In The Atlantic’s March cover story, Caitlin Flanagan documents the legally questionable ways fraternities have maintained their place at the heart of the American college experience in spite of widespread legal and moral opposition. Although hazing isn’t the focus of Flanagan’s yearlong investigation, she upholds the convention of the frat-bashing genre in decrying the “growing pervasiveness of violent hazing on campus”—with mentions of“paddling gone wrong” and “branding that necessitated skin grafts.” Of course, we don’t have to try very hard to find stories of risky hazing rituals, from the merely disgusting—it’s been two years since I read Andrew Lohse’s exposé of Dartmouth’s frat scene, and I’m still haunted by the idea of “vomelets”—to the downright tragic: Last week, the case of a Baruch College pledge who died after his “brothers” beat him with a backpack full of sand was ruled a homicide.
This is, obviously, troubling. But violent initiation rituals aren’t unique to frat culture. Humans like to form groups, and putting new members through painful ordeals helps social groups cohere. Around the world, physically demanding—and sometimes disfiguring—initiation rites “take full possession of the initiates’ bodies,” as French anthropologist Pierre Clastres wrote in his 1987 essay, “Of torture in primitive societies.” “An initiated man is a marked man…. the body is a memory…Society inscribes the text of the law on the surface of their bodies.” The anthropological literature on the topic is all too rich.
The Orokaiva of Papua New Guinea
For men born into the Orokaiva clan of Papua New Guinea, initiation into adulthood takes years. First, initiates are isolated in a hut for several months, where they must observe taboos on washing and speaking. After the period of seclusion is over, initiates are blindfolded by bark-cloth hoods and herded into the village, where they are attacked by senior men. Then comes another period of seclusion—this one lasting three to seven years—in which they learn to play sacred instruments like flutes and bullroarers. Finally, the ones who survive make their debut, entering the village in a phalanx while brandishing weapons.
The Mandan Native Americans of North Dakota
At the traditional initiation ceremony of the Mandan people, according to American historian George Catlin, young men’s bodies are subjected to various forms of torture: holes are pierced in their bodies and skewers are forced through the wounds; sometimes, limbs are amputated. The initiates remain silent in the face of pain, even losing consciousness before crying out. After the initiation is over, the scars of the wounds remain: The marks, according to Pierre Clastres’ interpretation, guaranteed that the identity of the tribe would not be lost and attested to group members’ strength and endurance. Rites of passage like this, writes Clastres, not only help the individual psychologically transition from one stage of life to another, but also help the society adjust to the individual’s new status.
The Xhosa of South Africa
Men belonging to the South African Xhosa tribe are circumcised as part of a ritual initiation ceremony they go through as teenagers. Traditionally, the initiation lasted up to six months and included a lengthy period of seclusion in the bush, but it now takes place during school holidays. The rituals have come under fire from human rights activists, who point out that the ceremonies claim dozens of lives every year due tobotched procedures and contaminated knives.
The Sepik tribes of Papua New Guinea
“Now I am only a little bit of an adult,” says a Papua New Guinea man about to embark on a weeks-long initiation ordeal—in which his skin will be cut so severely he’ll be scarred for life. “After, I will be a whole man.” Don’t watch this if you’re squeamish.