Initiation: Women's Initiation

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Although rituals of women's initiation resemble in numerous ways those celebrated for men, there are also highly significant differences that reflect the biological andmore importantlythe social distinctions between men and women. For instance, it has often been noted that whereas males are usually initiated as a group, women's initiation is quite frequently performed separately for each individual. In part, this may result from the fact that a dramatic individual physiological eventthe onset of menstruationmarks the moment at which women's initiation is to take place in many cultures. But one should also note that whereas strong sociopolitical solidarity is established among those males who are initiated together as a corporate group or age-set, the isolation of women in initiation reflects and helps perpetuate a situation in which females are not integrated into any broadbased, powerful, or effective sociopolitical unit.

The task of initiatory rituals is the making of an adult: the transformation of a child into a productive, responsible member of society, prepared to assume the rights and obligations of the particular status marked out for him or her by tradition. Within any ritual of women's initiation, one may thus expect to find encoded the expected norms of female existence as defined by a given society, for it is in that ritual that girls are led to adopt those norms, orto put it differentlythat those norms are imposed on each girl by society as a whole. Here, the observations of Simone de Beauvoir in The Second Sex (New York, 1961) are particularly appropriate: "One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman. No biological, psychological, or economic fate determines the figure that the human female presents in society; it is civilization as a whole that produces this creature, intermediate between male and eunuch, which is described as feminine" (p. 249).

Although women's initiation is widely practicedstatistical studies show it to be current among more of the world's peoples than its male counterpartit has rarely received the degree of attention directed toward men's corresponding rituals. In part, this unfortunate state of affairs may exist because male fieldworkers have been unable to gain admission to these ceremonies, or they may simply have been uninterested in making the attempt. Thus, only a few examples have been reported in any real detail, and still fewer subjected to thorough analysis. Some attempts have been made to draw conclusions from statistical surveys based on the Human Relations Area Files (New Haven), but the findings proposedcorrelating performance of women's initiation with matrilocal residence patterns, for instancehave been called into serious question. The field remains largely unexplored, and more work is urgently needed.

Among the examples that have been most thoroughly reported and studied is the Nkangʾa ritual of the Ndembu, witnessed by Victor and Edith Turner. This ceremony, which is performed for each Ndembu girl at the time when her breasts begin to develop, but before her menarche, consists of three stages that lead up to the initiand's marriage. The first of these phases, Kwingʾija ("causing to enter"), begins when the prospective bridegroom of the initiand exchanges arrows with the mother of his bride-to-be and also gives an arrow to a specially selected woman who will serve as the girl's instructress and who presides over her initiation. On the next day, dances are held for the girl by the women of her village (men being for the most part excluded) at a consecrated mudyi tree just outside the village. The mudyi tree, which is the focus of this day's rituals, has strong symbolic associations to numerous referents; among these are the central Ndembu principle of matrilineal descent, the relation of mother and child, female breasts and their milk, and, more broadly, life, learning, the tribe as a whole, and tribal custom in general. Throughout the day's dancing, the initiand lies motionless and naked in a clear regressus ad uterum, tightly wrapped within a blanket. Meanwhile, another important symbolic item is introduced to the ceremonial apparatus: After the bridegroom's (phallic) arrow has been inserted into the roots of the mudyi tree, a string of white beads, representing the emergent fertility of the initiand, the children she will bear to her husband, and the continuity of her matrilineage, is draped over the arrow. Shortly before this, the women sing:

They are giving you Nkangʾa.
You have grown up, my child,
When you have passed puberty you will be pregnant.

Late in the day, a seclusion hut is prepared for the initiand on the side of the village opposite the mudyi tree; at sunset she is taken there, carried through the village on the back of the instructress. Here she will spend some weeks or even months, in the second stage of the rite, Kunkunka ("seclusion in the hut"). During this time, she is subjected to numerous ritual interdictions and is given detailed instruction, primarily in dance and in sexual technique. Men may not enter the seclusion hut, with one significant exception: When the girl is first placed within, her future bridegroom enters to light a new fire for her, representative of their impending marriage. The white beads with which the initiand was earlier presented are now wrapped around a miniature bow (the female counterpart to the male arrow) and placed at the apex of the seclusion hut, where an arch is formed of two poles from the mudyi tree, symbolic of the female thighs spread in the position of intercourse. The apex thus represents the genitals, and the beads, once again, the children the initiand will bear. Throughout her period of seclusion, however, the initiand is forbidden to look up and see this mystery that rests over her.

The final phase of the ritual, Kwidisha ("bringing out"), begins with a number of mock confrontations between the kinship group of the initiand and that of her bridegroom, in which the latter group is expected to prevail. At dawn, after a night of dancing, the initiand, once again wrapped in a blanket, is carried from her seclusion hut to a place outside the village. There she is washed, shaved, rubbed with oil and red earth, adorned with rattles, and dressed in a skirt, although her now more fully developed breasts remain exposed. Most importantly, her hair is carefully coiffed, leaving a central part into which the string of white beads is placed. The entire coiffure is then covered with densely packed oil and earth. Many of the women present also remove their beads and place them on the head and shoulders of the novice, so that she bears upon her the fertility of all womankind while hiding her own personal fertility as a secret within.

Once adorned, the initiand is led to the village dance place, where she dramatically exhibits the dance skills she has acquired while in seclusion, receiving compliments and gifts from all assembled. In these dances, she is at the height of her power, as is evident from the fact that at a certain moment she is given the eland-tail switch, emblem of the village headman's authority, to carry. Shortly thereafter, however, she must kneel before the drums of the men of the village, dance kneeling, and then spit before the drums "in blessing and thanksgiving." When the dance is concluded, the initiand is led to her bridegroom's hut, where the marriage is consummated. If all goes well, on the following morning the newly married woman, her initiation complete, washes and takes the white beads from her hair in the presence of her husband, shaking the red earthperhaps signifying the blood of parturition or menstrual bloodfrom her hair. The beads are then carried to her mother, who will keep them until the rituals for her daughter's first pregnancy are performed, at which time the beads are returned to her.

In assessing this complex and fascinating ritual, Victor Turner (1968) has called attention above all to the way in which it serves to adjust the Ndembu social field when it has been temporarily disrupted by the emergence of a female member from childhood to adult status. This transition calls into focus the deep-seated contradiction in Ndembu social organization between matrilineal descent and virilocal residence: When a girl reaches maturity and marries, she is lost to her lineage, the very lineage that she is expected to perpetuate through the birth of her children. Thus, in the ritual she is first systematically separated from her mother and then gradually handed over to her husband through the intermediary of the instructress; at the same time, the mother is reassured that her daughter's childrenrepresented by the string of white beadswill be returned to her and will ensure the continuity of her matrilineage, as well as the continuity of the Ndembu people as a whole.

Beyond this, one must also consider the effects of the Nkangʾa ritual on the initiand herself, for her fertilitywhat makes her a woman and no longer a girlis symbolically and ceremonially created within the course of the ritual through her association with the mudyi tree, with the apex of the seclusion hut, and, above all, with her string of white beads. But for all that a woman's creative power in fertility is celebrated, her position of sociopolitical subordination is also unambiguously asserted: After a brief flirtation with power as she carries the eland-tail badge of authority, she is quickly forced to kneel before the men's drums.

The ways in which traditional social definitions of ideal female nature are effectively impressed upon successive generations of women through initiation rituals are given striking expression in the Kinaaldá ("first menstruation," or perhaps "house sitting") ceremony of the Navajo, as reported by Charlotte Johnson Frisbie (1967) and others. A major part of this four-night, five-day ceremony is the repeated massaging of the initiand by older women of known good character. Known as "molding," this practice has as its explicit goal the definitive reshaping of an individual woman, both in terms of bodily form and moral character: for it is stated that at the time of her initiation, a girl's body becomes soft again, as it was at birth, so that she is susceptible to the pressures exerted on her by the hands, minds, and speech of those around her.

The events of the Kinaaldá are all patterned upon the first Kinaaldá, performed for the goddess Changing Woman (also known as White Shell Woman), recounted at length in the blessingway, one of the longest and most important of Navajo sacred chants. The initiand is dressed as Changing Woman, and she is systematically identified with her through sacred songs, just as the girl's family dwelling, where the ritual is celebrated, is identified with that occupied by the goddess at the dawn of time.

Changing Woman, in the opinion of many the most important of Navajo deities, is an enormously complex figure who defies easy categorization. In part the paramount representative of the abstract principle hózhó̹ (lit., "beauty," but also "harmony," "balance," "goodwill," etc.), the Navajo summum bonum, she is also identified with the earth, vegetation, fertility, growth, abundance, and ideal womanhood. Moreover, as recounted in the blessingway, having become pregnant by the Sun, she gave birth to the twin culture heroes of Navajo mythology, who rid the world of monsters and established civilization as humans know it.

For the first four days of the Kinaaldá, the initiand's actions are quite restricted. Most of her time must be spent in the family hogan grinding corn, and through her vigorous labor at this time it is expected she will come to be industriousindustry being a highly prized female virtue for the Navajofor the rest of her life. Repeatedly she is "molded," and three times each day she must run eastward from the hogan in pursuit of the Sun. Ultimately, this pursuit seems to be successful, and it is implied that the initiand will conceive by the Sun, as did Changing Woman. But this will not happen until the initiand is thoroughly assimilated to the goddess in the course of an all-night sing held for her on the fourth night of the ritual. In the songs chanted at that time, the family hogan is identified with that of Changing Woman, located at Gobernador Knob, the sacred mountain where she was born out of the union of Sky and Earth. Further, all those who attend the sing take on the identity of the gods who participated in the initiation of Changing Woman; most important, the initiand is herself thoroughly identified with the goddess, as in the following song:

I am here; I am White Shell Woman, I am here.
Now on the top of Gobernador Knob, I am here.
In the center of my white shell hogan I am here.
Right on the white shell spread I am here.
Right at the end of the rainbow I am here.

At dawn on the fifth day, as an all-night sing comes to a close, the initiand runs to the east for the last time, toward the rising sun that has just cast its light on her through the hogan's eastern door. Shortly thereafter, the participants in the sing move outside to eat a sweet circular corn cake that has been baking in an earth oven overnight. Compressed within this cake are symbols of the sun and earth, male and female, vegetation, pregnancy, birth, the four cardinal points, and the zenith and nadir. All partake of this cake except the initiand, who offers it to the others as if she herself has given birth to it and to all it represents. The Kinaaldá is expected to ensure universal rebirth consequent upon a woman's initiation, for as Changing Woman was told at the first such ritual, as a result of its proper performance, "there will be birth. Vegetation, as well as all without exception who travel the surface of the earth, will give birth; that you will have gained."

Emergent sexuality is celebrated as the means for the renewal of life, society, and the cosmos in both the Kinaaldá and the Nkangʾa rituals, although ceremonies of female initiation celebrated within cultures that hold a more ambivalent attitude toward sex can be expected to treat things quite differently. Thus, for example, as Audrey I. Richards reported in her 1956 study of the Bemba of Northern Rhodesia, among the Bemba sexual intercourse is considered a "hot" activity that can pollute domestic and ritual fires by which approach ought be made to the ancestral spirits central to all cultic activity. Only if a man and wife purify themselves after sex, using a small secret pot conferred upon the wife at the time of her initiation (Chisungu), may these dangers be avoided. The Chisunguwhich is somewhat unusual in that it is a corporate ritual in which a group of girls are secluded together for a month or morethus involves considerable instruction in the mysteries of sexuality, pollution, and purification. By the application of those principles that are learned during initiation, and through the pot that is conferred only upon those who have been initiated, women are able to bring the dangers of sexuality under control. But the tensions, anxiety, and aggression implicit in male-female relations are emphatically dramatized in the culminating acts performed on the final night of the ceremony, when mock bridegrooms appear at the Chisungu hut, singing loudly, "I have tracked my game, / Now I have speared my meat," after which they symbolically carry off their "brides."

Such ambivalence toward emergent female sexuality is not particularly common among agricultural populations, who regularly associate a woman's fertility with the desired fertility of the land. But among peoples whose means of subsistence is hunting and/or fishing, the situation is different, for there it is often perceived that an excess of human fertility results in overpopulation that threatens a fragile ecosystem. Such considerations clearly affect the cultural norms of ideal womanhood as they are transmittedor better, continually recreatedin initiatory rituals. Thus, for instance, the initiand in the Tucuna Festa das Moças Novas (Festival of the New Maiden) is menaced by a variety of demons (the noo ) who, according to the myths of this fishing people of the northwest Amazon, avenge themselves mercilessly on those who disrupt the delicate balance of humans and game. Isolated within the large familial residence (maloca ) in a chamber that bears the name of the underworld of the noo, the initiand is told these spirits will kill her, suck the viscera from her body, and carry off her empty corpse, should she violate any of her ritual prescriptions; each night she hears the "voices" of the noo in the form of sacred trumpets hidden from women's view by men. Upon emerging from her seclusion chamberlike a butterfly from a cocoon, according to Tucuna metaphorthe initiand is again assaulted by the noo, now represented by a host of masked dancers, who only in the course of a wild night of drink and dancing shed their costumes and resume human identity. Should the girl survive this ordeal, she is taken on a symbolic tour of heaven, earth, and multiple underworlds, and is finally bathed in a contraceptive solution passed upward from her feet to her head, "to prevent her becoming prematurely pregnant." Only when these magico-ritual checks upon her potentially excessive fertility have been established is the Tucuna woman accorded adult, marriageable status.

In general, specialized initiatory rites for women tend to disappear in urban and later in industrial societies; often they blend into marriage ceremonies or into those lacking gender specificity, such as graduation from school. Still, it is sometimes possible to recognize the traces of older women's initiation rituals within a new context and dramatic program. Thus, for example, such scholars as Angelo Brelich and Walter Burkert have been able to show how, within the Greek polis, broader rituals of women's initiation came to be narrowed so that only a few individuals, drawn always from wealthy, prominent families, passed through a series of initiatory schemata, serving perhaps as representatives of all women in general. In his Lysistrata (lines 641ff.), Aristophanes preserves a list of the age-grades through which these women passed: arrēphoros, aletris, arktos, and kanēphoros, each status conferred by ritual means. While the details of each grade are complex, it may be noted briefly that the last two of these were celebrations and consecrations of a young girl's virginity prior to marriage: As an arktos (lit., "bear") she took up residence with Artemis in the wilds; as a kanēphoros she carried a basket holding sacred objects for the Panathenaia festival celebrated in honor of Athena. (Artemis and Athena were the goddesses most protective of virgins and virginity.) Having played the role of kanēphoros, however, a girl was considered eligible for marriage; in myths such as that of Oreithyia women are abducted and raped while or shortly after appearing as kanēphoros.

Although they may appear in combination in any specific ritual complex, four general "ideal types" of women's initiation have been recognized. These are (1) rituals of bodily mutilation, involving such operations upon the initiand's physical self as tattooing, scarification, clitoridectomy, or other genital surgery as well as such processes as the Navajo "molding"; (2) rituals involving identification with a mythic heroine, whether goddess, culture heroine, primordial ancestress, or some other prototypical figure; (3) rituals involving a cosmic journey, in which the initiand is symbolically conveyed to heavens, underworlds, the four quarters, and other places of cosmologic significance, as a means of lifting her beyond her normal locus and identity; (4) rituals focused upon the play of opposites, wherein such normally exclusive categories as male/female, human/divine, above/below, right/left, black/white, and wild/tame are somehow united within the initiand, establishing her as a being who transcends the dualities of fragmented mundane existence.

In all of these types, three interrelated levels of transformative action are regularly claimed to be accomplished. First, it is claimed that rituals of women's initiation transform a girl into a woman, conferring upon her marriageable status. Second, it is claimed that they renew society, providing it with new members ritually empowered to play productive and reproductive roles for the good of the social totality, whether lineage, tribe, or other corporate entity. Third, it is claimed that they renew the cosmos, by virtue of the homology between the initiand's fertility and that of nature at large. This last claim is the most audacious and fascinating of all.

It must be emphasized, however, that in contrast to male initiations, women's rites do not usually advance those who have completed them toward political offices of power and prestige. For while the status of a woman may be ritually changed from that of child to adult (from unmarriageable to marriageable or even married), the woman's sphere of influence and activity has been restricted in virtually all human societies to the home. In light of this, it appears a reasonable hypothesis that the exorbitant claims of cosmic transformations wrought by women's initiation and of the cosmic significance of an adult female life offer a form of false consciousness that deflects women's attention and lives from the sociopolitical arena, offering a religio-cosmic ground of meaning and action in place of the sociopolitical one reservedand preservedfor men.

See Also

Feminine Sacrality.


The chief attempts to draw theoretical generalizations regarding rituals of women's initiation are D. Visca's "Le iniziazioni feminili: Un problema da riconsiderare," Religioni e Civiltà 2 (1976): 241274; my Emerging from the Chrysalis: Studies in Rituals of Women's Initiation (Cambridge, Mass., 1981); and Judith K. Brown's "A Cross-Cultural Study of Female Initiation Rites," American Anthropologist 65 (1963): 837853. The last of these, however, has been subjected to severe criticism by Harold E. Driver in his "Girls' Puberty Rites and Matrilocal Residence," American Anthropologist 71 (1969): 905908.

Among the finest anthropological case studies of specific data are Victor Turner's The Drums of Affliction: A Study of Religious Processes among the Ndembu of Zambia (London, 1968), pp. 198268; Charlotte J. Frisbie's Kinaaldá: A Study of the Navaho Girl's Puberty Ceremony (Middletown, Conn., 1967); Audrey I. Richards's Chisungu: A Girls' Initiation Ceremony among the Bemba of Northern Rhodesia (London, 1956); Kathleen E. Gough's "Female Initiation Rites on the Malabar Coast," Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 85 (1955): 4580; and Judith Modell's "Female Sexuality, Mockery, and A Challenge to Fate: A Reinterpretation of South Nayar talikettukalyanam," Semiotica 50 (1984): 249268. Classicists have also made considerable progress in the reconstruction of women's initiations as practiced in the ancient world. Among the best of these studies are Angelo Brelich's Paides e Parthenoi (Rome, 1969) and Walter Burkert's "Kekropidensage und Arrephoria: Vom Initiationsritus zum Panathenäenfest," Hermes 94 (1966): 125.

New Sources

Beidelman, T. O. The Cool Knife: Imagery of Gender, Sexuality, and Moral Education in Kaguru Initiation Ritual. Washington, D.C., 1997.

Dodd, David B., and Christopher A. Faraone, eds. Initiation in Ancient Greek Rituals and Narratives: New Perspectives. New York, 2003.

Dowden, Ken. Death and the Maiden: Girls' Initiation Rites in Greek Mythology. New York, 1999.

Gruenbaum, Ellen. The Female Circumcision Controversy: An Anthropological Perspective. Philadelphia, 2001.

Kratz, Corinne Ann. Affecting Performance; Meaning, Movement, and Experience in Okiek Women's Initiation. Washington, D.C., 1994.

Lutkehaus, Nancy C., and Paul B. Roscoe, eds. Gender Rituals: Female Initiation in Melanesia. New York, 1995.

Vida, Vendela. Girls on the Verge: Debutante Dips, Gang Drive-bys, and Other Initiations. New York, 1999.

Bruce Lincoln (1987)

Revised Bibliography