A ritual is a traditional and ordered sequence of collective actions in which participants achieve a sacred purpose through an interplay between the sacred and the mundane world.2 Moore and Habel define seven types of ritual, stretching over all aspects of life. In this brief study, I will focus on initiation rituals and rites of passage.
A rite of passage is according to Moore and Habel a Ritual action through which the initiate is ‘separated ́ from one ‘world’ and taken into another.3 Rites of passage are performed on special occasions and mainly deal with entering a new stage of life. Many cultures perform birth rituals, puberty rituals, marriage rituals and death rituals; In the Catholic Church, for example, these turning points in life are celebrated with Baptism, Confirmation, Matrimony and the Extreme Unction.
Besides initiation rituals to demarcate stages of life, there are also initiation rituals for special occasions, such as a coronation, ordination of a priest, academic graduations, membership to a (secret) society or the initiation of the shaman.
Rites of Passage
Arnold van Gennep (1873–1957), a French anthropologist, born in Germany to a Dutch father, is famous for his study of rites of passage. In his book Les Rites de Passage (1909). Van Gennep argues in this book that rites of passage comprise of three ritual stages; the so-called tripartite structure: séparation, marge, and agrégation (separation, transition, and reincorporation), or pre-liminal, liminal, and post-liminal stages (before, at, and past the threshold).
In these rites, the initiate will be symbolically—and in many cultures physically—removed from the world to which they have belonged. Separation rites often involve symbolic actions as removing clothing or removing parts of the body.4 After the rite of separation, the initiate is in what van Gennep calls the liminal world, a social and religious nowhere land. The word liminal is derived from the Latin limin (threshold).
During the performance of these rites, the person is in the liminal world, between old and new states. During this stage, the initiate gets instructed in the responsibilities of the new role. Transition rituals express the liminal condition of the candidates.
In this condition, they are often considered to be in danger themselves, or to others. To mitigate this negative influence, they are provided with a sponsor whose role it is to protect the candidates.5
In the final step of the tripartite, the initiate is confirmed in his or her new status; the initiate crossed the threshold so to speak. These rites may include spitting on the new member, or investing the candidate with new clothes, rings, tattoos etcetera.6 These marks of identity publicly announce that the individual belongs to the new group or status.
Religious Meaning of Initiation
Rites of passage have multi-layered meanings. The purpose and intent of the ritual can be social or psychological as well as spiritual or religious. Certain rites of passage represent first and foremost transformations in the religious status or circumstances of the initiated. The earlier mentioned Catholic initiation rituals primarily have a spiritual meaning. The Catholic Encyclopaedia describes the spiritual significance of these rituals or sacraments as follows:7
“By Baptism we are born again, Confirmation makes us strong, perfect Christians and soldiers [. . . ] Matrimony, primarily affects man as a social being, and sanctifies him in the fulfilment of his duties towards the Church and society. Extreme Unction removes the last remnant of human frailty, and prepares the soul for eternal life”.
For the Catholic, these rituals are an inseparable part of religious life; one can not be a Catholic if these rituals are not performed.
Eliade argues that the meaning of initiation is always religious because a religious experience produces the change of existential status in the novice.8 The ceremonies were in primal cultures founded by the divine beings or mythical ancestors. The Council of Trent defined that Christ instituted the above mentioned Catholic sacraments.
Some scholars, like Robert Brain, stress the psychological importance of rites of passage. According to the psychological approach, all people have a psychological need to have the support of ritual at transitions in their lives. Brain asserts that Western societies do not have initiation at puberty, instead of ritual, we have disturbed teenagers and infantile adults. At the age of eighteen teenagers are magically converted into adults.9 The brain is, however, wrong in assuming that Western culture does not have any rites of passage. Besides the religious rites of passage—such as practised in the Catholic Church—there are numerous examples rites of passage in Western secular culture. The rituals may be less ceremonial and without the intent of actually being an initiation, but the psychological drive is still apparent. Examples of secular rites of passage are birthdays—especially the 21st—marriages and also funerals. The most noticeable difference between the secular rituals and examples from other cultures is the intent of the activity.
Masters degree graduation ritual.
Secular initiations are not formalised, and participation is voluntary. In postmodern western society, one can choose to marry or decide to be buried formally. In many other societies, your are not wholly or properly a human being until he has undergone the rites of passage appropriate for his age and sex. For these people, there is no choice to participate in the ritual or not. Studying at a university is in a certain way a three or four-year initiation to eventually become a member of the academic community. Universities conduct Rites of Separation at the opening of the academic year. Some schools perform very traditional and formal ceremonies for this purpose. The candidates are placed in a liminal state; they are not yet part of the academic community, they are students. The actual studying can be referred to as the Rite of Transition. It is during this stage that the student consumes the knowledge presented by the ‘elders’. The final graduation ceremony is the Rite of Incorporation. The student is through this ritual accepted as a member of the academic community.
For other uses, see Rite of passage (disambiguation).
A rite of passage is a ceremony of the passage which occurs when an individual leaves one group to enter another. It involves a significant change of status in society. In cultural anthropology the term is the Anglicisation of rite de passage, a French term innovated by the ethnographerArnold van Gennep in his work Les rites de passage, "The Rites of Passage." The term is now fully adopted into anthropology as well as into the literature and popular cultures of many modern languages.
In English, Van Gennep's first sentence of his first chapter begins:
Each larger society contains within it several distinctly separate groupings. ... In addition, all these groups break down into still smaller societies in subgroups.
The population of a society belongs to multiple groups, some more important to the individual than others. Van Gennep uses the metaphor, "as a kind of house divided into rooms and corridors." A passage occurs when an individual leaves one group to enter another; in the metaphor, he changes rooms.
Van Gennep further distinguishes between "the secular" and "the sacred sphere." Theorizing that civilizations are arranged on a scale, implying that the lower levels represent "the simplest level of development," he hypothesizes that "social groups in such a society likewise have magico-religious foundations." Many groups in modern industrial society practice customs that can be traced to an earlier sacred phase. Passage between these groups requires a ceremony, or ritual hence rite of passage.
The rest of Van Gennep's book presents a description of rites of passage and an organization into types, although in the end he despairs of ever capturing them all: "It is but a rough sketch of an immense picture ...." He is able to find some universals, mainly two: "the sexual separation between men and women, and the magico-religious separation between the profane and the sacred." (Earlier the translators used secular for profane.) He refuses credit for being the first to recognize type of rites. In the work he concentrates on groups and rites individuals might normally encounter progressively: pregnancy, childbirth, initiation, betrothal, marriage, funerals and the like. He mentions some others, such as the territorial passage, a crossing of borders into a culturally different region, such as one where a different religion prevails.
Rites of passage have three phases: separation, liminality, and incorporation, as van Gennep described. "I propose to call the rites of separation from a previous world, preliminal rites, those executed during the transitional stage liminal (or threshold) rites, and the ceremonies of incorporation into the new world postliminal rites."
In the first phase, people withdraw from their current status and prepare to move from one place or status to another. "The first phase (of separation) comprises symbolic behavior signifying the detachment of the individual or group ... from an earlier fixed point in the social structure." There is often a detachment or "cutting away" from the former self in this phase, which is signified in symbolic actions and rituals. For example, the cutting of the hair for a person who has just joined the army. He or she is "cutting away" the former self: the civilian.
The transition (liminal) phase is the period between states, during which one has left one place or state but has not yet entered or joined the next. "The attributes of liminality or of liminal personae ("threshold people") are necessarily ambiguous."
In the third phase (reaggregation or incorporation) the passage is consummated [by] the ritual subject." Having completed the rite and assumed their "new" identity, one re-enters society with one's new status. Re-incorporation is characterized by elaborate rituals and ceremonies, like debutant balls and college graduation, and by outward symbols of new ties: thus "in rites of incorporation there is widespread use of the 'sacred bond', the 'sacred cord', the knot, and of analogous forms such as the belt, the ring, the bracelet and the crown."
Laboratory experiments have shown that severe initiations produce cognitive dissonance. It is theorized that such dissonance heightens group attraction among initiates after the experience, arising from internal justification of the effort used.Rewards during initiations have important consequences in that initiates who feel more rewarded express stronger group identity. As well as group attraction, initiations can also produce conformity among new members. Psychology experiments have also shown that initiations increase feelings of affiliation.
Initiation rites are seen as fundamental to human growth and development as well as socialization in many African communities. These rites function by ritually marking the transition of someone to full group membership. It also links individuals to the community and the community to the broader and more potent spiritual world. Initiation rites are "a natural and necessary part of a community, just as arms and legs are natural and necessary extension of the human body". These rites are linked to individual and community development. Dr. Manu Ampim identifies five stages; rite to birth, rite to adulthood, rite to marriage, rite to eldership and rite to ancestorship. In Zulu culture entering womanhood is celebrated by the Umhlanga.
Types and examples
Rites of passage are diverse, and are found throughout many cultures around the world. Many western societal rituals may look like rites of passage but miss some of the important structural and functional components. However, in many Native and African-American communities, traditional Rites of Passage programs are conducted by community-based organizations such as Man Up Global. Typically the missing piece is the societal recognition and reincorporation phase. Adventure Education programs, such as Outward Bound, have often been described as potential rites of passage. Pamela Cushing researched the rites of passage impact upon adolescent youth at the Canadian Outward Bound School and found the rite of passage impact was lessened by the missing reincorporation phase. Bell (2003) presented more evidence of this lacking third stage and described the "Contemporary Adventure Model of a Rites of Passage" as a modern and weaker version of the rites of passage typically used by outdoor adventure programs. For non-religious people, Rites of Passage are important as well. They mark important changes in their lives and they help to guide them.
Coming of age
In various tribal societies, entry into an age grade—generally gender-separated—(unlike an age set) is marked by an initiation rite, which may be the crowning of a long and complex preparation, sometimes in retreat.
- Bar and Bat Mitzvah
- Breeching, when an infant is put into boy's clothing
- Coming of Age in Unitarian Universalism
- Completion of toilet training
- Débutante ball
- Ear piercing in Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States
- First crush
- First date
- First kiss
- Losing one's virginity
- First day of school
- First house key: In the United States, Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom, this is a sign that a child's parents think he/she is responsible enough to be left alone at home while they are away. (See Latchkey child)
- First menstruation, i.e. menarche
- First pet
- First steps
- First word
- Kindergarten graduation: Last day of non-mandatory education. Children have finished kindergarten and are ready to attend elementary school.
- Learning to read and write
- Learning to drive
- Earning a driver's license
- Riding a bicycle
- Riding a bike without training wheels
- Moving out
- Okuyi in several West African nations
- Rebellion: First attempt to go against/question authority figures, usually parents.
- Russefeiring in Norway
- Scarification and various other physical endurances
- Secular coming of age ceremonies for non-religious youngsters who want a rite of passage comparable to the religious rituals like confirmation
- Sweet Sixteen
- Transition planning (A process of planning for a special education student's life after high school, usually begin when the student reaches the age of fourteen)
Some academic circles such as dorms, fraternities, teams and other clubs practice hazing, ragging and fagging. Szecskáztatás, a mild form of hazing (usually without physical and sexual abuse) practiced in some Hungarian secondary schools. First-year junior students are publicly humiliated through embarrassing clothing and senior students branding their faces with marker pens; it is sometimes also a contest, with the winners usually earning the right to organize the next event.
- ^Van Gennep 1909, Lay Summary
- ^Van Gennep, Vizedom & Caffee 2010, I. The Classification of Rites
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- ^Van Gennep, Vizedom & Caffee 2010, X. Conclusions
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- ^The Five Major African Initiation Rites Prof. Manu Ampim
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- Cushing, P.J. (1998). "Competing the cycle of transformation: Lessons from the rites of passage model". Pathways: The Ontario Journal of Experiential Education. 9 (5): 7–12.
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- Keating, C. F.; Pomerantz, J.; Pommer, S. D.; Ritt, S. J. H.; Miller, L. M.; McCormick, J. (2005). "Going to college and unpacking hazing: A functional approach to decrypting initiation practices among undergraduates". Group Dynamics: Theory, Research, and Practice. 9 (2): 104–126. doi:10.1037/1089-26220.127.116.11.
- Lodewijkx, H. F. M.; van Zomeren, M.; Syroit, J. E. M. M. (2005). "The anticipation of a severe initiation: Gender differences in effects on affiliation tendency and group attraction". Small Group Research. 36 (2): 237–262. doi:10.1177/1046496404272381.
- Morgenstern, Julian (1966). Rites of Birth, Marriage, Death, and Kindred Occasions among the Semites. Cincinnati.
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