initiation rites

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initiation rites are regarded by anthropologists as a special class of rites of passage, displaying a tripartite sequential form, dominated by the themes of death from one social position and rebirth to a new one. Well-known initiation rituals in Western society include initiations into craft guilds, Masonic lodges, and fraternities and sororities in American colleges, as well as into religious orders and cult groups. These vary from relatively spontaneous events to highly complex ceremonials where the testing of an initiate's worthiness is combined with the inculcation of esoteric knowledge and injunctions to secrecy. A similar range of rituals is found in traditional societies, with many of the more elaborate associated with entry into adulthood, which is also sometimes associated with membership of cults and secret societies. Such rituals commonly stretch over many months, or even over many years in cases where the initiation involves a progressive set of grades, such as those for initiation into manhood by Australian Aboriginal and New Guinea groups.

At the heart of all these is the right to membership of a tightly-defined community, to a distinctive identity and status. The individual is both ‘tested’ for his fitness and, in many rituals, transformed and made-over in line with cultural prescription. To some extent, the themes of hazing, humiliation of the novice, and the often dangerous ordeals — or ordeals which are made to appear dangerous to the initiand — play their part in this context. The submission of the individual to the authority of the group and its representatives is also an overt element. For example, among the Mende of Sierra Leone, boys must be initiated into the Poro Society before they are recognized as adult. To this end, they are ‘eaten’ by the Poro spirits, an act which is represented by the painful scarifications made upon their naked and prone bodies. This is followed by a prolonged period where the initiands must fend for themselves, secluded for a year from the rest of the community. Submission to the spirits, impersonated by masked elders, is followed by a period of self-reliance, both qualities deemed necessary for successful adult life.

The particular form such ordeals take raises further problems of interpretation. Initiations into adulthood, as this example shows, often involve permanent forms of bodily mutilation, from the extraction or filing down of teeth, to scarification and tattooing, genital operations of many kinds, elongation of the earlobes or neck, and the insertion of facial or other bodily forms of ornamentation. All such practices leave visible and permanent marks of membership; literal inscriptions of the social onto the body. The question is, whether this is all? Is the form they take purely arbitrary, a matter for the free play of the cultural imagination, or do some of these mutilations betray ulterior motives? The issue has arisen in its most controversial forms with respect to genital mutilations such as circumcision, for which, one might think, every possible ‘explanation’ has been advanced. It has been interpreted (amongst other things) as a substitute for human sacrifice and castration; as a hygienic measure; as a way of increasing sexual desire and/or fertility or, alternatively, of decreasing it; as a way of enhancing the differences between male and female genitalia or, through its mimicry of female bleeding, a way of making them more similar — and so on. All of these may form part of local exegesis; the question of whether they have any wider or universal validity is today generally regarded as both unfashionable and unprofitable. Anthropologists, pointing to the extent of cultural variation, tend to insist on the importance of contextual understanding. The majority hold to the line originally advanced early in the twentieth century by Van Gennep, who wrote that culturally the body has been treated simply like a block of wood, which each has cut and trimmed to suit himself.

For many years the anthropological postulate of arbitrariness opened up a broad chasm between psychoanalytic and anthropological approaches to the subject, with the latter contesting the psychoanalytic view that genital mutilation is central to the development and purpose of such rites. Social function was stressed at the expense of sexual meaning and no essential difference was seen between genital and other bodily mutilations. Anthropologists tended rather to problematize the role of pain and trauma in such rites in terms of their capacity to forcefully impose social values, to leave indelible marks on the body and memory. Socialization is also at issue in considering the stoic bravery expected of the novice in many rituals, often, though not exclusively, in those that extol martial values for their menfolk. Many such rituals invite comparison with modern forms of military training. For example, among the Gisu of Uganda, boys stand the ordeal of circumcision when they are between 18 and 24, in a public demonstration of courage where even involuntary movements of the body, such as blinking the eyes, are taken as a sign of cowardice. This is believed to give them a quality of manhood which differs in kind from that of men of non-circumcizing tribes and which radically distinguishes them from women in the force of their anger and potential for violence.

Nevertheless, with gender identity and personhood so clearly at issue, the old divide between the disciplines is no longer so evident, as anthropologists have begun to explore the subjective experience of initiation as it is encoded in different cultural idioms. Initiations do not simply bestow a status in the sense of formally bequeathing it, but many aim at an active transformation of human potential. In her study of the chisungu rites among the matrilineal Bemba of Zambia, Audrey Richards directly addressed the question of what is taught during this girls' initiation ceremony. This ritual prepares a girl directly for marriage, yet, as Richards noted, although the girl is subject to repeated injunctions on her coming role as wife and mother, very little of this formal instruction goes beyond what she already knows from growing up in the society. But, through the elaborate ritual with its focus on fertility and its dangers, Richards argues that ‘teaching’ is still a relevant dimension to our understanding of the purpose of such rites. We should understand this as not about teaching knowledge but rather of teaching attitudes as Bemba women ‘regrow’ their girls. By undergoing the initiation, Bemba girls learn to experience themselves differently, and are made ready to cope with the coming dangers of fertility, in which they are responsible for protecting their home and hearth from the potentially polluting powers of sexuality.

Regrowing in the context of the acquisition of adult gender identity is also at issue in male initiations in New Guinea, with their plethora of explicit sexual symbolism. For example, among the Sambia of New Guinea the initiation of boys into manhood begins at the age of around 8 and lasts many years. These years are dedicated to ridding the boys of polluting maternal influences and turning them into pure and fierce men. To this end, they are subjected to repeated painful episodes of bleeding, induced by inserting sharp grasses into their nostrils. This is held to release accumulated maternal blood. This is followed by repeated episodes of fellation by adult male initiators to ‘feed’ the boy masculinity, a masculinity which is associated with physical strength and military prowess. In these cases, anthropologists have usefully brought psychoanalytic forms of understanding to bear in understanding the dynamics of gender creation, though always in the context of local understandings of the person.

Studying the transformative powers embodied in such rituals is an eclectic venture, in which many forms of understanding are applicable to a comprehension of the potency of such ritual processes. Victor Turner, for example, was particularly concerned to explore the existential dimensions involved in the experience of liminality, occurring most usually in the mid-phase of such rites when the person is ritually dead to the world. He sees the key process here as one of ritual levelling, with the person stripped of social insignia and signs of secular status, and subject to humiliation by ordeal, test, and trauma. It is this humbling process which interests him, and he speculates that it contains a revitalizing element for both the individual and the community. For the initiand, it reaffirms the bonds of essential humanity upon which the social order ultimately rests, uniting him closely with the others with whom he has shared the experience. Culturally, it seems to allow also of other possibilities. The ritual dissolution of normal social forms, as initiands are ritually refashioned, allows for a juggling of the normal factors of existence, a freeing of creative potential. The often monstrous nature of the sacra, of masks and effigies, and of contact with the normally forbidden, throw elements of the culture into relief by exaggeration, challenge, inversion, and paradox.

Suzette Heald


Herdt, G. (ed.) (1982). Rituals of manhood: male initiation in Papua New Guinea. University of California Press, London.
Richards, A. (1956). Chisungu. Routledge, London.
Turner, V. W. (1969). The ritual process. Penguin Books, Harmondsworth.
Van Gennep, A. (1960). The rites of passage. Routledge, London.

See also body mutilation and markings; rites of passage; taboos.