While modern western society has no clear rites of passage, cultures have inherently understood that crossing the threshold into manhood and womanhood need clear markers. For without these rites of passage delineating the transition, young men and women will drift through life indefinitely. These experiences are designed to ensure that initiates complete the course of activities and emerge empowered.

Vanuatu Land Diving

A yearly harvest ritual called ‘land diving’ takes place in Vanuatu, a small island in the South Pacific.

Dating back nearly fifteen centuries, land diving ceremony serves doubly to ensure a bountiful yam crop and as a rite of passage for the tribe’s boys into manhood. A wave of circumcisions precedes the death-defying dives. Boys as young as five years old take the plunge. The boys will start out jumping from lower levels and work their way up to higher levels as they get older.

The village builds towers from tree trunks and barks that reach up to 100 meters. A carefully measured vine is tied to the diver’s ankles. As they plummet headfirst to the ground, they reach speeds of 45 miles an hour. The goal is to get the diver’s shoulders as close as possible to the ground. Any miscalculation can lead to serious injury or death. The higher the diver goes, the braver he is presumed and he holds a position of authority in the tribe.

Mardudjara Aborigines

The Australian Mardudjara Aborigines’ rite of passage consists of two phases: circumcision and a sub-incision. When the Aborigine boy is 15 or 16 years old, elders take him to a large fire and have him lie down next to it. He is surrounded by tribal members who sing and dance around him.

A tribal elder sits on the boy’s chest and twists and pulls the foreskin so it can be cut off with a knife that has been blessed by the spirits. Two additional men take turns cutting the foreskin. To cope with the pain, the boy bites down on a boomerang as the procedure takes place. When the circumcision is complete, the boy kneels on a shield over the fire to be purified by the rising smoke. As the boy kneels, elders feed him with his freshly removed foreskin. This symbolizes that the boy has eaten his younger self and is now a man.

A few months after the air cushion, the boy is led again to the fire for the second part of his initiation; the sub-incision. A small wooden rod is inserted into the urethra. Next, the elder splits the underside of the penis with a knife from the frenulum (underneath the penis head) to scrotum. After the sub-incision, the boy stands above the fire as his blood drips into the flames. From now on, the boy has to squat to urinate.

IMG: Boys in Goroka, Eastern Highlands, Papua New Guinea. Photographer: Anselmo Lastra. Flickr. Creative Commons.

Sambia of Papua New Guinea

There are over 1,000 different cultural groups in the small country of Papua New Guinea in the Southwestern Pacific.

The Sambia tribe’s rite of passage begins at age seven when a boy is separated from his mother. There are six rites of passage that must be completed before the boy becomes a man and this can take 10 to 15 years. A Sambian male is considered a man once he has a child. It begins with total separation from women. The boy will spend his young life in an all-male hut. Gender separation among the Sambia people is taken to such great extremes that men and women have different walking paths in the village.

After being separated from women, the boy is subjected to brutal bloodletting rituals. The boy is held against a tree and sniffs sharp pointy grasses and sticks are shoved up his nose. Once blood starts flowing freely, a collective war cry is let out by the elders. After bloodletting, the boy is beaten and lashed to toughen them up in preparation for his life as a warrior. The ability to show strength and sustain pain is imperative to a Sambia warrior.

The next phase is drinking semen. Done in the privacy of the forest, the boy must perform fellatio on young men aged 13 to 21. The Sambia believe that tingu, allows for procreation. Young men’s tingu needs to be awakened and the only way to do so is to drink ‘man milk.’ In drinking semen, the boy will become virile and strong.

At age 13, another nosebleed initiation takes place coupled with the beatings. Now considered a bachelor, the young man is allowed to provide ‘man milk’ to young initiates starting on their path towards manhood.

By age 20, a Sambia man is ready to marry and the elders teach him to protect himself from the impurities of women. For instance, when having intercourse, a man should stuff mint leaves in his nostril to camouflage the smell of his wife’s genitals. Also, penetration should not be too deep as it will increase the chance of pollution. After intercourse, a Sambia man must bathe in mud to wash away the impurities that he may have contracted from his wife. After marriage, a Sambia man doesn’t spend much time with his wife, but he continues passing time with the rest of the men.

Mentawi Tribe Indonesia

The Mentawi Tribe of West Sumatra, Indonesia think daggerlike teeth is sexy in women. Once women reach adulthood it’s time to have their teeth chipped and filled down into points.

This rite of passage shows that agony for the sake of allure to appease the male gaze is founded with the Mentawi. The procedure is performed with crude instruments with no anesthetic and girls chew on green banana leaves to dull the pain.

Using a sharp piece of stone and wood, both front rows of girls’ teeth are filed down. Once complete, the girl is ready for marriage.

These are just a few of the bloody, brutal, and bizarre rites of passage found globally. Though to many, these may seem gross, immoral, or even illegal, as travelers we must understand that every cultural group will create ways to identify and create community amongst themselves and rites of passage do just that. It is through self-exploration, spiritual revelation and arduous physical activity that people in every society find a story that connects them to their community.


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