Apr 14

Calcio Fiorentino

Football (or soccer) is one of the world’s most popular pastimes; professional leagues have extensive, devoted, and extremely passionate followings.  The sport is believed to be the descendant of a variety of ancient ball games, particularly those enjoyed by the Romans and Greeks.  Although nearly all of these versions eventually died out and gave way to the current form of football, one precursor to the modern game has survived.

Originating in the sixteenth century, the game is now referred to as calcio storico (historic football) or calcio fiorentino (after Florence, the city where it is still played).  While the roots of modern football are evident in calcio storico (primarily as players use their feet to maneuver the ball toward the opposing team’s goal), there are also stark contrasts between the modern and historic games.  Storico matches often appear more similar to rugby than football, as players can also use their hands to manipulate the ball and are permitted to be exceptionally violent.


Calcio storico allows the use of a wide range of strikes against opponents.  Throwing of punches, elbows, and headbutts are all legal according to official rules, as is choking an opponent.  Its combative style requires a unique type of athleticism from its players.  During the 1500s, the game became notorious beyond Italy for its violent nature.  The French king Henry III, who attended a match while on a diplomatic visit to Venice, is said to have remarked that storico was “…too small to be a real war and too cruel to be a game.”


Like many other predecessors to football, calcio storico eventually lost popularity and support.  It largely fell from practice during the 1600s.  Fortunately, however, cultural and historic interest (as well as a desire to distinguish Italian sport from that of its neighbors) brought about its revival in 1930.  A limited number of games are played annually in Florence, with four teams representing each quarter of the city.  As with many traditions in Italy, the final match corresponds with a religious holiday, and is held on the feast of the patron of Florence, San Giovanni (St. John).

Rules established in the sixteenth century remain in use today; calcio storico is still as brutal a sport as it first was.  Fifty-minute matches are played on sand fields, with long, narrow goals at each end.  Teams consist of twenty-seven men, and matches require a total of seven officials.  Traditional uniforms (namely pants in the sixteenth-century style) are used by the teams from each quarter, which are designated by a color (red, blue, green, or white).


The rebirth of calcio storico has preserved a unique aspect of Italian history and culture.  Its annual matches bring the Renaissance back to life each year, and just as modern football is linked to this sixteenth-century ancestor, storico has its roots in the ancient Roman game of harpastum.  Although the immediate attention of locals and visitors at the yearly matches is always on sport, calcio storico calls to mind a rich history and the importance of its preservation.


Apr 14

Wife Carrying

Sonkajärvi, Finland

Most cultures recognize and celebrate the importance of marriage in a number of largely similar practices.  The long-standing customs of celebrating anniversaries and holidays designated for doting on spouses are traditions shared by many nations.  However, an extremely unique way for married couples to celebrate their unions was created by the Finns as recently as 1992.  It combines wedlock with a healthy dose of competition and plenty of beer.

Wife carrying (eukonkanto in Finnish) is strictly a couples’ sport.  Partners traverse a series of three obstacles over a 253.5 meter course; the distance seems to have been arbitrarily chosen.  Two of the obstacles are dry (often log barriers, bales of hay, or fences) while the third is wet (and consists of meter-deep water).  The track itself, originally composed of rock and now (for the purpose of safety) made of sand, further increases the difficulty of traversing the course.


The annual competition and many of its rules are certainly bizarre, perhaps a reflection of their largely undefined origins.  There are several theories about what inspired the first wife carrying competition; the most popular involves an infamous thief of the nineteenth century.  Herkko Rosvo-Ronkainen and his fellow bandits lived in the forests of Finland, emerging from the trees and raiding villages for supplies and, according to legend, wives.  This may be why competition rules do not require that male competitors carry their own wives; it is permissible to compete with a neighbor’s wife or one “[found] further afield” if desired.

While the sport appears most demanding of the men carrying their wives, it is equally difficult for female competitors.  A wife can be carried in any fashion, which has led to some unique approaches.  The most notable is the Estonian carry, named for the nationality of the competitors who first successfully employed it.  It requires the wife to hang upside down from her partner’s shoulders, a position that takes as much strength and endurance as the carriers’ task.  Furthermore, being carried over obstacles does not always go smoothly; competition rules require that wives wear helmets because of the frequency of drops and falls.


Two teams run the course at a time, making each heat of the competition more competitive in nature.  Couples are truly racing against the clock however, with the winning team determined simply by the time taken to complete the course.  Dropping one’s wife incurs a fifteen second penalty, a rule created to ensure that technique remains an important element of competing.  The Finland competition typically draws thirty to forty entrant couples each year, with many spectators drawn by the prospect of entertainment and abundance of beer.

The brewed beverage is a staple of the Wife Carrying competition, perhaps a toast to the drink of choice of the thieves who inspired its creation.  First prize, awarded to the fastest couple, is the wife’s weight in beer.  This makes competing an even more challenging balancing act for the wives (forgive the pun); they must be light to gain speed but as heavy as possible if they want to maximize the benefit of a victory.  Regardless of the outcome, however, all in attendance find good times and beer readily available.


Mar 14


Southeast Asia

Hinduism is the world’s third largest religion (following Christianity and Islam).  However, as the result of foreign influences and other divisions, its practices and beliefs tend to vary slightly between geographic regions or social groups.  The most widely recognized Hindu traditions are often those with the most widely distributed or greatest number of adherents.  A combination of these two factors has likely led to the popularity of the Thaipusam festival celebrated throughout India and other parts of Southeast Asia.

Celebrated by the Tamil (an ancient populace that is now spread primarily across India, Malaysia, and Sri Lanka), Thaipusam is often an opportunity to exhibit one’s religious devotion.  The festival celebrates the story of a battle between two groups of deities, the Suras and Asuras.  The former, having suffered multiple defeats, finally entreated the goddess Parvati (recognized as the source of victory for good over evil).  In assistance, she provided Murugan (her son and the god of war) with a powerful javelin so that he could help the Suras defeat their enemies.  The nature of this tradition, which recognizes the benevolence of Parvati, has led Thaipusam to also serve as a time to seek aid from or express gratitude to the gods.

The traditional practice on Thaipusam is to offer something to the gods in return for their aid.  The offerings are known as kavadi, and in their simplest form involve gifts such as pots of milk.  However, the term kavadi implies much more than a gift, it indicates a burden.  Hindus participating in the festival willingly undertake hardships as proof of their devotion.  This may mean the traditional practice of carrying one’s gift for the gods, usually upon the head, to the temple.  However, many choose to exhibit their faith in a more demanding and somewhat gruesome way.


Kavadi often take the form of body piercings, which can become extremely elaborate.  The simplest forms often involve a rod that extends through the tongue, preventing speech as its bearer proceeds to the temple.  The purpose of such piercings is to serve as a constant reminder of the gods, allowing for complete focus on devotion during the religious holiday.  For those seeking a greater challenge, complex structures of piercings are often created, with longer lances serving as symbols of the javelin given to Murugan according to Hindu tradition.  Even the lightest of burdens, however, demands a great deal from worshipers on Thaipusam; the journey to the temple often requires them to carry their kavadi for several kilometers.


An even more difficult journey awaits practitioners in Malaysia, home to an ancient temple at the Batu Caves.  Hindus bearing kavadi trek up to fifteen kilometers before reaching the religious site, where almost three hundred steps stand between them and the entrance to the caves.  Practitioners carry massive pots of milk and other offerings, often supported by the piercings characteristic of Thaipusam, for hours before they are able to present them to be offered at the temple.  The holiday, during which its observers willingly endure pain and suffering, stands as a rare and unique example of devotion.


Mar 14

Festa de São João

Porto, Portugal

In many nations, culture and religion are closely linked.  Faith is so heavily intertwined with the history of some regions that it has become inseparable from their customs and celebrations.  This is especially common throughout Europe, where Catholicism has become a defining characteristic of many populations.

While some festivals originated from religious practices, many celebrations that were not religious in nature were adapted for the purposes of the Catholic church.  Popular customs were often linked to feast days celebrating the lives of saints and martyrs; this allowed for regional customs to continue unchanged while encouraging recognition of church holidays.  Spiritual leaders hoped that what were previously just annual parties would become religious events with a higher purpose and refined nature.  Although this was the case with many festivals, some remained largely unaltered despite being given a Catholic name.

The Portuguese city of Porto is home to a six-hundred year old street festival.  Festa de São João do Porto was named for Saint John in the 1800s, making it an official, citywide holiday.  Nevertheless, the traditions that predated the festival’s receipt of a new name continued to be practiced with little acknowledgement of their Catholic reinvention.  In fact, many of the city’s favorite practices related to the festival are of pagan rather than Christian origins.

The most notable custom of the day named for Saint John involves hitting others with hammers (made of soft materials to prevent injury) or soft plant stems such as leeks.  Ironically, striking another in this manner is a sign of affection or desire in Porto.  The tradition, which has no link to the holiday’s Catholic namesake, is believed to have descended from pagan customs.


Religious practices that are common to many celebrations of church holidays in Europe are still found in Porto during the festival.  Services are held and followed by traditional processions and parades, and religious icons are often erected outside of homes.  However, the dominant practices and largest attractions of Festa de São João remain secular.  The festival appears to be more of an annual party that happens to fall on Saint John’s feast day than an orchestrated day of devotion or prayer.

Indeed, little of the day seems to be truly planned.  Much of the celebration, although following the precedent of years past, is spontaneous and unscheduled.  Festivities begin in the afternoon of June 23, falling near the summer solstice as another result of early pagan influence.  Revelers take to the streets wielding plastic hammers; vendors set up stalls selling food and wine; a variety of performers entertain the crowds from makeshift stages across the city.  As evening falls, the crowds shift toward the district of Porto known for having the best bars and restaurants, enjoying more food and plentiful wine.  In keeping with the impromptu nature of the festival, firework displays occasionally light up the sky until the grand show takes place at midnight.


While some return home after the fireworks, the majority of Porto continues its party into the following morning.  Many make their way to the nearby beach, building bonfires and swimming in the sea until the sun rises.  Festa de São João has become one of Portugal’s most vibrant celebrations, but its mixed roots make it unique.  It is a celebration of nothing in particular, its nature to be determined by each participant.

Mar 14



Although the Gregorian calendar was widely adopted as the international standard to avoid confusion and eliminate the need for conversion, many cultural festivities still coincide with traditional seasons and astrological signs.  This is especially common with New Year’s celebrations; although the majority of nations formally recognize the beginning of a calendar year on the first of January, many rituals recognizing the new year follow older customs and therefore correspond with other Gregorian dates.

Such is the case with Songkran, the nation-wide New Year’s celebration of Thailand.  Because Thailand did not officially recognize January 1 as the first of the year until 1940, traditional celebrations (originally based on the position of the sun) still take precedence.  Now celebrated between the thirteenth and fifteenth of April, the Songkran festival is a unique tradition particularly because of when it is held.

Mid-April falls at the hottest time of year in Southeast Asia.  Consequently, Songkran typically arrives at the end of Thailand’s dry season and marks the highest temperatures of the year.  As a result, the festival has essentially become a large-scale water fight, with complete strangers dousing one another in the streets.  Most residents, who are given time off from work, and visitors spend the holiday carrying a bucket or a water gun, seizing any opportunity to soak passersby.


While throwing water serves as a friendly, and cooling, gesture in modern celebrations of Songkran, its association with the celebration holds more traditional roots.  In preparation for the new year, it is customary to thoroughly clean one’s home and property.  Public temples and statues of Buddha are also cleaned during Songkran, and an early tradition involved catching water that had been used to clean these religious monuments, then gently pouring it over elders as a sign of respect and blessing.  Younger generations began taking liberties with this practice, until throwing water became the hallmark of Songkran.  Similarly, wet chalk used by monks to write temporary blessings at religious sites is now smeared over strangers in the streets.


Although traditional practices remain, today’s celebrations of Songkran are much better known for revelry than religion.  Temple-goers are far outnumbered by those flocking to the streets and bars.  Beauty and talent pageants have become more popular attractions than statues of Buddha.  Nevertheless, important aspects of Songkran have been preserved.  Many people take the holiday to return to their hometowns, reuniting with family and friends to celebrate the coming year.  Reverence for elders is still highly valued.  Water can still be seen as a sign of cleansing and purification.  And most importantly, the holiday promotes solidarity, bringing complete strangers together in celebration.


This unity extends beyond Thailand, as several other nations in Southeast Asia celebrate Songkran as well (although each has its own name for the holiday).  Water festivals take place in Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar, and parts of China and India.  Of course specific traditions and practices vary between nations, but the basic purpose and spirit of Songkran remain unchanged across borders.  Like any celebration of the new year, it is a time of jubilation and hope for the future.

Mar 14

White Nights and Scarlet Sails

St. Petersburg, Russia

St. Petersburg, once the capital of Russia, was founded in the eighteenth century with the purpose of bridging the gap between the modern and rapidly evolving European nations to its west and the traditional culture of Russia that prevailed to its east.  Although no longer the capital, St. Petersburg still serves as a link between the modern and the traditional.  In an annual festival held between May and June, the city hosts stars renowned for both classical arts and popular music.

Known as The White Nights Festival, the roughly month-long event is a highly orchestrated arts festival of monumental proportions.  It is especially popular for its classical performances, including world-renowned orchestras, opera, and ballet.  Shows are put on twice each day for the duration of the festival, offering attendees a unique opportunity to see a variety of famous works and performers.


While classical arts are on display at the Mariinsky Theatre or Concert Hall, their modern counterparts are hosted in the city’s Palace Square.  This historic site, adjacent to buildings that once housed Russia’s leaders, is converted into an open-air venue for the White Nights Festival.  Popular artists from around the world are invited to perform, and previous festivals have hosted performers of a variety of styles and genres, ranging from Paul McCartney to Shakira.  The Palace Square Stage is another symbol of the two artistic worlds that the White Nights bring together, placing modern artists alongside the Alexander Column, a monument commemorating a very different period of Russia’s past.


The White Nights also include a number of less formal but equally popular events.  As the festivities grew, various districts throughout St. Petersburg began hosting their own carnivals.  In addition to general attractions and celebrations, many districts also emphasize the city’s history, specifically the period of the tsars that utilized St. Petersburg as their capital.  Actors in costume perform both traditional reenactments and artistic interpretations of historical events; similar events also take place on the Palace Square Stage between other events.  Amid the heavy traffic that the White Nights bring are horse-drawn carriages in the eighteenth-century style.  As the city recognizes and celebrates the best of modern artistry, it also gives visitors the opportunity to appreciate its culture and history.

Even after the White Nights Festival begins to wrap up for the year, events continue being held and performances are still given.  The festival season is not strictly defined; nevertheless, most consider it to end with one of the city’s favorite traditions: Scarlet Sails.  The practice evolved from a love story by Russian author Alexander Grin, which bears the same title as the now annual event that it inspired.  The Scarlet Sails have coincided with the end of the school year since the end of the Second World War, and have become a trademark of the White Nights.


The tradition involves ships equipped with vibrant scarlet sails navigating along St. Petersburg’s main waterways.  The display is accompanied by complex fireworks and pyrotechnics as well as the orchestral music and opera that draw many of the White Nights visitors.  It is yet another example of the city’s continuing role as a link between modernity and tradition.

Feb 14

Día de los Muertos


Halloween, the last night of October, has become a popular holiday for costumes, tricks, and treats.  The origins of this tradition, however, are more complex than it would appear.  It has evolved from numerous practices around the world, and although it is now largely a festive event, many of the customs that contributed to Halloween have more serious meanings.  Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), for instance, recognizes the religious holiday All Hallows’ Eve, from which Halloween took its name.  This custom, practiced throughout much of Mexico, is dedicated to the souls of the deceased.

The present version of Día de los Muertos descended from native practices, particularly those of the Aztec.  Its most similar ancestor was a festival dedicated to a female goddess of the dead, during which the Aztec remembered and honored the deaths of their ancestors.  In ancient times, skulls were often kept as trophies or memorials, and they were prominently displayed as the natives payed tribute to the deceased.  The skull remains a popular symbol and is one of the most visible signs of the connection between Día de los Muertos and its predecessors.  Although bones are no longer kept for display during the holiday, skulls are found in images, figurines, and other displays related to el Día.  Small, decorated skulls formed from sugar or clay are commonly found during the holiday as well.


These decorative skulls are among many offerings made to the deceased during the holiday.  As families gather for Día de los Muertos, it is customary to visit ancestors’ graves and leave small gifts.  In addition to those associated with the holiday (such as skulls), many visitors also leave items of personal value or meaning.  The deceased’s favorite food or drink (tequila and mezcal are particularly popular) as well as their belongings are often placed by graves.  The Mexican marigold, often planted by graves in observance of the holiday, has become so strongly affiliated with el Día that it is now referred to as the Flower of the Dead (el Flor de Muerto) in most parts of Mexico.


Many families also erect small altars or memorials in their homes in the days approaching el Día, adorning the structures with photos and mementos of lost relatives.  Such practices, usually highly religious in nature, are meant to honor the dead while preserving fond memories and encouraging reflection on their lives.  The community also undertakes joint projects; schools and other organizations often build larger memorials to commemorate the holiday.


The Day of the Dead is observed not only across the majority of Mexico, but in many other nations (particularly those of Latin America) as well.  Although the holiday and its purpose are shared across borders, celebrations are far from uniform.  A wide variety of practices have evolved in different regions, ranging from traditional and religious to festive and celebratory.  But regardless of the manner in which it is celebrated, el Día promotes solidarity by presenting families with an opportunity to mourn the loss of loved ones and celebrate their lives with other members of their communities who have experienced the same sorrow.

Feb 14

Food Fights

Binissalem, Spain

In many parts of the world, crops can become a dominant part of a people’s culture.  For those areas economically dependent on agriculture, the labors of planting, cultivating, and harvesting are an integral component of daily life.  Therefore, when months of work finally result in a successful crop, it is often met with a period of relaxation and celebration.  Ironically, however, the celebration of a harvest in Binissalem, Spain often leads to the destruction of a considerable portion of the fruit that it yields.

Binissalem, located on the Mediterranean island of Mallorca, is home to a large number of vineyards and wineries.  Each year, the September grape harvest brings a week of traditional festivities in which residents and visitors throw the (literal) fruits of Binissalem’s labor at one another.  While the daily grape fights may sound like madness for a town of winemakers, harvesters are careful to only offer up what is not suitable for production.  Furthermore, removing unhealthy fruit from the vineyards prevents it from jeopardizing the rest of the crop.  The least-desirable grapes from each vineyard are brought to fields beyond city limits, where crowds can gather and fight with the fruit until it is reduced to juice and skins.


La Festa des Vermar, commonly known as the Grape Throwing Festival, also includes grape stomping demonstrations and competitions in honor of traditional manufacturing methods.  This lively time of year is also, of course, celebrated with large amounts of local wine yielded from the more favorable grapes of previous years’ crops.

Ivrea, Italy

Fruit is also the highlight of an annual festival in Ivrea, Italy, where townspeople are divided into nine teams to fight one another with oranges.  Because of Italy’s Catholic heritage, The Battle of the Oranges coincides with the beginning of the Lenten season.  Ending just before Lent begins (on what is traditionally known as Fat Tuesday), Carnevale di Ivrea contributes to the excess that typically precedes this austere period of the Church calendar.  Its origins, however, are far from religious in nature.

The Battle is a unique commemoration of a revolt said to have taken place in the 1200s.  When a young bride, the miller’s daughter (la mugnaia), was forced to spend a night with the Duke (according to ancient traditions), she refused to comply and instead decapitated the Duke.  Inspired by la mugnaia, the townspeople rose up against the palace guards and liberated themselves.

During the Battle of the Oranges, fruit is thrown between armored participants in carts, meant to represent the Duke’s guards in his palace, and a larger mass of townspeople playing the role of revolutionaries.  The festival can become considerably violent, but is nevertheless a cherished tradition throughout all of Ivrea.


Buñol, Spain

Perhaps the most famous of large-scale food fights is La Tomatina, celebrated in Buñol, Spain.  Legend holds that, while watching a parade, spectators tried to disperse a group of nearby animals by throwing tomatoes at them.  When a stray shot hit one of the attendees, a tomato fight spontaneously erupted and a tradition was born.  As in Mallorca, only the least valuable fruit is used for fighting.  Buñol differs from Ivrea, however, as it now requires that all projectiles be crushed before throwing (an effort to prevent serious injury in a more lighthearted event).

Prior to the fight, a ham is placed atop a grease-covered pole.  The signal to begin is not given until someone can climb the pole (palo jabón) and remove the ham.  Trucks then bring roughly 150,000 tomatoes to the town square, where participants eagerly throw them at one another for an hour.  Around midday, the fighting is finally stopped and gives way to other festivities while firetrucks are used to clean the town square.  The popularity of La Tomatina has led to its imitation in other countries, including the United States.


Jan 14

Lantern Festivals

Across many regions and cultures, light holds a symbolic meaning, often serving as an image of life or hope.  As a result, it holds a significant place in a large number and variety of global traditions.  This is the case in many regions of Asia, where certain celebrations and commemorations are accompanied by the soft glow of paper lanterns and the sudden eruption of fireworks.


Lanterns and pyrotechnics are the main attractions of an annual Taiwanese celebration that is orchestrated between two districts, Pingxi and Yanshui.  Although the festival originated from ancient traditions, it was only made official at the end of the twentieth century.  Fortunately, however, this allowed for the Taiwanese people and their government to pool resources for the event, resulting in more ambitious projects and spectacular displays.

In Pingxi, elaborate lanterns up to ten feet tall are displayed throughout the streets.  Lanterns originally served a practical purpose, signalling that the town was secure.  Today, many are used to represent figures from popular culture as well as ancient folklore.  The most prominent lanterns often represent astrological signs, as the festival corresponds to the end of the lunar year on the Chinese calendar.


Pingxi is also filled with innumerable handheld lanterns during the festival, carried by residents and tourists who inscribe their wishes on them.  These are released in large number to be carried into the sky, further contributing to the spectacle.


In contrast to the peaceful scene in Pingxi, the Yanshui district recognizes the ending of a lunar year with a relatively unreserved tradition.  A pyre of fireworks is lit at the start of the evening and burns for hours (long into the following morning), creating a spectacular show.  The practice stems from similar displays, often put on outside of temples, that were meant to protect the district from evil.  Like the lanterns in Pingxi, the fireworks display in Yanshui not only draws visitors, but preserves important aspects of Taiwanese folklore and culture.

taiwan travel tainan yanshui beehive firewokrs festival



Another well-known lantern festival is observed annually (although at varying times in different regions) by the people of Japan.  Known as the Bon or Obon festival, it is a both a somber and joyful time as the Japanese honor their deceased relatives and spend time with their living families.

Bon, which has been practiced for hundreds of years, was named after a monk whose legend inspired the tradition.  The story holds that, with Buddha’s aid, the monk was able to bring peace and comfort to his mother’s spirit in the afterlife.  He also realized the full extent of her love and sacrifice for him, and came to appreciate her even more.  Following his example, the Bon festival typically revolves around the well-being of lost ancestors.  Families reunite and spend time cleaning the graves of the deceased, praying for their spirits, and generally honoring their lives.


Communal activities also take place throughout the festival.  Most notable is the Bon dance, a traditional performance meant to welcome and celebrate spirits of the dead.  The festival concludes with paper lanterns, representing the visiting spirits that are to depart once more.  Families place the lanterns on the river to be carried away, symbolizing the peaceful return to the afterlife that they wish their ancestors.  Bon serves to preserve tradition and recognize the contributions of the deceased while bringing families and communities together.  Fireworks and other celebrations often follow the conclusion of this socially important practice.


Many similar festivals take place throughout Asia at different parts of the year, each keeping history alive in its own way and promoting solidarity.  Furthermore, the practices have been carried across the globe by immigrants and expatriates, giving new life to age-old traditions.

Nov 13

Sateré-Mawé Initiation

Amazon Rainforest, Brazil

Although one of Brazil’s twenty-six states and home to several large cities, Amazonas remains largely covered by the dense foliage of South America’s lush rainforest.  In the depths of the jungle, many native tribes still follow their traditional ways of life.  Largely undisturbed by outsiders for many years, these independent natives carry on ancient practices and rituals that have contributed to their survival amid the perils that constantly surround them.

One of the largest of these groups is the Sateré-Mawé, a tribe of roughly ten thousand members that inhabits the northern region of Amazonas.  Although the tribe lives in relative seclusion and has little contact with outsiders, the Mawé have allowed the rare visitor to document their unique lifestyle and traditions.  Unaffected by external influences, the Mawé people offer a window into the rich history of American Natives.  They are a living example of a what used to be a much more common way of life.


While perhaps most notable to those who initially encountered them for being the first to cultivate guarana, the Mawé people are not primarily concerned with agriculture.  Their culture values strength and courage, qualities needed to protect the tribe from hostile neighbors and natural predators, as well as to provide a steady supply of food for its members.  Mawé warriors and hunters ensure the well-being of the tribe in many regards, and they are highly revered.  As a result, young boys in the tribe are raised with the purpose of becoming warriors constantly at mind.

Joining the ranks of Mawé warriors, however, is not an easy undertaking.  In one of the tribe’s most sacred rituals, young men hoping to gain the status of their elders must show themselves capable of enduring the worst that the jungle has to offer.  They prove their worth by remaining calm, often entirely expressionless, while experiencing excruciating pain.

The Mawé test their young men’s strength against a natural predator: the ant.  Although it may not seem a formidable challenge to a foreigner, the Amazon Rainforest is home to a particularly venomous species of ant.  A single sting from Paraponera clavata, the ant of choice for Mawé initiations, is capable of causing hours of pain.  The species has been nicknamed the “bullet ant” because a sting is said (by some victims) to be as painful as being shot.  The powerful toxin used by the ant attacks and interferes with the nervous system, often causing uncontrollable shaking even after the waves of pain have ceased.  The effects of a single ant sting have been known to last days; the warrior hopefuls of the Mawé tribe, however, do not sustain just one sting.


In preparation for the initiation ceremony, bullet ants are sedated and harvested from the jungle.  While unconscious, the ants are woven into a pair of gloves made from leaves, with their stingers facing inward.  To be considered a man of the tribe, boys as young as twelve will thrust their hands into the gloves for a full five minutes (or longer), being stung the entire time.  The tribe leads the initiates in song and dance during the ordeal, but this distraction is their only relief.


When the gloves are removed, the ants’ venom continues acting for hours.  In addition to the pain, it can cause muscle paralysis, disorientation, and hallucinations for hours.  And while completing the ceremony earns the young men respect, they must wear the gloves a total of twenty times before being considered fully initiated as tribal warriors.


Skip to toolbar