Bite the Bullet

Unlike army ants or leafcutter ants, there is only one genus and one species of bullet ant. But if you’re stung by one, you’ll never forget it. The Central and South American bullet ants derive their name from the pain of their sting, which victims liken to being gunshot. Or, to put it more colorfully, its sting is “like fire-walking over flaming charcoal with a 3-inch rusty nail in your heel.” That’s according the Schmidt Sting Pain Index, a scientific scale of insect sting-to-pain ratios, on which the bullet ant ranks the highest. Its sting is thirty times worse than that of a wasp, and can paralyze the affected area for up to 24 hours.


You want some of this?

Considering it’s got the most painful sting in the Hymenopteran order of bees, wasps, and ants, you might be surprised to know that there are people who actively seek it out in order to be stung. The bullet ant is crucial to the male initiation rites of the Satere-Mawe people of Brazil. After the jump, we’ll examine their masochistic rituals, the meaning of manhood in diverse cultures, and how Nature influences it. In other words, the Quantum Biologist is going where he’s never gone before: Into the fetid swamps of Sociology.

And boy, is it dark in here.

The Satere-Mawe is a small, isolated tribe in the Brazilian Amazon rainforest, best known to the world for their cultivation of the guarana that now cokes up our energy drinks. They are becoming better known now for their brutal initiation rites. When a generation of boys reaches age 16 or 17, they go to the tree trunks where bullet ants make their nests and collect them. A medicine man drugs the ants with a botanical sedative, and the unconscious ants are then woven into grass mittens with their stingers facing inwards. When the ants come to, they are trapped, and not too happy about it. It’s at this point that the initiates stick their hands into the gloves to receive their punishment. Remember: one ant’s sting is like being shot, and there are hundreds of ants woven into the gloves. Initiates must endure the pain for ten minutes without screaming. And lest you think they come out of this excruciating experience a man, think again. They’ll have to endure the ritual twenty times before they earn that title.

Because sexual segregation is a theme we’ll come to in a minute, I’ve embedded both a masculinized and a feminized video clip of the ceremony. Pick according to your gender.

For the men:

For the ladies:

Yeah, and you had a magician at your bar mitzvah.

When does a boy become a man? The answer for most of us is not so easy. Males simply don’t have physical cues to signal the transition, like menarche, nor do we have natural events in our lives that transform us, like childbirth. In our culture of arrested development, in which boys play video games and avoid child-rearing into their thirties, it’s not critical that we have a set definition of what makes a man. But in many cultures, it’s essential to separate the men from the boys. A rigid definition of manhood keeps the social organization intact, allowing the tribe or city to know who deserves rights and responsibilities. So we invent ceremonies, often very painful ceremonies, to mark the transition. It is true that women also have initiation rites, from harmless quinceañeras to horrific genital mutilation, but male initiation rites are a substitution for a transformation our bodies won’t naturally give us. We recreate the pain of childbirth, and so are reborn. But into what?

Spartan boys were beaten and tortured for years, then unleashed on the countryside to hunt and kill slaves. Failure to withstand the pain, or to murder innocents, would result in exile or even execution. Many modern street gangs initiate members in a similar way, though on a smaller scale. Many African tribes, such as the Zulu, practice circumcision with sharpened rocks and cattle dung. If you don’t die by infection, congratulations, you’re a man. And the most oft-studied male initiation rites are those of the Sambia tribe of Papua New Guinea, which involve years of isolation from womankind, ritual fellatio of the elders, and a sort of mock “menstruation” involving bloodletting from sticks in the nose. The Sambia are world-class misogynists, believing that women are contaminated with evil and subject to a man’s every desire or disgust. And here, I think, is where male initiation rites really come in handy: they don’t separate just separate the men from the boys; they separate the men from the women, on both a social and psychological level.

A study of several African cultures revealed interesting insights into the world of male-female relations among the initiated. Researchers tested three cultures with initiation rites and one without on an interesting metric: they questioned them about sympathetic pains during their wife’s pregnancies. The theory was that in cultures with less brutal initiations, men would have more androgynous or even feminine characteristics. And indeed, on this metric, only the non-initiating tribe experienced sympathetic pregnancy symptoms in men: morning sickness, food cravings, aches, even psychosomatic labor pains. Mentally, they were more in tune with their women. The men of the initiating tribes showed a major emotional disconnect. In creating the male version of the agony of childbirth, initiates can end up less sympathetic to women, and instead, are elevated to a separate, exclusive subculture with the men of the clan.

What does the bullet ant teach us about human gender relations? You could say they are no more than the firewalk, the paleolithic bris that establish men as a different class from women. But there’s more: the sting of the ants is also the equivalent of the Aboriginal walkabout or the peyote-inspired visions of the Mexican Indians, a spiritual initiation. Among the Satere-Mawe, entering manhood also means entering a realm of spiritual awareness, conferring the ability to track animals and read the forest. Pain is a gateway to the real world, for them. Conveniently, Nature has condensed the essence of pain into a venom that lives in the sting of an ant. The ant is the ferryman, the gatekeeper. Endure it, and you can endure the horror — and splendor — of the world as it is.

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About quantumbiologist

Christian Drake, AKA The Quantum Biologist, is a naturalist and poet formerly of Albuquerque, NM and currently living deep in the backwoods of the Connecticut Berkshires. He has worked in aquariums and planetariums, national parks and urban forests. When not birding or turning over rocks to find weird bugs, he enjoys rockabilly music, gourmet cooking, playing harmonica and writing dirty haiku. View all posts by quantumbiologist

4 responses to “Bite the Bullet

  • Tatyana Brown

    Wow. I have a lot of stuff to say about this.

    Things I noticed about the videos:
    -The voice overs are awesome. Bottom line. (Also, I’m pretty sure I’ve heard the guy from the first video on the Spike Network.)

    -Aside from sharing footage from the same expedition, there’s this funny little rhetoric overlap: both videos talk about the ants’ “angry desperation.” Apparently that concept is universal.

    -Man, on top of having to gloves full of bullet ants, you don’t get to wear pants during the ritual. …wait. Scratch that protest. I actually see the utility of this, now that I think about it.

    I am constantly amazed by human creativity when it comes to ways to experience pain. Someone actually thought to themselves “Hrm. These bullet ants sting like a motherfucker. Oh! I know! Let’s WEAVE THEM INTO GLOVES and force our kids to wear them to see if they can take it! Brilliant!” I kind of wish I’d been privy to that guy’s reasoning.

    Good eye on the concept that pain serves as a gateway to different awareness. I don’t think I would’ve ever put it quite like that. I also think male initiation rites involving pain serve a couple other functions that are worth mentioning:

    -They force initiates to anesthetize themselves and embrace a more stoic, typically “masculine” emotional pattern. Pain rituals reinforce the idea that certain kinds of reactions (i.e. screaming or crying) are a form of weakness, and that true men aren’t weak. This is especially important in warrior culture, and could certainly contribute to the lack of sympathy/compassion you describe.

    -You kinda hinted at this, but in a lot of cases men’s rituals look to be in an arms race with the physiological realities of the female coming of age process and with the hardships of pregnancy/giving birth. In a lot of cases I can’t help but think it’s about fear of women’s bodies and the things they can do. Oftentimes it reads as “Oh, yeah? Think you’ve got it rough? Well I just voluntarily bled a ton THROUGH MY NOSE. And it hurt a lot. Probably more than anything your body does to you. Getting your period isn’t so bad.” But that opinion has a lot to do with reading buttloads of ethnographies and creation stories and whatnot. I might be conflating a bunch of different factors here.

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  • Suzie

    I was referred to this site while looking for Coming of Age rites for an essay. I have to say, as cringe-worthy as it is, there’s also a factor in the whole thing that’s fascinating. It would be interesting to see a more in-depth psychological analysis on these rites.

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