Chapter 6


Rites of passage are ritual acts conducted in most societies at all major events of a person’s life, particularly at the great transitional points such as birth, the onset of puberty, marriage, and death. Rites of passage, therefore, mark the entering and initiation of an individual into a new social or religious standing. 

The function of such rites, which might take the form of baptism, circumcision, confirmation, bar mitzvah, school graduation ceremonies, marriage customs, retirement functions, or funerary practices, is to preserve a harmonious relationship within a particular society by adhering to its customs, rules, and social values. All societies have very specific traditions and ceremonies surrounding the three most significant events in human life, namely birth, marriage, and death, and in many cultures, there are specific rituals also attached to the transitional states between these events. 

In 1909, the Belgian anthropologist, Arnold van Gennep, coined the phrase ‘rites of passage’ to describe these rituals. They confirm that individuals have passed from one stage to another in their relationship and acceptance within the rest of the community. In every society, the adolescent is initiated into a religion or into the secrets of certain rites of that society. In ancient Rome, a boy became a man in the ceremony of the toga praetexta. Christian societies celebrate a child’s baptism, Confirmation, and First Communion to mark religious maturity, while the same occasion is celebrated when a Jewish boy becomes a bar mitzvah, or ‘Son of the Commandment’, at the age of thirteen. 

Everywhere, the step from the irresponsibility of childhood to the world of adults is marked by ceremonies, which, depending on whether they are religious or lay, modern or ancient, highly evolved or simple, take different forms. It can be said that human existence attains completion through a series of passage rites, by successive initiations, and that the occasion is invested with a sense of importance and ceremony, not only for those undergoing such rituals, but also the entire community.

The stages critical to a person’s life vary from one culture to another. In some communities, a child’s first haircut might mark the end of infancy and the beginning of childhood, with the cuttings fastidiously treasured and put away as a keepsake by the mother. Similarly, the first clipping of fingernails is considered important. Among many non-Western societies, various puberty rites such as circumcision, clitoridectomy, and infibulation, often unpleasant and painful, mark the entrance of boys and girls into adulthood. In his book, The Masks of God, Joseph Campbell expounds on this point: 

‘Throughout the world the rituals of transformation from infancy to manhood are attended with and effected by excruciating ordeals. Scourgings, fastings, the knocking out of teeth, scarifications, finger sacrifices, removal of a testicle, cicatrization, circumcision, subincision, bitings and burnings are the general rule. […] the natural body is transformed by the ordeals into an ever-present sign of a new spiritual state. For even in the gentler and higher societies where the body is no longer naked and mutilated, new clothes and ornaments are assumed, following initiations, to symbolise and support the new spiritual state. In India the caste marks, tonsure, clothes etc. represent precisely the individual’s social role. In the West we know the military uniform, clerical collar, medical goatee, and judge’s wig. But where people are naked it is the body itself, which must be changed’.127 

In order to adhere to the customs, rules, and values of various rites of passage in certain cultures, specific ritual behaviour is observed. Ritual behaviour can be viewed as a prescribed action repeated systematically from time to time, forming a common part of human life especially important within a religious context. Rituals, such as prayers, songs, processions, sacrifices, feasts, and festivals, differ among various religions and societies. However, although the rites of passage of birth, marriage, and death might differ in content, they are common and equally important to all cultures.


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