Bungee Jumping’s Tribal Roots

Landdiving2

A boy jumps during the annual land-diving ritual on Pentecost Island in the South Pacific,
courtesy of wikimedia.org

 

Bungee jumping has become popular around the globe, but it’s likely that few realize the origins of the activity can be traced back to a tale in which a woman hurls herself off a cliff to escape her abusive husband.

According to tribal legend on Pentecost Island in the South Pacific nation of Vanuatu, a woman climbed a banyan tree to escape the husband, who chased after her. She then jumped from the tree and he followed suit to catch her. The husband crashed into the ground and died, but the woman survived because she had cleverly tied liana vines around her ankles so that she wouldn’t plunge all the way to the ground.

The tale inspired Nagol (or N’gol), a land-diving ritual that has been practiced for centuries on Pentecost Island. The ritual is performed to help ensure a bountiful yam harvest, enhance the health and strength of divers, and serve as a rite of passage to manhood (only males are allowed to jump). People from throughout the world flock to see Nagol, which takes place annually every weekend in April, May and June. Arrangements for a tour can be made through the Vanuatu Tourism Bureau.

Each year, a specific pattern of activities precede Nagol, beginning with village elders overseeing the construction of a 98-foot-high tower made of jungle wood to be used for the jump. Vines are selected by a village elder and are matched with each jumper’s weight. Before each dive day, participants spend the night under the tower to ward off evil spirits and are greeted the following morning with a feast, dancing and singing. During Nagol, men wear only penis sheaths to emphasize their virility and strength and women wear only grass skirts.

Before each man dives, he voices grievances (sometimes quite boisterously) and makes amends, in case he dies. A dive is considered successful when the man’s shoulders slightly brush the ground, which had been tilled the previous night to make it soft. Tribal members rush over to check the condition of each diver. Typically, divers suffer only minor injuries, caused by a jarring pull on their ankles when the vines become taught at the end of the dive. The last recorded death occurred in 1974 while Queen Elizabeth II was watching. According to legend, the diver died because he carried a good-luck charm for protection; ever since, carrying such a charm is considered to bring bad luck to the divers.

In the 1970s, AJ Hackett of Queenstown, New Zealand, observed Nagol on Pentecost Island and upon returning home, he emulated the dive by jumping off a bridge into deep water while connected to a long plastic cord. This marked the beginning of bungee jumping, which now has become such a popular activity that it’s been tried by everyone from Beyonce to Jim Carrey, and is frequently marketed as a team-building activity.

—Dan Johnson

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