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Rites of Passage

Rites of Passage

Writing in French in 1909, the European comparative sociologist Arnold van Gennep (1873–1957) delineated in Les rites de passage (published in English in 1960) a structure for transformative ritual practices he considered universal and common to all cultures. Although they vary greatly in intensity, specific form, and social meaning, rites of passage are ceremonial devices used by societies to mark the passage or transition of an individual or a group from one social status or situation to another. Rites of passage resolve life-crises; they provide a mechanism to deal with the tension experienced by both individuals and social groups during ambiguous occasions including, but not limited to, birth, puberty, marriage, and death.

By facilitating these life course transitions, rites of passage hold considerable emotional importance for both the individual and society. To take on a new social identity, the former must negotiate an often-arduous status passage. Furthermore, society must assist individual members in accomplishing these rites and, when these occasions are complete, recognize the new standing of the initiate.

By adopting a comparative approach to develop his taxonomy of social rites, van Gennep noted that these social customs are used to mark specific moments of the life course. Many societies use these ceremonies to articulate events that hold significance not only for individuals and families but the larger society as well. Associated with each life stage is a specific social status and a definitive set of obligations and responsibilities that the incumbent is expected to fulfill. As the individual advances the normative, sequential stages of the life course—generally from infant, adolescent, spouse, parent, elder, to deceased—taking on a new social role at each phase. Rites of passage function to accomplish status transitions; they provide a mechanism for individuals and their societies to recognize those who negotiate the rites as intrinsically different beings.

Although rites of passage are used to accomplish a wide variety of different social transitions, van Gennep found that they typically involve a tripartite structure involving three sequential stages. During rites of separation (séparation), initiates are removed physically from the social group. Mortuary or funeral rituals, for example, are used to achieve the distinction between the world of the living and the realm of deceased ancestors.

Transition (marge) or liminality rites accentuate the often-profound changes an initiate undergoes. The debutant undertaking transition typically experiences a condition of liminality, a marginal status that is socially betwixt and between the former status and an uncertain future. Transitional rites are ambiguous periods. The initiate may receive special instruction and knowledge essential for those reincorporated within the society. Often during the liminal stage, the human body is itself the object of ritual process. A young person, for example, may be required to undergo painful surgical procedures such as body piercing, scarification, or circumcision. The healed wounds permanently signify the status change.

The third stage is that of incorporation (agrégation) or reaggregation. This phase involves the reintegration of the transformed individual into the social group, albeit in a new capacity. Van Gennep underscored that this tripartite pattern of human transitions mimics the pattern of nature and the cosmos, a continuous sequence of birth, being, and rebirth. As the earth regenerates through the passing seasons, the new growth of spring following the dead of winter, so too do families and societies.

Rites of Passage Cross-Culturally

Birthing and pregnancy rites. Pregnancy and childbirth are often associated with rites of separation; pregnant women may be viewed as dangerous, or capable of polluting men and sacred objects and places (Douglas 1966). Commenting on birthing rites, van Gennep cites at length W. H. R. Rivers's 1906 ethnography of the Tonga of India. Among these people a series of pregnancy rites are performed, first to separate the pregnant woman from her village. After an extended liminal period, a ceremony is held in which the woman drinks sacred milk to purify her, her husband, and their child. Subsequently, the family is reintegrated into their social group. No longer a polluting women, she is re-established in her village as a mother.

Peter Loizos and Patrick Heady (1999) recently co-edited a compilation of essays on the relation of symbolic practice and pregnancy and childbirth among mainly contemporary European peasant societies and from communities in Africa, Asia-Pacific, and Latin America. Consistent with the findings of van Gennep, members of these diverse societies used different means to mark the status transition of pregnancy and the birth of a new human being. The physical birth of the infant may in fact not be the moment at which a status change takes place. Conducting ethnographic research among Indians and non-Indians in the Bolivian Andes, Andrew Canessa (1999) observed that the designation of personhood was not achieved at birth but rather emerged through other ritual practices throughout the life course.

Among a Flemish population of mixed religious background in Flanders, Belgium, Anne van Meerbeeck (1995) found that the rite of baptism was considered a highly desirable ceremony through which to integrate newborn babies into the community. Regardless of their affiliation with the Catholic Church, parents sought its assistance in marking an important stage in the life course of their infant.

Initiation rites. Puberty rites for van Gennep demark social rather than biological events. These initiation rites signify a departure from the asexual world of the child and are followed sequentially by rites of incorporation into the sexual world of the adult. Depending on the society, these ceremonies may take place either prior to attainment of sexual maturity or, alternatively, long after physiological puberty has occurred. These rites are extremely important in that they signify that the initiate is capable of upholding the office of an adult member of the social group. He or she is prepared to take a spouse, meet the occupational demands as a full member of the community, and to parent children.

Anthropologist Audrey Richards (1982) details through rich ethnographic description the chisungu, the month-long initiation rite for young Bemba females of Zambia. In matrilineal societies such as the Bemba, young men leave their families and join their wives' lineages. For Richards, Bemba social structure is reproduced through the chisungu. The female initiation ceremonies place initiates (and their future husbands) within the power structure of the matriarchy.

The circumcision ritual is the key component of the male initiation ritual for the Merina of Madagascar. According to Maurice Bloch (1986), the circumcision ritual represents, on the one hand, a blessing that is bestowed on the young initiate through a connection with his ancestors. Juxtaposed to this act of love and kindness, however, circumcision is also for the young male an extreme act of violence. As Madagascar has undergone considerable change, Bloch analyzes how the circumcision rite prevails through changing sociopolitical contexts. Despite shifting circumstances, Bloch finds an inherent stability to these rituals.

A contemporary classic ethnography is Gilbert Herdt's (1994) description of male initiation practices among the Sambia of the Papua New Guinea Highlands. The first European to observe these rites, Herdt found that Sambian males must undergo a long, arduous, ritual process through which to transcend feminized boyhood to ultimately achieve masculinity. "This is ritual custom: it is what men must do to be men, even if they must be dragged into manhood screaming all the way" (Herdt 1994, p. 253).

Betrothal and marriage rites. The anthropological record reveals tremendous variation in marriage patterns. Robin Fox condenses what he calls the "facts of life" for kinship and marriage to four axioms (Fox 1983, p. 31):

  • Principle 1: The women have the children;
  • Principle 2: The men impregnate the women;
  • Principle 3: The men usually exercise control;
  • Principle 4: Primary kin do not mate with each other.

Although Fox's approach is extremely reductionist, his point would seem to be well taken that there are few universals relative to kinship and marriage with the exceptions of gestation, impregnation, a tendency toward male dominance, and incest avoidance. (For an alternative perspective, see Levi-Strauss 1949.)

Similarly, Lucy Mair (1977) documents a multiplicity of marriage practices while providing limited evidence for universal patterns. Mair does, however, include an illuminating discussion of the rites of marriage and divorce.

Mortuary rites. When a person dies, both the deceased and the survivors typically undergo a rite of passage. The dead are separated from the world of the living and incorporated into the domain of the ancestors. This is a significant status passage. Although the deceased may walk with the living as spiritual beings (or not infrequently efforts are made to ensure that they do not), they are, nevertheless, of the afterworld. Likewise, for the living there is the task of separating oneself from the relationship with deceased. One frequently mourns the passing of the relative or loved one. Property must be redistributed. Rein-corporation for the survivors into the community often brings with it a new status, one of widow, widower, or orphan.

Annette Weiner (1976) depicts a lengthy, elaborate funeral ritual celebrated by the villagers of Kwaibwaga in the Trobiand Islands of Papua New Guinea. The funeral ritual exerts considerable effort to restore social harmony, the extent of which varies according to the social status of the deceased. Ceremonial clothes are donned. The spouse straps on a mourning neckband, a ritual object he or she will wear for approximately two years. As the dead body is wrapped, men and women sob and moan. The Kwaibwaga engage in a lengthy, highly structured mortuary ritual in which kinfolk and other villagers exchange gifts. For Weiner, the mortuary ritual provides a dramatic process through which social relationships are articulated and social harmony restored.

In some societies, the period of transition may be very brief. In her moving but deeply disturbing study of mothers in Brazil, Nancy Scheper-Hughes (1992) details the everyday struggles of women experiencing high rates, up to 25 percent, of infant mortality. Rather than to express sorrow, the mother is expected to articulate her joy. Her dead infant—an angel-baby—will have a happy future. As one grandmother put it, "[m]an makes; God takes" (Scheper-Hughes 1992, p. 418). Yet in Bom Jesus da Mata, Scheper-Hughes found little celebration through funeral rituals for angel-babies. Ritual practice did not resolve the rupture in the social fabric caused by the recurring deaths of infants.

Cultural Performance, Social Drama, and Rites of Passage

The analytical framework for rites of passage—the parsing of the process into the stages of separation, liminality, and reaggregation—has also found its way into the analysis of cultural performance. Milton Singer proposed the theory of cultural performance, and it was adopted by anthropologists and folklorists to refer to a unit of analysis to circumscribe "[p]lays, concerts, and lectures . . . but also prayers, ritual readings and recitations, rites and ceremonies, festivals, and all those things we usually classify under religion and ritual rather than with the cultural and artistic" (Singer 1972, p. 71). This concept of cultural performance is essentially similar to what Turner calls "social drama," but it is Turner who adapted the rite of passage stages to the analysis of cultural performance. Both Turner (1990) and Singer (1972) wrote about social dramas and performances and the extension of these in technologically complex societies. These dramas share with ritual the properties of liminal events and social metacommentary. Modern social drama, says Turner, contains the components of separation, liminality, and incorporation that define a rite of passage.

Ritual, Performance, and Rites of Passage

Ritual behavior as classically applied to humans has four characteristics. First, ritual is a stylized or stereotyped, repetitive, pattern of behavior. Second, it is associated with religious beliefs and practices and in some sense deemed to be sacred. Third, it contains a temporal element in that rituals are held at set times and have a liturgical order. Last, ritual has a spatial element because it often takes place in a specified location with actors also being spatially coordinated. Sometimes, however, the second and third characteristics are rather loosely interpreted so that secular events like graduations, installation of officers, the visit of foreign dignitaries, and pilgrimages to Disneyland can be described in ritual terms (Kertzer 1988). In this expanded interpretation, what is deemed to be sacred spreads beyond religion to what is valued in secular life. Turner wrote about theater performance much in the same way as he interpreted Ndembu religious practices (Turner 1977), as a social and ritual drama, symbolically rich in expressing cultural meanings and indications for how a society structures the lives of its people. Rituals are for Turner always associated with rites of passage that mark a transition from one status state to another.

The extension of ritual performance to modern life has its most extensive expression in performance theory, especially the writings of Turner himself and those of Richard Schechner. The collection of works found in By Means of Performance: Intercultural Studies of Theatre and Ritual, (edited by Richard Schechner and Willa Appel) is the best source for the extension of the analysis of ritual into contemporary practice. Schechner organizes the range of performance events subject to this type of analysis into an event-time-space chart that includes, among many others, sporting events, executions, and hostage crises. This model for cultural analysis has also found its way into folklore studies as found, for example, in the analysis by Liz Locke (1999) of the Rocky Horror Picture Show as a social drama and as containing the three central elements of rites of passage.

Turner's model for cultural performance in complex societies suggests that the performance event can be parsed into ritual stages that mimic what occurs during a rite of passage. These are the stage of separation, a liminal stage, and a stage of reaggregation. The value of this partition is that it is a way of organizing symbolic data and because symbols evoke emotion, the analysis heightens the awareness of the undercurrents that drive the passions of the performance. As Turner phrases it, there is an effort in such symbolic expression to unite the organic with the sociomoral order. Examples are in courts of law (Garfinkel 1956), but also in the vast infrastructure of quasi-judicial bodies that regulate everything from global trade to health and the environment (Adam 1999).

Although the elements of separation and reintegration in the ritual process of social dramas are similar to those of nontechnological societies, Turner does find a degree of difference for the liminal stage. The overriding characteristic of being in the liminal state is the status of ambiguity, of being betwixt and between. In what Turner refers to as technologically simpler societies, the liminal state is associated with transformative creatures, with monsters and chimera. Masks are a usual ritual element, as are drugs and states of trance. There is an exchange of communication, conversations between those in the liminal state and the mixed-up creatures and figures inhabiting the netherworld. This has overtones in theater but can be extended also to sporting events (Bromberger 1995).

Turner does make the distinction between obligatory rites of passage as are found in less technological societies and those of a secular industrialized world where participation is voluntary. He refers to this voluntary aspect as liminoid, and it is in this venue in which the various genres of cultural performance, like theatre, festivals, parades, public executions, sporting events, and so on, are occasioned.

The Persistence of Rites of Passage

Martha and Morton Fried (1980) surveyed rites of passage associated with the transitions of birth, puberty, marriage, and death in eight societies of different levels of technological advancement. Although these cultures have significant differences, the Frieds have found that the persistence of these ceremonies is not a function of the political system or economy. Social controls were implemented in China, Cuba, and the former members of the Soviet Union to define rites of passage in terms of the communist state. As the Frieds note, these attempts failed. There appears to be a persistence to rites of passage, particularly those associated with life-crises that other mechanisms of the social system cannot efficiently or effectively transport social members through.

Although globalization has compressed both time and space on a world scale (Soja 1989), despite these homogenizing influences cultural distinctiveness at the local level continues to assert itself. For example, African American youth, generally males, are developing meaningful rites of passage to experience and exert a positive sense of self-identity (Brookins 1996; McKenry et al. 1997).

Yet there are other ways rites of passage are being used. Emma Ogilvie and Allan Van Zyle (2001) recently considered incarceration of Aboriginal youth in the remote Northern Territory of Australia as a rite of passage for these young men. In discussing the experience of criminal offending and imprisonment among informants, aged eighteen to twenty-five, from twelve isolated communities, Ogilvie and Van Zyl found that imprisonment "provided access [to] resources unavailable within the original communities . . . The interviews point to detention as an opportunity for a different experience from that available in the remote communities . . . detention provides something new" (2001, p. 4). This is indeed a disturbing reminder that ritual practice is neither always positive nor celebratory.

See also:Childhood, Stages of: Adolescence; Life Course Theory; Marriage Ceremonies; Menarche; Socialization


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Other Resources

locke, l. (1999). "'don't dream it, be it': the rocky horror picture show as cultural performance." new directions in folkore 3 [e-journal]. available from archive.html.

ogilvie, e., and van zyle, a. (2001). young indigenousmales, custody and the rites of passage. canberra: australian institute of criminology. available from

bruce freeman

usher fleising

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Rites of Passage

Rites of Passage




A rite of passage is a series of rituals that conveys an individual from one social state or status to anotherfor example, from adolescence to adulthood, from single to married, from student to graduate, from apprentice to a full member of a profession, from life to deaththereby transforming both societys definition of the individual and the individuals self-perception. Such rituals of social transition mark culturally recognized stages of life and assist the individual and social group in adjusting to an individuals new status and its implications for behavior and social relations. Transition ritualsrites of passage reduce the ambiguity associated with change, protecting individual psyches during the vulnerable period by reducing uncertainty and stress. Transition rituals are often directed toward the relationships between social conditions and physiological conditions (e.g., birth, puberty, marriage, pregnancy, death), demarcating certain points of the life cycle as especially significant. Ritual association of symbols and physiological processes provides a means of shaping and controlling human emotions and biological drives and then explaining them within wider cosmological frameworks.

Key social scientists who have studied rites of passage include Arnold van Gennep (18731957), who was the first to name and analyze them in 1908 in Rites de Passage ; Bronislaw Malinowski (18841942), one of the first anthropologists to conduct on-site ethnography, who studied the functions of ritual on the Trobriand Islands off the coast of Australia; Victor Turner (19201983), who analyzed the roles of ritual and symbol among the Ndembu of Africa (1967, 1969); Mary Douglas (19212007), whose work on symbols provided a profound understanding of their uses and effectiveness in ritual (1966, 1973); Clifford Geertz (19262006), whose The Interpretation of Cultures (1973) offers deep analysis of rituals roles in cultural preservation and revitalization; the biogenetic structuralists Charles Laughlin, John McManus, and Eugene dAquili (1979), who offer a neurologically based understanding of the effects of ritual and rites of passage; and Ronald Grimes, who explores firstperson experiences of birth, initiation, marriage, and death (2000).


Robbie Davis-Floyd defines ritual as a patterned, repetitive, and symbolic enactment of a cultural belief or value (2004, p. 8). Rituals usually work to enhance social cohesion, as their primary purpose in most cases is to align the belief system of the individual with that of the group. Rituals role in rites of passage is fourfold:

  1. to give humans a sense of control over natural processes that may be beyond their control, by making it appear that natural transformations (e.g., birth, puberty, death) are actually effected by society and serve societys ends (Malinowski 1954);
  2. to fence in the dangers perceived cross-culturally to be present in transitional periods (when individuals are in-between social categories and therefore call the conceptual reality of those categories into question), while at the same time allowing controlled access to their energizing and revitalizing power (Douglas 1966);
  3. to convey, through the emotions and the body, a series of repetitious and unforgettable messages to the initiate concerning the core values of the society into which he or she is being initiated through the carefully structured manipulation of appropriately representative symbols, and thereby to integrate those values, as well as the basic premises of the belief system on which they are based, into the inmost being of the initiate (Turner 1967, 1969; dAquili, Laughlin, and McManus 1979); and
  4. to renew and revitalize these values for those conducting, as well as for those participating in or merely watching, the rituals through which these transformations are effected, so that both the perpetuation and the vitality of the belief and value system of the society in question can be assured (Turner 1967, 1969; Geertz 1973).

Rites of passage generally consist of three principal stages, outlined by van Gennep as: (1) separation of the individuals involved from their preceding social state; (2) a period of transition in which they are neither one thing nor the other; (3) a reintegration phase in which through various rites of incorporation they are absorbed into their new social state (van Gennep [1908] 1966). Van Gennep states that these three stages may be of varying degrees of importance, with rites of separation generally emphasized at funerals, and rites of incorporation at weddings. Yet, the most salient feature of all rites of passage is their transitional nature, the fact that they always involve what Victor Turner (1967, 1979) has called liminality, the stage of being betwixt and between, neither here nor thereno longer part of the old and not yet part of the new. In the liminal phase of initiatory rites of passage, the ritual subject passes through a realm that has few or none of the attributes of the past or coming state (Turner 1979, p. 237). Of this liminal phase, Turner writes:

The passivity of neophytes to their instructors, their malleability, which is increased by submission to ordeal, their reduction to a uniform condition, are signs of the process whereby they are ground down to be fashioned anew and endowed with additional powers to cope with their new station in life.... It is the ritual and the esoteric teaching which grows girls and makes men.... The arcane knowledge, or gnosis obtained in the liminal period is felt to change the inmost nature of the neophyte, impressing him, as a seal impresses wax, with the characteristics of his new state. It is not a mere acquisition of knowledge, but a change in being. (1979, pp. 238239)

One of the chief characteristics of this liminal period of any rite of passage is the gradual psychological opening of the initiates to profound interior change. In many initiation rites involving major transitions into new social roles, this openness is achieved through rituals designed to break down the initiates belief systemthe internal mental structure of concepts and categories through which they perceive and interpret the world and their relationship to it. Ritual techniques that facilitate this process include hazingthe imposition of physical and mental hardships (familiar to participants in fraternity initiation rites), and strange-makingmaking the commonplace strange by juxtaposing it with the unfamiliar. In The Reversible World (1978) Barbara Babcock describes a third such device, symbolic inversion, which works by metaphorically turning specific elements of this belief system upside-down or inside-out, so that the high is brought low, the low is raised high, and the world in general is thrown into confusion. The end result of this inversion, however, is usually that core cultural elementsvalues, practices, hierarchiesare in the end firmly returned to their positions of centrality, reverence, and weight. Yet, rites of passage can be used to completely overturn these core cultural elements, creating new societies and new religions.

For example, in studying the Moonies (followers of the Korean evangelist Reverend Sun Myung Moon), the sociologist Marc Galanter (1989) found that many of those who attended one of the five-day workshops ostensibly offered to explain the religion to interested newcomers ended up convertingeven if their original reason for going was to learn enough about the religion to talk a loved one into getting out. How could this happen? Participants sat through many hours of lecture, during which they were bombarded with an overload of confusing information, resulting in a narrowing of their cognitive abilities. Interspersed between lectures were periods of playful funvolleyball, dancingduring which the newcomers were made to feel wholly important, wholly wanted, wholly loved. Allusions were made to Moon in connection with the Second Coming of Christ, and it was suggested that if newcomers were truly blessed, they might see visions of Moon himself during their regularly scheduled meditation periods. Not surprisingly, many did. Neuropsychologist John McManus explains:

As this process is continued over time, the cognitive reality model begins to disintegrate. Learned versions of reality and previously instrumental responses repeatedly fail the initiate. Confusion and disorganization ensue.... at this point the individual should be searching for a way to structure or make sense out of reality, and in terms of the initiation, his search constitutes the launching point for the transformation of identity. (1979, p. 239)

The breakdown of their belief systems leaves initiates profoundly open to new learning and to the construction of new categories. Any symbolic messages conveyed to an initiate during this opening process can thus be imprinted on his or her psyche as deeply as a seal impresses wax (Turner 1979, p. 239).


Military initiation rites constitute a classic example of hazing, strange-making, and symbolic inversion. In the rite of passage of Marine basic training, the initiates normal patterns of action and thought are turned topsyturvy. He is made strange to himself: His head is shaved, so that he does not even recognize himself in the mirror. He must give up his clothes, those expressions of individual identity and personality, and put on a uniform indistinguishable from that of other initiates. Constant and apparently meaningless hazing (e.g., orders to dig ditches and then fill them up) break down his cognitive structure. Then through repetitive and highly symbolic rituals (such as sleeping with his rifle), his physical habits and patterns of thought are literally reorganized into alignment with the basic values, beliefs, and practices of the Marines.

Cross-culturally, the most prominent types of rites of passage are those dealing with life crises. They accompany what Lloyd Warner has called

the movement of a man [sic] through his lifetime, from a fixed placental placement within his mothers womb to his death and ultimate fixed point of his tombstone punctuated by a number of critical moments of transition which all societies ritualize and publicly mark with suitable observances to impress the significance of the individual and the group on living members of the community. These are the important times of birth, puberty, marriage and death. (1959, p. 303)

The sequence of these life-crisis events that Warner uses refers to the babys birth and not to the womans giving birth, nor to her transition into motherhood. Thus, this sequence reveals a strong male bias that for many years influenced a general neglect within anthropological research and theory regarding the significance of womens rites across cultures. Arranged from a nongender-biased perspective, the sequence would have to read: birth, puberty and coming of age, marriage, childbearing, menopause, death. (By now, female life transitions have been studied intensively by female anthropologists.) Additionally, for some cultures, we would have to add first haircuts, adolescent circumcision, debutante balls or quinceaneras, ritual scarring or tattooing, and other such to this list.

For example, in Birth as an American Rite of Passage (2004), Davis-Floyd analyzed obstetric procedures as rituals that convey the core values of the U.S. technocracya society organized around an ideology of technological progressto birthing women. These core values center around science, technology, and institutions. The IV is the symbolic umbilical cord to the hospital, communicating to the laboring woman the powerful message that she is now dependent on the institution for her life. Likewise, the electronic fetal monitor (to which nowadays nearly all laboring women in developed countries are attached by means of two giant belts around their stomachs) serves as a powerful symbol of the cultural supremacy of science and technologyit makes the laboring woman dependent on a machine to help her produce her baby. The ability of symbols to imprint their messages onto an individuals psyche is clearly expressed in the words of an interviewee, who said, As soon as I got hooked up to the monitor, all everyone did was stare at it. Pretty soon I got the feeling that it was having the baby, not me (Davis-Floyd 2004, p. 107). As this example shows, as an individual experiences the messages conveyed by a powerful symbol, her cognitive system can be partially or completely realigned around those messages. Whether the individual is giving birth, becoming an adult in the eyes of her society, undergoing a religious indoctrination, or being initiated into the army or a secret society, the ritual processes that constitute rites of passage are very much the same.

SEE ALSO Church, The; Conformity; Culture; Ethnography; Geertz, Clifford; Hitler, Adolf; Malinowski, Bronislaw; Maturation; Military; Performance; Religion; Rituals; Self-Perception Theory; Shamans; Stages of Development; Symbols; Technocracy; Turner, Victor; Values


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Galanter, Marc. 1989. Cults: Faith, Healing, and Coercion. New York: Oxford University Press.

Grimes, Ronald. 2000. Deeply into the Bone: Re-Inventing Rites of Passage. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Laughlin, Charles D., Eugene dAquili, and John McManus. 1993. Brain, Symbol, and Experience: Toward a Neurophenomenology of Human Consciousness. New York: Columbia University Press.

Malinowski, Bronislaw. [1925] 1954. Magic, Science, and Religion. In Magic, Science, and Religion and Other Essays, 1787. New York: Doubleday/Anchor.

McManus, John. 1979. Ritual and Human Social Cognition. In The Spectrum of Ritual: A Biogenetic Structural Analysis, eds. Eugene dAquili, Charles D. Laughlin, and John McManus, 216248. New York: Columbia University Press.

Turner, Victor W. 1967. The Forest of Symbols. Ithaca, NY and London: Cornell University Press.

Turner, Victor W. 1969. The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure. Chicago: Aldine.

Van Gennep, Arnold. [1908] 1966. The Rites of Passage. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Robbie Davis-Floyd

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Rites of Passage

Rites of Passage

Rites of passage are special rituals societies employ to assist their members at key times of biographical change. These life transitions follow a recognizable pattern of behavior in many cultures; for example, babies are given a name and social identity, youths enter adulthood or marry, others retire, gain particular qualifications such as degrees or enter particular professions, or pass from the world of the living to the world of the dead. Changes of status can be related to changes in identity because the term identity embraces social and psychological aspects of life. The term status tends to refer to sociological values without reference to the personal feelings and self-evaluation of individuals. In this entry, the term status emphasizes the social dimension and identity of the psychological aspects of an individual's life.

The idea of status passage rituals was first introduced by the anthropologist Arnold van Gennep, who saw regeneration as the law of life and described rites of passage as a threefold process with phases of separation, segregation, and integration. For there to be a new self the old self must ritually die. Candidates for some rite would be separated from the status to be left behind, leaving familiar companions, surroundings and home, perhaps encountering actual or symbolic aggression in being wrenched away or carried off. Second, they enter a "between" period devoid of distinguishing marks of status and expressions of their old identity, such as names or clothing. In the case of passage to adulthood, adolescents may together undergo a degree of discipline and share a mutual sense of hardship, bonding them together. Their curtailed freedom begins a reorientation toward their future status and life obligations. This may involve learning the traditions of their society or the skills of some particular profession or trade. Only after this period of learning and endurance is complete do they undergo the third phase of reincorporation into society. However, they do so with their new status and identity, perhaps involving a new name or title, forms of dress or style of language and, almost certainly, new patterns of behavior with appropriate duties and responsibilities.

Van Gennep likened society to a house with people moving over thresholds from room to room. The Latin word for threshold is limen, hence his three phases of rites of passage as preliminal, liminal, and postliminal. He also argued that, depending upon the final goal of a ritual, the preliminal, liminal, or postliminal phase would be stressed over and above the others. Rites of passage sometimes involve more than one type of status change. In a marriage, for example, it is not only the bride and groom that pass from being single or divorced to being married but their parents also become parents-in-law. Parents, siblings, and friends may all enter new relationships.

Van Gennep's scheme was constructed to describe patterns of life in those traditional societies often described as primitive or tribal societies. In such communities of relatively few people and high levels of face-to-face contact, many would acknowledge the change of status and identity of an individual during rites of initiation into manhood, womanhood, or motherhood. However, caution is required when the idea of rites of passage is applied to events in contemporary and large-scale societies where little such recognition exists.

Such understandings of ritual permit insight into the significance of funerary ritual, a rite of passage observed in a great majority of human societies. Numerous changes of identity are associated with funeral rites, affecting the statuses of the dead, surviving relatives, and members of the broader community.

Death separates the deceased from their statuses of living parent, spouse, or coworker. The period of preparing the dead for burial or cremation moves them into a transitional phase when they are neither what they have been nor yet what they will become. Such moments of transition often involve uncertainty and potential danger. The ritual impurity of the corpse derives from its inability to respond to others, yet is still "present" in their everyday routines. Accordingly, people pay their respects to the dead, marking their former identity with them, express sorrow for the bereaved and, by so doing, reaffirm their continuing relationship with them. Stories recounting the achievement or character of the dead and supernatural powers may be invoked to forgive any evil the deceased may have perpetrated and to guide them into the afterlife. Gifts and goods may be provided to assist the individual to depart from this world to the next.

Just as initiates in their liminal period may be taught mysteries of their culture so the dead may be given their own form of education in the form of guidance provided in sacred texts, chants and prayers assist their journey, as in texts like the Egyptian Book of the Dead and the Tibetan Book of the Dead. Very often there are special priests or ritual experts to attend to this task. Sometimes additional rites are performed to assist the departed, often referred to as soul or life forces, to settle in their new world. A major goal of death rites is to ensure that the individual who has died leaves the realm of the living for the realm of the afterlife. Liminal periods of change include uncertainty and are often regarded as potentially dangerous, with the case of death providing powerful examples as key social members depart and others have to take their place.

Just as living persons become ancestors or souls in heaven so the living undergo changes in relation to them. Robert Hertz argues that funeral rites involve a kind of parallel process in which the decay of the dead reflects the path of grief in the bereaved. Bereavement involves both the social change of status of peoplefrom, say, being a wife to being a widow, from being a child to being an orphan, or from being a subordinate adult to becoming the head of the family. It also involves psychological changes of identity associated with such shifts. Human beings become dependent upon each other and, in a sense, each identity is made up of elements of other people's influence. People become "part of" each other, and thus when one dies a portion of one's self perishes as well. Some theories of grief discuss this in terms of attachment and interpret bereavement as the loss that follows when attachments are removed.

The fear of ghosts or spirits, for example, can be related to both the dimensions of status and identity. In terms of status, ghosts and spirits can be seen as the dead who have not been successfully moved from their place in this world to that of the next. They are those who are caught in the between realm of an unintended liminal state, potentially dangerous liminal entities, or phenomena as they symbolize radical change that challenges the social life set up against such change. Sometimes further rites exist to try to get such spiritual forces finally to leave the world of the living and get on with their future destiny. At its most extreme, rites of exorcism serve to banish the dead or other supernatural entities and prevent them from influencing the living. In terms of identity, this time the identity of the living, ghosts and spirits and perhaps we should also include vivid dreams of the dead, all reflect the individual experience of a bereaved person who is still, psychologically speaking, caught up with the identity of the deceased person. Physical death has also been widely employed as an idiom to describe the leaving of an old status and the entry into a new one.

Two other anthropologists, Victor Turner and Maurice Bloch, have developed van Gennep's scheme. Turner explored liminality as a period in which human beings found great strength in the mutual support of others in the same situation. He coined the word communitas to describe this feeling of shared unity among those who, for example, were initiated together. The same might also apply to groups of people in the army or at college together, groups of people at carnivals or in pilgrimages, and those who are bereaved. Together they share the succor of their common humanity as they come together in adversity. For a moment they forget their different statuses and the symbols that divide them to enter into the shared emotional experiences associated with grief. To be with others at such a time is to acknowledge what it means to be human and to be mortal. In these types of situations, people sometimes speak of finding a strength they did not know they possessed, or they speak of the support they felt from others over a period of bereavement.

Maurice Bloch extensively modified van Gennep's scheme, criticizing its stress on the social status aspects of life and its ignoring of more psychological aspects. Bloch added the emphasis upon the psychological realm of experience as basic to human beings. This existentialist-like stress provides a welcomed realization that the anthropology of ritual is, ultimately, about people with feelings. Bloch stressed that while a threefold ritual scheme of preliminal, liminal, and postliminal phases may suffice to describe changes in social status, it does not do justice to the changes individuals experience. It is not that an individual is simply removed from social life, taught new things, and given a new status on re-entry to ordinary social life. Far from it, that individual changes not least because of the experiences of bereavement and grief.

Bloch makes a significant contribution to rites of passage in his theory of rebounding conquest, or rebounding violence. He describes the ordinary facts of life in terms of people being born, maturing, and then dying. Most human cultures, however, are unhappy with this simple progression. Through ritual forms they take living people and in a symbolic sense cause them to "die" and be "reborn" as new kinds of individuals, shedding old, used-up selves so new ones can take their place. Not only are they given a new status but they will also have experienced inner changes to their sense of identity. Many rituals of initiation in religions as well as in some secret societies use the natural idioms of birth and death but reverse them to speak of death and rebirth. It is as though the ordinariness of human nature is "killed" and a new and higher nature is bestowed. In some religious traditions this scheme of rebounding conquest can be applied to death rites when physical death is said to be the basis for a new and spiritual life either in future transmigration of the soul or in some form of resurrection.

See also: Gennep, Arnold van; Grief and Mourning in Cross-Cultural Perspective; Hertz, Robert


Bloch, Maurice. Prey into Hunter. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

Gennep, Arnold van. The Rites of Passage. 1909. Reprint, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1960.

Rappaport, Roy A. Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Turner, Victor. The Ritual Process. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1969.


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Rites of Passage

Rites of Passage

Rites of passage are found in all societies in all periods, but they differ not only from culture to culture but over time within a particular culture. They change as societies change and, while they are often perceived as traditional, they are by no means timeless. Rites of passage are at least as common in modern as in premodern societies. In the case of Western cultures, they have increased over time. Rites of passage are highly scripted dramatic performances initiated on the occasion of a change in the life of an individual that affects relationships within a group or between groups. These are as much directed to changing perceptions as changing behavior. The rite itself has a tripartite structure, which begins with the separation of the main actor from his or her former status. This is usually accomplished by a change of clothing, locale, or behavior. Then follows a liminal moment when the individual is thought to be in a transitional state. The rite is completed when the central actor is reintegrated into society in his or her new role or identity. The most obvious contemporary example of a rite of passage is the big white wedding in which the female is separated from unmarried women as a group by her dress and deportment, then is cloistered as "bride" for a period of time before being reintegrated into society as a married woman. The white wedding is a highly dramatic performance which alters the relationship not only of the bride to the groom, but of the couple to their peers, family, and community.

While rites of passage may appear to be the product of tradition and seem to represent consensus about the way things ought to be done in a particular society, they are in fact ways of coping with the ambiguities, uncertainties, and conflicts inherent in any social order. When life flows smoothly and there are no contradictions, there is no need for these cultural interventions. But in all societies there are certain moments in the life of the individual and the group which seem to require something more, something that will mediate the apparent contradictions and restore a sense of order. Rituals allow this to happen smoothly and unthinkingly. "Ritual inevitably carries a basic message of order, continuity, and predictability. New events are connected to preceding ones, incorporated into a stream of precedents so that they are recognized as growing out of tradition and experience. By stating enduring and underlying patterns, ritual connects past, present, and future, abrogating history and time," writes Barbara Myerhoff (p. 306). Rites of passage do not so much change things as give meaning to changes that are occurring.

In the Western world rites of passage have changed dramatically since the onset of modernity in the eighteenth century. Premodern rites were collective and communal performances, coping with ambiguities and tensions in the preindustrial social order. At that time lives were perceived spatially rather than temporally. Society understood itself as a static hierarchyas a great chain of beingin which people moved up and down rather than forward and backward through time. In preindustrial society senior did not necessarily mean older. In that world very young men and women could attain very high rank.

Premodern Western rites of passage were not keyed to age as such. Instead, they marked changes in status within a larger community. The first and almost universal rite of passage was baptism, symbolic of membership in the Christian community. It usually happened within a few days of birth, but in some denominations was postponed until a much later point in life. Birthdays as such were rarely celebrated before the nineteenth century. For some young people the ceremonies associated with entry into a religious calling constituted their ultimate rite of passage. The rites of apprentices, journeymen, and masters were equally dramatic performances. Village youth groups also had their rites of passage, but the most elaborate ceremony was the wedding, which in both town and country marked the biggest single change of status. Only those who could sustain a household were allowed to marry in this manner. The very public performance of wedding, which involved the entire community and not just the families involved, acknowledged the change in public status and power involved. It was less about personal than collective transformation.

By contrast, modern rites of passage are more personal and familial. They are less concerned with adjustments in the order of society than with the changing age identities of individuals. Rites of passage have become much more agespecific as numerical age itself becomes more important in assigning status. But because age is as much a cultural construct as a natural fact, some events, like menarche and puberty, which one might expect to draw considerable ritual attention, do not necessarily do so. On the other hand, birth dates, which do not indicate any great change, are now the occasion of sometimes elaborate ceremonies. In this secular era, it is birth, not baptism, which is life's first rite of passage.

Transitions from infancy to boyhood were marked by breeching in the early modern period, and in the nineteenth century such ceremonies as first communion, confirmation, and bar mitzvah came to be the standard passages to adolescence. In the twentieth century the transition from adolescence to young adulthood was marked for men by elaborate graduation and enlistment ceremonies, while elite women had their debutante balls and various comingout parties. Today, these ceremonies are overshadowed by such landmarks as getting a driver's license and having one's first legal drink, but adolescence and youth remain a time of intense ritualization; and so too does young adulthood, that long drawn-out affair marked variously by graduation from university, the first "real" job, leaving home, getting married, getting a mortgage, and having children. Never has the life course been so full of ritualized events that have become modern rites of passage, almost all of which are celebrated within the confines of family and friends.

The development of modern rites of passage in the modern world has followed a certain pattern. Elaborate ceremonies appeared first among the upper classes and were later appropriated by lower classes and various ethnic groups. It is worth noting that they multiplied first among males and spread later to women. In the Jewish religion the modern bar mitzvah for boys developed long before it was felt necessary to have a similar ceremony (bat mitzvah) for girls. The reasons for this class and gender pattern have to do with the greater degree of uncertainty and ambiguity experienced initially by males in modern capitalist society. Elite men were the first to be expected to forge their own way as individuals, while elite women's lives as daughters and wives were more predictable and continuous, at least until marriage, when their one great rite of passage, the white wedding, dealt with the uncertainties generated by that event.

Today's rites of passage are less exclusive, though class, ethnic, and gender variation is very evident. Every group now has its own version of the standard rites of passage. African-American families make much of their young people's graduations. Latino female coming-of-age parties rival the old debutante balls in expense and significance. Bat mitzvahs have attained a parity with bar mitzvahs, and the white wedding is now universal in Western societies, exported worldwide as the modern way to be married in Japan, Mexico, and many parts of Africa. Today gay and lesbian people also have their own rites of passage, including commitment ceremonies. But, while there are more and more varied rites of passage today than ever before, they are less inclusive of the community and more family oriented.

Western society has become extraordinarily child-centered, and virtually every stage of childhood is given ritual treatment. The reason for this lies in the increasingly uncertain and conflicted nature of growing up in modern society. In this era of the "hurried child," when there is such pressure on children to meet certain norms, rites of passage are one of the ways adults try to reassure themselves that there are still "enduring and underlying patterns" and that childhood itself has not yet been lost. Rites assure us that our children have a proper childhood and that we are good parents and grandparents after all. In today's highly ritualized family life, to miss a birthday or graduation is regarded as neglect or worse. One could even go so far as to say that the modern family is a group of people sharing a set of rituals. Everywhere we turn, especially where there is tension and unpredictability, there are rites of passage. This is not to say that ritual always works as intended. It can also be its own source of tension and controversy. This is one reason why rites of passage are always mutating. They are one of the most prominent but also one of the most protean features of modern life, deserving much more attention by historians and other cultural observers.

See also: Life Course and Transitions to Adulthood.


Chudacoff, Howard. 1981. How Old Are You? Age Consciousness in American Culture. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Davis-Floyd, Robbie E. 1992. Birth as an American Rite of Passage. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Gillis, John. 1996. A World of Their Own Making: Myth, Ritual, and the Quest for Family Values. New York: Basic Books.

Lowe, Donald. 1982. History of Bourgeois Perception. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Myerhoff, Barbara. 1986. "Rites and Signs of Ripening: The Inter-twining of Ritual, Time, and Growing Older." In Age and Anthropological Theory, ed. David Kertzer and Jennie Keith. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Pleck, Elizabeth. 2000. Celebrating the Family: Ethnicity, Consumer Culture, and Family Rituals. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Sheehy, Gail. 1995. New Passages: Your Life Across Time. New York: Random House.

John R. Gillis

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Rites of Passage

Rites of Passage


Types of Rituals. In all Native American societies, rituals marking transitions from one stage of life to another were observed. Such occasions included birth, naming ceremonies, marriage, girls puberty rites at first menstruation, boys conversion to men, and death. In some regions, notably the Plains, a vision quest undertaken by boys served as a puberty rite. The vision quest undertaken by both boys and men obtained power from the supernatural for use as a personal protector in times of war and as a spiritual guide throughout life. Among most native groups, rites at death included some ceremonial component designed to keep the deceaseds spirit away from the living. Pregnant and menstruating women almost universally had to observe certain taboos, especially to avoid contact with the opposite sex. Men, too, sequestered themselves before leaving on a war party and performed elaborate rituals to ensure the success of their missions. In both cases isolation from the rest of the community enabled an individual to gather spiritual power.

Isolated Women

French Missionary Gabriel Sagard offers an early-seventeenth-century account of the rituals surrounding menstruation among the Ottawas and Hurons:

The [Ottawa] women live very comfortably with their husbands, and they have this custom, like all other women of wandering peoples, that when they have their monthly sickness [menstruation] they leave their husbands, and the girl leaves her parents and other relatives, and they go to certain isolated huts away from their village; there they live and remain all the time of their sickness without any men in their company. The men bring them food and what they need until their return, if they have not themselves taken provisions enough as they usually do. Among the Hurons and other settled tribes the women and girls do not leave their house or village for such occasions, but they cook their food separately in little pots during that period and do not allow anyone to eat their meats and soups.

Source: James Axtell, ed., The Indian Peoples of Eastern America: A Documentary History of the Sexes (New York: Oxford University Press, 1981), p. 59.

Selection of Leaders in New England. Political, religious, and other formal leaders often had to undergo rites of purification as part of their training for office. According to accounts from the early seventeenth century, New England Algonquian Indians chose promising adolescent boys for specialized training. Forced to abstain from eating meat and made to drink concoctions

that caused them to vomit, these young men experienced severe physical deprivation. After purging their stomachs of all food and liquid, they were beaten and turned outdoors in the middle of winter. While in this emaciated and delirious condition a spirit, or manitou, appeared to those boys worthy of spiritual support. The manitou endorsed the individuals claims to supernatural power. When that happened, other Indians viewed the young men with awe and granted them the authority to act on behalf of the tribe as political or war leaders.

Menstruation. Nearly all Native American societies observed certain taboos concerning menstruating women. Many tribes forced women to live in a separate house during their monthly discharge and to have no contact with men, whereas other groups insisted only that such women eat their meals separately from men while continuing to live in the same house. European observers interpreted these actions as an attempt to avoid the pollution that menstruating women supposedly embodied. More likely, however, women experienced the peak of their spiritual powers during menstruation. While in isolation, women sought spiritual visions, fasted, meditated, and ritually bathed themselves. Many Native American cultures viewed women as the creators of the first humans or as the originators of vital substances such as corn. The Cherokees associated blood with creation and reproduction. They believed that corn sprang from Selu, the first woman. Thus women and their blood held mystical significance, and women reconnected with their mythical past through the ceremonies observed during menstruation.

Naming Patterns. All North American Indians received a name at birth. Usually females held the same name from birth to death. In matrilineal societies the mother usually bestowed the name on babies since the child belonged to her family. Often the birth name reflected the particular clan to which the mother belonged. For boys to become men in matrilineal societies they performed certain tasks, such as killing an enemy in war, in order to gain a new name bestowed by prominent men in the community. Once that was accomplished, an elaborate ceremony was held at which male elders gave the boy a new name reflecting his exploits. At that point he became a man. As a man continued to move up the social ladder, he earned new titles reflecting the positions he held.

Becoming a Man in the Southeast. Southeastern Indian boys trained throughout their entire childhoods to be strong, agile, and capable of enduring tremendous physical exertion. After killing a large game animal or an enemy, a boy became a man when warriors and religious specialists held a ceremony and bestowed a title on him reflecting the exploit. The name, actually a title, reflected either the accomplishments of the boy or some personal characteristic. Choctaw and Chickasaw war names often ended in -tubby, signifying killer. Having

proved his adult status, a man then acquired other titles based on new deeds, thus increasing his stature within his society. The highest rankings denoted success in war and command over spiritual powers, such as Mingo Hopaii (War-Prophet King) among the Choctaws and Chickasaws. Each time that a man performed notable actions, a naming ritual ensued, thus making it possible to hold several titles at once.


John R. Swanton, Source Material for the Social and Ceremonial Life of the Choctaw Indians, in Smithsonian Institution, Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin no. 103 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1931), pp. 119124.

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rites of passage

rites of passage In all societies, major events in the life cycle are subject to ritualized forms of recognition. Across the world, such events are celebrated in diverse and sometimes elaborate ways, with different cultures singling out different stages of life for attention. Where ancestry is important, as in China or many of the societies of Africa, death may be the subject of extended and intricate mortuary ceremonials, which act both to separate the living from the dead and to transform the dead from elder to ancestor. In others, death may be neglected and cultural salience given rather to marriage, to the installation of office holders, or to initiations into adulthood or into cult groupings. In these cultural processes, actual biological events are subsumed and transformed, even negated in the various schemas of culture. Among the Kuria of Kenya and Tanzania, life for both men and women is said not to begin and end with their birth and death but rather to begin in early puberty when they are circumcized and to culminate in dramatic rituals of eldership, which celebrate the achievement of a full life course, of successful fertility, and of wealth as evidenced in the growth of the homestead herd.

Despite the variety in the forms and meanings of such rituals, a certain unity has been given to the category by the work of the Belgian scholar, Arnold Van Gennep. His book, Les Rites de Passage, first published in 1909, has formed the backdrop to most anthropological work. Van Gennep envisioned life in society as a house with many rooms, in which the individual has to be conveyanced formally from one defined position to another. From this perspective, life is not a matter of gradual development and change but rather consists of a series of abrupt and ritualized transitions. Rites of passage, he argued, display common features — in particular, a definite three-phase structure, of separation transition, and aggregation. Initial rites of separation serve to remove the individual from normal social life, thus dissolving existing social ties and status. These rites are often mirrored in the opposing rites of aggregation, which end the ritual process and reinstate a normal social life when the individual is welcomed back into a new position in the community. In between these two contrasting phases are the rites of transition. This pattern, though discernible to some extent in all, tends to be most fully recognized in intiation rites, where it may be given added force in the symbolism of death and rebirth.

Of particular interest has been Van Gennep's identification of the mid or transitional phase as one of marginality or liminality (from the Latin, limen, meaning threshold). It represents, he writes, the point of inertia for the novices between contrary ritual movements; they are regarded as being outside society — untouchable, dangerous, sacred as opposed to profane. Sharing with Van Gennep a similar concern with social classification and the cultural imposition of order on natural and social affairs, the British anthropologist, Mary Douglas, has argued that the idea of danger attaches to any situation or object that transgresses or cannot be placed within the dominant schema of social classification. Novices, betwixt-and-between defined social positions, are inherently anomalous and likely to be regarded as both polluted and polluting. Often this state is expressed in strict rules of seclusion, of physical as well as social invisibility, in which the neophyte's condition can be expressed only in terms of ambiguity and paradox. Outside and opposed to normal social life, liminality is also given ritual expression in licence, disorder, and role reversal.

For Van Gennep the theme of passage provides one clue to the diverse symbolic devices employed in such rites. The ritual passage may be represented in spatial terms, by exits and entrances, crossings and journeys, and in the general significance attached to crossroads, boundaries, and thresholds. By extension, too, the term may be used of other ritual events that, like life crisis rituals, are seen to share a concern with the social recognition of time — particularly communal rituals that serve to mark changes in the seasons or calendar, such as first fruits celebrations or those conducted to usher in the New Year. Other events that also imply a dramatic change in social life, such as going to war, or periods when the community prepares itself for major religious festivals, may also be subject to similar forms of ritualization.

Rites of passage, which disconnect ritual moments from the normal flow of life, break the passage of time, representing it as a constant replay of opposed movements. Rather than inexorable processes of growth and decay, the ritualization of the stages of life seems to speak to the discontinuity of personal experience and the oscillation of social life between contrasting moods and phases. These characteristics of rites of passage have been seen to make them most typical of traditional societies and repetitive social orders. In terms of the personal biography of individuals, this gives ritual the formative role, as the essential catalyst in major life changes and the key to the creation of identity and personhood. To explore these aspects, one needs to abandon the simple metaphor of transition, bequeathed to us by Van Gennep, and focus instead on the idea of transformation. Thus life crisis rituals may not simply bestow or formally acknowledge changes in the life history, but in many societies have a truly transformational intent: the main and only means by which boys can be transformed into men, girls into women, elders into ancestors, the sick into spirit mediums, or princes into kings.

Suzette Heald


Van Gennep, A. (1960). The rites of passage. Routledge, London.

See also initiation rites; funeral practices; taboos.

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Rites of passage

Rites of passage. Rituals which mark major transitions in human life (and death). A. van Gennep (The Rites of Passage), drew attention to a recurrent pattern in such rituals of one distinction, two categories, and three stages: for example,death; dead/alive; alive → dying → dead marriage; married/single; single → engaged → married

R. Hertz (Année Sociologique, 10 (1907)), argued that these rituals move the person in question over a limen, ‘a threshold’, so that they are in a condition that society can know and cope with. The central importance of liminality in rites of passage was taken even further by Victor Turner, who recognized many more rites of passage than those which have to do with obvious transitions (indeed, nearly all rituals have this characteristic of moving those involved from one state to another); and in these rituals, he stressed ‘the autonomy of the liminal’: it is the liminal state which is both threatening and at the same time the only route to change—hence the centrality of focus on liminality in religious life.


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"Rites of passage." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of World Religions. . Retrieved December 11, 2017 from

rites of passage

rites of passage The rituals associated with a change of status, for example from youth to adulthood, and from unmarried to married state. In his classic study by the same name, Arnold van Gennep distinguished rites of separation, rites of segregation, and rites of integration. Rituals associated with a change in status were identified as having these three stages. Between each there are clear symbolic demarcations.

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"rites of passage." A Dictionary of Sociology. . 11 Dec. 2017 <>.

"rites of passage." A Dictionary of Sociology. . (December 11, 2017).

"rites of passage." A Dictionary of Sociology. . Retrieved December 11, 2017 from