History’s Most Bizarre Rituals & Beliefs
History’s Most Bizarre Rituals & Beliefs

History’s Most Bizarre Rituals & Beliefs

Khalid Elhassan - September 20, 2023

History’s Most Bizarre Rituals & Beliefs
Belief in the existence of Patagonian giants lasted for centuries. K-Pics

The Truth About Patagonians

The tall tales about South American giants were first challenged by Sir Francis Drake. The British seaman and pirate encountered Patagonians during his own circumnavigation of the globe. As described by his nephew: “Magellan was not altogether deceived in naming these giants, for they generally differ from the common sort of man both in stature, bigness and strength of body, as also in the hideousness of their voices: but they are nothing so monstrous and giant-like as they were represented, there being some English men as tall as the highest we could see, but peradventure the Spaniards did not think that ever any English man would come hither to reprove them, and therefore might presume the more boldly to lie.”

History’s Most Bizarre Rituals & Beliefs
Members of the Tehuelche tribe, in 1904. Wikimedia

Nonetheless, the belief in Patagonian giants persisted. As late as 1766, rumors circulated that a British Royal Navy ship had encountered a tribe of nine-foot-tall natives. When the ship’s account of the voyage was finally published, however, it turned out that the natives had been recorded as six and a half feet tall. That was tall, especially so for that era. But certainly not giants. In reality, the Patagonians in question, the Tehuelche tribe, were actually taller than average. However, they were taller than average in the sense that their average height was in the six foot range, not in the sense that they towered over people and stood nine, twelve, or fifteen feet tall.

History’s Most Bizarre Rituals & Beliefs
El Dorado. K-Pics

From a Guy Covered in Gold Dust to a City of Gold

The myth of El Dorado, the fabled city that was made of gold, seems to have changed with the passage of time like a message in a game of telephone. Just like that childhood game, the story of El Dorado was altered with each retelling from one source to another, until the final recipient ended up with something completely different from the original. The story first referred to a man, then to a city, then to an entire kingdom, and finally, an empire.

The legend began with the first Spaniards who came in contact with the native Muisca people, in today’s Colombia. They heard a tale about chiefs who coated themselves in gold dust, then rowed into Lake Guatavita, about 35 miles northeast of modern Bogota, to drop golden gifts for the water god. The first Spaniards to hear the tale named a mythical Muisca chief El Hombre Dorado, Spanish for “the Golden Man”. From there, as seen below, the story grew with each increasingly ridiculous retelling into the myth most are familiar with today.

History’s Most Bizarre Rituals & Beliefs
The El Dorado legend started off as accounts of a native chief covered in gold dust, and grew into a belief in a city of gold. Just Want to Know

The Belief in the City of El Dorado

Over the years, and with repeated retellings, the legend of El Hombre Dorado, the Golden Man, was transformed. What began as a tribal chief coated in gold dust became a city made of gold, then a kingdom of gold, and finally a fabulously wealthy empire that had more gold than the rest of the world put together. There was at least some justification for the belief that the story was real. Spaniards and other Europeans had actually encountered plenty of gold among the natives of the Caribbean coast of South of America. So they reasoned that there must be a huge source of gold somewhere in the interior.

In due course, many Spanish Conquistadors and other European adventurers who heard the more ridiculous El Dorado story version that described a city of gold, came to believe in its existence. The lust for gold and fabulous riches said to be found in the legendary city fueled numerous expeditions and searches in the 1500s and 1600s. None of them discovered the nonexistent city of gold. Indeed, most of them found little more than grief and woe in a futile quest to find a myth.

History’s Most Bizarre Rituals & Beliefs
Sir Walter Raleigh’s disastrous expedition up the Orinoco River in search of El Dorado. Pinterest

A Belief that Caused a Lot of Grief

Those who bought into the ridiculous belief that there actually was a city of gold out there somewhere were disappointed. However, seekers who stuck to the original version of the El Dorado story, about tribal chiefs who dropped golden gifts into a lake, had some success. They set out to drain Lake Guatavita, and lowered its level enough to recover hundreds of golden artifacts from around the lake’s edges. However, whatever treasures had been tossed into the deeper waters remained beyond their reach. Other than that partial success, the only results of the search for El Dorado were numerous lives wasted in fruitless treasure hunts.

The more famous jinxed searches included those undertaken by English courtier Sir Walter Raleigh, who conducted two expeditions in Guiana in search of El Dorado. In the second expedition, in 1617, Raleigh was too enfeebled by age to endure the rigors of the search. So he set up a base camp in Trinidad, and sent his son, Watt, up the Orinoco River to find El Dorado. It ended in utter disaster, and in the death of Raleigh’s son in a battle against the Spaniards. Things did not end much better for Raleigh himself. When he returned to England, its king, James I, ordered him beheaded for defying his orders to avoid conflict with the Spanish.

History’s Most Bizarre Rituals & Beliefs
Basil Rathbone, as Sherlock Holmes. K-Pics

The Birth of a Modern Belief in Fairies

One might reasonably assume that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of the cynical and deductive reasoning Sherlock Holmes, must have been one of those skeptical types who are hard to fool. In reality, however, the famous British author was remotely not like his famous character. Late in life, Doyle became a big booster of spiritualism. In his eagerness to credit whatever supported his belief, he became a gullible old fool who fell hard for a hoax perpetrated by two little girls. It began in 1917, in the English village of Cottingley. There, nine-year-old Elsie Wright and her sixteen-year-old old cousin Frances Griffith claimed that they hung around with fairies beside a nearby stream.

History’s Most Bizarre Rituals & Beliefs
Cottingley Fairies. Yorkshire Post

Their parents scoffed, so to prove it, the girls borrowed Elsie’s father’s camera, and came back half an hour later with “evidence”. When Elsie’s father developed the film, he was surprised to find a picture of fairies dancing around Frances. However, he dismissed it as a prank by his daughter, who knew her way around cameras. When the girls came up with more fairy photos in subsequent months, Elsie’s father finally forbade them to borrow his camera. That should have been the end of it, but as seen below, it was not.

History’s Most Bizarre Rituals & Beliefs
Cottingley Fairies. Blitz Lift

When The Cottingley Fairies Went Viral

Two years after Elsie Wright and her cousin Frances Griffith photographed “fairies” in Cottingley, things took off. The pictures went viral after Frances’ mother showed them at a meeting of the Theosophical Society – a New Age spiritualist group. The photos were clearly questionable, and experts who saw them pronounced them crude cardboard cutouts. However, belief in the existence of fairies dovetailed with some religious tenets of the Theosophical Society. So the society’s members – who included prominent British figures – began to spread the photos and vouch for their authenticity.

History’s Most Bizarre Rituals & Beliefs
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. K-Pics

In 1920, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle became aware of the photos’ existence. He was initially skeptical, and went so far as to ask Eastman Kodak for their opinion. However, before he had received a reply from the camera and film manufacturer, Doyle decided that the photos were real. Before long, Sherlock Holmes’s creator had not only vouched for the photos’ authenticity, but went on to become a huge advocate for the existence of fairies in real life. It was the start of an awkward journey.

History’s Most Bizarre Rituals & Beliefs
The Coming of the Fairies, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Pinterest

The Creator of Sherlock Holmes Went All In on His Belief that Fairies Were Real

In December, 1920, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle published a cringe-worthy article, in which he urged the public to accept that fairies actually exist. It opened him to significant ridicule from a press that was equal parts puzzled, and equal parts embarrassed for the hitherto respected author. None of that dissuaded Doyle, who followed the first article with a second in 1921, that described even more fairy sightings. A year later, in 1922, he capped it off with the publication of his most awkward book, The Coming of the Fairies.

History’s Most Bizarre Rituals & Beliefs
Comparing the Cottingley Fairies to illustrations from a popular children’s book. Wikimedia

As it turned out, Sherlock Holmes’s creator should have been more skeptical. In 1983, more than half a century after Arthur Conan Doyle’s death, Elsie Wright and Frances Griffith revealed the truth. They published an article, in which they confessed that it had all been a hoax. They had used illustrations from a contemporary popular children’s book, and simply drew wings on them. The girls had kicked off the prank to get back at adults who teased them for “playing with fairies”. The joke snowballed, however, and got out of hand once the Theosophical Society and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle got involved. Once that happened, they could not think of a graceful way to back out. So they just kept the hoax going, until they finally came clean, six decades later.

History’s Most Bizarre Rituals & Beliefs
Japanese immigrants in Brazil. Porta Nippo

The Belief That Japan Won WWII

Colonel Kikawa urged his followers to protest mistreatment by ceasing the production of peppermint, which included ingredients used in explosives, and to stop making silk, a vital wartime material for parachutes. He also advocated more direct steps, such as sabotage. By 1945, Shindo Renmei, headquartered in Sao Paulo, had 64 branches in Brazilian localities with Japanese immigrant communities. With most Japanese-Brazilians cut off from reliable news, the group exploited their countrymen. They filled the information vacuum with “news” that was mere wishful thinking. As Japan reeled from defeat after defeat, Shindo Renmei told the Japanese immigrants that Japan was marching from triumph to triumph. The claims included a decisive Japanese victory in Okinawa, where America lost 400 warships. Victory was secured by a super weapon, the “High Frequency Bomb”, which killed Americans by the hundreds of thousands and forced the Allies’ unconditional surrender.

History’s Most Bizarre Rituals & Beliefs
Colonel Junji Kikawa. Doc Player

Many believed that, or if they did not, feared to speak up because Shindo Renmei punished “defeatists”. Those who voiced doubts about how well the war was going for Japan were shunned, boycotted, and sometimes violently assailed. Shindo Renmei dismissed Japan’s surrender as “fake news” and American propaganda, and redoubled its efforts to punish those who said otherwise. In the eyes of Colonel Kikawa and his followers, Japanese immigrants were divided into two camps: good guys, and bad guys. There were the virtuous Kachigumi (“Victorious”), who knew that Japan had won the war. They were mostly the poor and poorly educated. Then there were the vile Makegumi (“Defeatists”), also pejoratively labeled “dirty hearts”, who bought the fake news about Japan’s defeat.

History’s Most Bizarre Rituals & Beliefs
Shindo Renmei members. K-Pics

A Terror Campaign to Ram a Crazy Belief Down the Throats of Japanese Immigrants

Those labeled “Defeatists” by Shindo Renmei tended to be the better off and better educated immigrants. They had better access to information, and could differentiate between reliable and unreliable news. However, even those innocent of Shindo Renmei’s fanaticism were terrorized to toe the group’s line, or at least stay silent. By war’s end, Shindo Renmei had about 50,000 followers. They went on a buying spree that emptied local shops of red and white cloth to make Japanese flags, intended to welcome Brazil’s new overlords. The situation was further complicated by the circulation of fake Japanese newspapers and magazines. The fake media included articles about Japan’s “great victory”; the arrival of Japanese occupation troops in America; photographs of President Truman bowing to Emperor Hirohito; and coverage of the trial of General Douglas MacArthur for war crimes.

History’s Most Bizarre Rituals & Beliefs
Japan’s foreign minister signs his country’s surrender aboard the USS Missouri. Wikimedia

Charlatans who peddled that drivel sold duped Japanese immigrants land in the “conquered territories”. Those who doubted Japan’s victory were silenced. In 1946, Japan’s postwar government prepared documents for distribution in Brazil, outlining reality and declaring that Japan had surrendered. Shindo Renmei dismissed that as fake, and beat up or murdered Japanese immigrants who read or distributed the documents. To reduce the violence, Brazil’s government prohibited newspapers from publishing news of Japan’s defeat, and ordered the term “unconditional surrender” removed from official communications. Things then gradually simmered down. A last gasp occurred in 1950, when Japan’s Olympic swimming team visited Brazil. When its members expressed shock at the belief that Japan had won the war, diehards claimed that the athletes were actually Koreans masquerading as Japanese. That was so ludicrous, that it killed Shindo Renmei’s credibility for good, and the organization soon vanished into history’s dustbin.

History’s Most Bizarre Rituals & Beliefs
An amulet for Fascinus. Ancient and Oriental.

The Ancient Belief in Flying Dongs

Ancient Rome had a rich religious pantheon that included hundreds of gods. One of the lesser-known ones today – although he was quite popular with ancient Romans – was Fascinus, the winged phallus god. The god of masculine regenerative power, Fascinus’ symbol was a phallus. He was literally all dong, taken to a ridiculous degree of dong-hood. His body was an erect phallus and testicles, which sported an erect phallus, and he had a phallus for a tail, and phalli for legs. He also had wings, so he could fly around and spurt his blessings upon fortunate mortals.

Fascinus was believed to be lucky, so worshippers carried him around in the form of amulets or pendants that hung from their necks. It was just like how pious Christians wear crosses around their necks today. Except that instead of a cross, ancient Romans had an erect dong dangling from their necks. It was a different culture. Fascinus, a hard phallus who sported multiple hard phalli, was constantly on the prowl, with a particular preference for sleeping women. Many Roman art motifs and tales revolved around sleeping maidens, usually getting some shuteye in bucolic settings, who woke up to discover that Fascinus had flown between their legs to bless them.

History’s Most Bizarre Rituals & Beliefs
‘With a Turned Thumb’, by Jean Leon Gerome, 1872. Wikimedia

Traces of the Flying Phallus God in Modern English

The most famous Roman maiden supposedly impregnated by Fascinus was Ocrisia, the mother of Rome’s sixth monarch, King Servius Tullius. Ocrisia was a foreign noblewoman captured in war, and made a slave in the household of Rome’s King Tarquinius. As the legend went, Ocrisia was a virgin, and one day, as she performed the sacred rites of the Vestal Virgins, a disembodied winged phallus flew in and impregnated her. The result was Servius Tullius, who was raised in the royal household. Although a slave, he so impressed King Tarquinius that he eventually freed him and gave him his daughter’s hand in marriage.

After Tarquinius’ demise, he was succeeded on the throne by Servius, his son in law and son of the divine winged dong. Fascinus’ name gave rise to the Latin verb “fascinare“, which means the power to use the Fascinus to entrance or cast a spell, because of a widespread belief that the flying dong god had such powers. The worship of Fascinus declined with the rise of Christianity, and eventually vanished, along with the rest of antiquity’s pagan pantheon. Nonetheless, a trace of Fascinus remains with us today: the etymology of the modern English word “fascinate” traces back to the Latin word “fascinare“, and the Ancient Roman flying phallus god.



Where Did We Find This Stuff? Here Are Our Sources:


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Atlas Obscura – Romans Used to Ward Off Sickness With Flying Penis Amulets

AV Club – Wikipedia Erected a Page to Explain Ancient Rome’s Fascination With the Phallus

BBC – Cottingley Fairies: How Sherlock Holmes Creator Was Fooled by Hoax

BBC – El Dorado: The Truth Behind the Myth

Burman, Edward – The Assassins (1987)

Classical Journal, Vol. 64, No. 1 (Oct. 1968) – Father of History or Father of Lies; the Reputation of Herodotus

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Daftary Farhad – The Assassin Legends: Myths of the Isma’ilis (1994)

Discover Nikkei – Shindo Renmei, a Dark Chapter in the History of Japanese Immigration in Brazil

Fashion History Museum – Sole Discretion

Gardner, Martin – Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science (1957)

Historic UK – The Cottingley Fairies

History Collection – The Morbid Tradition of Sin Eating Was as Scary as it Sounds

Hodgson, Marshall G.S. – The Order of Assassins: The Struggle of the Early Nizari Isma’ili Against the Islamic World (1955)

How Stuff Works – Why is Herodotus Called Both the Father of History and Father of Lies?

Jewish Quarterly Review, New Series, Vol. 6, No. 1 (Jul., 1915) – The Symbolism of the Shoe With Special Reference to Jewish Sources

Lesser, Jeffrey – Negotiating National Identity: Immigrants, Minorities and the Struggle for Ethnicity in Brazil (1999)

Listverse – 10 Historical Shoe Rituals and Superstitions You Might Not Know About

Medieval Warfare, Vol. 8, No. 6, Jan/ Feb 2019 – The Sultana of Egypt

National Geographic – El Dorado

Princeton University Library – Patagonian Giants

Public Domain Review – Sir Arthur and the Fairies

Wired – Fantastically Wrong: Magellan’s Strange Encounter With the 10 Foot Giants of Patagonia