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Initiation: Men's Initiation


The word initiation implies a new beginning, as the Latin initium suggests. By means of a rite of passage or transition, a person is separated from one social or religious status and incorporated into another. From a religious perspective, initiation may be seen as an encounter with the sacred. The transition is therefore a profound one, with the initiand emerging from the passage changed not only socially but existentially and spiritually as well. This radical transformation is almost universally symbolized by images of death and rebirth. One is not simply changed; one is made new.

The study of initiation in general, particularly in primitive society, has been almost synonymous with the study of men's initiation in particular. This situation exists, in part, because the vast majority of ethnologists, anthropologists, and even untrained observers were male and, therefore, had greater access to the secret rituals of their own sex. More germane, however, is the fact that male initiations are frequently given more importance, both social and religious, than female initiations. They are, in any event, usually more elaborate and therefore more conspicuous than their female counterparts. Men's initiation may be divided into three categories: puberty rites; specialized initiations into secret societies or confraternities; and specialized initiations into religious vocations or mystical careers.

Primitive Puberty Rites: Methodological Approaches

These invariably obligatory rituals effect the transition from childhood or adolescence to manhood. The boy is separated, often quite literally, from the world of women and children, emerging from his seclusion a man in the company of men. For the male, the arrival of biological puberty is not as punctuated an event as it is for the female. Male initiations are therefore largely cultural rather than biological transitions. Relatedly, boys are usually initiated in groups.

The nature and purpose of male puberty rites have been interpreted from three primary perspectives: history of religions, anthropology, and psychoanalytically oriented schools of psychology. Although they emphasize different aspects of the ritual, these approaches often complement rather than conflict with one another.

Historians of religion, most notably Mircea Eliade, are essentially concerned with interpreting the meaning of the ritual, particularly its symbols of transformation, such as death and rebirth. Historians of religion seek to make intelligible the existential moment experienced by the initiand himself. Their inquiry ranges well beyond primitive society in general and puberty rites in particular in an effort to discern universal patterns in initiation per se. As a consequence this approach is more concerned with cross-cultural symbols than it is with either the varying social frameworks in which those symbols appear or the structure of the rite as such.

By comparison, structure is a primary concern for the anthropologist. Beginning with Arnold van Gennep's Rites of Passage (1909), the "career" of the initiand has been analyzed from the perspective of its three basic stages: "separation" from one social status, "transition," and "incorporation" into another social status. Like Eliade, van Gennep clearly recognized the religious dimension of initiation in primitive society. Developing the views of van Gennep and Bronislaw Malinowski, contemporary anthropology concerns itself primarily with how the rite "functions" in primitive society. Its emphasis is, therefore, on how rites reinforce social values, maintain social stability, promote group solidarity, and provide needed instruction and psychological support for the individual.

Unlike Eliade and van Gennep, however, the contemporary social sciences regard initiation as an essentially secular activity. Concerning themselves almost exclusively with male initiation, they suggest that adolescent boys, because of their increasing prowess, strength, and sexual capacities, threaten the order of society and its social equilibrium. Puberty rites help socialize these individuals, thereby allaying their socially disruptive potential. Although theories that stress group solidarity are applicable in a primitive context, they often shed little light on individual initiations in postprimitive society.

Psychoanalytically oriented schools of psychology have shown great interest in men's puberty rites. In fact, it is only this particular aspect of primitive society that has attracted their attention. Using Freudian theory, particularly oedipal conflict and castration anxiety, as a starting point, most exponents of these schools concern themselves not with puberty rites in general but rather with ritual details such as circumcision.

Puberty Rites: Patterns and Issues

From a cross-cultural standpoint, three comprehensive traits characterize male puberty rites in primitive society. First, as noted, is the structure of separation, transition, and incorporation. This scenario is frequently correlated with images of death and rebirth. Second is the disclosure of sacred knowledge, particularly mythical paradigms. Third is the performance of ritual operations on the body and the often related presence of ordeals.

Separation and incorporation/death and rebirth

As illustrated by Eliade, separation from childhood and the female realm is often dramatic and symbolized by death. In Australia, for example, mythical beings in the form of masked men snatch the boys from their mothers and "devour" them. The mothers mourn for the novices just as one mourns for the dead.

The transitional period between separation and incorporation is often prolonged, particularly in the elaborate rituals afforded the male. This period, referred to as one of "liminality," has attracted increasing attention. The social anthropologist Victor Turner draws particular attention to the "liminal persona" as one that is neither this nor that, neither here nor there, but rather betwixt and between. The period of liminality is one of ambiguity and paradox. The initiand may be seen as neither living nor dead, but as both at the same time. Much of the symbolism accompanying this rite is accordingly bivalent. The hut in which the secluded initiand dwells, for example, symbolizes both devouring monster and generative womb, that is, both death and rebirth. During this period, the initiand is seen as pure possibility or primal totality. Males are often dressed as females, thus representing androgyne. Again, they are neither male nor female, but both. The liminal persona is in many ways "invisible," living beyond the norms and categories of society. Traditional taboos and moral injunctions do not apply to him. Liminal personas are sacred, even dangerous. It is therefore often necessary that they be purified before reentering society.

Disclosure of knowledge and mythical paradigms

Some scholars, particularly the psychoanalytically oriented, have suggested that little, if any, significant knowledge is imparted during initiation. Most other scholars, however, suggest that instruction is, in fact, central to the primitive rite. A more significant issue concerns the type of knowledge imparted. Sociologists emphasize instruction in behavior that will be appropriate to the new social status of the person. Historians of religion tend to emphasize the revelation of sacred myths and the true meaning of ritual objects. To a certain degree these two forms of knowledge are interrelated; it is through the myth that the initiand learns who he is and what he is to be. It is, however, the revelation of sacred myth and, relatedly, divine-human relations that require the ritual to be kept secret from women and the uninitiated. Almost always, it is the men only who receive instruction in these matters. Male initiation frequently takes place on a secluded and sacred ground to which women have no access. According to the myths in many cultures, it is on this very ground that the first initiation took place. Among the Kamilaroi of Australia, the sacred ground is the first camp of the All-Father, Baiame. The novices not only learn of mythical events, they reexperience them, returning to the primordial time when the first initiation took place.

Ritual operations and ordeal

Ritual operations on the body are widely performed during primitive puberty rites. The body may be cut, scarred, pierced, branded, or tattooed in innumerable ways, often with great ingenuity and artistic skill. The operation symbolizes differentiation from uninitiated individuals as well as permanent incorporation in a new group. Particularly painful operations, along with harsh treatment, tests of endurance, and other imposed hardships are common in all but the most archaic of male initiations. Invariably, such an ordeal symbolizes ritual death and has a mythological model.

Although van Gennep regarded genital operations as simply another form of bodily modification with no unique significance, circumcision in particular has attracted uncommon interest and generated great controversy. Circumcision of males at puberty is a widespread, if not universal, practice among archaic tribes. Many societies see it as equivalent to initiation itself and regard uncircumcised men as children. Mythologies and rituals of circumcision are generally dramatic; death symbolism is often conspicuous. The masters of initiation frequently portray mythical animals that seize and symbolically destroy the genitals of the novice. Like Freud himself, many psychoanalytically oriented scholars see in male puberty rites a ritual confirmation of Freudian theory. They regard circumcision as a symbolic form of castration and a primary means of generating castration anxiety within the adolescent male. The ritual act is seen as an ongoing repetition of a primal punishment imposed by a primal father on his rebellious sons. The ritual produces submission to the father's will and reinforces the taboo against incest. Adherents of this school regard ordeal as the essential aspect of the ritual and see instruction as insignificant or peripheral.

Far less prevalent than circumcision is the practice of subincision, whereby the undersurface of the penis is slit open. The initial cut is made some time after circumcision, but may be subsequently lengthened until the incision extends along the entire penile urethra. The wound is periodically opened and blood is drawn. Various explanations and interpretations have been offered. In certain cases, particularly where the incision is explicitly equated with a vulva, the intent of the rite is apparently to provide the male, in symbolic fashion, with both sex organs. The initiand takes on a bisexual or androgynous character, thereby emulating a divine totality. Relatedly, the blood periodically drawn from the reopened wound may symbolize menstrual blood. In Australia and elsewhere, blood is sacred, and males are often anointed with it during the initiation ritual.

The psychologist Bruno Bettelheim offers interpretations of both circumcision and subincision in primitive society. He observes that adolescent boys experience anxiety because they lack a clear biological confirmation of sexual maturity such as the female's first menstruation. Departing from mainstream Freudian theory, Bettelheim sees circumcision as a means of allaying rather than increasing anxiety. Circumcision, in effect, demonstrates to the boys their sexual maturity. Subconsciously at least, they desire it. Their anxiety alleviated, they can more easily adjust to their new social roles. Subincision, for Bettelheim, is rooted in the male's subconscious envy of the female, her sexual organs, and her reproductive ability. Such envy may be seen as the male counterpart of "penis envy" experienced by females, according to Freudian theory. The ritual of subincision creates a vagina; its periodic opening recreates menstruation; and the ritual, according to Bettelheim, helps the male master his envy of the opposite sex.

Despite evident differences, ritual homologues of the primitive puberty rite are found in every major religion: confirmation in Christianity, Upanayana in Hinduism, and bar mitzvah in Judaism, to name a few. This last-named rite will serve as a representative illustration. Properly speaking, the term bar mitzvah refers not to the ritual but rather to the initiand. On the day following his thirteenth birthday, the Jewish male becomes a "son of the commandments," as the term suggests. Separated from religious and moral childhood, he is incorporated into a life of ethical responsibility and ritual obligation. He is incorporated, too, into the minyan, the ten persons necessary for the recital of public prayer. Of great importance is the first public reading of the Torah (the Pentateuch) by the initiand. This simultaneously demonstrates his religious knowledge and his place in the adult world. In many communities an examination was given prior to the ceremony. In certain traditional communities the boy is expected to present a derashah, or scholarly discourse on the Talmud (the collection of Jewish law and tradition), at the celebration that follows. The initiand's investiture with sacred objects is also central to the rite, as it was for the primitive youth. Having become a bar mitzvah, the male is obligated and permitted to wear the tefillin, two cubical leather boxes containing four biblical passages, expressing four basic precepts. The two containers, connected to leather thongs, are ritually bound to the arm and the forehead during recitation of the morning prayers. These boxes contain passages from the Pentateuch (Dt. 6:49; 11:1321) requiring the Jew to "bind" the Law as a sign between the eyes and on the hand (arm). This the bar mitzvah now does literally and for the first time.

Specialized Initiations

Religious man (homo religiosus ) seeks an ever-increasing participation in the sacred. Initiations of a specialized nature are therefore appropriate. These rites are invariably voluntary. Particularly in primitive society, puberty rites enable the novice to fully enter the human condition. Specialized initiations, by comparison, enable the individual to transcend that condition. In primitive, classical, and modern society, specialized initiations for men may be divided into two categories: (1) initiation into secret societies or male confraternities and (2) initiations into religious vocations or mystical careers. These specialized initiations are morphologically similar to puberty rites. Patterns and motifs characteristic of primitive puberty rites reappear in specialized initiations, even those in classical and modern society.

Initiation into secret societies

Initiations into primitive secret societies or male confraternities tend to be more selective, more severe, more dramatic, and more secretive than puberty rites. Again, however, we find the ubiquitous symbols of death and rebirth or resurrection. The "mystery" cults of the ancient Greco-Roman world may clearly be regarded as secret societies. The Greek word mustērion indicates a rite performed only for initiates. Unlike the formalized state religions of the time, the "mysteries" afforded the worshiper a highly personal experience. Invariably the mysteries promised a resurrection or rebirth beyond the grave. This posthumous resurrection found its temporal equivalent and precondition in ritual rebirth. It was, in fact, at a highly secret initiation during which sacred objects were revealed that this rebirth took place. Invariably, too, the triumph or rebirth of the initiand found its model in the paradigmatic victory of a god or celestial hero.

Although most Hellenistic "mysteries" were open to both sexes, there was one major exception. Mithraism, the secret cult surrounding the celestial Mithra, was open only to men. This confraternity, with its evidently masculine and austere emphasis, had a particular appeal for the soldiers of Rome. The paradigmatic myth relates how the lord Mithra sacrificed the primal bull. From its dying body and shed blood issued the bread and wine of a fecund earth. Plants and animals, too, sprang forth as new life issued from death. Relatedly, at the initiation rite, the new member was baptized in the blood of the dying bull, after which he shared a sacred meal of bread and wine. This ritual feast found its model in the original banquet celebrated by Mithra after the ritual slaying.

Just as Mithra ascended to heaven, passing through the seven planetary spheres, so too does the initiand pass through seven stages or grades of initiation. The seven ritual grades correspond also to the planetary journey of the initiand's own soul after death, winning for him immortality beyond the grave.

The initiatory process was characterized by test and ordeal, befitting the military and austere constituency of the confraternity. Although information here is obscure, it appears that the initiand was branded, subjected to extremes of heat and cold, and, with hands bound, possibly hurled across a pit. The use of crypts and tombs as sites of initiation clearly reinforced the death imagery. Initiation at the mysteries, including the Mithraic rite, was essentially concerned with effecting a personal transformation of the initiand rather than simply imparting information.

In the modern world, initiations into secret societies have become semireligious vestiges of their archaic counterparts. Although the actual experience of transcendence, sacrality, and renewal has become rare, the desire for it often remains. This is clear in modern Freemasonry. Initiation to the level of master mason will serve as a representative example. Although Freemasonry began as an institution in the seventeenth century, it has generated a mythology, or legendary history, according to which its origins are to be found in the biblical reign of Solomon and the building of his temple. According to this mythology, the master architect, Hiram Abiff, was slain by assailants just before the completion of the temple, because he refused to divulge the secrets of a master mason. His actions at that time constitute the paradigmatic gestures now reiterated and explained during the ritual of initiation. As he died, so now dies the initiand. A coffin, an open grave, or the depiction of a grave on the floor make this symbolically clear, as do the skull and crossbones surrounding it. The initiand is "lowered" into the grave from which he is, however, "resurrected," symbolizing his rebirth and incorporation into the circle of master masons who assist in the resurrection. The ordeal accompanying the ritual is essentially symbolic rather than real. Just as Hiram Abiff refused to divulge the secrets of a master mason to the uninitiated, so does the initiand now swear himself to secrecy under penalty of death. Not only are his knowledge of myth and symbol tested at this level, but higher levels of knowledge and interpretation are disclosed. The tools of the stonemason assume a sacred significance as ritual objects. Their symbolic significance, which invariably contains a moral message, is now disclosed.

Initiation into a religious vocation

A representative illustration is afforded by the Buddhist monk. Prior to the ordination proper, initiation into a probationary period takes place. This step, the pravrajyā, or "going out," literally implies a "departure" or separation from the normal world. This initiation often takes place at the age of eight and, like the Upanayana in Hinduism, is a homologue of primitive puberty rites. In some Buddhist countries of Southeast Asia, the novice is sometimes so cut off from the world that no woman, not even his mother or sister, may approach him. Having attained the age of twenty and completed the probationary period, the novice undergoes ordination proper, or upasapadā. Here again, separation from the world and symbolic death are evident. In Laos, the women of the house ritually weep on the eve of the ordination, reminiscent of primitive practice. It is frequently the Buddha himself, leaving behind his world of pleasure, who provides the mythical and paradigmatic model for the ritual activity. In Cambodia, for example, the future monk, dressed in princely robes to represent the Buddha's preascetic life, rides toward the monastery amid the joyous cries of friends and relatives who represent the gods in their praise of the future Buddha. Others attempt to hinder the initiand's progress, just as Māra, the Buddhist devil, attempted to impede the future Buddha.

Ordination, or upasapadā is, however, literally an "arrival." The initiand is very clearly "incorporated" into the body of monks, the Buddhist order, as is evident at the completion of the rite when the monks surround the newly ordained member, symbolizing refuge in the Buddha, his teachings, and the order itself. The exact moment at which the monks close in around the novice is carefully recorded, as his rebirth takes place and his new life begins at this time. The assumption of a new name is commonplace.

Many of the ordination activities find their model in the events that transpired at the council of Rājagha shortly after the Buddha's death. The participants at this council and their activities demonstrate a mythical quality. Just as Ānanda, the Buddha's favorite disciple, was tested by the early arhat s or "enlightened ones," so now is the novice tested and subjected to ordeal. Just as Ānanda did then, so must the initiand now confess his sins, be banished from the gathering, and then be permitted to return. In Tibet and elsewhere the initiand is presented with certain sacred objects such as robes and books.

The Roman Catholic rite (sacrament) of ordination to the priesthood also illustrates many traditional initiatory motifs. The rite is, however, public, as are its ritual equivalents (e.g., Buddhist ordination) in most modern religions. After a period of candidacy, the ordinand is examined, declared worthy, and presented to the bishop for election. Just as Jesus selected priests for his ministry, so is the ordinand now selected. The paradigmatic Jesus serves as model throughout the rite. He is referred to not only as teacher and shepherd, but also as priest. His paradigmatic death and rebirth-resurrection are continually evident. The bishop states in the revised rite: "In the memorial of the Lord's death and resurrection, make every effort to die to sin and to walk in the new life of Christ."

Central to the rite is the "laying on" or "imposition of hands" by the bishop. Already in the Old Testament (Nm. 8:511), the tribe of Levi is "set apart" for service to God by this gesture. As the Latin ordo (a social body separate from the people at large) originally made clear, the priest is set apart or separated from the people by this rite. Yet, following the laying on of hands by the bishop, all the priests present lay their hands upon the ordinand. This ancient ceremonial is a symbol of incorporation, homologous to the Buddhist monks surrounding their new member. Like the Buddhist initiand, the Roman Catholic ordinand is "received into" an order.

After being anointed on the palms, the new priest is empowered to offer Holy Communion (the Eucharist) for the first time. The sacred objects are given him: a chalice of wine and a paten (silver plate) with the host (bread). Just as Jesus offered bread and wine, so now does the ordinand. In the Mass they become the body and blood of Christ; thus the last supper becomes a contemporary event and the Lord's death and resurrection are shared by the congregation.

See Also

Blood; Circumcision; Mithraism; Ordeal; Rites of Passage.


A pioneering work, now dated but still useful and interesting as an introduction, is Arnold van Gennep's Les rites de passage (Paris, 1909), translated by Monika B. Vizedom and Gabrielle L. Caffee as The Rites of Passage (Chicago, 1960). Hutton Webster's Primitive Secret Societies, 2d ed., rev. (1932; reprint, New York, 1968), is also a pioneering work, first published in 1908. It views secret societies from the perspective of their political power. Written by the noted historian of religions, Mircea Eliade, Rites and Symbols of Initiation: The Mysteries of Birth and Rebirth (New York, 1958) is the best overview of initiation in general and male initiation in particular. It confines itself largely but not exclusively to primitive society. Initiation, edited by C. Jouco Bleeker (Leiden, 1965), is a collection of essays in several European languages, including English. It represents various methodological approaches and deals with ritual in numerous religious traditions. The article by Eliade contains an excellent, even if now slightly dated, bibliography. John W. M. Whiting, Richard Kluckhohn, and Albert Anthony's "The Function of Male Initiation Ceremonies at Puberty," in Readings in Social Psychology, edited by Eleanor E. Maccoby et al. (New York, 1958), is a frequently cited and stimulating article combining sociological and psychological theory. Frank W. Young's Initiation Ceremonies: A Cross-Cultural Study of Status Dramatization (Indianapolis, 1965) views the primitive rite from the perspective of its social function. Michael Allen's Male Cults and Secret Initiations in Melanesia (Melbourne, 1967) combines sociological and psychological perspectives and sees the rite as a means of reinforcing sexual identity. Bruno Bettelheim's Symbolic Wounds: Puberty Rites and the Envious Male (Glencoe, Ill., 1954) is a little classic. It is readable, controversial, even provocative, and in many ways superior to the sociological and psychological works that have followed it. For further information on Buddhist initiation, see Paul Lévy, Buddhism: A "Mystery Religion"? (New York, 1968).

Walter O. Kaelber (1987)

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