At what point does a boy become a man?
In today’s pampered Western culture, the joke goes that they never really do. But if we had to pick a rite-of-passage moment in the life of a typical British male, we’d probably say the Fresher’s week or the gap year (for the middle classes at least) – two periods of faux-independence that are, paradoxically, more about hedonism and prolonging the joys of youth than being initiated into the harsh responsibilities of manhood.
Lucky us. In other times and cultures, ‘becoming a man’ isn’t a whimsical, laissez faire decade or so that starts with buying your first legal pint and ends with a mortgage. It’s a ritualized episode of mental and physical suffering, the difference between acceptance and rejection from your own people, and sometimes, it’s fighting a bloody great lion with a stick.
What to take away from the following hair-raising examples of coming-of-age ceremonies faced by boys around the world? Relief, first and foremost, that we got off so lightly. But beyond that, perhaps a deep sense of respect and admiration, and just maybe the tiniest tinge of envy. These men may be scarred and bruised, but at least they know they’re men. Most of us are still trying to figure out if that’s the case well into our 40s.
1 | Mandan torture
The Mandan Native Americans of North Dakota held a religious ceremony each summer called the Okipa, in which the entire tribe celebrated the creation of the Earth. We say the entire tribe: not so much the young boys. Any aged around 8 would be made to fast for four days, before being tortured. Long wooden skewers were inserted into cuts on their backs, chests and legs and then they were hung in the air by ropes and weighted down with buffalo skulls. As with many of the rituals in this article, the idea was to test the boys’ threshold for pain. Those who endured it with the most bravery were made into Mandan leaders. All of which puts being made to down a few pints on your 18th birthday into perspective.
2 | Vanuatu Land Diving
Every April, the men of the small South Pacific island nation of Vanuatu gather watch their young men quite literally leap into adulthood. First they build a wooden tower of 100 feet or so, then boys as young as five are encouraged to climb to the top, tie a vine rope around their ankles and plummet headfirst towards the floor. The idea is to get as close to ground without hitting it as possible – something that, if misjudged, will result in terrible injury or death. This is basically bungee jumping without any experts or safety procedures, and it has been going on for almost 15 centuries.
3 | Spartan serf-killing
As anyone who has seen 300 knows, the Spartans were a tough bunch. And sadly for them and people they subjugated, you don’t become a killing machine by training alone. After being schooled in fighting between the ages of 7-17, Spartan teenagers were inducted into a group known as the Krypteia. For a period every Autumn, the Krypteia were granted impunity to kill any helots (slaves) they could find. For the young Kryptes, this was their chance to prove their worth as men. So they stalked the Laconian countryside with knives murdering as many serfs as they could before being detected. The successful were fully-fledged serial killers before their 18th birthday. The failures were, naturally, whipped.
4 | Maasai lion fighting XXX
The Maasia people of Kenya and Tanzania have a warrior class who change every 6-10 years, making way for a new generation of adults males who are the chief protectors of society. In the past, to be considered a warrior young men were first circumcised and then sent out to fight and kill a lion, usually in groups but occasionally on their own. The practice has long since ceased, not least due to government animal legislation, but in the past, any Maasai who took out a lion with just his spear was considered a true man. Hard to argue with that, really.
5 | The Algonquin Indian trip
Even hardened LSD veterans would struggle to cope with what was imbibed by young boys from the Algonquin tribes of North America. After being taken to a secluded area, they were fed a plant mixture derived from Jimson Weed called wysoccan, over a period of 20 days. Aside from being potentially lethal, wysoccan is an extremely powerful hallucinogen that also caused memory loss (the idea was the remove all memories of childhood). It was an ordeal that, if survived, would turn the boys into men. And no doubt fans of The Doors.
6 | The Fula whip battle
The Fulani of West Africa become men only after they’ve prevailed in a painful whipping battle with a rival from another tribe. Each boy must make a weapon by taking a long stick and sharpening it to a point. They are then both given three blows each. The boy who hits the hardest, and endures his own pain the most bravely, earns the right to be called a man. They other is trapped in boyhood – until next time.
7 | The Satere-Mawe bullet ant glove
This one is so harrowing, we had to watch several videos before we believed it wasn’t a hoax. The Satere-Mawe tribe in the Brazilian Amazon live alongside bullet ants, insects with a sting so painful it has been likened to being shot which, when inflicted, lasts for 24 hours. Rather than avoid these creatures at all costs, the Satere-Mawe use them to initiate their boys into manhood. First, they use a natural sedative to knock the ants out. Then they insert dozens of them, stinger first, into a pair of gloves. The boys are then challenged to insert both hands into these gloves and endure the searing agony for ten minutes while making as little fuss as possible. 20 times. Once the pain has subsided, they are considered warriors of their tribe. Though how that works with not being able to hold a weapon for several months, we have no idea.