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Swedish Student Initiation Rituals Are No Big Deal

Making friends through collective public humiliation.
March 13, 2012, 1:55pm

Illustrations by Paddy Jones

Initiation rituals are a cruel, but efficient way of creating that snug sense of group loyalty and belonging. In Sweden they've been popular since the Middle Ages.

Back then, new Swedish students had to dress up in colorful clothes adorned with horns, donkey ears, and boar tusks. They were then pushed around in front of a mocking crowd who used axes, saws, and tongs to hack apart their bestial costumes, though this sometimes led to students losing ears and whatnot. When the master of ceremonies finally ended their torment by putting salt on their tongues and pouring wine on their heads, the then “free” freshers had to spend the following year as an older student’s slave.

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Compared to that, contemporary student initiations are pretty tame. I mean, I'd happily let you blindfold me as I guzzled booze, worms, chillies, and cat food, before I let you attack me with an axe.

Today, most students who undergo these rites of passage are those attempting to join sports clubs or fraternities. In Sweden, however, student initiation rituals, called "nollning" (Swedish for “zero-ing”), are an official and perfectly permissible tradition at many universities. Unofficial versions occur at even more high schools.

Some people explain their popularity as a reaction against the introverted, shy nature of Swedes. Apparently these rites of passage are an important part of making new students feel welcome and, strangely enough, at ease. After all, what's a better way of making new friends than being publicly humiliated together, doing silly games, stripping, and getting so shitfaced you end up sliding around in your own puke? Here’s a quick roundup of well-tried Swedish student bonding rituals:

The Clothes Line
The new students are divided into two teams and are then told to get undressed and to make a line with their clothes. This usually takes place in a public park or square and the team who manages to make the longest clothes line wins.

Swedish wildness rating: 8
Rest of the planet wildness rating: 2
Middle Ages wildness rating: -10

The Balloon Game
The student teams are divided into couples (usually boy and girl) then the guy goes down on his knees and starts humping the girl, with a balloon between them. The team whose balloon breaks first wins.

Swedish wildness rating: 4
Rest of the planet wildness rating: 0
Middle Ages wildness rating: -16 (though I guess a balloon would have been quite surprising.)

The Shitty Tug-of-War
Just as the name implies, this is a tug of war taking place on a lawn covered in cow shit, making it a shitty loss for the defeated team.

Swedish wildness rating: 8
Rest of the planet wildness rating: 6
Middle Ages wildness rating: 3 (lots of cow shit back then, but that doesn't mean they liked it.)

The Pegs Challenge
The older students cover the freshers in pegs, and again, the team that can last the longest without screaming from pain or throwing the pegs off wins.

Swedish wildness rating: 1
Rest of the planet wildness rating: -1
Middle Ages wildness rating: -7

The Cucumber
Again, the two new student teams are divided into couples and one person has to eat a cucumber from the other person's underwear. The team that eats their cucumbers the quickest wins. Sometimes, a Mars bar can be used instead.

Swedish wildness rating: 10
Rest of the planet wildness rating: 4
Middle Ages wildness rating: 8 (if they're different sexes.)

The Rotten Fish Race
In Sweden, rotten fish (or “surströmming”, as it's called, which is Swedish for sour fish) is an unappetizing regional delicacy shunned by most people. The mere smell of it can make people puke. During the rotten fish race the two teams have to form a line each and pass the fish from mouth to mouth and then back. The team that manages to get the fish back first wins. If they drop it, they need to start over again with a new, rank lil’ fishy.

Swedish wildness rating: 7
Rest of the planet wildness rating: 9
Middle Ages wildness rating: -100 (all foods were gross back then)

Fountain Singing
When the students are half naked (and usually quite tipsy), they have to stand one by one and sing in a public fountain.

Swedish wildness rating: 4
Rest of the planet wildness rating: 2
Middle Ages wildness rating: 1

The Gross Slide
The grand finale is the gross slide. The older students throw eggs, rotten milk, ketchup, oil, rank fish broth, and whatnot on the half naked drunk students, who are then told to slide around on a tarpaulin. Sometimes this ritual starts with a beer bong and the students’ puke is used as sliding lubricate for the tarpaulin. The latter, however, is more common during the high school initiation rituals, as the universities usually take a stand against excessive booze consumption and puke.

Swedish wildness rating: 10
Rest of the planet wildness rating: 7
Middle Ages wildness rating: -100000