For many of us, religious traditions are simply activities that occur on the weekends or only when the holidays come around. But the amazing thing about some religions is that they sometimes come with the requirement for members to perform amazing acts of endurance, challenges and even sacrifices to test their commitment and their faith. In this list, we will examine six of the most bizarre and challenging forms of religious traditions found in cultures from across the world. Some of these are ancient rituals while others still take place today.
1) Sitting on Top on Pillars – Sometimes for Years
During the peak of the ancient Roman Empire, Christians were persecuted with regularity. And surprisingly, during the late stages of the Empire, Christianity them became their official religion. Even though there was a shift from being forbidden and often put to death to becoming the official religion, Christians were still uneasy being in the Empire. This is entirely expected after Rome for centuries was the ultimate evil in most every Christian tale. As you might imagine, these suspicions the Empire were very slow to disappear. And lots of Christians still believed that the Romans were still extremely sinful.
As a response to these social and cultural changes, there were many Christians that adopted ascetic rituals to in order to distinguish themselves from normal society. Perhaps the most extreme of these practices was one that was called “pillar sitting.” Basically, a Christian would decide to put themselves on top of elevated platform for most of his life—thus, to separate himself from the rest of the world. His very survival would then be decided by God and the elements, and also the community’s charity.
Tradition has stated that Simeon Stylites the Elder was the first man to undergo this practice. He began this religious tradition in the city of Aleppo in Syria during the fifth century. As a result, other who decide to follow his lead were referred to as “Stylites”.
The practice became very popular for many centuries throughout the Eastern region of the Roman Empire, and then it was also practiced in the Byzantine Empire later. For various reasons, it was not practiced very much in Western Europe.
2) Isolating Yourself inside a Room Forever
Throughout the Middle-Ages there were literally thousands of Christians that went into monastic orders. Even though these orders were very much different within each practice, a notable one to point out here is the anchoress or the anchorite. While many monks and nuns resided in very tiny communities that were isolated, many of these members would wall themselves up within small rooms. And there they would stay for the remainder of their life. The good news is that these little rooms did usually have a small window so that they could see the outside world. The window also allowed others to deliver food and check on them.
Many times these rooms were adjacent to churches in order for the hermit to have a little contact with locals. Amazingly, many of the men and women who lived within these extremes often grew reputations and got very popular. One example of this comes from the 14th century in England who was known as Julian of Norwich – who was an anchoress. Pilgrims from all around came to her cell to seek spiritual guidance.
3) Walking over Burning Coals
Most of us have seen firewalking over hot coals as a practice in many cultures and instances. It seems that this is always been among the bizarre religious traditions. Many times, it is used as a rite of passage of some sort. We have even seen it used by motivational speakers and even in cults. However, there are Hindus that practice in South India who used firewalking as parts of a ritual vow. These devotees will request something from their main deity and vow to do an act in return. In this particular case, the act in return is requiring one to walk over burning coals and simultaneously carrying burning pots.
The most renowned of these firewalking rituals have occurred at the Goddess Mariamman temples that are located in South India. Before this ritual even begins, pots of clay are gathered. These pots are then filled with hot coals, some kindling, or perhaps burning oil. The devotees will then carry these hot pots in their bare hands or maybe on top of their heads while walking across burning coals. In a few cases, the devotee will also be required to carry the hot pot through their villages before they are even allowed to walk the hot coals.
4) Avoiding Staple Foods and then Stop Eating Permanently
Daoist philosophy tells us that it is indeed possible for a human being to become immortal. While there are several texts where interpreters disagree and bicker about what is really meant about this ultimate version of immortality, most of them agree that humans can accomplish immortality through a transformation of their body. The process of human body transformation is often referred to as “inner alchemy” and as might be imagined, requires several rigorous practices and disciplines.
The most popular practice that is associated with this inner alchemy is called bigu, or “grain avoidance.” Grain avoidance typically pertains to just five grains of Chinese agriculture. And grain avoidance can actually be applied any type of staple food. The rationale of this type of fasting is all about the Daoist view of the human body. They believed that the food we eat actually reduced life, instead of extending it. The ideal scenario was learning to survive without food and then live forever.
This practice would occur in very long stages. During the first stage, the devotee slowly reduces all grains from their diet. And then the most extreme practitioners would keep eliminating various foods until they eliminated everything in their diets.
5) Rituals including Human Sacrifice
Mithra is an ancient Iranian god who enjoyed a very large and widespread following. He was a deity that worshipped across a wide span of time. He was recognized as a deity both before and during the Zoroastrian periods of ancient Iran. And then he was also worshipped in parts of the Roman Empire. It is believed that Roman soldiers that had campaigned against the remnants of the great Persian Empire were the most probable devotees that originally moved this practice to Europe. Shrines that were dedicated to Mithra have been discovered all over Europe.
Roman religious traditions regarding Mithra varied from those found in Persia. These traditions reflected the challenging lives of these soldiers that had become a part of these cults. To match these challenging lives there were challenging rituals. To enter this cult and move up into the higher ranks of membership devotees were required to undergo a whole series of initiations. While many of their rites are nothing more than those found in modern fraternity hazings, others proved to be very psychologically intense.
One such ceremony involved ritual meals. This often included consuming flesh from a slaughtered bull, but it even required another cult member to play the role of the bull. This unfortunate member would get blindfolded and paraded throughout the gallery prior to being slaughtered ceremonially. It isn’t really clear from these ancient sources if those who became bulls knew of this, or if it was a last minute surprise.
6) Celebrations the Urs Festival in Ajmer and Sticking a Knife in Your Eye
The Urs festival is a six-day event that celebrated in many cities by Sufis, the most popular of those celebrations take place in Ajmer. This festival recognizes the anniversary of the death of Moinuddin Chishti, who was a Sufi saint and founded the order bearing his name. Even though this saint is basically a local figure, people from all across the world travel to this popular festival to either take part in the festivities or to watch these outrageous challenges that devotees will put themselves through.
Over six eventful days, dedicated men will conduct a whole series of grueling things. These include a walk that is 75 miles to visit a shrine, the piercing of their skin using hooks, and the gouging of their eyes using skewers and swords. These gruesome are not intended to be masochistic. They are supposed to be demonstrations of their commitment and faith to this order. For those who are curious, it ought to be noted that self-torture acts for the faint of heart.
So if you believe that your church gets a little crazy sometimes, just remember all these bizarre religious traditions.