulls get fired up, it’s almost impossible to outrun them. If you can’t get over the fence quickly enough, your best hope is that the bull becomes distracted by someone else because you’re not permitted to fight the bull. You can only run away from him, and he’s darn fast.
As shown in the video above, there are a lot of rear-end collisions, with the bull tossing the men into aerial somersaults before sometimes trampling their bodies when they land on the ground. There’s no time limit on how long you can stay in the ring with the bull. But more time is not your friend. Hundreds of improvisados are injured each year.
No one’s sure how this tradition began, but bullfighting festivals are held throughout the country each year. It’s almost a rite of passage for young Costa Rican men to enter the bullfighting ring after they turn 18. “It’s just the Tico thing to do,” said Jon Carlos Cattano, 28, to the Tico Times. “It’s important to do it at least one time in your life.”
2 Gotmar Mela
Each year for at least a century, the residents of Pandhurna and Sawargaon, two villages in India divided by the Jam River, have pelted each other with stones for one day in a festival known as Gotmar Mela. Before each battle begins, a tree trunk with a flag tied on top is stuck in the middle of the riverbed. The team that retrieves the flag first is the winner.
However, climbing the tree to grab that flag while villagers throw big rocks may be the last thing a participant ever does. Injuries number in the hundreds every year, and there have been at least 17 deaths. Government officials have tried to persuade the villagers to use rubber balls instead of stones—to no avail. An outright ban didn’t work, either, and was lifted after pressure from the villagers.
There are conflicting stories about how the festival began. In one version, a Pandhurna boy fell in love with a Sawargaon girl, but their parents forbade their marriage. The young lovers decided to elope. As the boy carried his lover across the river to Pandhurna, the Sawargaon villagers began throwing stones at him. The Pandhurna residents returned the favor from their side of the river. Eventually, everyone agreed to let the kids get married, and they throw stones at each other once a year to mark the occasion.
Another version of the legend says that the king of Pandhurna abducted the beautiful daughter of Sawargaon’s ruler about 300 years ago. When the villagers of Sawargaon realized what had happened, they began pelting stones at the Pandhurna king, who had escaped to the other side of the river by then. To protect their king, Pandhurna villagers fired stones at Sawargaon. The king made it safely to his palace, and now the grooms from each village supposedly throw stones during the annual festival to win brides from the other village.
1 Yanshui Beehive Rocket Festival
“Insane” is almost too mild a word to describe the annual Beehive Rocket Festival held in the Yanshui District of Tainan, Taiwan. The Beehive Rocket Festival is part of the Lantern Festival that celebrates the Chinese New Year. But in some ways, it’s a uniquely dangerous celebration. During the Easter Rocket War in Greece that we talked about earlier, bottle rockets are launched toward church bells. They’re not meant to hit people directly.
However, with the Yanshui Beehive Rocket Festival, bottle rockets are arranged in large beehive structures, and people willingly move toward the exploding fireworks, deliberately trying to get hit as many times as possible. The more times you’re hit, the luckier you’ll be in the coming year. The often tightly packed crowds seem to bounce up and down with the rocket blasts, which at their peak can sound like the buzzing of bees in a hive.
Most participants suit up in protective gear, including fire-resistant clothing and helmets with face masks. Some young men rely on faith to protect them, wearing only a loincloth and a towel to shield their eyes from the intense heat and flying debris. Despite the cavalier attitude of the crowd, people do get hurt and sometimes require treatment at a hospital.
The festival began as a response to a cholera epidemic that raged in the city about 200 years ago. To ward off the evil spirits that were believed to be causing the illness, residents lit a massive firework display to win the favor and protection of their god. The epidemic subsided, and the rocket festival became an annual event for good luck.