Human beings seem to have a built-in need for some religion. Ever since the first proto-human felt the hair on his neck stand up right before a lightning strike, our ancestors have been almost indecently eager to lunge for the first supernatural explanations that came to mind. Which would be fine, but over the centuries some of those supernatural beliefs have morphed into some pretty odd shapes. Some of the religions, people have believed in over the years are downright weird.
1. Prince Philip Is a Nice Man; Also a God
Prince Philip is officially the Duke of Edinburgh and consort to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. He is a member of – no kidding – the House of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburg, and father of the Prince of Wales. He’s not making public appearances anymore, but for the last several decades he’s been a kind of free-range goodwill ambassador for the United Kingdom and has made several trips overseas. It was during one of these trips, in 1974, that he accidentally inspired a religion.
On the Pacific island of Vanuatu, the Yaohnanen tribe has long believed in a powerful divine being who lived beyond the sea and who married a powerful woman. When the Prince visited the island in 1974, the locals seem to have massaged his public persona into the role. When the British commissioner for the New Hebrides informed Philip of his cult status, the royal consort sent a signed portrait to the tribe’s chief, who sent back a ceremonial pig-killing club. Prince Philip then posted a picture of himself posing with the club, which cemented his place as a god in Vanuatu. His Majesty is said to enjoy what he takes to be a harmless bit of fun, although it probably wouldn’t be funny if this religion eventually takes over the world and makes pig bashing a holy sacrament.
2. John Frum Died for Our Sins
Another “harmless” cargo cult from the South Seas centres around a mythical, semi-divine being named John Frum. According to the legend, John Frum was an American serviceman who visited the island of Tanna, which is also part of Vanuatu, during World War II. This isn’t so strange, given how many American fighting men were deployed to that area just then, but the native people of Tanna seem to have taken the experience of meeting an industrial society a bit too far.
Every year, on February 15, the whole island celebrates John Frum Day, when the saviour of their religion bestows a special blessing on His people. Men of the island dress in mock US military uniforms and an American flag is ritualistically hoisted to the top of a bamboo flagpole (which is a nice change from the more usual burning Old Glory gets overseas). People then dance and carry on into the evening, when they enjoy a big feast in honour of the cargo John Frum once brought them. . . Moreover, will someday bring them again.
This isn’t just about cargo. For nearly 100 years, the people of Tanna have been oppressed by Christian missionaries, who have banned everything the native (Tannans? Tannarites? Tannanarinos?) used to enjoy. Under missionary rule, locals were forbidden from uttering their traditional prayers, drinking locally brewed alcohol, and swearing in their own language. By switching to the religion of John Frum, the beleaguered (Tannarians? Tannanites? Tannishes?) finally had a tool to tell the missionaries to go pound sand.
3. The United Nuwaubian Nation of Moors Dislikes White People and Reality Both
Religions often grow in places where large numbers of people feel they have an unmet need. When society seems not to care about a demographic, some shyster will inevitably step in and fill the vacuum. The worst of these manipulators are genuine psychopaths – think Manson Family – who manipulate their couple-dozen or so victims into giving up their whole lives for the group. Ironically, the best of them are low-comedy clowns who jettison contact with reality and spend their lives plumbing the depths of human gullibility. Dwight York, who founded the Nuwaubian Nation of Moors seems to have been one of the latter, though he did manage to earn a nice stretch in prison for his troubles.
Nuwaubianism started in New York sometime in the late 1960s, which was a kind of Golden Age of Bullshit in philosophical circles. York’s particular take was that black people in America are actually “Moors,” which also makes them Egyptians and even Olmecs and other Native Americans. Plus, they were Samurai warriors and maybe ancient Sumerians too. Every cool thing that ever happened before photography was a thing was done by a modern-day black person who probably flew in gliders and rode around in UFOs with Bigfoot. That’s not an exaggeration, by the way, Nuwaubianism combines New Age spirituality with cryptozoology and a hefty dose of crank archaeology. The gist of it is that Moors used to be and do everything good in the world until white people came along and stole it all.
Evidence for this can be found, according to York, in the way English words are formed. For example, the word “God” is “Dog” spelt backwards, because ancient white people (“Albinoids”) worshipped dogs and wanted their god to remind them of that. The word “Caucasian” comes from “carcass-Asian,” proving that whites are degenerate Asians. The country York lived in was the USA, from the Egyptian word “usa,” meaning “eye,” hence the eye on the money, etc.
The group eventually migrated to Georgia, where they built the obligatory armed compound in the middle of nowhere and started threatening local politicians, and possibly killing one of their dogs. The government, which is usually willing to overlook a lot, finally stepped in in 2002, when rumours of York’s huge child porn collection and extensive molestation attracted attention. He’s now locked up in the ADX Florence facility, on top of a mountain in Colorado, and should be eligible for his first parole hearing in 2122. That’s not a typo – he might get out in the year two-thousand, one-hundred, twenty-two. Might.
4. The Cathars Were Celibate Hedonists
Speaking of unconventional sexuality, the Catholic Church was undergoing one of its periodical crises of legitimacy in 13th-century France. Lots of influence peddling and unchaste priests had driven a wedge into many communities in Western Europe at the time, and nowhere was the rift deeper than in Languedoc, where the so-called Cathars sprang up in and around Toulouse.
Their murderers mostly wrote the Cathars’ history, so there’s much guesswork in trying to reconstruct what they believed in. From what we can tell, the Cathars were adherents of an antinomian heresy, which means they didn’t believe in the concept of sin and thus could do whatever they liked. Interestingly, they seem to have also been ascetic – that it, they officially believed that priests didn’t have to be celibate and that sex was okay whenever and wherever, but they also seem to have, in practice, lived lives of strict moderation and sobriety that stood in dramatic contrast to how the mainstream clergy acted.
That could not stand, and the Pope called for a crusade. It was from this notable slaughter the phrase “kill them all; God will know his chosen” came, as a bishop urged soldiers to slaughter both Cathars and regular believers in town alike. There are rumours that Catharism survived into the modern world as an underground strain in the Catholic Church, but since they mostly seem to have practised their faith by eating a balanced diet and not staging orgies, it’s hard to get worked up over that.
5. Rastafarianism Started by Accident
Back in the 1960s, the Empire of Abyssinia was in turmoil, as local rebels fought to conquer the place for a kind of military-socialist dictatorship that came to be known as the Derj. The Emperor of Abyssinia, Haile Selassie, set off on a world tour to drum up support for his cause, a trip that took him through the Caribbean on his way to America. At almost the same time, the black separatist writings of Marcus Garvey were gaining traction in the mostly black nations of Haiti and Jamaica, where resistance to outside meddling in domestic politics had been growing for decades. When Selassie landed in Kingston, the idea of a black (or so they thought) Emperor blew everybody’s minds, and a religion built around the Ethiopian monarchy was born almost overnight.
The funny part is that neither of the two prophets of this new religion wanted anything to do with it. Marcus Garvey was always a proponent of the Back to Africa movement, and he supported manumission, not integration or the carving out of black nations in the Western Hemisphere. As for Selassie, he didn’t even identify as black. Selassie, like most Ethiopians, was a Tigrayan from the Central Highlands who owned black slaves himself. When told about the religion that had spontaneously formed after his visit, and that the adherents were using his royal lion as their insignia, he seems to have been amused, but he never took it seriously and asked Jamaicans to knock it off. Of course, nobody listened, and Selassie grew to mythic proportions as the living avatar of Jah.
6. Theosophy Was a Transparent Swindle for the Overeducated
The late 19th century was a time when some of the overconfident beliefs of mainstream Christianity were facing stiff competition from both science and Eastern mysticism. Darwin, Faraday, and the other scientists were shaking a lot of the eternal verities of the High Church, while assorted con artists toured Europe and America looking for marks and spouting enlightened-sounding chum about reincarnation and group souls and the like. Madame Blavatsky was arguably the biggest fraud in the latter group, and she spent the last years of her life squeezing the rubes for every penny she could get.
Madame Helena Blavatsky was born Yelena Petrovna von Hahn, a descendant of German-Russian nobility, in Russia in 1831. Growing up in feudal Russia post-Napoleon, she lived in a world where aristocrats took what they liked from peasants and passed significant fortunes off to various quacks and charlatans (Rasputin was arguably the last and most significant of these, but there were a lot before him) who made money telling fortunes and performing faith healings. Yelena grew up in a crowded market for frauds, and like any good scammer, she took her shtick into new markets, in her case England and America.
Posing as an adept in Tibetan Buddhism, Blavatsky claimed to have been trained by various mystical lamas in remote Tibet who could, among other things, project their souls across space and time and levitate at will. Her movement grew into a church that attracted much interest from people who really should have known better – such as Arthur Conan-Doyle – and efficiently sucked up as much cold, hard cash as possible before Blavatsky’s death in 1891. Unbelievably, her movement still has some adherents, though they call themselves by various names now and usually pretend their New Agey nonsense has nothing to do with Blavatsky’s operation.
7. Gnosticism Is What Happens When You Drop a Bible in the Blender
Starting around the second century BC, a Greek religious movement begun in the eastern Mediterranean that we now know as Gnosticism. The name is derived from the Greek root word for knowledge, and boy did they try to live up to that. The Gnostics swept through the sacred texts of nearly every religion they had access to and compiled one of the most eclectic philosophies humankind has ever preached in a church.
There were almost as many strains of Gnosticism as there were practitioners, but some of the more prominent beliefs were that the God of Abraham was a stupid trickster god, who woke up alone in a universe that had been created by another, much more sensible deity, and jumped to the conclusion that he was the creator of it all. This god makes lots of mistakes, partly through incompetence and partly through malice, but the hidden god behind Him sometimes peeks through to help humans deal with the strain. Furthermore, Jesus was not the son of this god, but an avatar of an Egyptian creator deity called Seth, and he didn’t come from heaven, but from a different, altogether more upscale place called Barbelo.
When the Bible finally got written, Gnostics just shook their heads and chuckled indulgently at the literal-minded Christians who read the Epistles as if they were actual history. In the Gnostic view, every time the Bible talked about Jews, it meant psychics, who were held to be a little closer to Barbelo than the Gentiles, or “pneumatics,” who were just ordinary meatbag humans. Shockingly, it took centuries before the Church of Rome got around to killing these people, though rumours persisted for a thousand years that Gnostics were carrying on underground. The stories might even be true – go back and watch The Matrix for a modern take on some of the more popular Gnostic ideas about reality.
8. The Aztec Religion Was a Rob Zombie Film
From the outside, mainline Christianity can look pretty weird. Here’s a wafer, which is the body of God, and you eat it with wine, which is His blood. Also, you have to apologize for all the time (If you’re Catholic) and then eat casserole (if you’re Protestant). That probably feels pretty normal to people who grew up with it. Which makes one wonder how natural and sensible temple rites felt for pre-contact Aztecs, who could hardly carry out a festival without hosing the blood off the streets for days afterwards.
Everybody knows how the Aztec priests would cut the living hearts out of his or her captives to nourish the all-powerful Sun and keep it rising every day, for which we probably owe them a substantial thank you. However, Aztec gore went way beyond daily run-of-the-mill human sacrifice. In one ceremony alone, the reconsecration of a temple in 1487, the Aztecs killed between 4,000 and 80,000 captives in four days. If the higher figure is accurate, that would mean the four altars worked through 14 victims a minute.
The Aztecs had half a dozen different gods whom all needed their own highly ironic forms of sacrifice. Huitzilopochtli, for instance, was a principal god who got all the best sacrifices young warriors could capture in battle. Tezcatlipoca was his counterpart, and his victims were killed in mock gladiatorial combat, where they were given toy weapons and tied to a post before being attacked by four soldiers. Huehueteotl was a fire god, so naturally, the Aztecs burned his victims for a little bit before they got the knife-in-the-chest treatment. Tlaloc was the god of rain, so they tortured the children intended for his sacrifice all the way up to the temple steps; their tears were falling to the ground were supposed to ensure good rainfall, etc. Some estimates put the scale of these sacrifices as high as one-in-four inhabitants of the region during the Aztecs’ heyday.
9. The Thuggees Lived Up to Their Name
Speaking of human sacrifice, the Indian cult of the Thuggees was genuine, and very dangerous for about 450 years, from the 14th century to the end of the 19th. If you want a capsule version of their religion, go and watch Temple of Doom until they drop the guy into the lava, then rewind and watch that scene over and over again… for around 450 years.
The Thugs were devoted to the Hindu goddess Kali, and they claimed to be her spiritual descendants, despite being technically Muslim. This unorthodox religious position seems to have been a cover for their business model: sneaking into caravans of unwary travellers to rob and kill them all in huge numbers. Again, the official reason they did this was so that Kali would be satisfied with the few deaths they inflicted and stay her wrath against the rest of humanity (again, thanks), but unofficially, the 4,000 or so travellers they robbed each year were never found with their valuables on the corpses, so maybe money had something to do with the motive.
10. The Circumcellions Drove a Saint to Call for Genocide
Speaking of roving gangs of religious loons attacking people, the fourth-century Christian schismatic group known as Circumcellions takes the cake for sheer Benny Hill oddness. The Circumcellions’ name means “around the village,” which is where they usually hung out while waiting to ambush North African travellers in the mid-300s. Unlike regular bandits, the Circumcellions weren’t looking for soft, weak targets to rob; they were looking for tough, heavily armed people who could probably fight back.
In the Circumcellions’ view, there was no higher virtue than martyrdom, and if, after the Roman Empire converted to Christianity, nobody wanted to martyr them anymore, then they would have to take matters into their own hands and provoke people into killing them. That they did by hiding in the bushes and jumping travellers who passed by, hitting them with sticks that they unaccountably called “Israelites.” When the traveller pulled his sword or spear to defend himself, the Circumcellion attackers threw down their Israelites and waited to be killed.
Eventually, they pissed off enough of North Africa’s rich and powerful people that even the future Saint Augustine was moved to write the City of God, in which he posits the concept of a just war. It was specifically to provide ideological and religious cover to the Christians whose consciences may have been troubled at completely exterminating the Circumcellions, which they did a few years after the book was published.