The World’s Most Dangerous Cultural Traditions

Traditions are an essential part of the human experience. They’re how we connect with our past and ensure we’ll be connected with the future.

Traditions exist in cultures for their own reasons, and what is normal to one person might be horrific to someone else. Yet, some of these traditions are far more dangerous than others. From wearing gloves full of bullet ants to running full-speed down a hill, these are the world’s most dangerous traditions.

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Running of the Bulls

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The running of the bulls is a Spanish tradition in which a group of cattle is let loose on a closed-off course in a town’s streets. Groups of people run among the large animals and try not to be trampled. The running of the bulls typically occurs during the nine-day festival of Sanfermines in Pamplona, Spain. However, it is not uncommon for the tradition to take place in other towns and cities around Spain, Portugal, and even in some parts of Mexico.

Spaniards date the tradition back to 14th century northeastern Spain. They claim that when cattle were being transported to the market to sell, they would hurry them along by running with them and creating excitement. Eventually, it became a competition that was later established as a tradition. Every year, between 50 and 100 people are injured, and since 1910, 15 people have died.

Onbashira Festival

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The Onbashira Festival takes place in Tokyo, Japan once every six years. The cultural tradition claims its origins date back to 12,000 years ago. Translated, the name Onbashira mean “honored pillars.” During the first part of the festival known as Yamadashi, men go into the mountains and chop down 16 specifically-chosen fir trees.

Men bring the trees down from the mountain by pulling them with ripes. This makes the large trunks slide down the mountain like a freight train over all kinds of terrain. Young men show their bravery by riding the logs, which sometimes can weigh up to 12 tons. It is not uncommon for some men to be seriously hurt or even killed.

El Colacho

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El Colacho, or baby jumping, is a Spanish holiday that dates back to the 17th century. It occurs annually to celebrate the Catholic festival of Corpus Christi in Castrillo de Murcia, near Burgos, Spain. During the holiday, men dressed as the devil in red and yellow suits jump over beds with babies that were born in the 12 months prior.

The mattresses are placed on the procession route, and the men run and jump over the trail of mattresses. Although the origins of the traditional are unknown, the jumping is said to cleanse the baby of original sin. However, the Pope has spoken out against that belief, claiming that only way to be cleansed of original sin is through the sacrament of baptism.

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Bullet Ant Initiation

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The Sateré-Mawé people live deep in the Amazon rainforest and have one of the most painful coming-of-age traditions around. At the age of 12, a boy must go into the forest and collect bullet ants.

These ants are woven into a pair of gloves that he must wear 20 times (for 10 minutes each time) while dancing as the ants sting his hands over and over again. The sting of a bullet ant is 30 times more painful than a bee sting, and the gloves are full of them. The boy’s hands can become paralyzed after the ordeal, and the venom can cause him to suffer for weeks after.

Vanuatu Land Diving

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In the Republic of Vanuatu, those living on Pentecostal Island participate in one of the most daring ceremonies in the world. Every year, from April to June, the Nagol men climb 100-foot makeshift towers. They then dive headfirst hoping that the vines tied around their ankles will stop their fall.

The ritual is believed to have come from a woman who first did it to escape her abusive husband in the act of defiance. It was initially a women’s tradition but was taken over by men. It has also transformed into a ritual that has religious symbolism. It is thought that the yam harvest depends on the courage of the previous year’s divers. Boys can start as early as five years old with the highest plank reserved for the most experienced.

Self-Flagellation

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Every year, the Shi’a sect of Islam perform the mass ritual of self-flagellation on the Day of Ashura during the Holy month of Muharram. They do this to commemorate the Battle of Karbala and the martyrdom of Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad. Men come together in masses to whip themselves with blades, cut themselves with razors, and slice themselves with machetes.

Although illegal in many places, it is still done in India, Iraq, Lebanon, the United States, and Australia. Many Shiite leaders have also condemned the bloodletting, yet it doesn’t stop those who are set in their practices. During the ritual, participants say that their religious fervor makes it so they cannot feel the pain.

Fire Walking

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The Nine Emperor God’s Festival is a tradition that is carried out across Asia. One of the rituals is the act of walking across burning coals barefoot. This is done because fire is believed to purify and expel evil.

Walking over the fire is a way for individuals to demonstrate their strength and come out the other side clean. However, one slip can be utterly disastrous. During the celebration, hundreds of participants walk across the coals. Some even carry deities or others on their back to prove their devotion and courage.

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Charak Puja

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Charak Puja is one of the many local festivals in Bengal, India. It happens annually on the 13th and 14th day of April to welcome the Bengali New year the next day. It is observed by agricultural groups to celebrate the end of the suffering of the previous year and to usher in good fortune for the future.

Participants known as Charaks impale their bodies with sharp knives, needles, and rods as a penance to Lord Shiva. They are also known to put hooks through their backs and are suspended above the ground where they are swung around a large pole. This act is another sign of penance.

Scarification

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In Papua New Guinea, a tribe practices the brutal rite of passage practice known as Kaningara. It is a body modification tradition that is performed on adolescent boys as they transition into manhood. For two months, the adolescence live in seclusion in a “Spirit House” until it is time for their initiation.

When the time comes, an expert cutter makes hundreds of cuts all over their body with a sharp piece of bamboo. This way, when the skin is healed, the scars resemble the skin of a crocodile. They do this since they believe that crocodiles are the creator of humans. So the cutting symbolizes a crocodile eating the boy and becoming a man.

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Bullfighting

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Bullfighting is a tradition that takes place in Spain, Portugal, and some Latin American countries. Its origin can be traced back to Ancient Rome although it has spread elsewhere. It is a physical contest between a man and a bull with the man attempting to subdue and usually kill the bull while following a specific set of guidelines.

In many parts of the world it is seen as a cruel bloodsport, but in some countries, it is seen as a form of art and a cultural event. Although bullfighting usually results in the death of the animal, to be a bullfighter is an incredibly risky position. One wrong step can lead to being trampled, gored, and even killed.

Coopers Hill Cheese-Rolling

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The Cooper’s Hill-Cheese-Roll is an annual event during the spring break holiday at the ultra-steep Cooper’s Hill in Gloucester, England. A nine-pound wheel of Double Gloucester cheese is rolled down the hill, and the participants run after it, tumbling their way down. The person who gets down the hill first gets the cheese and is named the winner.

The tradition is believed to be over 250 years old and came about for two possible reasons. The first was that it involved grazing rights, and the second was that it comes from the Pagan custom of rollings objects down the hill before a harvest. Today, the tradition has become a world-famous event with winners hailing from all over the world.

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Rouketopolemos

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Rouketopolemos or “rocket war” is a local Easter tradition in the town of Vrontados in Chios, Greece. At midnight before Easter Sunday, two rival churches participate in firing tens of thousands of fireworks across the village in an attempt to hit the other church’s bell tower.

The two rival churches are St. Mark’s and Panaghia Ereithiani. Both churches are built on hills approximately 400 meters away from one another. Both the churches and nearby houses and buildings prepare for the event by boarding up the surrounding area with sheet metal. Although the beginnings of the tradition are unknown, it is believed to go back to the Ottoman era and was performed with real cannons.

New Years Dive

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The New Years Dive in Siberia, Russia is like the Polar Bear Plunge on steroids. Divers from all over the world come together to plunge into Lake Baikal, the world’s deepest lake, around 5,390 feet to the bottom. They cut a hole in the ice covering the lake and dive down 40 meters carrying a New Year tree with them.

Once they’ve reached their destination, they plant the tree and dance around it together. This has been a tradition since 1982. Although most of them are professional divers, the cold, depth and equipment are enough to make it one of the riskier traditions around.

Yanshui Beehive Fireworks Festival

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On the day of Lunar New Year in Tainan, Taiwan, thousands of people gather together in makeshift armor for the Yanshui Beehive Firework Festival. Placed within the crowds are “beehives” of hundreds of thousands of fireworks, constructed to detonate directly into the crowd.

The tradition is said to have started in the 19th century as a way of stopping cholera and plague epidemic ravaging the city. They claim that the sulfur in the fireworks killed the bacteria and that the noise scared away all of the diseased rats. The tradition has carried on until today with an estimation of 1.4 million rockets being propelled into the crowd.

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Takanakuy

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Takanakuy is Quechua for the phrase “to hit each other.” It is an established annual tradition that occurs among the inhabitants of Chumbivilcas Province, near Cuzco, Peru. On December 25, the townspeople come together where individuals or groups fight one another to settle old conflicts from throughout the year.

There is dancing, people wearing extravagant outfits, and people beating each other to a pulp on the side. Although there are some rules to the fights, for the most part, it’s fierce hand-to-hand combat until there is a clear winner. It provides the fighters and community with a clean slate for the upcoming year.

Grieving Finger Amputation

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In the Dani Tribe from Papua New Guinea, the women of the tribe show their grief over the loss of a family member both emotionally and physically. A woman will cut off the top of a finger is she loses a child or other close family member. It is a practice that is for mourning as well as to drive away evil spirits.

They tie a string around the finger for 30 minutes to numb the pain before the amputation; the cauterize the wound. The tip of the finger is then burned or buried. Although this practice has been banned, there are still some who continue to do it.

Hadaka Matsuri

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Across Japan, Shinto temples host the Hadaka Matsuri or Naked Festival. The tradition occurs in the cold months of January and February. At each event, a priest will throw a sacred baton (shingi) into a mass of young men in the cold water. It’s an all-out free-for-all to get the baton.

The man who retrieves the baton is blessed with a year of luck and wealth. Because of all the commotion, water, and temperatures, the Naked Festival is exceptionally dangerous although it is celebrated with high hopes and joy. Injuries are common, and deaths have occurred in an attempt to retrieve the shingi.

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Battle of the Oranges

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In the Northern Italian city of Ivrea, there is an annual tradition called the Battle of the Oranges. It is a city-wide orange fight between organized groups. The fight is a reenactment of a medieval battle in which the town overthrew a tyrant. A horse-drawn carriage carries the “tyrants” who wear protective gear as they attack the townspeople.

The rest of the city is divided into nine groups in which the biggest citrus fight in the world follows. Although it’s all in good fun, there’s no denying that getting hit with an orange at full-speed is no joke. It’s a true battlefield and injuries are part of the game. However, the biggest rule to never throw an orange at the horses.

Baby Dropping Ritual

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At Baba Umer Burga, a Muslim shrine near Sholapur, India, babies, and toddlers have been tossed off of the roof for over 700 years. The children are not thrown to their deaths; instead, they are dropped over 50 feet onto a sheet held by a group of men.

Each year, Hindu and Muslim parents volunteer their children for the drop. This centuries-old tradition is believed to bless the children with good luck and prosperity for their families. Although it’s remarkably dangerous, there has never been an injury or death reported.

The Polar Bear Plunge

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A Polar Bear Plunge is an event during the winter in which participants submerge themselves in almost freezing natural bodies of water. In the United States, the Polar Bear Plunge is an event that is usually held to help raise money for a charity of some kind. The biggest in the United States and is called Plungapalooza and all of the proceeds go to the Special Olympics.

In 2007, the plunge raised over $2.2 million for their cause. However, although it is for charity, there are serious health risks involved with submerging your body in water that cold. Depending on the individual, it can lead to shock, hypothermia, paralysis and even death in some circumstances.