Rites of Passage

views updated May 23 2018


Rites of passage are rituals and ceremonies that celebrate the transition from one stage of life to another. The recognition of many of these, especially birth and death, is universal, in all known cultures, both past and present. Additionally, one or more important points between birth and death, such as the transition from childhood to adulthood, marriage, and retirement, are marked with ceremonies. Sometimes these rites demark a biological change, such as a girl's first menstruation, while many others commemorate purely cultural events, such as religious affirmations and confirmations (for example, baptism and confirmation in Christianity, bar and bat mitzvahs in Judaism), or secular events such as getting a driver's license, graduating from high school, or retirement may also be associated with rituals and ceremonies that are largely expressive.

The concept of rites of passage was first explicated in 1909 by Arnold van Gennep (1873–1957) in his book Les Rites de Passage. While the title of van Gennep's book is usually translated into English as "The Rites of Passage," it might be better translated as "The Rites of Transition" as his study dealt with the ceremonies that accompany the transitions individuals make between various life stages. In addition to the rituals and ceremonies associated with life transitions, van Gennep identified a second category of rites of passage, those that mark particular points in the passage of time, especially as indicated by celestial events. These include, for example, the coming of the new year, the new moon, the summer and winter solstices and the vernal and autumnal equinoxes. Van Gennep then distinguished three sequential stages of rites of passage: rites of separation (séparation), rites of transition (marge), and rites of incorporation (aggrégation). Taken together, he called these the schéma of the rites de passage. While the three stages characterize all rites of passage, van Gennep claimed that they are not equally emphasized in all ceremonies or by all cultural groups. For example, the element of separation is accentuated in funerary rituals while transition, which marks the period when an individual is removed from one status but not yet admitted to another, is most prominent in initiation ceremonies. Rites of incorporation are emphasized in marriage.

Van Gennep showed that rites of passage involve symbolism such as simulated birth and death or death and resurrection. Sometimes rites involve a ritual passing through a door or archway, symbolizing an individual's "death" and "rebirth" into a new status. In the incorporation stage of rites of passage, the individual is often given a new name or title, as has traditionally been the case in Western culture when women marry or when one receives an advanced academic degree (such as Mr. to Dr.).

The anthropologist Victor Turner (1967) characterized the transitional phase as particularly sacred or troublesome. This "liminal" (from the Latin limen, meaning "threshold") period is one where the individual is between one status and another. During the liminal phase, initiates often feel a sense of separation from the everyday but also a feeling of togetherness with other initiates. Turner (1969) referred to this sense of togetherness as communitas. He also emphasized the importance of rituals, such as those that demark life transitions. Mary Douglas, another anthropologist, argued that all social transitions are perceived as dangerous. Moreover, because people in the transitional phase between life stages exist in a temporarily undefined status, their place in society is itself undefined.

While van Gennep focused primarily on rituals directed at life transitions for individuals, in their 1942 text, Principles of Anthropology, Eliot D. Chapple and Carleton S. Coon distinguished between individual-oriented rites of passage and group-oriented rituals that they termed "rites of intensification." Chapple and Coon claimed that events such as birth, marriage, and death alter normal social interaction and that rites of passage are mechanisms that serve to restore social equilibrium. Rites of intensification, such as planting and harvest ceremonies, in contrast to rites of passage, are community, rather than individual, events and create and maintain identity and cohesion in social groups.

Rites of Passage in America

The development of rites of passage in America parallels the populating of the continent as well as the social change that has taken place since colonial times. Native Americans had, and continue to maintain in many cases, their own rites of birth, transition to adulthood, marriage, and death, while the first settlers from Europe, and later from other parts of the world, brought their particular rites of passage with them. The forms and functions of rites of passage have changed over time as culture has changed, as well. In the American colonial period, for example, children were often regarded as small adults who should transition to fully adult behavior and responsibilities as rapidly as possible. Adolescence, as the social category acknowledged in the early twenty-first century, was either nonexistent as it seems to be in many other cultures, or very brief. This meant that life transitions not only took place at different times than they do now but that their meaning was often different from today's, as well. Moreover, some of the rites of passage that may have been important in the past are no longer significant while others that integrate with modern society and culture have been introduced in relatively recent times.

Examples of Rites of Passage in America

Since there are many different cultural and ethnic groups in America, the examples of rites of passage that follow are necessarily both selective and brief. They are arranged to approximate chronological order over the lifespan, although some, such as marriage and death, do not necessarily occur when individuals reach specific ages.

Birth Rites Although van Gennep claimed that birth constitutes one of the primary transitions in human life there are relatively few true birth rites, either in America or elsewhere. Several explanations for this are possible. For one, until very recently in human history, infant mortality was so common that expending ritual effort on births, or the newborn, may have been regarded as premature. Or, babies may have not been thought to be fully human until certain rites, such as naming, took place. Rites that take place either before the birthing and soon after are common, however.

Giving small gifts to newborns or new parents dates, at least, to Roman times in Europe. However, the modern form of such gift giving, the "baby shower," appeared in the late nineteenth century in the form of "teas" for new mothers. These took place after the baby was born because pregnant women, and especially those of social standing, did not appear in public. In the early twentieth century, these teas became "showers." The "showering" of gifts on expectant mothers is largely a post-World War II phenomenon. Showers involve gifts for the baby, often accompanied by advice for the parents-to-be, a meal, and, commonly, party games. Showers are generally held for first children only. Similar events for second or later children, if held, are sometimes called "sprinkles." Traditionally, men were excluded from baby showers although that rule has become relaxed since the 1970s.

Rites of Passage for the Young While rites of passage for birthing and for newborns are rare in America, religious rituals for infants and children are important.

Baptism Baptism is the closest thing to a birth rite in Christianity. The modern form of baptism is descended from ancient Judaism wherein non-Jews were baptized as part of a conversion rite. Baptism, derived from the Greek word "baptizein," meaning "to immerse," involved immersion in early Christianity. While immersion continues to be practiced in some Christian denominations, the more common practice of sprinkling water on the fore-heads of infants developed later. For early Christians, baptism, normally held during the Easter vigil, served to initiate neophytes into the Christian community, usually after an extended period of study. Because baptism was a rite of conversion, it was not a rite of birth in early Christianity. However, with the Christianization of Europe, it evolved into a rite to be held within eight days of birth. As such, baptism resolved the child's ambiguous status of being incapable of committing a sin yet tainted by original sin. Because the rite publicly initiated a Christian, baptisms became known unofficially as "christenings." Social gatherings, similar to the receptions held after weddings and funerals, also frequently follow christenings. Many Christian denominations now either disregard baptism entirely or, at minimum, no longer hold it as essential for salvation.

Circumcision Jewish fathers are prescribed to circumcise their sons on the eighth day after their birth. This practice is based on the belief that when God chose Abram (eventually known as Abraham) to be the founder of Judaism, he commanded him to circumcise himself and his sons. The ritual of circumcision is termed a brit or bris milah, meaning "the covenant of circumcision." Normally, fathers do not do the circumcision themselves but, instead, call on a mohel, or ritual circumciser. The two main parts of a bris milah are the circumcision and the naming of the baby. In addition, a religious feast, the seudat mitzvah, follows the ceremony. A similar rite for baby girls, called a bris bat, involves no medical procedure, and is primarily a naming ceremony. In addition to the bris, the Hebrew naming, and the banquet, godparents are usually designated at these events.

Rites of Passage to Adulthood Ceremonial markers of the transition from childhood to adulthood are, worldwide, the most common form of rites of passage. In traditional societies, such ceremonies, often known as initiation rites, may involve tests of physical stamina, ordeals that include pain and/or mutilation, periods of seclusion, and instruction in esoteric or secret information.

In Western culture, including the United States, individuals have an extended transitional period—adolescence that is largely absent in traditional societies. Hence, for the most part, American society lacks definitive markers of the child-adult transition. For most young Americans, there is a series of events that, in effect, string out the child-adult transition. These include such secular events as moving from grade school to high school (perhaps with middle or junior high school in between), getting a driver's license, registering to vote, graduating from high school or college, and achieving the age at which consumption of alcoholic beverages is legal. Since boys and girls alike share these events, their substitution for traditional ceremonies, that were usually religious in nature, reflects the weakening of traditional gender roles. However, some rituals involve entrance into society, most often for young women, that announce adult status and, hence, eligibility for marriage and child rearing. The "sweet sixteen" party and the debutante ball, described below, are two examples of such rituals. Although both have faded somewhat in popularity, they served to announce that initiates had attained adult status and, thus, could now engage in dating and, eventually, marriage. The quinceañera, traditionally celebrated on the fifteenth birthday, is a similar event for girls of Hispanic descent.

Unlike boys, the transition from childhood to adulthood for girls has more significant physiological markers. While a public announcement of their first menstruation would be embarrassing and humiliating for most American girls, this was not the case in many Native American cultures. Among the Apache, for example, the Sunrise Ceremony is a rite of passage for girls to women and is held during the summer following a girl's first menstruation.

In the United States, the confirmation, practiced by Catholics and some Protestant denominations, and the bar and bit mitzvah for Jews are rites of passage that demarcate childhood and adulthood in a religious sense, although not necessarily with respect to life in general.

Confirmation The evolution of baptism from a rite of initiation into Christendom to a birth rite left behind a ritual vacuum. That is, baptism no longer functioned as a transitional rite between childhood and adulthood. Hence, confirmation, initially a part of the baptism rite, eventually replaced baptism as an adolescent rite of passage into adulthood. Although some sects, such as the Anabaptists, rejected the validity of infant baptism and hence required rebaptism, for Catholics and some Protestant denominations confirmation serves to reaffirm the grace bestowed in infant baptism.

Bar and Bat Mitzvah Jewish boys become full participants in community religious life at age thirteen when they become bar mitzvah. The bar mitzvah ceremony, while common, is not a requirement for becoming bar mitzvah and is a relatively recent innovation. The ceremony commonly consists of the initiate being called on to recite a blessing over the weekly reading from the Torah. The initiate usually makes a speech, beginning with the phrase "Today, I am a man," as well. The bat mitzvah, first celebrated in 1922, is a similar ceremony for Jewish girls and it takes place when they are twelve years of age, although the ceremony can be postponed until they are thirteen, as with boys. In some Jewish sects, the bat mitzvah is similar to the bar mitzvah while, in orthodox orders, females cannot participate in certain religious rituals and, hence, the bat mitzvah is essentially a party.

A rite of passage from childhood to adulthood at age twelve or thirteen may seem early and, indeed, those who become bar and bat mitzvah rarely assume fully adult roles. However, in strictly Orthodox eastern European Jewish communities, boys of thirteen did experience a fundamental life change: they left their families for study at schools known as yeshivas for religious study. Except for holiday visits, many never returned to their families. Among modern Jewish communities, this practice is retained only among strictly Orthodox groups such as the Hasidim.

Bar and bat mitzvahs usually involve elaborate receptions that follow the ceremony itself, much as is the case with weddings. The ceremonies and the receptions are important social events for members of local Jewish communities and also reunite family members who may live far apart.

Graduation Graduation is the culmination of a student's high school or college career. Traditionally, graduations consisted of two parts, the commencement and the baccalaureate. Commencement is the part of the graduation ceremony where graduates receive their degrees and, traditionally, flip the tassels on their hats from one side to the other to show their changed status. The baccalaureate, which dates to a 1432 statute at Oxford University, required the graduate to deliver a sermon in Latin. The tradition has continued in America although the sermons are no longer in Latin, no longer religious in nature in public institutions, and are delivered either by school officials or an invited guest. The class valedictorian, the student who has graduated first academically in his or her class, delivers the valediction at the ceremony. The valediction usually involves a recollection of the classes' past and exhortations for the future.

Like many other rites of passage, graduation involves symbolic clothing. These involve caps, gowns, and, depending on the degree being received, hoods. Because early university education in Europe was in the hands of clerics and was largely religious in nature, students and teachers alike wore robes. Hoods may have served to protect tonsured clerical heads until the introduction of the skullcap. Oxford and Cambridge standardized university dress in the sixteenth century and these traditions were exported with the founding of the first American universities beginning with Harvard College in 1636.

An intercollegiate commission met at Columbia University in 1895 in order to establish a system for academic dress. The commission prescribed the materials and styles for gowns, including the colors that designated different fields of study. Although some minor changes have been made since, the regulations adopted by the American Council on Education in 1932 remain in place for academic costumes. While black is the prescribed color for gowns, in the 1950s, graduates from high schools, colleges, and universities began to wear gowns in their school colors.

Diplomas, class rings, and yearbooks are common markers of graduation. Early diplomas were of sheepskin. Parchment began to replace sheepskin around 1900 although diplomas are still often referred to as "sheepskins." The first class ring was developed in 1835 at the United States Military Academy at West Point but rings for high schools and colleges did not become fashionable until the turn of the twentieth century. The high school and college yearbook developed from school newspapers and literary magazines. Yearbooks, which may date to the 1600s in the United States, were initially scrapbooks that contained various school memorabilia. The Yale Banner, the oldest college yearbook in the United States, dates to 1842 and originally published enrollment statistics and memberships in societies. Waterville Academy in Waterville, New York, began publishing The Evergreen, the first high school yearbook, in 1845.

Graduations at all levels are commonly celebrated with graduation parties. These celebrate the changed status of the graduates. While most high school graduates in the early 2000s went on to higher education of some kind, those who did not were expected to become employed and assume fully adult roles in society. The same was true of college graduates.

Other "Coming of Age" Rites

The Debutante Ball The debutante ball is a traditional means of introducing young women, aged sixteen to eighteen, to society. The ball is a format for their "debut" into the adult world. The American debut tradition is rooted in English custom and is based on the idea that mates for daughters of aristocratic families were to be of similar social standing. While there is no formal aristocracy in America, debutante balls are most often for the daughters of well-to-do families.

Balls begin with the formal introduction of young women and their partners to guests in the form of a promenade across the ballroom. Masters of ceremonies, who introduce the debutantes, often comment on their gowns and some of their activities. Normally a cohort of young women debut at the same time. The introductions are followed by several formal dances. A formal meal and more dancing follow.

The tradition of the debutante ball began in American in 1748 in Philadelphia but the best-known event for debutantes is the Mayflower Ball, held in New York City. The New York branch of the Society of Mayflower Descendents was organized in 1894. They held their first annual meeting at the Waldorf Hotel in 1895 and, thereafter, held dinner banquets each November in celebration of the signing of the Mayflower Compact. The first Society of Mayflower Descendants in the State of New York Annual Debutante Ball was held on 29 October 1959 in the Grand Ballroom of the Plaza Hotel and was received by then Governor and Mrs. W. Rice Brewster. The balls, traditionally held in October or November, involve a gourmet meal, orchestral music, and presentation of the Plymouth Awards to recognize individuals for their efforts in philanthropy and education. The ball is regarded as one of the highlights of the New York social season.

Getting a Driver's License and Turning Twenty-One The automobile is just over a century old but has established itself as one of America's most useful, and cherished, commodities. In response to accidents by unskilled motorists, states demanded licenses and drivers' tests in the decade after 1908. In the early 2000s, most states licensed drivers at age sixteen. For young people, this is a momentous event. The ability to drive affords new opportunities in terms of getting a job and driving to work, driving to sporting events or other recreational destinations, dating, or simply cruising. Moreover, cars are major status markers for adolescents. In terms of van Gennep's stages of rites of passage, getting and driving with a drivers permit can be regarded as a rite of separation while the drivers test is the rite of transition. Acquiring a license is a rite of incorporation.

Attaining legal drinking age, now twenty-one in all states, is a second secular rite of passage to adulthood. While many, and perhaps most, young people in the United States consume alcoholic beverages before turning twenty-one, the ability to do so legally and openly is important as it also permits access to establishments, such as bars and nightclubs, that were previously off limits. While there are no standardized or socially sanctioned rituals for either getting a drivers license or turning twenty-one, these are typically events to be celebrated, the former by driving and the latter by drinking, usually with peers. Both males and females share these particular coming-of-age events, reflecting the breakdown of traditional adult gender roles in modern America.

Marriage Marriage is, by far, the most ceremonial of American rites of passage. In terms of rites of passage, it probably also has the most explicitly formulated stages in terms of van Gennep's typology with the engagement, the marriage ceremony, and the honeymoon.

The marriage ceremony itself is often both preceded and followed by expressive events directed at both the prospective bride and the groom. "Bridal showers" are parties wherein friends and relatives "shower" the bride-to-be with gifts. Bridal showers are probably a legacy of the practice of the dowry, the goods that a bride brings with her upon marriage. Dowries often included both items of value, such as jewelry and money, as well as household items, and helped in establishing a new household. Traditionally, the maid or matron of honor or the bridesmaids host the bridal shower but if they cannot, other family members or friends may do so. Early bridal showers involved only very close friends or family member and were restricted to female participation. "Couples" showers wherein both the bride and groom attend, along with their female and male friends and relatives, are becoming popular.

Males who are about to be married are commonly the honored guests at bachelor parties, also known as "stag" parties. Soldiers in ancient Sparta reputedly held the first bachelor parties on the night before the groom's wedding. At the feast, the groom said goodbye to his previous life of freedom and pledged loyalty to his colleagues. Modern bachelor parties are held either at a bar or night club or at the residence of one of the groom's friends. Such parties may involve a great deal of drinking, sometimes accompanied by pornographic films and/or the participation of female strippers or prostitutes. In the early twenty-first century, golf outings or weekend trips to destinations such as Las Vegas have become more common forms of bachelor parties. Bachelorette parties for prospective brides, although of more recent origin, are common and similar to those for males.

Joining Voluntary Organizations Most Americans are members of one or more voluntary organizations such as clubs, churches, sports teams, college fraternities and sororities, and even secret societies. Many of these, particularly those that involve secret information and signals of recognition, such as handshakes, involve rites of passage for initiates. The Freemasons provide an illustrative example. While the exact origin of Freemasonry is not known, it most probably grew out of medieval stonemason guilds. When apprentice masons became master stonemasons, they were provided with secret passwords that permitted them to work anywhere in Europe. By the 1600s, membership in guilds was opened and individuals joined the secret societies as a display of status. The governing body of Freemasonry, the Grand Lodge of England, was established in 1717 and Masonic lodges opened in the United States by the 1780s. In America, such luminaries as Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, and Paul Revere were Freemasons.

Initiation into the Freemasons and similar societies requires a secretive rite of passage laden with symbols. Initiates are blindfolded and a noose is placed around their necks with the rope hanging down their backs. A dagger is held to the left side of their chest. One pants leg is rolled up and initiates wear one shoe and one slipper. In this condition, they are led around the lodge. As the initiates make their oaths of allegiance, the noose and the dagger are removed. They are then told that had they attempted to escape they would have either been stabbed by the dagger or choked by the noose. Like other rites of passage, this liminal stage exhibits disorientation and possible danger. The rite of passage is complete when the newly initiated freemason is awarded a lambskin apron and white gloves by the master of the lodge. The initiation is followed by a communal meal.

Freemasonry in the early 2000s was devoted to social improvement via self-development and philanthropy, as was the case with many of the other social organizations, such as the Shriners and Odd Fellows. For example, Masons founded orphanages, homes for widows, and homes for the elderly in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, prior to government provision of such social safety nets. These societies also provide camaraderie, social support, and recreational programs and resources for members.

Hazing On 4 February 1978, Charles Stenzel, a Klan Alpine Fraternity pledge at Alfred University, died after drinking a pint of bourbon and a mixture of wine and beer and being forced into the trunk of a car with two other pledges. For some years, students at Glenbrook North High School in Northbrook, Illinois, held a "powder puff" football game each spring between seniors and juniors as a rite of passage for the juniors to their senior year. On 4 May 2003, the event got out of hand with junior girls being beaten, covered with paint, and having mud and feces thrown in their faces. Five of the girls had to be hospitalized as a result of the hazing.

According to a study conducted by Nadine Hoover and Norman Pollard of Alfred University hazing, like the examples above, is extremely common in American high schools. They found that 48 percent of students who belong to groups report that they were subjected to hazing and that 43 percent indicated that their hazing involved humiliating acts. Moreover, 56 percent of those who were subjected to humiliating activities during hazing were expected to engage in illegal or potentially illegal behavior, typically involving substance abuse, sexual activities, or vandalism. Hoover and Pollard reported that 81 percent of college athletes who experienced humiliating acts during hazing were expected to engage in potentially illegal activities. While both male and female high school students are at risk of being hazed, males appear to be most at risk, especially in terms of dangerous activities. Forty-two states in the United States had anti-hazing laws by 2004.

Retirement Americans often face retirement with varying degrees of anticipation and dread. The anticipation is for a future free of work while the dread is based on the massive lifestyle change that will follow, the possible loss of friends and colleagues from work, and the questions about what one is to do with all of the newly found time and freedom. This was not always so, however. Retirement is largely a development of the twentieth century. In agrarian American, people continued to work so long as they were physically able to do so. With migration to cities and the rise of factory labor, however, youth became an asset and age a liability so changeover in the workforce became a necessity. In 1935, the Social Security Administration was created to provide older workers with income should they retire, allowing younger workers to take their place. While social security initially provided meager income, Congress increased benefits by 77 percent in 1950 and again by 20 percent in 1972 along with yearly cost of living increases. Employer retirement programs covered approximately half of all workers by the 1960s and the average retirement age fell from 70 in 1930 to 62 in the early 2000s. Poverty rates among the elderly of nearly 35 percent in 1960 declined to under 10 percent by 2004.

Dora Costa illustrates that income has become a less significant constraint on retirement than once was the case because of retirement plans. Moreover, she points out that leisure had become cheaper than it had ever been. Television was the major source of leisure for Americans and public leisure facilities that were once available only to the wealthy, such as golf courses and parks, were now assessable to the public. The automobile and relatively inexpensive air travel made that leisure travel affordable.

The act of retirement itself typically involves a celebration. These can take on a variety of forms but usually involve a dinner, speeches, and gifts. Retirement speeches often are in the form of "roasts" wherein retirees undergo mild ridicule for their exploits during their working years. The gold watch is a traditional retirement gift but has come to be regarded as somewhat of a joke.

Death Funerals are big business in America but they were not always so. In pre-Civil War times, death was a family affair. The great majority of deaths occurred at home and preparation of the deceased for burial took place there, as well. Female relatives usually prepared corpses by washing and dressing in a sack or winding cloth. The deceased was then placed in a pine coffin. After a one or two day vigil over the body by family and friends, the deceased was transported to the burial site. For urban dwellers, burials took place in cemeteries but rural residents were often buried on their own land.

Prior to the Civil War, embalming was practiced only for preserving corpses for dissection in medical schools. With the massive war casualties, and the need for transporting the dead home for burial, embalming became a necessity. The National Funeral Director's Association was founded in 1882 and members immediately began campaigns to convince the public of the need for embalming and professional funeral services. Funeral "homes" were established in order to move the business of dealing with the dead from their real homes. While pre Civil War mourners occasionally viewed the deceased either at home or during the funeral procession, viewing became an integral part of the death rite in funeral homes.

While a great deal of research has been directed at attitudes toward death and dying, funerals in America have undergone remarkably little academic study. There seem to be some commonalities, however. Ronald Grimes lists several of what he calls "gestures" rather than rites, per se, that surround death in America. These include:

  1. Anticipating death through stories, contemplation, and rationalization.
  2. Observing taboos such as wearing special clothing, often of symbolic colors and not saying anything bad about the deceased.
  3. Mourning, which may involve weeping, wailing, appearing to be sad, refusing to eat, or avoiding laughter.
  4. Marking an end to mourning by holding a ceremony after a specified period of time or remarrying.
  5. Protecting survivors from the dead through rituals and behaviors that send the soul or spirit toward its destination or dealing with remains in symbolic ways.
  6. Announcing deaths via notices and obituaries.
  7. Congregating and comforting the bereaved through visitation, religious ceremonies, or parties.
  8. Either dramatizing death's finality by displaying the corpse and then disposing of it by burial or cremation or denying its finality by embalming or otherwise preserving the body and referring to the deceased with circumlocutions such as "being at rest."
  9. Commemorating the dead by making donations in their memory, naming children after them, retaining keepsakes, maintaining grave sites or memorials, and visiting graves.

American ethnic groups, as well as individual families, emphasize these "gestures" to varying and different degrees. Culture and individual attitudes prescribe and proscribe which of these are emphasized. In many ethnic groups, funerals and interments are followed by feasting, music, drinking, and revelry while, in others, mourners simply go home.

Other Rites of Passage

Numerous other rites of passage and/or intensification exist in contemporary America. Some of these are celebrated on national holidays, such as Memorial Day, the Fourth of July, Labor Day, and Veteran's Day. W. Lloyd Warner described Memorial Day rituals as follows:

The Memorial Day rite is a cult of the dead, but not just of the dead as such, since by symbolically elaborating sacrifice of human life for the country through, or identifying it with, the Christian church's sacred sacrifice of their god, the deaths of such men also become powerful sacred symbols which organize, direct, and constantly revive the collective ideals of the community and the nation. (p. 236)

Others rites are religious, such as Easter and Christmas for Christians or Chanukah and Yom Kippur for Jews. Pilgrimages to quasi-sacred sites, such as Disney World for families with young children or Graceland for devotees of Elvis Presley, may constitute rites of passage for some. Joining and leaving the military often involves rites of passage, sometimes including hazing.

Chapple and Coon suggested that some events, such as the coronation of a king, involve both rites of passage and rites of intensification. While America has no king, presidential elections seem to function as rites of passage and intensification. The campaign period, including the primaries, is characteristically a time for candidates to separate themselves from the rest of the citizenry and from each other. The inauguration, a betwixt and between period when the candidate has been elected but is not yet president, is a time of transition. Actually taking office, appointing a cabinet and other officials, and beginning the task of governing is a period of incorporation. While presidential elections are the most dramatic of political rites of passage and intensification, the election of other officials, from governors and mayors to school board members, exhibit similar traits.

See also: Birthdays, Automobiles and Leisure, Honeymooning, Weddings


Costa, Dora L. The Evolution of Retirement: An American Economic History, 1880–1990. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998.

Davis-Floyd, Robbie E. Birth as an American Rite of Passage. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003.

Douglas, Mary. Purity and Danger. New York: Routledge, 2002.

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

"History of Graduation: The Ceremony, the Ring, the Yearbook, the Diploma, the Music, the Cap & Gown, Valedictorian and Baccalaureate." Available from http://www.brownielocks.com/graduation.html.

Hoover, Nadine C., and Norman J. Pollard. Initiation Rites in American High Schools: A National Survey. New York: Alfred University, 2000. Available from http://www.alfred.edu/news/html/hazing_study.html.

Laderman, Gary. The Sacred Remains: American Attitudes toward Death, 1799–1883. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1996.

Mintz, Steven, and Susan Kellogg. Domestic Revolutions: A Social History of American Family Life. New York: The Free Press.

Moore, Robert L., and Havlick, Max J., Jr., ed. The Archetype of Initiation: Sacred Space, Ritual Process, and Personal Transformation: Lectures and Essays. Philadelphia: Xlibris Corporation, 2001.

Nuwer, Hank Wrongs of Passage: Fraternities, Sororities, Hazing, and Binge Drinking. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999.

Sullivan, Eugene. An Academic Costume Code and an Academic Ceremony Guide. Reprinted from American Universities and Colleges, 15th ed. Walter de Gruyter, Inc. Available from http://www.acenet.edu/.

Turner, Victor. The Forest of Symbols: Aspects of Ndembu Ritual. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1967.

——. The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1977.

Tyler May, Elaine. Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era. New York: Basic Books, 1988.

van Gennep, Arnold. The Rites of Passage. Translated by M. B. Vizedom and G. B. Caffee. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960. (The original edition was published in 1908).

Warner, W. Lloyd. Structure of American Life. Edinburgh: The Edinburgh University Press, 1952.

Garry Chick

Rites of Passage

views updated May 23 2018

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


Babcock, Barbara, ed. 1978. The Reversible World: Symbolic Inversion in Art and Society. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

dAquili, Eugene G., Charles D. Laughlin, and John McManus. 1979. The Spectrum of Ritual: A Biogenetic Structural Analysis. New York: Columbia University Press.

Davis-Floyd, Robbie. [1992] 2004. Birth as an American Rite of Passage. 2nd ed. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Douglas, Mary. 1966. Purity and Danger. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Douglas, Mary. 1973. Natural Symbols: Explorations in Cosmology. New York: Vintage Books.

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

Rites of Passage

views updated May 21 2018

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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van meerbeeck, a. (1995). "the importance of a religious service at birth: the persistent demand for baptism in flanders (belgium)." social compass 42(1):47–58.

weiner, a. b. (1976). women of value, men of renown:new perspectives in trobriand exchange. austin: university of texas press.

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 http://www.temple.edu/isllc/newfolk/journal_ archive.html.

ogilvie, e., and van zyle, a. (2001). young indigenousmales, custody and the rites of passage. canberra: australian institute of criminology. available from http://www.aic.gov.au/publications/tandi/ti204.pdf.

bruce freeman

usher fleising

Rites of Passage

views updated May 14 2018

Rites of Passage

Contemporary American life pulsates at an enormously fast-paced tempo. Cars rush to work and rush home delivering overworked citizens to isolated dens where the television routinely takes over, anesthetizing viewers into a comfortable complacency until the next day's rush back to work begins the whole process over again. We hardly find time to catch our breath, let alone mark the passages of our lives with a ritualistic sense of the sacred. Ancient cultures and indigenous traditions around the world used to offer initiation rites into the various phases of human life, but modern Americans have largely lost this tradition. Our world was long ago demythologized leaving us bereft of powerful rites to provide the ongoing process of life with a sense of meaning.

Joseph Campbell (1907–1987), the American mythographer and folklorist, decries this loss of myth in a number of his works. He follows the Swiss psychologist Carl G. Jung (1875–1961) in championing the importance of myth and ritual, especially for uprooted moderns who so often suffer from alienation and a pervasive sense of meaninglessness—what Jung calls the disease of our age. Rituals provide avenues for "participation mystique," participation in mystery, the experience of the "numinous," or the profoundly awesome.

The journalist Gail Sheehy has also noted this glaring lack of ritual to shepherd us through life's transformations in her popular book of 1974, Passages: Predictable Crises in Adult Life. She remarks that although some attention is paid by psychologists to the difficult passages of childhood and adolescence, the successive stages of adult life rate hardly any notice. She cites Erik Erickson as one of the few psychologists to have offered any awareness of continuing passages after adolescence. The ruling concept appears to be that we fight our way through childhood and the confusions of adolescence only to plateau out into our twenties and cruise through to the finish line on a straight, unmarked path. This paucity of attention to passages through adult life, she says, leaves our potential for continued growth undeveloped. Her book seeks to contribute toward filling in these gaps. She lists these recognizable phases in life: birth, adolescence, and marriage, and also the passages into what she calls the "trying twenties," the drive to extend a root system in the thirties, the "mid-life crucible" of the forties, the sense of renewal in the fifties, then the culmination of life's work, the resting on one's laurels, and the "denouement into decline."

Certainly some rituals remain to mark the attainment of important stages in life. Many of us mark the reaching of a new year at our birthday with some sort of acknowledgment, though few among us may recognize it as an occasion to honor the commencement of a new cycle in our lives. We celebrate various holidays through the year, but what is missing is precisely a sense of the sacred. They are regarded largely as holidays—excuses to enjoy days off from work—but the metaphor has died. We no longer perceive them, by and large, as holy days.

Ritual still surrounds the culminating events of life such as weddings, graduations, and funerals, but what happens to us in between these momentous events? Sheehy notes that other cultures have done more to provide a lifelong nexus of ritual forms to recognize these passages, such as the Hindu system's Four Stages of Life. In this context the religious perspective offers a "sacred canopy" to use Peter Berger's language, providing a container for sacralizing the ongoing experience of life from the student phase, through householder stage, to dharma phase, the period entered in midlife when the natural tendency is to be occupied with a search for deeper meaning, culminating in the moksha stage in the sixties, and beyond, when all Hindus can aspire to take up some version of the life of the sannyassi (holy man) and his quest for salvation.

A similar ritual framework might be cited in the ancient Greek tradition of the archer-goddess Artemis, recognized as the goddess of perilous passages. Each of life's difficult transitions from birth to death was honored by prayers to Artemis to deliver the individual through the narrow passage, as if each such event were a new birth through a perilous birth canal, which could end in death: The perilous passage might kill us.

Today we lack such rituals and are left to flounder through the profound changes in life with a clumsy gait, a forlorn fear, and a nagging sense that there must be something wrong with us. If we had a ritual system to render sacred these predictable and perfectly normal passages in life, we might be able to combat this sense of meaninglessness and infuse our lives with a deeper experience of the sacred.

How different it used to be in the ancient past! Evidence from the Paleolithic cave paintings in France and Spain attest to a profound ritualistic sensibility. Many sites show evidence of adolescent initiation rites, based on the presence of footprints in the soft clay of the cave floors. These footprints, undisturbed for thousands of years, remain as a silent witness to the amazing power of ritual. Many of these ritual sites are miles deep in the caves, in areas very difficult to access. It is as if the ritual necessitated a journey deep into dangerous territory, to undergo an ordeal and a triumphant emergence for the transformed souls who are rebirthed out of the cave, the womb of the deep Earth Mother.

Jean Clottes tells of one spectacular archeological find. The eyes of late twentieth-century explorers were the first in tens of thousands of years to fall upon an incredible sight: At the back of a closed-in passage miles deep in the cave, they witnessed—still standing undisturbed—a bear skeleton. It stood upright on its hind legs with its skull on the ground between its feet and its skeleton covered with a much-maligned bear pelt. As researchers approached it, they discovered, still as fresh as the day they had been trampled in the earth, adolescent-sized footprints in the soft clay, going round and round the bear skeleton, its pelt showing signs of having been repeatedly stabbed by spearheads. Some ancient ritual of adolescent initiation to the mystery of the hunt was frozen here, to stand as a testament for all time, bathed in utter silence and the profound, absolute darkness of the cave's protective walls.

When we say that these adolescents were being initiated into the mystery of the hunt, we petition an important category that Joseph Campbell termed the "company of braves." Primal cultures typically feature such a community, a company of the tribe's brave men who are ritually inaugurated into a sacred duty to protect the tribe from danger and to provide for the tribe's needs by engaging in the hunt, a kind of ritualistic dance in which men and beasts are united in an unspoken pact to partake of each other's life energy. Providing sustenance and protection of the innocent are the archaic tasks, if not to say drives, of the males in the society. Are these drives "hard-wired," rooted at an instinctive level in the masculine consciousness? If so, these primal societies provided a built-in mechanism to honor and celebrate these vital energies, as adolescent boys were put through a ritualistic ordeal to achieve "bravery" and to earn the respect of the grown men who regularly participated in hunting magic. The well-known vision quest tradition among the plains Indians of North America is an example of such a profound initiation ritual: The youth who embarks on the quest returns a brave, as in the similar "walkabout" ritual of the aboriginal Australians and the circumcision and other cutting rituals adolescent boys endure in traditional African cultures.

This sort of initiation rite is almost completely lacking in our contemporary culture. The lack of a sacralizing ritual leaves adolescents to flounder through this stage on their own, bonding with peers who are experiencing the same passage, left to feel completely misunderstood and unappreciated by their parents, teachers, and guardians of the ruling social order into which they are tacitly expected to enter and assume their appropriate place.

Initiation rites are typically supposed to be provided by the religious traditions of a culture. And indeed, the dominant religions of our culture do retain some such rites. There are the Bar and Bat Mitzvah rituals in Judaism, and Confirmation in the church rituals in Catholicism and some forms of Protestantism. But these Western traditions long ago adopted intellectual and/or renunciative norms; their rites of passage into adulthood are characterized by a pronounced cerebral quality. The Jewish boy or girl memorizes Bible passages, leads the congregation in prayer and offers an address modeled on the form of a sermon. It is a ritual introduction into a legalistic framework that he or she now takes on as a personal responsibility. Similarly, the Christian youth undergoing Confirmation is ritually initiated into an all-encompassing system of dogma, with attendant rules and regulations to be followed with diligence. Certainly there is room within the ritual itself for the initiate to experience a profound, spiritual awakening, the presence of the divine filling his or her soul. But this kind of numinous experience probably happens all too infrequently in actuality.

Campbell and Jung claim that traditional Western religions have long ago ossified. The original core experience of the mysterious that rituals are designed to inculcate long ago faded to leave only the external forms of adherence to dogma and strict practice. Rituals like the Bar Mitzvah or Confirmation do not initiate the youth into the mystery of his or her own body. The surging energies experienced in adolescence are never engaged in the initiation rite. Unlike the powerful rituals of primal societies, the Bar Mitzvah boy is not newly initiated into a company of braves nor instilled with the sense of a new potency coursing through his veins. Leading the congregation in prayer may, indeed, be scary, but it is not primal. It is nothing like facing down a huge woolly rhinoceros charging at his face, armed only with a wooden spear.

As Joseph Campbell puts it, the ruling mythologies of our culture are at least two thousand years out of date for our contemporary experience. We do not inhabit the desert world of ancient Jerusalem anymore. Our world is a high-tech, fast-paced wonder of computers and the burgeoning information superhighway. To be initiated into the ancient law or the church is, in most cases, finally irrelevant to the immediate fascinations of the contemporary mindset. It does not provide a mechanism for participating in mystery, even if that is what it was originally designed to do.

This ossification of our traditional religions has left moderns craving for a genuine experience of the numinous. Currents in contemporary culture will always spontaneously invent new modes for such experience. These new ritual forms represent an authentic surging up of primal energies, authentic since they have been authored by participants in contemporary culture and stem directly from contemporary experience.

The contemporary practices of piercing and tattooing that were all the rage in the popular culture of the 1990s might be seen to represent precisely this. It is a new shamanism, as these are long-standing practices shamans have cultivated all over the world. The young person of the 1990s might have been through a Bar or Bat Mitzvah or Confirmation, but that was obligatory—imposed upon them by their parents' expectations and so, not authentic. But the night they went to get their first tattoo or piercing put them through a genuine ordeal. They chose to undergo pain that had to be endured over some period of time. They decided purposefully on the specific tattoo or area to be pierced. These acts of penetration into their flesh left them ritually scarred—marked for life with the proud sign of the ordeal. They forged a new identity during these rituals, as they emerged from out of the darkened tattoo parlor, a marked person, a changed person. The experience might have been entered into in solitude or shared with peers, but it was most emphatically not enjoined by, or typically approved of, by the parental units. It was the sheer intensity of raw, immediate, physical experience the youth was craving. The tattoo and piercing became sacred rituals, rites of passage into a new authentic self.

But what has become of the sacred company of braves? Where is the community of elders who welcomed the newly transformed youth into the mystery of the hunt? The youth today might sport a stylish new tattoo, but then he simply returns to regular life. There is no righteous fight to join to provide for dependents or protect them from harm, though this was not always the case in the modern world until very recent times.

The generations that fought both World Wars I and II had no lack of a righteous fight to engage their primal postadolescent energies. There was a strong company of braves to join as well as a sharply demarcated battle to protect the innocent and combat injustice. These generations experienced no emptiness, no longing for the intensity of experience. Boot camp forcefully—and ritualistically—inaugurated them into the mystery and power of their own bodies. These generations of young men had their primal need to join a respected company of braves well satisfied.

But in the postwar era, the battlegrounds of the righteous fight began to be profoundly obscured. Members of the generation that came into adolescence during the 1950s were rebels, but without a cause. This was the generation that invented rock and roll, the new, virtually exciting pathway for experiencing the numinous and for directly engaging the surging energies of the body. It was not precisely a company of braves, but it was an authentically created avenue for satisfying the desired intensity of experience.

This ritual form continued to engage the generation that came into adolescence in the 1960s. They also had a righteous fight to fight, as they inaugurated the "street-fighting" mode of powerful social protest. The war in Vietnam and the war against the war provided these youths with an avenue for the intensity of experience. But with the 1970s a kind of pervasive disillusionment set in, perhaps born of Watergate, and the young had no real righteous fight to join, no ritual introduction into a company of braves, the traditional model for this carried by the military brotherhood having been distinctly soured after the humiliations of Vietnam. Apathy and self-centered greed became the hallmarks of this age, culminating in the culture of greed of the 1980s.

The 1980s also brought in a conservative swing, a kind of backlash against the complexity that had marked the entire century. The harkening for a more simple, traditional set of "family values" and a swing toward fundamental—that is, basic, simple—forms of religion stamped the young of that era with a conservative quality. This almost seems unnatural for youth, a time in life when rebellion seems to be built in by nature. The youth culture of the 1990s was marked by this conservative legacy but seemed strangely schizophrenic—so often conservative in political values, yet wild in their quest for powerful experience in rave clubs and in the Gothic fascination with the macabre, the cult of death.

Still there was no righteous fight to join, no well-defined set of causes, as if the youth of the 1990s seemed to be resigned to worldwide destruction. It is as if they were "dancing in the wasteland," cultivating a purposeful sense of not caring while the world devolved into violence and chaos. This was apathy with an edge, and a real fascination for violence emerged. The primal company of braves has distorted into inner city street gangs and rural white supremacist and militia movements, filled with young men fascinated with guns and bombs and dedicated to an ugly violence. If there were an honorable avenue for channeling these energies, a way in which young men could earn the genuine respect of the peers and elders and be honored by society for their authentic bravery then perhaps we might avoid the drive-by shootings, gang violence, and school shooting rampages we experienced in the 1990s. In other words, if there were honored, recognized rites of passage for earning genuine power and respect, these distortions might be transformed.

But how do we reinfuse our culture with primal rituals? Not only are adolescents left without an initiation into a company of braves, but the subsequent natural passages of life remain without any ritual forms. The attempts of individuals like Robert Bly and Sam Keen to reintroduce shamanic rituals in the emergent "men's movement" reflect an authentic move toward the resacralizing of our lives, as the conservative Christian Promise Keepers might also be said to represent. These are rituals for adult males that perhaps go some distance toward re-creating an authentic company of braves. All well and good, but they are largely fringe movements, whereas the majority in mainstream culture remain unengaged.

And these rituals are for men only. Where are the primal rituals to initiate the female into the profound mysteries of her own body and to honor her continued transformations through the various stages of life? Such rituals virtually do not exist in our culture, and women are left to experience their own mysteries in isolation. Joseph Campbell said, "woman is the mystery," a profound comment with far-reaching implications. The awesome changes that render the woman capable of creating new life are going to happen within her body in any case. Still, these profound transformations need some ritual avenue to be made consciously meaningful.

While such rituals do not exist for the majority of women, the pagan religions of Wicca, Goddess, and the Earth have perennially provided spiritual containers for the mysteries of the female experience. The contemporary resurgence of such primal forms of religion is a result of the same thirst for the experience of the numinous, for the sacralizing of the stages of our lives. The fact that our contemporary culture has witnessed a strong welling-up of such primal religious forms demonstrates the extreme importance of the need for meaningful rites of passage.

See alsoArchetype; Bar Mitzvah and Bat Mitzvah; Campbell, Joseph; Dreams; Goddess; Masculine Spirituality; Promise Keepers; Ritual; Self-Mutilation; Vision Quest; Wicca.


Berger, Peter. The Sacred Canopy, Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion. 1969.

Bly, Robert. A Gathering of Men. Video. 1990.

Bly, Robert. Iron John: A Book About Men. 1990.

Campbell, Joseph. Myths to Live By. 1972.

Campbell, Joseph. The Power of Myth. 1982.

Campbell, Joseph. Transformations of Myth ThroughTime. Video. 1990.

Clottes, Jean, and David Lewis-Williams. The Shamansof Prehistory, Trance and Magic in the PaintedCaves. 1996.

Erikson, Erik H. Childhood and Society. 1950.

Jung, Carl G. Aion. Collected Works. Vol. 9, part II. 1959.

Jung, Carl G. The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious: Collected Works. Vol. 9, part 1. 1959.

Jung, Carl G. Memories,Dreams, Reflections. 1961.

Keen, Sam. Fire in the Belly:On Being a Man. 1991.

Neugarten, Bernice L., ed. Middle Age andAging. 1968.

Sheehy, Gail. Passages:Predictable Crises ofAdultLife. 1974.

Sharon L. Coggan

Rites of Passage

views updated May 17 2018

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

Rites of Passage

views updated May 14 2018

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.


Rites of Passage

views updated May 29 2018

Rites of Passage

Life changes and transitions are normally marked by ceremonies and rituals, or rites of passage. Dennis O'Neil referred to these transitions as "life crises," and listed among them "birth, the onset of puberty, marriage, life-threatening illness or injury, and finally death" (O'Neil 2007). Modern cultures often also mark passage for events such as graduation from school, divorce, and career retirement. Although O'Neil's definition fits many cultures and peoples, it does not accurately describe the rites of passage experienced by slaves in America from the onset of slavery to emancipation in the nineteenth century.

The Belgian anthropologist Arnold van Gennep (1873–1857) remarked that rites of passage are "intentionally ritualized ceremonies [that] help individuals making the transition, as well as their relatives and friends, pass through an emotionally charged, tense time" (O'Neil 2007). For slaves during the early stages of U.S. slavery, this definition applied only partially. Their rites of passage were certainly emotionally charged and traumatic, but there was no celebration. One rite of passage for early slaves was their introduction to the West African slave trade. The initial capturing, selling, and forced voyage of these slaves across the ocean in cramped, inhumane conditions was a nightmarish initiation into a life of slavery; it was the "birth" into their new lives of bondage. For many, this Middle Passage was too much to bear, and many slaves chose not to make this horrifying passage into a life of servitude.

As for those who survived the Middle Passage, perhaps reasoning that conditions would improve once land was reached, their rites of passage were not typical either. Moreover, once enough slaves were brought to America to sustain the ugly business of slavery, and as more slaves were encouraged to have children in order to strengthen the labor force on plantations, the Middle Passage became less frequent. The birth of children into slavery brought about new and numerous rites of passage.

Although childhood is often considered a special time, if it was special for a slave child, it was because the mother made it so. The parents—particularly the mother, because the father was often the plantation's master or a slave who was sold off to another plantation—were responsible for looking out for the child's well-being and for providing any happiness that might be achieved under such circumstances. Nevertheless, children's bonds with their parents were often severed at an early age by slave owners, who sought to maintain psychological control over their chattel. Frederick Douglass remarked of his passage from infancy to child slave:

My mother and I were separated when I was but an infant—before I knew her as my mother. It is a common custom … to part children from their mothers at a very early age. Frequently, before the child has reached its twelfth month, its mother is taken from it, and hired out on some farm a considerable distance off, and the child is placed under the care of an old woman, too old for field labor. (Douglass [1845] 1997, p. 310)

Such separation hindered the child's bond with his or her mother. In cases where children were born to a slave who had been impregnated by her master, the slave was often sold off at the request of the plantation's mistress.

A slave child's life was never easy, and his or her formative years were colored by dread and fear and weighed down by the ever-present knowledge of being a slave. Although some slave children were cared for by infirm slaves while the child's parent(s) were out in the field or working in the master's house, many children were not afforded such an opportunity. Many were strapped to their mothers' backs while the mothers worked in the fields; others were placed on pallets at the end of crop rows, kept in view of their mothers. Others, as soon as they were physically capable, were given chores and had to assume the duties of a slave, just like the adults. For slaves, youth was lost once they were physically mature enough for labor. If a child survived early age, he or she was set to work on the plantation, for no child was spared labor, whether it was in the fields or in the house.

Both males and females suffered physical brutality at the hands of the masters, but often the females suffered sexual abuse as well. This was a dreaded passage into womanhood. Harriet Jacobs describes the fear in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861). When confronted with the choice of securing her freedom or succumbing to the sexual advances of a man who would buy her freedom, Linda, shackled by guilt and shame, expresses the dilemma female slaves often faced:

You never knew what it is to be a slave; to be entirely unprotected by law or customs; to have the laws reduce you to the condition of chattel, entirely subject to the will of another. You never exhausted your ingenuity in avoiding the snares, and eluding the power of a hated tyrant; you never shuddered at the sound of his footsteps, and trembled within hearing of his voice. I know I did wrong. No one can feel it more sensibly than I do. The painful and humiliating memory will haunt me to my dying day. Still, in looking back, calmly, on the events of my life, I feel that the slave woman ought not to be judged by the same standard as others. (Jacobs [1861] 1997, p. 220)

Female slaves, no matter how virtuous they attempted to remain, always knew they were considered property and stood a chance of being raped and perhaps impregnated; their bodies simply were not theirs to govern. Such were the rites of passage into womanhood for many female slaves.

Beyond the milestones of abuse that marked a slave's indoctrination into adulthood, small milestones that are often taken for granted were neglected in a slave's life. For example, because records either were not kept or were carelessly tended to, birthdays were not celebrated as many slaves did not know their actual date of birth. Although birthdays are occasions for celebration for most people, slaves usually did not celebrate being brought into a life of bondage. Frederick Douglass remarked on this phenomenon:

By far the larger part of the slaves know as little of their ages as horses know of theirs, and it is the wish of most masters within my knowledge to keep their slaves thus ignorant. I do not remember to have ever met a slave who could tell of his birthday. They seldom come nearer to it than planting-time, harvest-time, cherry-time, spring-time, or fall-time. (Douglass [1845] 1997, p. 310)

Although many slave owners did not recognize marriages between two slaves, many slaves formed familial units. These relationships created a small amount of stability and contentment for slaves, and for many slaves, the establishment of a family became another milestone in their lives. Nevertheless, the comfort found in these relationships was fleeting because slaves lived in fear that one or more members of the family would be sold to another plantation.

With these relationships and the bearing of children came one of the ultimate rites of passage. If a slave had a decent master, she was indeed lucky; she was even luckier if that master allowed her to pursue extra, moneymaking jobs outside of her regular duties. For example, some slaves completed all their labor during the day, then baked when night came and sold their products the next morning, only to go to work again. Many times, children helped their mothers or fathers with such duties. Masters often made it a condition that if slaves earned money, they would clothe their own children. As the slaves worked for money, they bought extra food and the clothes they needed in order to survive. Still, they often put aside money in order to buy their freedom or the freedom of their children. This goal kept the slaves motivated, and it also allowed them to feel hope in the face of oppression—someday they could be free if they worked hard enough. This freedom became the ultimate goal of many slaves. The act of saving money to buy one's freedom became a rite of passage, just as the eventual purchase of one's freedom did. Extra, moneymaking work became a symbol of hope, and slave children came to understand extra tasks as part of admittance into adulthood.

Rites of passage for slaves simply cannot be described with complete accuracy because few records were kept. Often, from birth to death, a slave's life was monotonous, and few days varied—though this depended on the slave's master and region. Beyond the physical work, there was the learning of field songs, traditions, and oral histories. Although most slaves' lives are not well documented, their life transitions are certainly apparent; these were not, however, the joyous celebrations that marked others' passages from one stage of life to the next.


Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Written by Himself, [1845]. Reprinted in The Norton Anthology of African American Literature, ed. Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Nellie Y. McKay. New York: W. W. Norton, 1997.

Jacobs, Harriet. "Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl." [1861]. In The Norton Anthology of African American Literature, ed. Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Nellie Y. McKay. New York: W. W. Norton, 1997.

O'Neil, Dennis. "Rites of Passage." Process of Socialization. 2007. Available from http://anthro.palomar.edu/social/soc_4.htm.

                                   Gwendolyn N. Hale

rites of passage

views updated Jun 27 2018

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.

Rites of Passage

views updated Jun 08 2018

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.

Rites of passage

views updated May 29 2018

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.