A majority of the world is religiously affiliated, with non-religious persons and atheists only accounting for 16 percent of the global population in 2010.
Common to nearly all religions are ritualized practices, many of which have been carried from their ancient origin to modern day times.
Here are three more controversial forms of ancient rituals that are still practiced, what they purport to accomplish, and what their practice means in today’s world.
1. Exorcism and Possession
The eviction of demons from a person or place has been a ritual practice embedded deep in the heart of Catholicism since the formation of the Church, post-biblical times.
Pope Francis, in spite of what many consider progressive standpoints, made a decision in June 2014 to formally recognize the International Association of Exorcists — a group of 250 priests in 30 countries that liberate the faithful from those believed to be possessed demons.
The decision is a controversial one, because in the past persons with mental illness, disability, or other neurological conditions like tourettes, epilepsy, and schizophrenia have been thought possessed, resulting in cases of abuse and death.
America has experienced a surge in exorcism demand in recent years — a fact some attribute to the popularity of its portrayal in television shows and movies.
Still, the pope’s decision may be a good thing: recognition of exorcism could create better oversight for the practice and prevent mistreatment. Already, the Catholic Church requires careful medical examination before an exorcism can be approved.
The concept of spiritual possession also exists in Buddhism, Haitian Vodou, Wicca, Hinduism, Southeast Asian and African traditions — as either an honor or a curse.
2. Post-mortem rituals
Regarded as a spiritual passing by many faiths, death is marked diversely across religions from mourning, to celebration, to cleansing, to preparation.
The Aghori Babas, a 1,000 year old Hindu sect largely rejected by Hinduism, practice a number of taboo post-mortem rituals, and have been known to carry hollowed out skulls, rub themselves in ashes, and feast on the flesh of dead bodies exhumed from the river.
But they aren’t the only ones: an Amazonian tribe consumes their loved ones as well, ritually eating the ashes of the deceased (burying them would, in theory, prevent the individual’s liberation).
Then there’s an unusual ritual called Jhator, or sky burial, practiced by Buddhists in Tibet: corpses are cut into pieces and placed among high altitudes for vultures to consume.
Another strange ritual is practiced in Madagascar, where a group of Africans routinely dig up their loved ones and dance with their bones to aid in their decomposition and subsequent journey to the afterlife. Millions in Madagascar practice this ritual, called famadihana, in conjunction with various religions of the region.
3. Self-harm rituals
Self-flagellation, the practice of whipping one’s self as part of a religious ritual, has been practiced in both Catholicism and Islam from history to modern times.
The late Pope John II was thought to have whipped himself as a form of piety, though the practice is not common among Catholics today. In Islam, some Shi’ites march in massive parades annually flogging themselves with knives and chains in commemoration of the martyr Hussein.
Then there’s the Nine Emperor Gods Festival in Thailand, known today as the Phuket Vegetarian Festival: nine days of ritualized mutilation by devoted Taoists. This includes impaling of the face, arms, and legs, partial skinning, tissue removal and more while in a trance as veneration for gods and ancestors.
Others mark their bodies as spiritual ritual as well: for instance, a tribe in Papua New Guinea’s Sepik region, where it is believed that crocodiles created humans, men are sliced on the back, chest, and buttocks to represent bite marks and the symbolic swallowing of individuals by crocodiles.
All of this is to say we live in a fascinating world, where creative rituals span the globe and shed light on the diversity of human beliefs.
What are your thoughts on ancient rituals practiced today? Tweet us @curiousmatic.