Weird Religious Beliefs
Some weird beliefs can be traced back to the primitive superstitions of the distant past, but others appeared more recently. Here are brief descriptions of some of the best-known strange religious beliefs:
1. The Grim Reaper
The Grim Reaper is a ghost-like figure who appears at the scene of every human death. He knows beforehand where a death will occur, and as the soul leaves the dying person's body, he takes charge of it and escorts it to its assigned place in the afterlife. Some descriptions of him say that he can also act as an executioner and kill someone whose time is up. If so, this would give him a role similar to that of the "Angel of Death" mentioned in the bible. But although he is a supernatural being, he normally isn't considered to be an angel.
Artists usually depict the Grim Reaper as a skeletal figure wearing a hooded cloak and wielding a large scythe. He is often shown standing near the scene of a death, or lurking in the background. But he is also sometimes shown on horseback, because some Christians identify him with the mysterious figure named "Death" who appears in the visions of the Book of Revelation as the Horseman of the Apocalypse who rides on a pale horse.
The above image, called The Vision of Death, is an engraving by the 19th-century French artist Gustave Dore.
2. Gods in Human Form
The belief that a god or goddess can appear on the earth in the form of a human is found in many religions. For example, in ancient Greek myths a god or goddess sometimes came to earth in the guise of a human and interacted with ordinary people. In some religions a god can also take the form of an animal. These bodily forms, both human and animal, are called incarnations. Usually an incarnation is only temporary, and the god eventually returns to his normal form as an invisible supernatural being.
In Hinduism an incarnation of a god or goddess is called an avatar. Many Hindus believe that avatars of the god Vishnu have appeared on the earth at crucial moments in history in order to save the world from an impending catastrophe.
Spiritual beings such as angels and demons can also temporarily assume a physical form. Thus, although the Devil is normally invisible, he sometimes tries to trick people by disguising himself as a handsome man or beautiful woman. Some people believe that the snake which tempted Eve was Satan in disguise. Other snakes are sometimes regarded as incarnations of demons.
3. Chinese Dragons
In Chinese mythology, dragons are very wise creatures with supernatural powers. Despite their menacing appearance, they normally don't try to harm humans. They use their powers to protect the heavenly homes of the gods and to help control the weather on the earth. Since they live in the spirit world, they are usually invisible, but they can reveal themselves to people when it suits their purpose. Because of their miraculous powers, they were once worshiped in some Chinese temples.
This photograph shows part of a costume used in Chinese dragon dances.
4. Jivaro Head Shrinkers
Up until recent times, warriors of the Jivaro people of South America would cut off the head of a slain enemy and then shrink it down to a much smaller size. The warriors believed that this would trap the soul of the dead enemy inside the shrunken head and prevent it from taking revenge against the killer. For additional protection against attempts at revenge, the head would usually be soaked in a sacred liquid that would remove all hate from the trapped spirit and transform it into the supernatural slave of the warrior. The shrunken heads were displayed as trophies and used in religious rituals that celebrated the past victories of the tribe.
According to the reports of anthropologists, the first step in shrinking a head is to remove the skull, bones, brain, and facial fat. The remaining skin and attached flesh is then shrunk by boiling it in a brew of special jungle herbs. After drying, it is wrapped around a small clay or wooden ball and molded into the proper shape. The outer surface is then coated with charcoal ash, because the Jivaro believe that this forms a supernatural barrier which prevents the trapped spirit from getting out.
The Jivaro tribes live in a remote section of the Amazon rain forest of South America. Because of their ferocity and independent spirit, they have been less affected by outside influences than most other native peoples of that region. However, recent reports indicate that they no longer practice head-hunting and head-shrinking. Most of the shrunken heads sold in regional tourist shops are either replicas or fakes.
Note: Members of most Jivaro tribes call themselves "Shuar" and resent the use of the name "Jivaro", which is of Spanish origin. However, many books and articles still use the word "Jivaro".
This is a photo of a shrunken head.
5. The Temple of Rats
Everyday about 20,000 rats roam through the Karni Mata temple, located in the city of Deshnoke in northwestern India. These rats are believed to be re-incarnations of certain dead people who will eventually be reborn as higher life forms. The rats can move freely throughout the entire temple complex, and they are always provided with all the food they can eat, including milk and special sweets. Pilgrims and other visitors must remove their shoes and let the rodents run across their feet.
The temple is dedicated to a 15th-century female sage named Karni Mata, who is now considered to have been an incarnation of the Hindu goddess Durga. The temple complex is mostly made of marble, but has some gold and silver decorations. A small shrine inside the inner temple may have been built about 600 years ago by Karni Mata herself.
The vast majority of the rats are brown, but occasionally a white rat is seen. Some people say that four white rats live in the temple, and that they are incarnations of the four brothers of Karni Mata. The brown rats are thought to be incarnations of her descendants, relatives, and most devoted followers.
The photo shows a group of the rats that live in the Karni Mata temple. Some visitors to the temple are afraid of the rats, but the animals are accustomed to the presence of humans and seldom bite anyone.
Dervishes are members of certain Islamic religious orders who seek mystical experiences through activities such as dancing, chanting, and meditation. The best-known groups are the whirling dervishes and the howling dervishes, but there are also groups that meditate, chant verses from the Quran, or perform controlled breathing exercises. They are found in many countries, including Egypt, Turkey, Morocco, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India. Many of them take vows of poverty and have very austere lifestyles.
Dervishes perform hypnotically repetitive activities such as dancing as a way to induce a state of ecstasy and feelings of communion with God. Group performances, which are usually accompanied by music, can last for hours. The famous whirling dervishes begin their performance by sitting in a circle and reciting poems. Then they slowly rise and begin moving across the floor, spinning rhythmically. As they rise, they shed their outer black robes, which are a sign of death, to reveal their pure white dancing robes, which are designed to flare outward as they spin. They continue to whirl at an increasing speed until they attain the desired mental state. Some descriptions of the activity say that they enter a mystical trance, but many of them deny this and say instead that the whirling enables them to think very lucidly.
Another type of dance is performed by the howling dervishes of Morocco. According to some reports, they dance themselves into a frenzy during which they bite off the heads of poisonous snakes, lick hot irons, swallow hot coals, slash their limbs with long knives, and levitate into the air. But these reports probably include considerable exaggeration.
This photograph of whirling dervishes was taken in Turkey in 2004.
7. Egyptian Crocodile Worship
One of the religious beliefs of the ancient Egyptians was that a god called Sebek (or Sobek) could appear on the earth in the form of a living crocodile. At one time some people even believed that this god had taken the form of a particular crocodile named Petsuchos which lived in a large pool of water beside a temple in the Fayyum province. Because this crocodile supposedly was a god in disguise, it was fed the best cuts of meat, and was pampered so much that it became quite tame. The priests at the temple even put golden rings in its ears and gold bracelets on its legs.
Bull Worship. Another animal worshiped as a god in ancient Egypt was a bull named Apis. Considered to be a physical manifestation of the god Ptah, it lived in luxury at a temple in the Egyptian city of Memphis. It was given a harem of cows, and was sometimes paraded through the streets of the city decorated with jewelry and flowers. Inside the temple the bull was used as an oracle, with its movements being interpreted as prophecies. When it died, it was given a very lavish funeral and then its mummified body was placed in a large expensive tomb. The new bull chosen to replace it was recognized by certain markings on its body.
Many people think that ancient pagan religions are weird. But to most ancient people themselves, their beliefs seemed logical and reasonable. Before we criticize them too harshly, we should remember that they created the foundation on which modern civilization and modern cultures are built.
8. Incorruptible Bodies
This term refers to a weird belief that divine intervention preserves some dead human bodies from normal decomposition. Most dead bodies gradually decay after they are buried or placed in tombs. But some Christians believe that the bodies of very holy people are miraculously preserved indefinitely without any change at all. This isn't due to artificial preservation or mummification, but instead is a divine supernatural effect. However, it only happens to the bodies of people who were very holy. Some Christians think that these preserved bodies will be resurrected to life again during the End Times.
Many incorrupt bodies produce a distinctive scent known as the "Odor of Sanctity", which resembles the fragrance of rose blossoms. Some of these bodies also have a miraculous power to heal sick people who touch the preserved flesh.
This is a photograph of the incorrupt body of Saint Virginia Centurione Bracelli, who died in 1651. To see photos of some other incorrupt bodies, go to the "Additional Information" section near the bottom of this page and click the first link in the list.
9. Christian Snake Handlers
The worship services of some American churches regularly include a ritual called snake handling, in which members of the congregation pick up poisonous snakes, often raising them into the air and sometimes even allowing them to crawl on their bodies. The most commonly-used types of snake are rattlesnakes and copperheads, both of which can be caught wild in the forests of the southern United States. Participation in the ritual is voluntary, and some worshipers may remain in their seats and just watch. In addition to snake handling, the services normally include praying, singing, and speaking in tongues.
Members of these churches believe that snakes are incarnations of demons, and that handling them demonstrates God's power to protect true believers from the forces of evil. Unfortunately, more than 100 deaths from snakebites in religious services have been documented in the United States. As a result of these deaths, six southeastern states have passed laws against snake handling. But this hasn't stopped the practice, because most of the churches are located in remote rural areas where people tend to live by their own rules. Many of the bitten people believe that God will heal them and don't seek medical help, so that some cases may not be reported.
Snake handlers say that they are following instructions from the bible, particularly a verse at Mark 16:18 which says that believers "shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them" [King James Version]. In fact, in addition to snake handling, some members of these churches regularly drink poison (usually strychnine) during worship services. If someone is bitten or gets sick from poison, other church members may attribute it to the person's lack of faith and failure to receive the Holy Spirit.
The total number of these churches isn't known, but is probably less than 100 congregations. Many of them require their members to follow strict dress codes, including the stipulation that women must not use any cosmetics and must always wear ankle-length dresses. Most of the ministers also preach against the use of alcohol and tobacco.
Some ministers and church leaders own small collections of snakes which they keep in cages at their homes and carry to the services in small boxes. The snakes are not drugged before they are handled.
This photograph was taken during a church service in which snakes were handled. Portable snake boxes are visible at the bottom of the photo.
10. The Devil's Mark
During the era of the witch hunts, the body of a suspected witch would usually be searched for a suspicious-looking mole, wart, scar, or skin blemish called a Devil's Mark. Many Christians believed that such a mark was placed on a witch's body by Satan after she pledged herself to him. If the examiners of a suspected witch found a possible devil's mark on her, this was considered to be strong evidence of her guilt. Usually the next step was to torture her until she confessed, and then tie her to a wooden stake and burn her to death.
There were various theories about how the Devil created his mark. Some people believed that it appeared when he licked a woman's skin with his tongue. Others said that he raked his claw across her flesh, or burned it with a hot iron, or created a special kind of tattoo. These differing theories suggest that the marks didn't have a consistent appearance, but could take various shapes, forms, and colors. As a result, the examiners usually relied on their own judgment when trying to identify possible marks. To insure that the search was thorough, the suspect would be stripped naked, and all the hair would be shaved from her body.
One way to test a possible mark was to stick a needle into it. A true devil's mark was thought to be insensitive to pain, so if a suspect didn't feel the penetration of the needle, this would prove that she was a witch. But even if the insertion of the needle caused her to scream in agony, the examiners could accuse her of faking the pain and condemn her anyway. Thus no matter what she did during the test, she couldn't prove her innocence.
A Devil's Mark is also called a Devil's Seal or Witch's Mark. In some areas it was also called a Witch's Tit, because a mole or wart can resemble a small nipple, and a tiny percentage of people even have a small third nipple on their bodies. Some examiners even thought that the mark could be invisible, and if nothing was found in the initial search, they would begin sticking the needle into random spots on the suspect's body to try to find an insensitive area.
The era of the large-scale witch hunts began in the 15th century and continued for more than 200 years. It started in the Catholic areas of Europe but soon spread into Protestant areas as well. Most of the victims were old women, but some younger women, as well as some men, were also killed. Their punishment was dictated by the bible, for Exodus 22:18 says "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live" [King James Version]. By the time the organized persecutions ended, tens of thousands of people had been tortured into confessing and then burned alive.
This drawing shows three types of needles that were used to test suspected devil's marks.
11. The Thugee
The English word "thug" is derived from the word "Thugee", which was the name of a secret cult of robbers and murderers that once operated in India. Members of this cult considered it their sacred duty to kill traveling merchants and then steal their possessions. According to most estimates, these criminals killed tens of thousands of people over a 300-year span of time before finally being suppressed in the 19th century.
Originally the Thugee were a religious cult devoted to the Hindu goddess Kali (also called Durga). Even after they turned to robbery and murder, they believed that they were following the commands of their goddess. Because of their religious convictions, they never killed women, priests, holy men, or certain types of merchants. They also used a prescribed method of killing, strangulation with a scarf, in order to avoid bloodshed. Some reports say that a new recruit had to kill someone by this method before he could be initiated into the cult.
As the first step of a planned robbery, a group of Thugee would disguise themselves as ordinary travelers and then try to join a caravan of merchants. They usually accompanied the caravan for a day or two, acting in a friendly manner to allay suspicion. Then during the night they would attack the merchants and strangle them with scarves. Afterward they would plunder the baggage, which often contained gold, jewelry and other valuables.
The criminal activities of the Thugee cult were finally suppressed during the 19th century. However, their goddess Kali is still worshiped in many parts of India. The city of Calcutta (Kolkata) is named after her.
12. The Wandering Jew
Shortly after Jesus picked up his cross and started walking with it, a Jewish bystander struck him on the back and told him to walk faster. For this evil act, the Jew was condemned to wander the earth alone, homeless and friendless, until the Second Coming of Jesus. Over the centuries many people have reported seeing this wanderer slinking past in the distance. Some think that an increase in these sightings would be a sign that Jesus is about to return. Note: The story of the Wandering Jew has sometimes been used in anti-Jewish propaganda.
This depiction of the Wandering Jew was drawn by the 19th-century American cartoonist Joseph Keppler.
In a Christian ritual called Holy Communion, ordinary bread and wine are purportedly converted into the flesh and blood of Jesus. This supposed conversion, which is thought to be a miraculous act of God, is called transubstantiation. After the conversion, the newly-created flesh and blood of Jesus is eaten by the worshipers.
To most people, the bread and wine still look and taste the same after the purported conversion into flesh and blood. One possible explanation is that the conversion doesn't take place until after the bread and wine are swallowed. But many modern Christians doubt that the conversion actually occurs at all.
14. Devil Worship
Almost everyone has noticed that evil people often have great success in life, whereas many good people suffer terrible misfortunes. One common explanation for this injustice is that it is the work of the Devil. In fact, one of Satan's favorite activities is to bring pain, misery, and suffering to a good person. He also likes to help evil people become successful. With his assistance, even a weak inferior person can gain great wealth and power.
Many people have wondered why God allows Satan to pursue his evil activities. Fortunately the Fiend won't be able to keep causing harm forever, because the bible says that he will eventually be brought to justice and punished with eternal torment in hell. But in the meantime he has already enjoyed thousands of years of freedom, and during that time has brought misery and suffering to millions of human beings. Because he has so much influence over what happens in the world, he can appear to be very powerful. Evil people often notice his apparent power and start worshiping him in hopes of getting his help.
Some people worship him secretly, but others prefer some form of organized worship. One example of organized worship is a service called a Black Mass, which is usually held in a large room decorated to resemble the nave of a church. During the service people shout obscenities at God, curse Jesus, and act out a parody of the Holy Communion. They may also worship a black cat under the pretense that it is the Devil in disguise.
Another form of devil worship, said to be practiced by witches, supposedly takes place at a meeting called a Sabbat. Most descriptions of these Sabbats say that they begin at midnight at a secret location in the countryside. Purported activities include dancing naked around a fire, trampling on a cross, drinking human blood, and sacrificing newborn babies on an altar. According to some accounts, the Devil himself comes to many of these gatherings, often appearing in the form of a horned goat. Demons may also be present. The festivities usually culminate in a lewd orgy before finally ending at dawn.
In modern times some new groups of "Satanists" have appeared, especially in the United States. These groups have names such as the Church of Satan, the Temple of Set, and the First Satanic Church. Each group has its own beliefs and performs its own special rituals. However, members of several groups claim that they don't actually worship Satan, but simply admire him for having the courage to openly defy God. In truth, many people in modern societies are secretly attracted to the dark side of life that Satan represents.
Note: Contrary to what many believe, modern Wiccans do not worship the Devil, and most of them doubt that he even exists.
This painting by the 19th-century artist Ary Scheffer shows the Devil with Jesus on the top of a mountain. Their trip to the top of this mountain is described in the bible in a passage at Matthew 4:8-10. As they stood on the summit, Satan tried to get Jesus to worship him. Of course Jesus refused. But although the fiend failed in this case, many of his other efforts to get worshipers have succeeded.
15. The Black Stone of Mecca
According to Islamic traditions, the Black Stone of Mecca fell directly from heaven thousands of years ago. The traditions also say that the stone has the power to cleanse a person of his sins by absorbing them into itself. In fact, some Muslims believe that the stone was originally a pure white color, but that it has gradually turned black because of all the sins it has absorbed since it fell.
The stone is roughly oval in shape with an average thickness of about 10 inches [25 centimeters]. It is probably either a meteorite, a piece of volcanic lava, a chunk of agate, or a fragment of glass created by the impact of a meteorite. It was broken into a number of pieces at some point in the past, perhaps accidentally, or possibly during an attempt to destroy it. What survives now is an assemblage of pieces held together by an external frame. This assemblage is embedded in a corner of an ancient structure called the Kaaba, which is located in the courtyard of the Sacred Mosque of Mecca.
The exposed surface of the stone has been polished smooth by the hands of millions of Muslim pilgrims, who try to touch it, or even kiss it, during their visits to Mecca. All Muslims hope to make at least one pilgrimage to the city, and during a visit they are supposed to walk around the Kaaba seven times and touch or kiss the stone each time they pass it. But usually the crowd around the Kaaba is so dense that most pilgrims can't get near the stone, and they have to be satisfied with merely pointing toward it.
According to the traditions about the stone, it fell from heaven to show Adam and Eve, who had left the Garden of Eden, where they should build an altar. The location of this altar was submerged during Noah's flood, but the stone remained at the original site and was eventually found by the Hebrew patriarch Abraham during a trip to Arabia. After he found the stone, Abraham told his son Ishmael to build a temple at the location, and this temple was the original Kaaba. Later, when the structure was remodeled, the stone was embedded in one of its corners. Some people believe that the stone originally had a gleaming white color, but that it has been made black by the sins it has absorbed.
This photograph shows a crowd of Muslim pilgrims circling around the Kaaba. Because the crowd is usually very dense, most pilgrims can't get close enough to the structure to be able to touch the Black Stone.
16. Sacred Mushrooms
The religious use of certain mushrooms has been reported from many parts of the world, and was already widespread during prehistoric times. The mushrooms contain psycho-active drugs which can produce religious-like experiences, including vivid hallucinations that appear to be supernatural visions. Many people who consume the mushrooms feel that they have entered a hidden spiritual world where they are in touch with the divine. The experience can be very powerful, and can cause permanent changes in a person's views of the world and feelings about life.
Using mushrooms to produce psychological effects is now illegal in most countries. But old religious practices often don't die easily, particularly in remote areas, and ritual ceremonies involving the consumption of mushrooms still take place in several parts of the world. The practice is especially common among the descendants of the Aztecs, Mayas, Toltecs, and other native Amerindian tribes who live in rural areas of Mexico and Central America. These people were forced to convert to Christianity after they were conquered by the Spanish, but in many villages they didn't completely abandon their old beliefs.
According to a report from one Mexican village, the sacred mushrooms are collected from the surrounding forest by a young virgin. They are then taken to the village church, where they are placed on the altar to be blessed by the Holy Spirit. They are eaten in front of the altar in the evening, and the visions usually continue throughout the night. The villagers believe that the visions take them into an invisible world where all the spirits live, and where they can obtain divine knowledge and understanding.
But the effects can sometimes be frightening. Outsiders who consumed the mushrooms have had visions in which they seemed to fly through the air or were transformed into weird beasts. Many species of mushrooms are poisonous, and eating them can lead to an excruciating death. Although sacred mushrooms may be safer, they can still cause very unpleasant effects, including vomiting, shivering, blackouts, and nightmares.
Various other plants besides mushrooms can also produce trances and visions. For example, a species of cactus called peyote, which grows wild in the southwestern United States, is used in the religious ceremonies of some native Amerindian tribes that live in that area. Also, the sacraments of some South American peoples include the drinking of a psycho-active brew called Ayahuasca, which is prepared from certain jungle plants. During the Middle Ages, a small Islamic sect known as the Assassins reportedly smoked a concentrated form of marijuana called hashish. The modern Rastafarian sect in Jamaica also uses marijuana in its religious observances. And the medieval tales of witches flying on broomsticks may derive from visions of flying induced by a European plant named mandrake.
Hallucinations and other strange psychological effects can also be produced by chemical compounds found in the opium poppy, the deadly nightshade, jimsonweed, morning glory seeds, salvia, cocaine, khat, absinthe, kava kava, and even some forms of tobacco. Also, some scholars think that the mysterious Soma mentioned in the ancient Vedic scriptures of India may have contained a psycho-active substance.
17. Naturist Religious Sects
When Alexander the Great led his army into India in the 4th century BC, he encountered several wandering groups of naked Hindu holy men. In fact, members of some Hindu sects still practice nudity today, and there are also some Jain and Ajivika monks in India who go around naked. In these religious groups the practice is usually associated with a belief that a truly virtuous person should give up all material possessions, including clothes.
Naturist religious sects have also appeared at various times in other parts of the world. For example, an ancient Gnostic-Christian sect called the Adamites existed in Egypt in the 2nd century AD. Its members believed that going naked would enable them to return to the original state of innocence enjoyed by Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. This sect, which rejected marriage as well as clothing, eventually came into conflict with mainstream Christians, and it apparently died out in the 4th or 5th century.
Although the ancient Adamite sect died out, many similar groups appeared in later historical periods, and some still exist today. These modern groups include the Christian Naturist Church Association, the Church of the Universe, the Doukhobors, and the Naturist Church of Universal Brotherhood. There are also some religious groups whose members normally wear clothes but undress to perform their rituals. These include some covens of Wiccans, some Raelians, and members of several "new-age" religious groups.
Modern Christian naturists say that God originally created people without clothes and intended for them to always live that way. As their proof for this, they say that Adam and Eve would have never tried to hide their nakedness if they had obeyed God's command to not eat the forbidden fruit. Modern naturists also point out that the bible doesn't say anywhere that nudity is a sin. Finally, many of them believe that Jesus was a nudist, and that they are merely following his example.
This engraving by Gustave Dore depicts the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden.
18. Weird Beasts
Bizarre beasts play a role in many religions. One of the most famous is Behemoth, a gigantic super-strong animal mentioned in the bible. Some people believe that it resembled a huge mammoth or hippopotamus, whereas others say that it was a dinosaur. But although it was enormous, it may not have been the largest animal in the world, because the bible also mentions a giant sea-monster named Leviathan that could have been even larger.
Another kind of unusual creature is the hybrid between a human and an animal. Hindu myths describe several of these, including Hanuman (a hybrid between a monkey and a human) and Narsimha (a combination of lion and human). Other well-known hybrids include the centaur (horse and man), the minotaur (bull and man), and the mermaid (woman and fish). Also, in medieval Europe many people believed in strange creatures called werewolves, which could shift back and forth between a man and a wolf-like beast.
A mythical creature called a Basilisk has the body of a dragon and the head of a rooster. Its foul smell is strong enough to kill anyone who comes near it, and its fiery breath will burn up anything in its path. A mere glance from its eye will also kill, first penetrating the brain and then the heart. The easiest way to destroy it is to hold up a mirror so that it will see the reflection of its own eye, which will cause it to burst asunder.
These depictions of Behemoth and Leviathan were painted by the English poet and artist William Blake.
Self-flagellation is a weird religious ritual in which a person repeatedly whips his or her own body. Usually it is intended to be a self punishment done out of remorse for sins, and the whipping is often so harsh that blood trickles from the wounds. Actually, most self-floggers believe that their suffering helps pay for the sins of everyone, not just for their own sins, so that they are performing a service for all of humankind. In addition, a small percentage of people secretly get pleasure from the practice, and in some individuals the pain can even induce a mental state of religious ecstasy.
Very pious people usually whip themselves in private, but others normally only do so as part of a group activity. Thus, in some Christian countries many people gather to whip themselves publicly as part of a penitential procession during Lent's Holy Week. And some Shia Muslims flog themselves every year during commemorations for the 7th-century martyr Husayn ibn Ali.
20. The Assassins
The Assassins were a group of Islamic terrorists who operated in parts of Iran, Iraq, and Syria during the Middle Ages. According to most accounts of their activities, they regularly used a concentrated form of marijuana called hashish. In fact, some sources say that the modern English word "assassin" is derived from the Arabic word "hashish".
The Assassins were members of the Shia branch of Islam, which at that time was a persecuted minority, and one of their primary goals was to assassinate leaders of the ruling Sunni majority. As a relatively small group, they mainly operated from the safety of remote mountain strongholds. Although most of their activity was directed against the Sunni ruling class, they also had some encounters with Christian knights who had come from Europe to fight in the Crusades.
There are different accounts of how the Assassins used hashish. Some sources say that the drug was mainly employed to give young recruits visions of the pleasures that awaited them in Paradise if they died while fighting for their faith. According to other accounts, the drug provided the fanatical courage and reckless attitude needed to carry out suicidal missions. But some modern scholars doubt that the Assassins even used hashish at all, and suspect that the stories about it may be based on false accusations made by their enemies. Unfortunately, the truth is hard to determine because most of the original accounts were destroyed when Mongol invaders conquered much of the region in the 13th century.
21. The Book of Mormon
The Book of Mormon is a sacred text of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and most other Mormon churches. According to early accounts of the book's origin, its content was derived from inscriptions on a set of ancient "golden plates" given to Joseph Smith, Jr. in 1827 by a mysterious angel named Moroni. Smith said that this angel retrieved the plates from a stone box that had been buried on a hill near the U.S. town of Palmyra, New York. Although the inscriptions on the plates were in an unknown language, Smith was eventually able to translate them into English and publish them as a book. After he finished the translation, he returned the plates to the mysterious angel, and they have never been seen again.
The book, which was published in 1830, describes the history of an ancient group of Hebrews who traveled from Jerusalem to America in about 600 BC. Sometime after they arrived, they split into two groups. One group, called the Lamanites, abandoned their ancient Hebrew religion and became the ancestors of the American Indians. The other group, the Nephites, kept the old religion and created a great civilization. Eventually these Nephites were visited by Jesus, who gave them many teachings and prophesies. Later, after Jesus had returned to heaven, the Nephites got into a war with the Lamanites, and their entire civilization was finally wiped out in about 400 AD.
But two of the last Nephite survivors, a prophet named Mormon and his son Moroni, created a history of everything that had happened and inscribed it on a set of golden plates. Moroni put the plates into a stone box with some other artifacts and buried the box in the ground near the present location of Palmyra, New York. He buried the box in about 420 AD and died shortly afterward. But later he was resurrected as an angel, and it was in this form that he appeared to Smith in the 1820s and gave him the plates.
Descriptions of the plates say that they were about 8 inches long, 6 inches wide, and thin enough to be pliable. Estimates of their total weight ranged from 30 to 60 pounds. Apparently their composition was never determined, but their color and other physical characteristics suggest that they were probably either pure gold or an alloy of gold with another metal. They were held together along one edge by three silver rings, and this allowed them to be turned like the pages of a book.
The plates were engraved on both sides with odd-looking inscriptions. But Smith was able to translate them into English by using what he called "seer stones". These were small rounded stones with magical properties that enabled him to mentally visualize a correct translation of the inscriptions. Unfortunately, his translation of the first part of the book got lost and was never published. In addition, he couldn't translate all of the plates because one group of them was "sealed" and couldn't be opened up. He said that this group of plates contained a special revelation from God that would be revealed to the world at an unknown future time.
Initially Smith wouldn't let anyone else see the plates, although on one occasion he supposedly wrapped them up in a towel and allowed a few individuals to briefly hold them in that way. Eventually, after several people expressed doubts about their existence, he decided to show them to some acquaintances. Altogether he showed them to eleven men, known as the Book of Mormon witnesses, who later gave written testimonies saying that they had seen the plates. But It isn't clear if these witnesses actually saw the real plates or only saw a "vision" of them. And since Smith said that he later returned the plates to the angel Moroni, independent verification of their existence isn't currently possible. Many Mormons believe that the plates will remain hidden until it is time to show humanity the sealed section containing God's special revelation.
This painting by C.C.A. Christensen shows Joseph Smith Jr. receiving the golden plates from the angel Moroni.
22. Demonic Possession
When a demon gets inside a human body and gains control over it, the resulting condition is called demonic possession. Because demons are spirits, they normally aren't visible, but they can produce visible effects. Thus, when a demon gains possession of someone's body, there are usually major changes in the person's behavior. For example, possession can cause fits and convulsions, disorientation, weird facial expressions, and sudden violent actions. The condition often resembles mental illnesses such as schizophrenia or multiple personality disorder. In some cases the demon gets control of the victim's vocal cords and uses them to talk to nearby people. Demons who talk in this way can usually be recognized by their foul language and strange tone of voice.
The traditional treatment for possession is to try to force the demon to leave the victim's body. A successful expulsion is called an exorcism, and in most cases it is performed by people who have special knowledge and skills. Because a demon will usually resist the attempt to expel it, the process can take several days, or even longer. At the moment when the demon finally leaves, the victim may give a loud shriek and then go completely limp.
According to the bible, Jesus sometimes encountered possessed people, and he always took time to cure them. For example, in Matthew 9:32-34, he restores speech to a man who had been made mute by possession, and in Mark 5:1-20 he expels multiple demons from a single man. Because Jesus had supernatural powers, demons never tried to resist him. When he ordered a demon to leave a body, it always obeyed without delay.
Some descriptions of demons say that they were originally angels, but that they were thrown out of heaven after they supported the Devil in his rebellion against God. Although this rebellion failed, they are still loyal to Satan and help him pursue his evil activities. They are sometimes blamed for certain types of bad behavior, including drug addiction, sexual perversions, serial murder, and adultery. Some Christians believe that the Holy Spirit will protect them from any demons that try to cause these kinds of problems.
This image shows a demon leaving the head of a possessed woman after being expelled by Jesus. The image is taken from a medieval book called Les Tres Riches Heures du duc de Berry, which is a Book of Hours created for the Duc de Berry during the period from 1412 to 1416 AD.
23. Cargo Cults
A group of unusual religious movements known as "cargo cults" appeared on several small Pacific islands during the early decades of the 20th century. These islands had been claimed as colonies by various industrialized countries, and small numbers of foreigners had come to live on them. Most of these foreigners were missionaries, government officials, soldiers, or businessmen. After they began arriving, ships would sometimes deliver supplies to them, and the native people would usually help unload the cargo.
Many of the items in this delivered cargo amazed the natives. Because they had never seen any modern manufactured goods, they thought that the items must have been created through miracles or supernatural effects. Not surprisingly, they began looking for ways to acquire such items themselves, and this is what led to the formation of the cargo cults.
The beliefs and practices associated with these cults varied from one island to another. For example, the natives on some islands thought that the manufactured items in the deliveries must have been created by gods. Another explanation, which appeared on at least one island, was that the items had been made by the natives' own dead ancestors. In this case the natives believed that the items were intended for them, but that the foreigners were intercepting and stealing everything.
Several of these cults appeared on islands that were temporarily occupied by American military forces during the Second World War. As the war progressed, the natives on these islands witnessed deliveries of large quantities of equipment and supplies. Sometimes they were even given gifts, such as candy and cigarettes, that came from the cargo. After the war ended, the Americans left and the deliveries stopped arriving. But on several islands cargo cults were formed to try to get the deliveries resumed. For this purpose, the members of these cults tried to use a form of sympathetic magic in which they imitated the earlier activities of the Americans. For example, on one island they dressed in clothes that resembled U.S. army uniforms and conducted military drills under an American flag. On another island they built a landing strip to try to attract airplanes. Of course, no cargo miraculously arrived, and on most islands these cults eventually disappeared.
24. The Dance of Death
One of the strange superstitions of the European Middle Ages was the belief that the skeletons of dead people arose at night and danced on their graves. The skeletons grinned as they danced, suggesting to the living that death could be better than life. The first descriptions of this dance appeared in the 14th century, a period which included terrible famines, devastating wars, and the horrifying Black Death bubonic plague. To some people of that era, death could have seemed more appealing than the starvation, sickness, and pain being experienced by most of the living.
Dancing skeletons were also a theme in a type of medieval painting called the Danse Macabre. The idea for these paintings may have originated in acted-out sermons or church plays intended to show how anyone, no matter how wealthy or powerful, could unexpectedly die at any moment. The ever-present possibility of a sudden painful death could strengthen religious faith, but paradoxically it could also create a desire to enjoy forbidden pleasures while there was still time. This strange connection between the fear of death and the desire for pleasure is suggested by the depictions of dancing skeletons.
The Danse Macabre is sometimes confused with the Dance of Death, but they weren't the same. Paintings of the Danse Macabre usually depict a circle or chain in which dead dancers alternate with live dancers. The live dancers include all ranks of society, from a king down to the lowest beggar, thereby emphasizing the fact that sooner or later everyone will die regardless of their status in life. In some paintings each living person's hand is taken by a skeleton or an extremely decayed body, and everyone is moving toward a graveyard. Thus, paintings of the Danse Macabre were usually more complex than paintings of the Dance of Death, which normally depicted only skeletons.
This depiction of the Dance of Death was drawn by the medieval German artist Michael Wolgemut.
25. The Sex Slaves of Paradise
One of the most controversial aspects of Islam is the belief that a devout Muslim man will find female sex slaves called Houris waiting for him in heaven after he dies. Islamic writings describe these Houris as young virgins with sparkling eyes, firm round breasts, and fair skin. In their behavior they are very modest and submissive, and always ready to do anything a man desires. Unlike normal women, they don't menstruate and they never get pregnant. They are like programmed zombies whose only purpose is to give pleasure to men.
According to some Islamic writings, every man who goes to heaven will be given 72 Houris for his own exclusive use. In other words, he gets a heavenly harem of 72 sex slaves. Oddly, even after he acquires this harem, he may still maintain a marital relationship with his earthly wife, provided that she also makes it to heaven. The man, his wife, and all of his Houris never have any disagreements, and everyone lives harmoniously in a state of eternal youth, beauty, and perfect health.
Note: Some sources say that each man in heaven gets 70 Houris instead of 72. Of course, as a practical matter this would make little difference.
Non-Muslims frequently criticize the idea of a heavenly harem as being degrading to women. It reinforces beliefs about male authority, and it contributes to the discrimination against women commonly found in Muslim countries. Fortunately, many modern Muslim men don't believe in the literal existence of Houris, but instead regard the traditional depictions of them as a metaphor for heavenly bliss. Partly for this reason, movements to improve the status of women are starting to achieve success in some Islamic societies.
Muslim ideas about Houris became especially controversial after modern Islamic terrorists began carrying out suicidal attacks in several parts of the world. According to news reports, some of these terrorists were motivated by a belief that martyrs who die for Islam are rewarded with an automatic ticket to heaven and a personal harem of beautiful virgin Houris. Actually all devout Muslim men, not just martyrs, are supposedly rewarded with a gift of Houris when they reach heaven. But if any man is motivated to kill innocent people by hopes of receiving such a reward, then he deserves to go to hell, not to heaven.
26. Prayer Wheels
Many Buddhists believe that a spinning prayer wheel transfers compassion and good karma to everyone who is near it. As a result, thousands of the wheels have been placed at locations throughout the region of Tibet, so that anyone walking past one of them can reach out and set the wheel in motion. Many inhabitants of this region also carry small prayer wheels with them and spin them whenever they have a chance. It is a common belief that people can use the wheels to gain personal benefits such as greater compassion, more wisdom, and better health. Animals, and even insects, that pass near a spinning wheel are also thought to get benefits.
Although they are called "wheels", most of them have the shape of a drum. According to Buddhist belief, they get their spiritual power from the mantras that are written on them. These mantras, which are similar to prayers, are groups of syllables from the ancient Sanskrit language, and they supposedly provide spiritual benefits to anyone who chants them. The turning of a wheel inscribed with a mantra is thought to have the same effect as reciting the mantra aloud. Each full turn of the wheel is equivalent to one oral recitation. Some large wheels have enough space for several mantras, and thus can produce a multiple effect.
Prayer wheels are also called Mani wheels. Most of them have a cylindrical shape and rotate horizontally around a vertical spindle. They can be made of stone, metal, wood, leather, or even cotton. The largest are more than twelve feet tall and have diameters up to six feet. At some shrines and monasteries, there is a row of prayer wheels which visitors can spin in sequence as they walk past.
The photo shows a row of prayer wheels.
27. Hungry Ghosts
One notable aspect of Buddhism is the unusual role played by strange creatures called Hungry Ghosts. These are phantom-like creatures, only half-alive, who are constantly tormented by an intense hunger. Their bodies are so starved that their arms and legs have shriveled down to mere skin and bone. But they can't eat anything, because their mouths are the size of a pin hole, and their necks are extremely long and thin. The only part of their bodies that isn't thin is the huge bloated belly. But this belly is always empty, and because it is so big, it produces intense hunger pains.
Buddhists believe that a very greedy man will be punished in his next incarnation by being reborn as a Hungry Ghost. This punishment can result from various kinds of greed, such as a gluttonous appetite for expensive food and drink, or an obsessive lust for money and power, or a hedonistic quest for sensual pleasures. Harmful emotions such as anger, hate, envy and jealousy can also cause a person to be reborn as a Hungry Ghost. But in Buddhism no punishment lasts forever, and after a Hungry Ghost has endured enough suffering, it will be reborn into another life form.
Hungry Ghosts live in a kind of shadow world that is sometimes described as a hidden reality. Because they live in this hidden realm, they normally can't be seen by humans. However, some sources say that they can become momentarily visible under certain circumstances. They have supposedly been seen trying to nibble on corpses, or wandering around in deserts and waste places.
Note: Beliefs about Hungry Ghosts vary slightly from one region to another. Also, imaginary beings that resemble Hungry Ghosts can be found in several other religions besides Buddhism.
This depiction of a Hungry Ghost was copied from a 12th-century scroll. Lack of food has caused its arms and legs to shrink down to nothing but skin and bone. But its belly has remained very large despite being empty.
28. The Rapture
Some Christians eagerly look forward to an expected future event known as the Rapture. When the expected moment arrives, Jesus will suddenly appear in the clouds and miraculously pull all true Christians up to him, then take them to heaven. Non-Christians and insincere believers will be left behind on the earth, where they will have to go through a period of terrible suffering called the Tribulation.
During the Rapture all saved people will be pulled up to Jesus at exactly the same moment, thereby vanishing instantly from the face of the earth. At the same time all dead people who lived good Christian lives will be resurrected and also pulled up. During this process, the bodies of all the chosen will be transformed into an immortal state of perfect health, and their minds will be freed from any tendency to do sinful things or even to have sinful thoughts. This transformation is regarded as a necessary step in preparing a saved person for entry into heaven.
During recent decades the idea of the Rapture has become very popular among certain groups of Christians. But there are also numerous doubters, and many people consider this to be one of the weirdest Christian beliefs.
29. Animal Sacrifice
Animal sacrifice is the ritual killing of an animal in the belief that the action will win favor from a god or goddess. The sacrifice is often intended to be a substitute punishment, with the sacrificed animal being killed instead of the sinful person who actually deserves to die.
One of the oldest descriptions of a sacrifice can be found in the biblical story of Cain and Abel. As described in Genesis 4:2-8, Abel sacrificed an animal to God, and Cain made an offering of some of the crops he had grown. God accepted Abel's animal sacrifice, but rejected Cain's offering of crops. The story suggests that an offering won't be accepted unless blood is shed. Note: When Cain's offering of crops was rejected, he got so angry that he killed Abel. This was the first murder in history.
30. Religious Relics
A religious relic is a surviving body part or personal item thought to possess miraculous powers or other special properties. Famous relics include the Staff of Moses, the True Cross of Jesus, the Skull of Mary Magdalene, the Sacred Tooth of Buddha, and the Holy Mantle of Muhammad. Many churches, temples, mosques, and shrines contain relics, and pilgrims often travel great distances to see them. But many purported relics could be fakes.
This painting, which is called Discovery of the True Cross, is by the medieval Italian artist Agnolo Gaddi. Some people believe that wood from the True Cross has miraculous healing powers.
31. The Giant Flying Head
The Iroquois Indians of the eastern United States have legends about a strange creature called the Flying Head. According to the legends, this creature originated from a head that was chopped from the body of an ancient tribal chief and thrown into a lake. Somehow this chopped-off head was transformed into a giant flying head more than six feet tall, with eyes made of fire, and fangs as sharp as needles. It flew by means of its long flowing hair which could spread out like wings to catch the wind.
The Flying Head would descend from the sky at night and devour both humans and animals. Although it was just a head without a body, it was still big enough to eat enormous amounts of meat. The people of the region were so terrified that many of them packed up their belongings and moved to other areas. But finally the monstrous head left the region and was never seen again.
32. The Antichrist
In Christian belief, the Antichrist is an extremely evil man who will appear shortly before the end of the present age, during a period known as the End Times. Assisted by Satan, he will gain temporary control over the earth. While he is in power, he will persecute good people and reward wicked people. His lies and promises of rewards will dupe millions of people into supporting his rule. But eventually he and his followers will be defeated and condemned to eternal torture in hell.
Many early Christians believed that the Roman Emperor Nero was the Antichrist. During later periods the same accusation was made against some other major historical figures, including Charlemagne, Napoleon, Adolf Hitler, and even several popes. Some modern Christians expect the End Times to arrive very soon, and think that the real Antichrist is already alive and waiting for the opportunity to reveal himself.
Note: Most descriptions of the Antichrist say that he will be a human being, but many Christians also symbolically identify him with a seven-headed beast that appears in the visions of the Book of Revelation.
This painting by the 16th-century German artist Matthias Gerung shows the seven-headed beast described in the Book of Revelations. Some Christians believe that this beast is a symbol of the Antichrist.
33. Witch Smellers
During past centuries the people of some societies would often blame witches for sickness, famine, accidents, and other misfortunes that occurred in a community. This belief in the evil powers of witches has appeared in many parts of the world, and each society has developed its own methods for protecting itself. But in order for a community to protect itself from witches, it first needs to identify them. In some parts of Africa, especially among Bantu-speaking tribes, this identification has traditionally been carried out by individuals known as Witch Smellers.
These Witch Smellers, who were almost always women, would be called upon whenever members of one of these African tribes suspected that witches were living among them. To begin the process of identification, the chief would summon all the tribe's people to a meeting and tell them to gather into a large circle. Then the Witch Smellers would assemble in the middle of the circle with long switches in their hands. They would begin to dance wildly, repeatedly spinning and leaping, until they worked themselves into a frenzy. Eventually they would reach out with their switches and touch one or more people who they had identified as witches. In some tribes anyone who was identified in this way was immediately dragged away and killed.
Many Witch Smellers were powerful and important members of their tribes. When performing their duties, they always wore flamboyant costumes and decorated their faces with brightly-colored paints. Most of them also dyed their hair red and twisted it into elaborate designs. In addition to their switches, many also carried ceremonial spears and shields.
Most people in modern societies doubt that witches even exist, and organized hunts for them rarely take place anymore. But in a few countries there are still sporadic reports of witches being blamed for misfortunes, and occasionally someone is killed either by a mob or by relatives of a supposed victim. We can only hope that these dreadful incidents continue to become less common, and that eventually all superstitious beliefs about witches will completely die out.
34. Human Sacrifice
Although the idea of ritual human sacrifice is abhorrent to most modern people, the practice was widespread in earlier times. According to one theory, animal sacrifice gradually replaced human sacrifice as people became more civilized. But humans were still being regularly offered as sacrifices in some societies as late as the 18th century, and even today there are occasional reports of isolated instances.
One of the oldest references to the practice can be found in a biblical passage at Jeremiah 7:31-32, which says that children were sacrificed at a place called Topheth, which was near modern Jerusalem. Many scholars believe that this was a sacrificial site of a people called the Canaanites who were living in Palestine when the Israelites arrived. These Canaanites worshiped many of the same gods as the neighboring Phoenicians, and several ancient writers say that children were ritually sacrificed at the Phoenician colony of Carthage in North Africa. Thus the child sacrifices mentioned in the bible and the child sacrifices at Carthage may have been part of the same religious tradition.
Another account of human sacrifice in ancient times was provided by Julius Caesar. In his book Commentaries on the Gallic War, he wrote that the Druid priests of ancient Gaul (modern France) would prepare for a sacrifice by using sticks to build a giant humanlike figure called a "Wicker Man". After they finished building this figure, they would place people inside it and set it on fire to pay tribute to the gods. Caesar said that the Druids normally used criminals for this purpose because this was more pleasing to the gods, but that they would use innocent people when no criminals were available. A 1973 horror film called The Wicker Man is based on his report.
Actual remains of sacrificial victims have been found in South America. For example, in 1995 the mummified body of a young girl was discovered on a mountain peak named Ampato in southern Peru. The location is about 6200 meters (20,000 feet) above sea level, far too high for permanent human habitation. The body had been naturally preserved by the freezing temperatures and thin dry air. Scientists believe that the girl was sacrificed more than 500 years ago, probably as an offering to the Inca god or goddess associated with the mountain.
Frozen mummies of sacrificed children have also been found on other high peaks in the Andes mountains. According to some sources, young children were chosen for offerings because they were considered to be purer and more innocent than adults. Healthy good-looking children were selected, and they were usually fattened up on a special diet for several months before being led away to be sacrificed. In most cases the trek to a high mountain summit would have required at least a week of arduous climbing. When the summit was reached, the child was given an intoxicating drink intended to dull the senses. Most likely a ceremony was performed in the desolate surroundings, and then the child was killed. At least one victim appears to have died from a blow to the head. Others may have been killed by strangulation or by being abandoned to freeze to death.
Some of the most horrifying descriptions of human sacrifice can be found in the reports of Spanish soldiers who participated in the conquest of Mesoamerica in the 16th century. These soldiers were especially horrified by the scale of the practice. For example, some of the Spanish who fought against the Aztecs saw a giant "skull-rack" structure which by one estimate contained about 100,000 skulls of sacrificial victims. Based on this report, as well as other evidence, some scholars have estimated that the Aztecs sacrificed at least 20,000 people annually. Human sacrifices also took place on a large scale in regions occupied by the Mayas, Toltecs, and other native peoples of Mesoamerica. In fact, some societies in the region would regularly start wars for the purpose of capturing enemy soldiers to serve as victims. However, there is evidence that members of noble families were also sometimes sacrificed.
Descriptions of Aztec sacrifices say that they took place on a flat area at the top of a tall pyramidal temple. Here the Aztec priests would first perform various ceremonies while accompanied by musicians playing conches, horns, and trumpet-like instruments. Then, with the musicians still playing, the priests would lay the victim on his back, cut open his torso with a stone knife, then grab the still-beating heart and rip it out of the body. After the heart was pulled out, it was placed in a bowl held by a nearby idol of an Aztec god. The victim's head was then cut from the body and taken to a Skull Rack for public display. Some accounts say that the rest of the body was later cooked and eaten.
The native peoples of Mesoamerica believed that human sacrifices were required to maintain the orderly workings of nature. Thus, unless offerings were regularly made to the sun god, the sun would supposedly stop shining. Similarly, if the rain god wasn't frequently appeased, no rain would fall. The most precious offering was a human, but the gods were so difficult to please that just one human wasn't nearly enough. As a result, at some shrines the sacrifices were so frequent that blood often flowed down the sides of the structure and soaked the ground around it.
This is a depiction of the Aztec rain god Tlaloc. The Aztecs feared that rain wouldn't fall unless they made frequent human sacrifices to this god. The image is from a 16th century manuscript known as the Codex Rios.
35. Weeping Statues
A weeping statue is a statue which appears to be shedding tears by supernatural means. Most modern cases involve statues of either Jesus or the Virgin Mary. Some of these statues only produce one or two teardrops per day, and some only weep on certain days of the year, such as Christmas or Good Friday. In many reported cases the tears resemble blood or scented oil.
Some Christians believe that these tears have miraculous healing powers. If a statue becomes well-known, it may attract sick and lame people who hope to be cured. One well-known statue of the Virgin Mary, located at a shrine in Sicily, is surrounded by dozens of crutches supposedly left there by cripples who were healed by the tears.
Note: The insides of some statues may have been secretly rigged to produce fake artificial tears.
36. The Ghost Dance
In the late 19th century, many Indian tribes in the western United States were in a desperate situation. Many Indian warriors had been killed, and the surviving members of most tribes were freezing, starving, and dying from strange diseases. But in the year 1890, just when all hope seemed lost, the Indians' spirits were suddenly revived by reports of a new ritual dance called the Ghost Dance. According to the reports, performing the new dance could potentially cause all white people to miraculously vanish from the earth. In addition, the dance also might be able to bring all dead Indians back to life and re-unite them with their old tribes. The final result of these changes would be a world in which the Indians could return to their old way of life in a restored environment completely free of war, disease, suffering, and death.
It was called the Ghost Dance because the spirits (ghosts) of dead ancestors sometimes appeared in visions to Indians who were performing it. Visions had also played a role in the original creation of the dance, which was first performed by members of the Paiute tribe in Nevada. Knowledge of the dance began spreading from Nevada to other areas in the spring of 1890, and within a few months it had reached most parts of the American west.
According to the predictions of Indian prophets, the dance would produce its miraculous effects in the spring of 1891, but only if it was performed regularly by many different tribes during the intervening months. The expected effects included the disappearance of all white people, the resurrection of all dead Indian ancestors, a miraculous transformation of the earth, and a return to the old way of life in an unspoiled environment.
Although the Ghost Dance was new, it had similarities to the traditional circle dances that most tribes had been performing for centuries. But the Ghost Dance was unusual in that men and women performed it together. They circled counter-clockwise around a tree or pole, chanting and singing special songs. The dances of some tribes had several hundred participants and lasted up to five days, although there were occasional breaks to allow the dancers to rest. Despite these rest periods, some people would become so exhausted that they collapsed on the ground. The visions of the ghosts of dead ancestors usually occurred during these collapses from exhaustion.
When U.S. government officials heard about the new dance, many of them became alarmed. They feared that the excitement created by the dance would lead to an uprising. But the Indians themselves viewed the dance as a substitute for an uprising, since it was supposed to miraculously transform the world without any fighting. However, because the Indians had been attacked so many times in the past, they felt a need to protect themselves until the dance could produce its final effects. Somehow a belief arose that a specially-designed cloth garment called a "ghost shirt" had a supernatural power to stop bullets. During the last months of 1890, many Indian men began wearing these "ghost shirts" to protect themselves in case they were attacked.
The desperate situation of the Indians had been brought about by the destruction of the great buffalo herds. White people had wiped out the herds because the buffaloes were the natives' main source of food. The strategy worked so well that many Indian tribes were soon facing starvation. With no other alternative, most tribes finally agreed to live on reservations in return for promises of food and other provisions. But many government officials were greedy, corrupt, uncaring, or incompetent, and the promised provisions frequently never reached the reservations.
In December of 1890 some U.S. officials began to suspect that the Sioux Indians in the Dakota Territory were planning an uprising. When these officials learned that some of the Sioux were preparing to perform the Ghost Dance, a unit of the U.S. Cavalry was sent to monitor their activities. The Indians resented the presence of the soldiers, and fighting soon broke out. The "ghost shirts" didn't stop any bullets, and many Indians were killed. After this defeat, Indians everywhere began to lose faith in the Ghost Dance, and in most areas performances soon ceased.
In Jewish folklore a golem is an artificial humanlike creature made from clay or mud. It appears to be alive, but it has no soul. It is created by forming clay or mud into the shape of a human, and then performing a secret ritual to animate it. A Jewish legend says that the prophet Jeremiah made a golem, but this isn't mentioned in the bible.
Actually, very few golems have been made, because only a very holy person has enough spiritual power to animate a clay figure. But even a very holy person can't make a golem that has the personality and independent mind of a human being. Golems are always inferior to humans because they are made by men rather than by God. They can't think or talk like a human, and they are slow and clumsy in their movements. Some descriptions say that their bodies are animated by a demon or a nature spirit instead of a human soul.
The best-known story about a golem describes some events that supposedly took place in the city of Prague during the 16th century. At the time the Jews in the city were being persecuted by the Christians. To help defend the Jews, the chief Rabbi of the city created a golem out of clay from a river bank. Eventually this golem helped bring the persecution to an end, but then it began to run amok. To stop it, the Rabbi deactivated it and hid the body in the attic of the Alt-Neu Synagogue in Prague.
During the Second World War, the Nazis destroyed almost all of the synagogues in the areas they occupied, but the Alt-Neu Synagogue in Prague miraculously survived. According to a legend, a Nazi soldier tried to climb to its attic and stab the golem, but died mysteriously before he could get to it. Some people believe that the body of this golem is still in the attic.
This photo shows a statue of a golem.
38. Religious Police
The government of Saudi Arabia currently employs more than three thousand "religious police", whose job is to ensure the proper moral conduct of all citizens. These police have the power to arrest anyone who dresses improperly, listens to the wrong kind of music, eats prohibited foods such as pork, or improperly socializes with members of the opposite sex. They can also shut down businesses that sell unsuitable merchandise, and close theaters that show banned movies. Foreign visitors are not exempt from the prohibitions, and can be arrested for violations.
These religious police are employees of a government agency known as the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice. Within the country they are called Mutaween. To help them perform their duties, thousands of unpaid volunteers watch for improper behavior and report observed violations. The regular police can also provide assistance when extra help is needed, such as when conducting raids on private social gatherings.
The religious laws of the country put special restrictions on females. For example, a woman is not supposed to appear in public unless she is escorted by a husband or male relative. Females are also not allowed to vote in elections, work as waitresses, or drive cars. However, most of these restrictions could soon be lifted, because movements to abolish them appear to be gaining strength within the country.
But even as old restrictions are removed, new ones can be imposed. Thus, in recent years the religious police have started trying to prevent people from celebrating Valentine's Day. To discourage gift-giving on that day, they have searched businesses for valentine cards, and have even confiscated items such as chocolate candy and red roses from store shelves.
39. Life or Death Ball Game
Several thousand years ago the native Amerindians of Mesoamerica began playing a type of ball game which was sometimes followed by the ritual killing of the losing players. The game was played by the Mayans, Toltecs, Aztecs, and other cultural groups of Mexico and Central America. When the Spanish conquered this region, they forced the native people to give up their old religions and convert to Christianity. Since the ball game was part of the old religions, it was officially banned. But despite this attempted suppression, a modern non-violent version of the game is still played in a few remote areas. And evidence of the sport's former popularity can be seen at hundreds of locations where abandoned ball courts still survive.
The game had similarities to both soccer and volleyball. But the exact rules varied, because the sport evolved over many centuries, and different versions of the game were played in different areas. In most versions, two teams of players used elbows, hips, and knees to knock a large rubber ball back and forth in the space between two high walls. Points could be scored in various ways, and one of the teams would eventually gain a victory.
Simple non-violent versions of the game were played for recreation, especially by children. But some ceremonial games must have been very intense and brutal, because the lives of the players were at stake. In fact, after a game was over, the losing players were often executed. Actually, some sources say that only the captain of the losing team was killed, so the number of victims probably varied from place to place. In some cases, the losing players may have been men who were captured in a war and then forced to participate in a game that was rigged against them.
Surviving murals suggest that the victims were killed ritually as sacrifices to gods. The people in these societies believed that such sacrifices were necessary to maintain the orderly workings of nature, such as keeping the sun shining and enabling plants to grow. But the ball games served another purpose as well, because two neighboring societies sometimes settled a dispute by playing a game instead of fighting a war. This would have saved many lives, since the only casualties would have been the players on the losing side.
This photo shows the remains of an ancient Mayan ball court located at Uaxactun in modern Guatemala.
40. Heaven's Gate
Heaven's Gate was a small doomsday cult that was active in the United States during the late 20th century. Most of its members committed suicide in 1997 after they learned that a comet named Hale-Bopp was approaching the vicinity of the earth. They expected civilization to be destroyed shortly after the comet passed by. But they believed that they had a way to escape from the catastrophe, because they imagined that a spaceship was coming to pick up their souls and take them to heaven. They thought that this spaceship was hidden from view in the tail of the comet. In their minds, by killing themselves as the comet approached, they would give their souls an opportunity to escape to the spaceship and ride it to heaven.
The cult's system of beliefs was a bizarre mixture that combined elements of Christianity with some odd ideas about UFOs and extraterrestrial visitors to earth. For example, they thought that alien visitations were responsible for several events described in the bible. According to some reports, they even believed that Jesus was an alien visitor in disguise.
The mass suicide was discovered in March 1997 when thirty-nine members of the group were found dead in a large rented house in southern California. To kill themselves, they had taken phenobarbital mixed with vodka and then covered their heads with plastic bags. Examination of the bodies revealed that some of the men had previously undergone voluntary castration. Some reports say that their decision to be castrated was based on a bible verse at Matthew 19:12, in which Jesus says "there be eunuchs, which have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven's sake" [King James translation]. One possible interpretation of this statement is that a man can increase his chances of going to heaven by being castrated.
41. The Scapegoat
Once each year the priests of ancient Israel would perform a special ritual that supposedly transferred the sins of all the people to an animal called a scapegoat. This animal was then driven into the wilderness to die, taking the sins with it. The purpose of the ritual was to free the people from their sins and allow them to make a fresh start. It was repeated annually to get rid of all the accumulated sins everyone had committed during the previous year.
The ritual was performed in early autumn on the annual Day of Atonement (also called Yom Kippur). The procedure actually required two goats, both of them males. One goat was chosen to be killed as a sacrifice, and the other was designated to be the scapegoat. After the first goat was killed, the high priest laid his hands on the head of the scapegoat to symbolically transfer the sins of the people onto it. The animal was then driven into the wilderness and abandoned there.
It isn't clear what happened to the sins after the scapegoat died in the wilderness. Possibly they faded out of existence as the body of the animal disintegrated, but some accounts suggest that they were transferred to a demon named Azazel.
Note: The word "scapegoat" is often applied to an innocent person who is unjustly blamed and punished for the misdeeds of other people. A whipping boy or fall guy is also a type of scapegoat.
As depicted in modern movies, zombies are re-vitalized corpses that have no souls and very little intelligence. They hunger for the flesh of living people, and they tend to gather in groups to search for victims. Because most of them can't run, or even walk fast, they have to shamble slowly across the ground. But they pursue their intended victims relentlessly, and they can break through doors to reach a hiding place. If one of them gets hit by a bullet, it pauses for a moment but soon starts moving forward again. They can't be killed because they're already dead.
Modern film makers got their ideas about zombies from strange stories that originated in the country of Haiti. According to these stories, Voodoo sorcerers in Haiti can revive dead bodies and turn them into mind-controlled slaves to work as laborers in the fields. Some people in rural areas of the country believe that these zombie-slaves are still being created today using black magic. The people of Haiti use the name "Bokor" for someone who has mastered black magic, but outsiders usually call them sorcerers, wizards, or witch doctors.
Several theories have been put forward to explain the various beliefs about zombies. According to one theory, stories about zombies arose from observations of people who have schizophrenia or other mental disorders that cause them to be unresponsive and out of touch with their surroundings. Another possible explanation is that certain plant-derived drugs can put people into a trance-like state in which they obey outside commands. A third theory is that an unknown virus spreads a rare disease that causes zombie-like behavior. Another idea, used in a film called The Night of the Living Dead, is that an unusual form of radiation can turn corpses into zombies.
The modern Voodoo religion in Haiti developed from the beliefs of black people who were captured in Africa and transported to the island to work as slaves on sugar plantations. After they arrived, the plantation owners forced them to convert to Christianity. But they secretly kept some of their old beliefs, and they also adopted some religious ideas from the native Amerindian people. As a result, modern Voodoo is a mixture that includes elements from all of these religions.
Some modern films depict a scenario called a Zombie Apocalypse, in which an army of zombies threatens to wipe out civilization. In some films people bitten by zombies are turned into new zombies, so that their number multiplies very rapidly. The growing army of zombies overwhelms police and military forces, and panic spreads through the general population. These films often end with isolated pockets of survivors fighting to hang on in the rubble of a destroyed civilization.
43. Crucifixion Re-enactments
Every year on Good Friday, dozens of people in the Philippines re-enact the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. They allow their hands and feet to be nailed to a wooden cross, and then they remain attached to it for a period of time, in an attempt to experience the same pain and suffering that Jesus went through. Most of these people are devout Catholics who hope to atone for their sins or give thanks for an answered prayer. These crucifixion re-enactments have been taking place in some Philippine villages for many decades, and a few individuals have gone through the ordeal many times. In several villages the event even attracts tourists, who come every year on Good Friday to watch the bloody spectacle.
According to a witness at one village, a carpenter's hammer was used to drive five-inch [13 centimeter] steel nails through the palms and ankles of each penitent. Many of them screamed in agony as the nails penetrated their flesh, and most continued to weep while on the cross. To prevent excessive blood loss, they were removed from the cross after a few minutes and taken to a first aid station. Because there were only three crosses at the scene, most of the penitents had to wait for their turn. The event was witnessed by a horde of tourists, including some who had come from as far away as the United States.
In recent years health officials in the Philippines have begun urging people to get tetanus vaccinations before going through the ordeal. Officials also recommend that the nails be pre-soaked in alcohol to disinfect them. Note: Crucifixion re-enactments occasionally take place in other parts of the world, but these are usually the actions of individuals and not part of an organized event.
This engraving by Gustave Dore depicts the crucifixion of Jesus. He is shown between two other men who were crucified at the same time. The bible says that the sky became very dark just before he died.
44. Stoning the Devil
Every year more than a million Muslims make a pilgrimage (called the Haij) to the city of Mecca during the holy month of Dhu al-Hijjahto. Most of these pilgrims stay in the vicinity of Mecca for at least four days, during which time they participate in several traditional religious activities. Perhaps the best-known traditional activity is to walk seven times around an ancient structure called the Kaaba. But most pilgrims also participate in several other activities, including a strange ritual called the Stoning of the Devil.
The Stoning of the Devil takes place outside Mecca at a place called Mina. The purpose of the ritual is to give people an opportunity to defy the Devil. Until recent times, the pilgrims showed their defiance by throwing rocks at three ancient stone pillars. But the annual crowds eventually got so large that there wasn't enough space around the pillars to accommodate everyone who wanted to participate. To provide more space, the government of Saudi Arabia recently replaced the three pillars with three long walls. Elevated walkways were also built to provide additional standing room within throwing distance of the walls.
The ritual is intended to be a symbolic re-enactment of an ancient story in which the Devil successively tried to tempt the Hebrew patriarch Abraham, his wife Hagar, and his son Ishmael. The three original stone pillars supposedly marked the three spots where these temptations took place. However, many of the pilgrims regard the ritual as an opportunity to symbolically throw rocks at Satan himself.
Before the pillars were replaced by walls, the crowds at the site sometimes got so dense that people were crushed to death. Some were also injured, or even killed, by rocks thrown from the opposite side of a pillar. But the most deaths have been caused by stampedes. For example, 270 people were trampled to death in a stampede that occurred in 1994, and 251 died in a 2004 stampede. It was tragedies such as these that prompted the government to replace the ancient stone pillars with long walls.
45. Original Sin
In Christian belief, all human beings inherit their sinful nature from Adam and Eve, who acquired it after they disobeyed God's instructions in the Garden of Eden. When God created Adam and Eve, he originally made them sinless, and he intended for them to remain that way. But the eating of the forbidden fruit somehow transformed human nature so that we are all naturally sinful and can only obtain salvation by divine grace. Some Christians believe that our natural tendency to sin is transmitted from generation to generation by male semen.
The disobedience of Adam and Eve and their resulting loss of innocence is called the "Fall of Mankind". It is often regarded as the basic cause of all the misery subsequently experienced by the human race. According to a biblical passage at Genesis 3:16-19, this misery started with some punishments that God announced to Adam and Eve as they left the Garden of Eden. God told them that Adam would have to toil and sweat in order to survive, and that Eve would feel severe labor pains when she gave birth to children. Many Christians interpret this passage to mean that God inflicted these punishments not only on Adam and Eve, but also on all of their descendants, so that all human beings must pay the same price.
Some people think that God acted unfairly when he decided to punish all humankind just because two people disobeyed him. Some also think that the punishments are unduly harsh, especially the infliction of labor pains on all women. After all, Eve wouldn't have eaten the forbidden fruit if a serpent hadn't tricked her into doing it. God could have forgiven her and let her have another chance. But instead, he decided to punish not only her, but all other women too.
Note: Some Christians believe that God exempted the Virgin Mary from the punishments, so that she didn't feel any labor pains when she gave birth to Jesus.
46. Spirit Money
In one traditional Chinese view of the afterlife, the souls of dead people continue to pursue many of the same activities that their living counterparts pursued before they died. For example, these souls continue to eat, drink, wear clothes, read books, play sports, go to parties, etc. To help ensure that they can do whatever they want, their still-living relatives may try to send them gifts, including money. Normally this isn't real money, but instead is a special "spirit money" that supposedly can be used for transactions in the afterlife. This special money is "sent" to the souls of dead people by burning it, for fire is thought to transform a tangible object in our world into a corresponding spiritual object in the other world. After the souls of the dead receive this money, they can use it to buy the things they need to make their afterlife more enjoyable.
Spirit money is also called "hell money' and "heaven money". The use of these other names came about because many Chinese misunderstood the teachings of early Christian missionaries, and thought that hell and heaven were English names for their own imagined world of the afterlife. The mistake was eventually recognized, but only after the new names were in common usage.
Most spirit money has the form of a printed bank note or paper bill. It comes in various sizes and denominations, and many of the designs are very elaborate and colorful. Some of the bills have denominations that are equivalent to billions of dollars, which suggests that prices in the afterlife could be very high.
People in China sometimes try to send other things besides money to the souls of dead relatives. To do so, they burn paper replicas of items such as clothes, watches, cars, and even houses. It is thought that the soul of a dead relative receives the real item when the paper replica is burned. Some modern Chinese have even used this method to try to send credit cards to the souls of their dead kin.
This is an example of spirit money. Paper bills such as this one are sent to the souls of dead people by burning them.
47. Temple Virgins
Until recent times, young girls in India were sometimes sent to live at various Hindu temples, where they went through an initiation ceremony which "married" them to a god or goddess. These girls, who were known as Devadasi, were often only eight or nine years old when they left their families. After they went to a temple, they were trained in various arts such as music and dance, so that they could take part in the elaborate rites performed during most Hindu worship services. Some of them may have also had other duties, such as working on temple decorations or helping grow the flowers used in the various ceremonies.
These Devadasi originally came from high-caste families, or even royalty, and were widely admired and honored. But over the centuries the system slowly changed, until eventually most of the women came from the lowest castes and served as "sacred" temple prostitutes rather than sacred temple virgins. This transition from high-caste virgins to low-caste prostitutes occurred because political and economic changes gradually reduced the funds that temples received from royal patrons and wealthy donors, so that new sources of income were needed. Obviously it would be easier to turn low-caste females into prostitutes, and after the shift had taken place, high-caste families wouldn't allow their daughters to become Devadasi in any case.
Various Indian state governments began to pass laws against the Devadasi system during the 1930s, and it was officially banned throughout all of India in 1988. However, the Devadasi tradition still has some influence in the country, because many modern Indian women who become prostitutes try to associate themselves with it. Many of them even go through the same initiation ceremony that was formerly used in temples to "marry" a virgin Devadasi to a god or goddess. The women like to go through this ceremony because it supposedly gives "religious sanction" to a life of prostitution, thereby making it seem more respectable.
48. Chosen People
Throughout history various groups of people have considered themselves to be chosen by a god or goddess for special treatment. In most cases they believe that the deity wants them to carry out an important mission or play a special role in human events. In return for carrying out the deity's wishes, they expect to receive exclusive benefits which will enable them and their descendants to prosper as a people.
According to the bible, God selected the ancient Hebrews (Israelites) and their descendants (the Jews) to be his chosen people. He said that he would use them to reveal his word to everyone on the earth. He also said that the Messiah, or redeemer of the world, would come from their nation. In return, he expected them to set an example for the rest of humankind by devoting themselves to him, and by living in accordance with his laws. Some modern Jews think that the past catastrophes experienced by their people were due to failures to fulfill their part of the original agreement with God.
Some Christians believe that the Jews relinquished their right to be God's chosen people when they refused to accept Jesus as the Messiah. These Christians also believe that God made a new covenant with them to replace the original agreement with the Jews. However, this view is sometimes criticized because it implies that God made a mistake when he originally selected the ancient Israelites as his chosen people. Another view, which avoids this criticism, is that the Jews aren't the real descendants of the ancient Israelites, but that another group of people is. Several different Christian organizations claim to be this other group. Some Christians even believe that white Caucasians are the real descendants of the ancient Israelites (through the ten lost tribes) and are therefore the true original chosen people.
Members of the modern Rastafarian sect in Jamaica believe that black Africans are God's real chosen people. They base this belief on the legend that the Queen of Sheba had an affair with King Solomon of Israel and bore a son who became the first king of Ethiopia. They believe that this king passed the blood of the ancient Israelites to all black people, making them the true chosen ones.
Another claim to the title of chosen people has been put forward by leaders of the Unification Church, who teach that Korea is the chosen nation, selected by God to serve a divine mission. This church was founded in Korea in the 1950s by Reverend Sun Myung Moon, but it later gained many followers in the United States. According to Reverend Moon, Korea was chosen by God to be the birthplace of a heavenly tradition which will eventually lead to the establishment of God's kingdom on earth.
49. Pillar Saints
In about 420 AD, a devout Christian known as Simeon Stylites began living on top of a stone pillar. Initially he lived on a fairly short pillar, but eventually he moved to one that was about 50 feet [15 meters] tall. Altogether he spent more than 35 years of almost continuous residence on the tops of pillars. His living space was so small that he barely had room to sit down, and he usually prayed while standing erect with his arms stretched sideways to form the figure of a cross. He wouldn't allow any women to come near his pillar, not even his mother. When he wanted food, boys brought it to him by climbing a ladder.
Simeon Stylites was one of the first "Pillar Saints". These were a class of Christian ascetics, mostly men, who lived on the tops of tall narrow pillars for much of their adult lives. One of them, Saint Alypius, reportedly remained in a standing position atop his column for 53 years until finally his feet could no longer support him. Many others lived continually on pillars for at least 20 years. Some of them built walls or tiny huts on top of their pillars, but even with this added protection, they still had to endure much hardship and privation.
Pillar Saints are also called Sylites. They first appeared in the 5th century, and a few individuals were still taking up the practice as late as the 15th century. Most of them were extreme ascetics who believed that they could best reach their spiritual goals through self-denial and avoidance of worldly pleasures. They typically spent their time fasting and praying, but some of them also healed the sick and preached sermons to pilgrims who gathered around the bottom of their pillars. Several became quite famous and were visited by emperors and other important people.
This icon depicts Simeon Stylites on a symbolic pillar. His last real pillar was taller than this, and it may have had a low wall or railing around the top.
50. The Rope to Heaven
The Dagba people of central Africa believe that a glowing rope once dangled down from heaven to the surface of the earth. Humans could climb the rope to the upper realm and socialize with the gods who lived there. But the gods eventually got irritated because people kept asking them for favors and complaining about the hardships of life down below. The gods finally became so annoyed that they destroyed the rope and scattered the pieces across the sky. The remains of these pieces can still be seen, but they are now known as the Milky Way.