10 Unusual Ancient Rituals That You Might Not Know About
Rituals have played a significant role in human civilization since ancient times. From birth to death, humans have performed rituals for various reasons, such as seeking blessings, appeasing the gods, expressing gratitude, and even for entertainment purposes. Ancient rituals have fascinated scholars, anthropologists, and history buffs for years due to their mystical and unique nature. These rituals often involve elaborate ceremonies, costumes, music, and dance and are a reflection of the beliefs and values of the people who performed them.
This list explores ten unusual ancient rituals you might not know about. These rituals come from different parts of the world and are a testament to the diversity and richness of human culture. By examining these rituals, we can gain insight into the beliefs and practices of our ancestors and appreciate how they tried to make sense of the world around them. Whether you are interested in history, anthropology, or simply curious about the strange and fascinating ways humans have expressed themselves, this list is for you. So, let’s dive into the intriguing world of ancient rituals and discover the secrets that lie within.
Related: 10 Dark Facts About Ritual Cannibalism
10 The Death Whistle of the Aztecs
The Aztecs used a unique whistle called the Death Whistle in their ceremonies related to death and the afterlife. The whistle was crafted in the shape of a human skull or a decapitated head, with intricate carvings and details. It was made using clay or ceramic, materials that were abundant in the region. The whistle consisted of a skull-shaped clay or stone body with a hollow tube attached to the back.
During the ceremonies, the Death Whistle was blown to create a haunting sound that resembled the cries of the dead. The purpose of this sound was to guide the souls of the deceased to the afterlife, according to Aztec beliefs. The Aztecs considered death to be an important part of their culture and believed it to be a necessary step in the journey to the afterlife. By using the Death Whistle, they honored their deceased loved ones and ensured their souls were properly guided.
9 The Throwing of Babies in India
The ritual of throwing babies ritual was practiced in certain parts of India, involving throwing infants off the roof of a temple. The babies, typically under the age of two, were handed over to priests who would shake them and then toss them from a height of 30 to 50 feet (9.1 to 15.2 meters). The falling infants would be caught by a group of men standing below, using a cloth to ensure their safety. The ritual was performed in the first week of December. It was observed by both Hindus and Muslims, as history shows this was a societal custom rather than a religious one.
The origins of this ritual date back approximately seven hundred years when infant mortality rates were high and medical advancements were limited. Some priests advised parents of sick or dying infants to build a shrine and throw their babies as a means of saving their lives. However, in modern times, the ritual no longer serves the purpose of saving ailing children. Still, it is performed as a celebration in many parts of India.
8 The Bull Leaping of Minoan Crete
Bull leaping of Minoan Crete was an ancient ritual that involved participants leaping over the back of a charging bull. This dangerous spectacle was often performed in front of large crowds and was considered a rite of passage for young men. The ritual was a popular sport in Minoan Crete and was often featured in ancient art and literature.
The purpose of the bull-leaping ritual is debated among scholars, but it is generally believed to have had religious significance. Some theories suggest that the ritual was intended to honor the bull as a symbol of fertility and strength, while others argue that it was a test of courage and skill for young men. The ceremonial courts characteristic of Minoan palaces are often considered the locations for the sport, serving as Minoan bullrings. The Bull’s Head rhyton from the Little Palace at Knossos was made from serpentinite and has been reconstructed with inlays of shell, rock crystal, and jasper in the muzzle and eyes.
7 The Finger Cutting of the Dani Tribe
This finger-cutting ritual is performed by the Dani tribe, a group of people who live in the highlands of Papua, New Guinea. During the ritual, members from the tribe—most commonly women, but men also participate—had the tips of their fingers sliced off with a sharp bamboo blade. This painful and traumatic experience was performed without the benefits of anesthetic or pain relief.
The purpose of this ritual is to mourn the death of a family member. The Dani tribe believes that enduring this pain is part of the grieving process. Additionally, the ritual is meant to keep the spirits of the recently departed family member away. Although this practice may seem barbaric to outsiders, it is an integral part of the Dani tribe’s culture and identity. The significance of the ritual lies in its ability to reinforce the community’s values and beliefs, as well as to mark the passing of a loved one.
6 The Self-Mummification of the Buddhist Monks
The self-mummification of the Buddhist Monks, known as Sokushinbutsu, was indeed a ritual that took place in Japan from the 11th to the 19th century. The process involved a gradual deprivation of food and water by the monk. Additionally, the monks engaged in spiritual activity, including meditating in a small, confined space. This self-torture continued for several years until the monk eventually died. After death, the body of the monk would be mummified and placed in a shrine for worship.
The purpose of this ritual was to attain enlightenment and reach a state of spiritual purity. The monks believed that by pushing their physical and mental limits to the extreme, they could transcend the material world and achieve a higher state of being. Although this ritual may appear extreme and barbaric to modern Western sensibilities, it was regarded as a noble and respected pursuit in Japan at the time. The monks who successfully completed the process were highly revered as holy men, and their mummified bodies served as a testament to their spiritual prowess. 
5 The Sati of India
The Sati ritual was indeed a practice in ancient India where a widow would be burned alive on her husband’s funeral pyre. It was considered an act of devotion to the husband and was believed to free the woman from any sins she may have committed in her lifetime. The practice was popular in the 17th and 18th centuries. However, it was eventually outlawed by the British colonial government in the 19th century under the governance of Lord William Bentinck, the first governor-general of British-ruled India.
The purpose of the Sati ritual was indeed to demonstrate the ultimate sacrifice and devotion to the husband. It was believed that by willingly choosing to die with her husband, the widow would attain spiritual merit and be granted a place in heaven. However, it is important to note that the practice was often coerced, and many women were forced or pressured into committing Sati against their will. This has been a matter of controversy, as the significance and implications of the ritual have been widely debated. Some argue that it reinforced patriarchal values and contributed to the oppression of women.
4 The Blood Eagle of the Vikings
The blood eagle was a brutal ritual allegedly practiced by the Vikings. However, there is debate among modern scholars regarding its actual occurrence and execution. According to popular lore, in the blood eagle ritual, the victim would be restrained and their back cut open to expose the ribs. The ribs would then be broken and pulled apart, creating the shape of an eagle’s wings. Finally, the lungs would be pulled out and placed on the victim’s shoulders.
The purpose of the blood eagle remains a subject of debate among historians. Some propose that it may have been a form of human sacrifice to appease the gods, while others argue that it was a punishment, possibly for treason. The ritual was believed to be reserved for individuals deemed deserving or courageous, serving as a display of the Vikings’ power and fearlessness. Its brutality also served as a warning to others, reinforcing the Vikings’ reputation as formidable warriors.
3 The Water Burial or Sky Burial in Tibet
The water burial or sky burial in Tibet is a unique ancient ritual practiced in Tibet, where the deceased person’s body is placed on a high platform or in a remote location to be consumed by vultures and other scavenger birds. The remains are then scattered, allowing the person’s spirit to merge with nature. This ritual is carried out with great reverence and respect for the deceased. It is viewed as a final act of charity towards the living, as the body is given back to nature.
The purpose of the water or sky burial in Tibet is to release the deceased person’s spirit from their physical body and allow it to join the natural cycle of life and death. The ritual is based on the belief that the body is merely a vessel for the spirit and that death is a natural part of life’s cycle. It is also considered a way to give back to nature and maintain ecological balance. In Tibet, where the ground is hard and rocky with little vegetation, this burial method is seen as practical, respectful, and spiritually significant.
2 The Tooth Sharpening of the Mentawai Tribe
The Mentawai tribe, located in Indonesia, practices the ancient ritual of tooth sharpening. This ritual involves using a sharpened rock to file down or sharpen the teeth of young tribe members. The process typically takes place when a child reaches the age of six or seven and is performed by the tribe’s shaman. The tooth sharpening process can be lengthy, lasting several hours, and the child is provided with herbal medicine to help alleviate the pain.
The primary purpose of the tooth sharpening ritual is to signify the transition of a child from infancy to childhood. It is believed that by sharpening their teeth, the children will acquire increased strength and resilience, both physically and spiritually. Furthermore, sharpened teeth are thought to protect against evil spirits and safeguard the child from harm. The ritual is also considered a rite of passage and a means of connecting the child to their cultural heritage. Despite the potential health risks associated with the practice, the Mentawai tribe has persistently carried out tooth sharpening for generations, as it holds significant importance in preserving their cultural identity.
1 The Haka of the Maori
The haka is a traditional dance ritual of the Maori people of New Zealand that has gained worldwide recognition due to its performance by the New Zealand national rugby team before matches. The haka is a fierce and intimidating display of physical prowess and vocal power, with performers stamping their feet, slapping their thighs, and shouting in unison while making aggressive facial expressions and gestures.
The purpose of the haka varies depending on the occasion, but it is often performed to assert the strength and unity of the Maori people and intimidate opponents. It is also used to honor important guests and commemorate significant events. The haka is deeply rooted in Maori culture and is considered a sacred ritual connecting performers with their ancestors and spiritual heritage. Its significance extends beyond entertainment and athletic competition and serves as a powerful symbol of cultural identity and pride.