Bizarre Historical Pastimes That Sound Like Anything But Fun Today

Throughout history, humans have always wanted to have fun. It didn’t matter if you were the lowliest peasant or the richest land gentry, you wanted to have a good time as much as the next guy. But it wasn’t always a simple case of shooting some hoops or staying in for some Netflix and chill. Times have changed, and hobbies and pastimes have changed, too. Some of the activities that our ancestors enjoyed in their downtime now seem pretty peculiar or even downright horrifying. Prepare to step back in time and have your mind blown by these bizarre pastimes which sound anything but fun.

1. Headless photography

Have you ever wanted to hang a portrait of a loved one over your fireplace? Sure, but have you ever thought it would look great if the loved one was holding their own head in the photo? If you answered “yes,” you may need professional help, or you may just be a Victorian with an interest in the macabre! This technique of, for want of a better expression, death art was created by Oscar Gustave Rejlander and was a big deal in the 19th century. It’s the unnerving void on top of this boy’s neck that really gets us...

2. Octopus-wrestling

The World Octopus-Wrestling Championships took place in Washington’s Puget Sound in 1963. It featured 20 unsuspecting octopi, which were pulled from their caverns in the sea by divers and brought to the surface. The diver with the biggest captured octopus was the winner. Afterward, some were eaten by contestants, while the rest were returned to the water or an aquarium. Now, it goes without saying that it’s abominable to rip the poor cephalopods from their homes for no reason, but the fact 5,000 people showed up to watch proceedings is what really sends a chill up our spine. 

3. Venatio

When Russell Crowe’s Maximus Decimus Meridius bellows, “Are you not entertained?!” in Ridley Scott’s seminal blockbuster Gladiator, he’s actually taking part in the ancient Roman game venatio. This truly despicable spectacle pitted gladiators against wild animals in a duel to the death inside the Colosseum. The animals — tigers, bears, leopards, and lions — would be starved before battle, making them ravenous for food, and female slaves would sometimes be fed to the animals. It may have made for a pulse-pounding movie, but Venatio is rightfully seen as an abomination today.

4. Naumachia

Upon researching this particular bizarre historical pastime, we struggled to believe it was real. After all, in what universe would human beings re-enact naval battles in full-size warships and actually try to sink their opponents? This would surely lead to thousands of deaths, even though these people weren’t fighting a real battle, right? Well, yes. It did. Who would be insane enough to sanction such a sport? Why, the Romans, of course! It was called naumachia and usually took place in purpose-built arenas. Once they even filled the Colosseum with water in order to do it. It boggles the mind!