Rites of Passage: Oceanic Rites

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Arnold van Gennep published the classic French text Rites de passage in 1908. Basing his study on ethnological reports, including some from Australia and parts of Melanesia and Polynesia, he noted how people change their social status throughout their lives. The break between these social spaces is like a pivot upon which one's life trajectory alters direction. These pivots, or liminal periods, are critical moments, and ritual is the principal means of safely navigating through to the next stage.

One may question whether van Gennep's theory tends to impose a threefold pattern of separation, transition and incorporation onto complex rites. Nevertheless, Oceanic cultures generally accept that people are "made," not born; that is, they are formed by social recognition as much as biological gestation. Rites of passage, common throughout Oceania, accompany transitions in people's lives: childless people into parents, children into adults, living people into ancestors.

Birth and Parenthood

Most Oceanic cultures have traditionally provided ways of recognizing parenthood and acknowledging the presence of new life in the community. In Aotearoa, New Zealand, the Maori would perform a tohi rite in which a newborn child was dedicated to a particular god while immersing it in water or sprinkling it with water from a branch dipped in a stream or the sea. Severing of the umbilical cord at this time was symbolic of separating the child from the world of darkness and its incorporation into the world of light. The umbilical cord was buried with stones placed on topone for every night the mother had experienced the trials of childbirth. The rite was usually performed only for male children, though in a few cases a first-born female might be honored in this way.

Throughout Oceania, naming ceremonies might occur months or even years after the birth of the child. In the past, infant mortality was so high that it wasn't until after a year had passed that the family could be reasonably confident that the child was out of danger. In Tahiti, the infant was known as "milk eater" until the time it began to crawl, after which it was referred to as a child and addressed by its given name.

Birth order can affect ritual. Gilbert Herdt describes how, for the Sambia people of Papua New Guinea, the birth of a first child is elaborately celebrated. The next birth, however, is observed in a more truncated fashion, and birth ceremonies are suspended after the fourth child. Rites welcoming new life also serve to recognize parents in their new status in the community. Once parenthood is established there is less need to acknowledge it further.

In modern times in Palau, in Micronesia, particularly if a woman is a mother for the first time, she goes into seclusion and spends time in an enclosure to be bathed with hot water steeped with aromatic herbs. This procedure, called omesurech, is meant to cleanse her and to promote healing. However it is also a rite of social recognition. The number of days of bathing and steaming depends on the social rank of the woman. After the proper number of days has elapsed, the new mother is decorated and emerges from the steam chamber. Later, in a more private setting, kin exchange gifts. These gifts used to be beads and crescent-shaped objects that women wore as neck ornaments; nowadays, U.S. dollars are given.

In rites such as these, Oceanic cultures acknowledge biological events in social ways, leading to the recognition of personhood and identity, and ultimately to what it means to be human.

Transition to Adulthood

Initiation rites received special treatment in van Gennep's Rites de Passage. However, there has been much discussion in academic circles as to what constitutes initiation rites, and whether, or in what ways, they differ from puberty rites. Is the circumcision of a seven-year-old boy a late birth rite or an early initiation rite? Is the seclusion of a girl when she experiences her first menstruation a puberty rite that is essentially different from the group initiation rites of her brothers? With only the gradual appearance of male features such as facial hair, becoming a "man" can be a long and complex process.

Biology is not the sole marker of social identity. Culture intervenes in ritual forms, and often there may be a series of initiation rites spanning many years, all contributing to the achievement of full adulthood. In The Voice of the Tambaran, Donald Tuzin gives an account of the Arapesh tambaran cult in Papua New Guinea, describing how the Arapesh male goes through five grades of the cult, from the naiveties of early childhood to the wisdom and authority of old age.

Initiation rites in Oceania include combinations of various elements: being instructed by mentors; acquiring sacred, sexual, or cultural knowledge; displaying subservience; being acquainted with sacred objects; overcoming pain and fear; observing food, sexual, and other taboos; regressing to childlike states; preparing to assume new responsibilities; dreaming; receiving a new name; and body marking, such as genital operations, extracting a tooth, or receiving tattoos.

Female initiation is not practiced as widely as male initiation and where it does occur, it is usually associated with a girl's first menstruation. In the Sepik region of Papua New Guinea, after a time of special dietary restrictions and instruction in the ways of women, a girl is ceremonially bathed, as if after birth, and then reintroduced to the community amid much celebration. In some societies, full initiation into womanhood is complete only after the birth of her first child.


In much of the Pacific, receiving a tattoo was once both a spiritual process and a cultural requirement for those wishing to hold various positions within society. Tattooing does more than alter the appearance of the body: it transforms the wearers' sense of self. For men in Samoa, the traditional tattoo, called pe'a, runs from just above the waist to just below the knees. In the past, most boys would begin the tattoo process between the ages of fourteen and eighteen. Completion of the pe'a signaled the boy's transition to manhood. Today the pe'a is performed on fewer men as they reevaluate the pain, cost, and social worth of wearing one.

The traditional tattoo of Samoan women, called malu, was performed on young women somewhere between the ages of fourteen and twenty-five. The malu is placed primarily on the thighs and knees, but it can also be found on the lower abdomen, wrists, and hands. Malu means "to protect," and while women's tattoos may have had protective significance in the past, in contemporary culture they are discussed in terms of family status and cultural commitment.

As a display of cultural pride, many Polynesians, both male and female, now wear forms of tattoo that draw upon both traditional Polynesian and contemporary Western motifs. Modern-day tattoos may differ from traditional tattoos in placement and design. One sees tattoos on wrists, arms, and lower legs, and some modern armbands are called Tatau Pisikoa (Peace Corps tattoos). Moreover, tattoos may now be on only one arm or leg, thus breaking with the bilateral body symmetry of traditional tatau. One even sees tattooed words, such at Talofa (greeting).

Genital operations

Operations on the penis are widely practiced in Oceania. Often they involve superincision, whereby the foreskin is cut at the top but not completely removed. In parts of Papua New Guinea, particularly among Austronesian speaking groups, superincision is still practiced. The ritual is documented in the film Napalunga (Katim Skin), by Bike Johnstone and Ignatius Talania.

Among the Kabana of the West New Britain district of Papua New Guinea, a boy is "superincised" while lying on top of his father's or mother's younger sister. The woman gets on her hands and knees and the boy lies on her back. The man chosen to cut the child inserts a small piece of bamboo under the foreskin, says a spell on the razor, spits a fine spray of ginger juice on the boy's penis to anesthetize it, and with a smooth stroke cuts the top of the foreskin. After the incision the boy's penis is wrapped in a leaf, and a burning ember is placed on the ground between his feet to heat the wound and facilitate the drying process.

Circumcision and allied genital operations have been interpreted in various ways: as a mark of subjection, a test of endurance, a hygienic precaution, a sanctification of procreation, a badge of incorporation into the tribal community, a symbolic castration by a dominating father figure, and an expression of male envy of women's menstruation. On Wogeo Island off the north coast of Papua New Guinea people actually refer to penile incision as men's menstruation.

Genital operations in themselves are often only part of a rite of passage. Robert Levy is of the opinion that for the Tahitians, "supercision" [sic] was part of becoming an adult but the operation was never conceived as the point of transition. Raymond Firth has noted how, on Tikopia in the Solomon Islands, the "kindling of the ovens" of youth involving superincision for young males was accompanied by exchanges of food and other goods. While it was part of a wider ritual process, it did give the boys a new status, allowing them to participate in adult assemblies. Throughout the Pacific, genital operations are generally limited to young males, though in the past among some aboriginal Australian groups, female initiation might include ritual defloration or laceration of the vulva.


People in the Pacific treat death with more solemnity than any other event in a person's existence. Customs vary in ways of treating the corpse, mourning, and preservation of the remains. Death rites differ according to the status of the deceased, beliefs about veneration of the ancestors, and whether it was a "good" or "bad" death. A transition period is marked primarily by the mourning period around the body of the dead person. However, in most societies there are commemorations by the family after certain periods of time. The commemoration reminds the living that the deceased family member has finally passed into the place of the ancestors.

In New Zealand, particularly among the Maori population, people may gather to hear the last wishes of the dying person. At the time of death the tuku karakia is chanted, with the intention of releasing the person's spirit from the body so as to commence the journey to the underworld. Later, during the funeral (tangi), songs and chants are addressed to the dead person. A year later there is an unveiling of the headstone for the grave. This replaces the traditional hahunga ceremony, when the bones of the deceased would be disinterred and placed in a receptacle for placement in a sacred location reserved for the bones of the ancestors.

In Australia, a dead person's close relatives will sing and invoke the sacred names of the dead person's water hole and country, with its mythological associations. In Papua New Guinea, rites for the dead and dying involve many layers of meaning. There are fears and concerns over the possible malicious intent of the ghost of the deceased, financial obligations, and consequences of accusations of poison or sorcery. The family member has been transformed into one of the living dead, often leaving the family in a state of anxiety and fear.

Death is not necessarily an event, but rather a condition that may last for years. It is the state between life and afterlife, but may also include the sick and very old. In recent times in Papua New Guinea, some elderly people are officiating at their own funerals while still alive and relatively healthy. They take the opportunity to say farewell to friends and family, seek to reconcile sour relationships, bequeath their valuables to family and friends, and conduct a feast. This growing practice demonstrates creativity and initiative by the principal actor in the transition from elder to ancestor.

Personal Significance

How do individuals cope with rites of passage, particularly initiation experiences in their personal lives? Papua New Guinean Celine Yakasere, now a Catholic sister, has written about her initiation experience. "I felt that I was isolated from the rest of the village people, especially my friends. When the hair is shaved off, you feel shy to walk in public, or afraid of your school mates who will make fun of you. Finally, when a girl has gone through this process she feels proud that she is now a woman and not a girl anymore" (Yakasere, 1991, p. 4).

Many rites are concerned with defining proper male and female roles. Marilyn Strathern claims that among certain groups in Melanesia, initiations dismantle identities that were originally androgynous in order to create single-sex people capable of reproducing in relationships with each other. Often, concepts of male and female emphasize the differences between the sexes, yet they are seen as complementary rather than oppositional, and both are viewed as essential to the continuity of the social whole.

Some rites of passage divide a person's life into "before" and "after." One is never the same again. Other rites occur in stages and effect a more gradual transition. Some, such as the Tikopian superincision rites, confront the young man with some of his basic social ties, reaffirming them and thus making him well aware of the time when he will have to adopt them in earnest.

Social Significance

Rites of passage, particularly those associated with initiation, nearly always involve a social withdrawal, signified by movement away from the group or camp, and a return to that life as an active participant but with a different status. The change in social status is represented by symbolic actions such as ritual bathing, a public reception, or physical changes like scarring of the body.

Scholars differ in their interpretations of the social significance of such actions. Functionalists see sociopolitical solidarity in the support given to participants as they make a social transition in their lives. Structuralists tend to focus on sex and role reversals during the rites, while those basing their analysis on psychological theories detect in men an envy and desire to emulate the procreative powers of women. In the late twentieth century, studies have focused on the cultural construction of masculinity.

Despite differing theoretical approaches, most will agree that rites of passage are social events. Male initiation tends to be more public. The number of people involved in female initiation is normally more restricted, yet female rites celebrate both a woman's role within the domestic realm and her political and economic role within the public realm. Rites of passage usually have socioeconomic significance as well, with gifts and services offered both at the time of the rite and for the future.

Cosmic Significance

Rites of passage are cultural means of defining birth, maturity, aging, and death, and the means of making the transitions between these social spaces. The elaborate cosmologies typical of Pacific peoples are rich in their ability to give sacred meaning to these life crises. Death is seen as a transition through which a person passes to another life not entirely unlike the one he or she has left. The transition is foreshadowed in the symbolic death and rebirth that is the central focus of much initiation ritual.

The many Oceanic cultures vary in their ways of expressing the underlying dynamics of birth and death. Circumcision is not only a ritual killing, but the boy who has lost his foreskin is sometimes said to have emerged from his mother. Many rituals symbolize regeneration in return to a primordial event that took place at the beginning of time. Through initiation the novice establishes a relationship with the sacred history of the community.

Oceanic rites often involve secret and sacred objects that have symbolic significance and mythical associations. People continue to learn about sacred ritual and myth throughout their lives. Thus, rites of passage open up new possibilities for entering into this metacultural and trans-historical realm.

Rites in the Modern World

People in Oceania continue to move from one stage of life to another. Yet with the demise of many traditional rites of passage, transitions can become ritualized in various ways, such as adolescents initiating adolescents, sometimes violently. Evidence of this is seen in an upsurge in membership in occult movements in Papua New Guinea secondary schools. For example, members of a "generation name" group or "family" use secret words or signs to greet one another when they meet. They are also expected to monitor each other's behavior for adherence to the generation-name "character." For example, a certain generation name may have a promiscuous character, and all students bearing that generation name from year to year are expected to display promiscuous sexual behavior in accordance with the character of the name. Other generation-name characters include hating teachers, being a fire bug, and satan worship. Generation names are passed on at initiation ceremonies of an abusive type known as bastardization rituals, often involving alcohol, drugs and physical assault.

Forms of circumcision and superincision continue to be practiced today in the Pacific. Uncircumcised males in Tonga, Samoa, and among ethnic Fijians would find themselves the object of jokes and derision. To be called "uncut" is an insult. In Vanuatu, the Bislama term dip-skin ("deep skin," i.e., uncircumcised) is used as a generalized swear word. In some circles, traditional genital operations are replaced by inserting ball bearings under the skin of the penisa procedure supposed to increase one's sexual prowess.

The initiate of the older generation is being replaced by the graduate of the younger generation. With most young people attending school, leaving little time for or interest in traditional initiation rites, they are left to experiment with novel ways to gain prestige and social standing. For some, reaching drinking age or gaining a driver's license opens the door to a new status, as does secondary school or university graduation.

In many parts of Oceania, ceremonies are now often blessed by church ministers or accompanied by prayer. In places like Samoa, weddings, funerals, and the conferring of titles involve a mixture of Christian rites and neotraditional exchanges. The vow ceremonies of indigenous members of Catholic religious orders often demonstrate unique combinations of Catholic worship and traditional rites of passage. In the East Sepik Province of Papua New Guinea, Sister Theresia Nakankwien of Yangoru, wearing traditional attire, had to bend over to make her way through the tunnel formed by the linked arms of her uncles. Having performed this gesture of humble submission, she stood erect to face the community as a woman to be respected. She then changed from her traditional attire and turned toward the altar to pronounce her vows as a Sister of Mercy. Ten years after the event she says, "I still feel that new identity, both within me and within my community."


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Rites of Passage: Oceanic Rites

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