Written in approximately 1986

Published in part in the In Context Quarterly, Spring of 1987, under the title: Passage Into Manhood: A modern ritual for young men


In the following essay I hope to steer clear of the junk-heap to which traditional male rites of passage have been consigned since the dawn of the industrial age. I would agree with the social anthropologists who claim that modern American males possess few meaningful, ceremonial means of formally marking their passage from boyhood to manhood. What our culture does provide (high school “commencement,” driver’s license, the armed services, higher education, voting rights, drinking rights, employment, the age of 21, possible marriage and fatherhood) can hardly be said to comprise a coherent rite of passage. Now that nearly 50% of American marriages end in divorce, the father and mother must prepare their manchild for adulthood separately, in different homes, with often contradictory values. Sometimes, the influence of the father in the upbringing of his son is negligible or nil. Sometimes, the sexual passage, perhaps the single most important adult initiation, is ignored, avoided, or distorted by the parents. The young man is left to piece together the meaning of his sexuality – with his peers and cultural “aids” such as the mass media.

One could point to many other factors contributing to the decline of traditional male rites of passage. The loss of religious values (increased secularization of culture), the need for higher education (simply in order to get a good job), the high cost of housing (thus prolonging the young man’s ties to home), the constant, pre-digested, illusionistic dream-bombardment from the mass media, modern technology and its myriad of miraculous toys – all these and many more contribute to the absence of commonly celebrated and practiced rites of passage among men.

I will take it for granted that the reader, whether male or female, will agree that culture can provide better ways to birth our young men into manhood. The reader must also allow me to skirt another very large and important subject – the predicaments, paradoxes, and problems faced by the modern male, and the challenge of taking his place beside the modern woman. Most “informed” males are aware of the work of Robert Bly and others who are capably discussing this subject.

The truth of the matter is that I am no great authority on the issue of the state of contemporary manhood. As a man, I know what I experience, and to that extent I am an authority on myself (when I listen to the inner voice). What I can claim to be, however, is a designer of ceremonies of passage. I have done so for fifteen years and have accompanied more than a thousand young people and adults through the three phases (severance, threshold, and incorporation) of the vision quest ceremony of passage. Approximately half of these individuals have been males, and of these, over half have been under the age of twenty-one. I will draw upon my experiences with these emancipating young men, from what I know of their emotions, feelings and perceptions, individually and collectively, as they undertook this particular life passage celebration. The passage model I design here, then, is not theoretical or hypothetical, but sinewed with the actual experiences of young males. To theirs I will add my own experience as a 50 year old man, husband, vision quester, teacher, and father of three sons, two of whom are now on their own.

In designing a rite of passage for young men facing manhood, I hope to identify those components that are necessary to an adequate passage ceremony. These components may be of use to communities, institutions, or schools who seek to reinstate or adapt traditional male passage rites to the modern setting. Anyone doing so must be warned. A modern rite of passage does not contain the full social force of a traditional one. At the present time our culture does not validate or focus on such rites. For a modern passage ceremony to gain the full power of an ancient one, the very drift of our culture toward secular materialism would have to be diverted. The young would have to grow up knowing, even as little tads, that they were getting ready for their rite of passage into manhood.

Though the task seems fruitless, a model must be built. At the present time, young men in general are without one – unless they find their own passages or make singular growth-events happen for themselves. Man of those who do challenge themselves with informal celebrations of boyhood’s end often wind up in juvenile hall or off a curve in the road upside down in a ditch, or up on Cloud 9, addicted and lost. Much of what passes as being “grown up” is nothing but “play acting,” or imitation of “adult” men who are themselves out of balance. In the little rural town where we recently moved, one of the most popular “grown up” activities for adolescent boys is to go out at night drinking and shooting rabbits (in that order). The rabbits are not gathering for food. They are simply fodder for a meaningless “manhood” ceremony wherein the younger men ape the older men, who also drink and shoot rabbits for sport. Our fourteen year old son, brought up within a vastly different value system, now faces peer pressure to perform this particular “grown up” ceremony to prove to them that he has the stuff of a man. Surely, more meaningful models can be found, created, or adapted.

A model cannot be designed from thin air. Rites of passage are derived from myths, from the great archetypal tales of the interaction of humans and gods: “Myths are the mental supports of rites; rites the physical enactment of myths” (Joseph Campbell).1 Without the study of myth, the true proportions of the rite remain unknown. Before the model is ever built, mythical material must be carefully examined for initiatory meanings relevant to the intent of the ceremonial model. The myth selected must also run true to “the way it is” for men in both a general and specific sense. That is, the myth must exhibit “initiatory components” which specifically address the boyhood to manhood passage and which remain relevant to the male psyche even today. After the myths have been examined for their initiatory content, a model may be constructed from the identified components. The mythical narrative may be translated into a real-life initiatory adventure, an allegorical rite of social/spiritual passage enacted in the physical world.



I have chosen to examine the myths of the birth of the goddess Athene, the blinding of Tiresias, and, later on, the adventures of Telemachus the son, and Odysseus the father, because, for my purposes here, they lend themselves most easily to interpretation and practical application. There are, of course, many other myths, epics, and tales relevant to the manhood passage.2

In Greek myth gods walk with men and are subject to human failings. They laugh at each other and at the humans who created them. Reflections of the human psyche projected against the fathomless screen of the mysterious universe, the gods and goddesses of Greek myth are symbols and archetypes of the human psyche as it expressed itself several thousand years before Christ. To resurrect the power of the ancient rite of passage, our Western culture must go back in history to a time when its sacred ancestors were just becoming literate, when the differences between sacred and secular, mortal and immortal, were indistinct. In those days, myth and rite were nearly one. A young man on a sacred quest for his manhood was liable to run into a goddess, or create one, to help him on his way. The name of the goddess, of course, does not matter. What matters is that the encounter changed the young man and made him aware of a part of himself that later served him well as a man. If a modern rite of passage is to retain the power of its ancient counterpart, it must make provisions for the free discovery of inner mythic material that is non-doctrinal and non-religious (in the sectarian sense).

As the story goes, Zeus lusted after Metis, the Titaness. After a long chase, he caught her and got her with child. But then he was told by an oracle of Mother Earth that Metis might bear him a son who would eventually depose him, even as he had deposed his father, Cronos. Therefore, seducing Metis to his side with fancy words, he opened his mouth and swallowed her up in one big gulp. But that did not end the matter. May months later he developed a terrible headache. It seemed his skull would split apart. His howling brought Hermes, who realized what was happening. Zeus was having labor pains. The infant within the swallowed Metis was struggling to be free of the confines of her father. Hermes summoned Prometheus, who, with a hammer and wedge, breached the swollen skull of Zeus. Out sprang the goddess Athene, with a lusty shout, fully armed and grown3. As Zeus’ favorite and only self-born daughter, Athene was chosen to carry her father’s shield into battle. The shield, or aegis, was adorned with the head of the Gorgon called Medusa. Those who looked into the shield were overcome with fear. A virgin goddess, Athene was lovely to behold but chaste and extremely modest. Of the three virgin goddesses in the Greek pantheon (Athene, Artemis, and Hestia), Athene was supreme.

One day a promising young man walked out beyond his town and entered the deep woods. His name was Tiresias. As he went along, he stumbled upon a forbidden sight. The goddess Athene was bathing in the stream, and she was stark naked. Instantly, the young man was struck blind. But Athene, recognizing him as the son of one of her mortal women friends, took pity on his plight. Though she could not undo his blindness, she gave him compensating gifts, among them the power to understand the language of birds and the power to prophesy. She also gave him a cornel wood staff to serve as his eyes4.

There are many other mythical narratives involving both Athene and Tiresias, but the above should serve as a convenient paradigm from which components for a rite of passage may be conjugated. Let us begin with the young man, Tiresias, who is every young man facing manhood. The deep woods outside the village are the threshold, the sacred wilderworld through which the young man must pass to be reborn as a man. He has come to the deep, dark heart of Mother Nature to undergo the initiation into manhood. Though his encounter with her seems accidental, the truth is young Tiresias cannot fully attain manhood until he meets the goddess along the way. Her presence in his life story is absolutely necessary to his growth.

In the myth, the goddess Athene, or the agency I shall call “the goddess of the west,” takes off her clothes and her immortal nakedness blinds the young initiate. Without the use of his eyes, his ability to cope with the physical world is severely curtailed. He is forced to go inside himself, to grope in the dark of his blindness in order to find compensating forms of perception – goddess-gifts that grow in the soil of blindness. Alone in the deep woods, far away from his mother and father, the initiate pays a symbolic price for the attainment of manhood. He loses his childish perception of the world. His puerile world is shattered. His former orientation to the universe is removed. In the chaos of his prostrate condition, the goddess (i.e., that part of him that represents the goddess) sows seeds. Special abilities are given in exchange for childhood eyes. These abilities are attributes of a human-divine agency known from ancient times as Athene, the “grey-eyed sea owl,” who flies in the very darkness she confers.

According to the lore of Northern Cheyenne Indian shield-making, a complete man possessed four “shields” (faces, personalities, personae). These shields were earned, one by one, in the following order:5

• The Shield of the Boy (south): the eternal boy of the man
• The Shield of the Woman (west): the eternal woman of the man
• The Shield of the Man (north): the eternal man of the man
• The Shield of the Girl (east): the eternal girl of the man

The eternal woman of the man shield was earned when the boy was initiated into manhood (when he went on his vision quest, as Tiresias went into the “deep woods”) and, naked, unprotected, and alone without food and water for three days, endured the trial of symbolic blindness. In this threshold time of trial, the boy met and lived with the feminine side of himself, personified as Grandmother Earth, or as “the woman of himself.” This anima-goddess of the western approaches came to him when the sun went down and he was forced by the onrush of darkness to go inside himself, into the blindness, and there receive signs, insights, intuitions, dreams, or visions. The boy also acquired other, more subtle powers, associated with his willingness to listen to his anima’s advice as to how he might make it through the trial. With the aid of the woman of himself, the boy successfully negotiated the passage.

The modern vision quest ceremony, with which I am familiar, an ordeal of three or four days and nights alone without food in a wilderness place, is similar to the Northern Cheyenne model. As I have watched many young men set forth into the sacred world of the threshold, I have come to understand that they will not successfully complete their quest for manhood if they do not encounter the goddess of themselves and learn to steer by the blindness this encounter confers. They will not attain manhood in the fullest sense unless they are willing to face the dark side of themselves, the shadow side, the anima-goddess of inwardness and dreams who dwells behind the veil of rational consciousness.

The Goddess of the West

Now let us examine the goddess in closer detail. Born from her father Zeus, Athene was the patron of wisdom, the arts and sciences, war, agriculture, navigation, shipbuilding, horse taming, music, goldsmithing, numbers, the olive tree, the earthen pot, and of many other professions. As a war goddess, she took little pleasure in battle, and if she had to fight, borrowed her arms from Zeus. But once engaged in battle, she never lost the day. Gifted with keenness of sight, a powerful intellect, quick inventiveness, and a nurturing love for her people, she presided over cities and townships, democratic meetings, and legal assemblies. Her symbols were the owl, and her aegis, or shield (borrowed from Zeus) on which hung the Medusa’s head. Perhaps her most important attribute was her virginity. To even see her naked was to suffer Tiresias’ fate. Hence, she never bore children. She was frequently depicted in a suit of armor with the Gorgon shield, grasping a spear. Hers was a “masculine” as opposed to “feminine” beauty, said by some to be “severe” or “austere.”6 Her great heart has been well attested to, particularly by Homer in The Odyssey. Without her help, Odysseus, “wily fighter of the islands,” would never have won the war, found his way home, or won back his household from the bestial suitors. Many times she appeared to this everyman-hero, in person, in dreams, in disguise, or in the form of Mentor, his father’s trusted advisor. As The Odyssey illustrates, Athene is the friend of intelligent, wide-ranging, freedom-loving, enduring men who love their sons and fight by their side.

Athene, of course, is the personification of the nobility and beauty that lives within men. She is the expression of our feminine side. She has been called by many other names: Minerva, Isis, Mary, Ushas, Anahita, White Buffalo Woman, Toci, and others. But a man need not name her anything to know her. He finds her in the “looks-within place,”7 where childhood emotions die and adult feelings are born. He often finds her when he is alone, and profoundly self-conscious. For long hours at a time he may live in her inward world of dreams, feelings, and subtle sensations. When he is with her, his rational perceptions are turned off. Denizens of the shadowland of his unconscious flit across the darkened screen of inner awareness. Sacred ancestors come to him across the genetic bridges of thousands of years.

To endure the trial of the “deep woods,” the candidate for manhood must learn from the goddess such values as: how to surrender, how to yield to circumstances, how to accept the karma of his actions, how to pray, how to watch himself being, how to dance with fear and other inner monsters, how to navigate psychological space, how to feel (as opposed to boyish emotion), and how to speak and listen to his relations, the creatures of nature. The goddess teaches him what lies between fear and rational understanding, between emotion and thought. In her blind passage of feeling are found the twin gifts of intuition and prophecy. Note the two prefixes: “in” (in, within, inside) and “pro” (before, ahead of). They characterize the nature of the gifts of the goddess: the ability to teach oneself (in-tuition) and the ability to speak about what is ahead of the present moment (pro-phecy). Both of these gifts are characteristic of so-called “female brain” activity. Without these gifts, the young man will never be entirely whole.

Among many “primitive” peoples, death, change, and decay dwell in the darkness of the west. Consequently, the goddess of the west is a teacher of the mastery of fear. The Gorgon on her shield is not for the faint hearted. A mortal named Perseus obtained the horrible head (with Athene and Hermes’ help) by using the goddess’ shield as a mirror. Indirectly, by her deathly reflection in the shield, Perseus stalked the Medusa and killed her. The lesson is clear: Athene helps the man go inside and kill the subconscious image of fear living in the viral swamp. She does this by asking her man to don her armor and stalk the reflection of the monster in her aegis.

Paradoxically, the Gorgon’s head is fastened to the shield. No matter how the young man looks into it, he sees the writhing hair, the deadly eyes. An image of fear is always reflected in her aegis. That is how she teaches him – by scaring him. She brushes Death up close to him so that he will acquire death power. She initiates the innocent into the world of experience. Evil, change, death and decay cannot be avoided in this life. Even so, the initiate cannot avoid her Gorgon’s head or her blinding nakedness. He must effect an “alliance” (from the verb --“to align”) with Death, and use the power of this pact for the benefit of his people.

What about Athene’s impeccable virginity? One would imagine a goddess so connected with the initiation of young males would be more wanton. But surely, if she bestowed her favors on only a few, she would not be the beloved companion of many. One of her ways is to help her men win the women of their choice. As a teacher of passionate feeling, she is available to all those who are faithful and call on her for help. Her immortal virginity attests to the same inviolacy in every woman the man will “know” in the carnal sense. In this sense he is “blind” if he thinks he has taken the virginity or the spirit of chastity away from any woman he cohabits with. After the manner of Athene, she will be a virgin, before and after.

Awareness of the presence of the goddess of the west in him will refine and sensitize his relationships with the opposite sex. The virgin will balance his erotic instincts with prudence, his lust with restraint, his jealousy with feelings of self-worth. A part of him will consciously stand apart. There will be a pure, untouched inwardness about him. As The Odyssey illustrates, Athene protects a man who, though he may have disastrous lapses, makes his way back to his chosen mate, even if he has to go to Hades to do it. The constraint of man (and the constraint of the staff that sees) is one of the powers of the west. Odysseus used his chastity and the molu given him by Hermes (“dark root and milky-white flower”) to resist the spell of Circe and avoid being transformed into a rooting pig. Only after he demonstrated his unwillingness to lust after her, and only after the sorceress promised to free his shipmates, did he allow himself the pleasure of her “flawless bed.”

The Goddess as Mother Earth

From the beginning of recorded time men have worshipped that part of themselves called the goddess. At first, she was probably associated with deep forests, caves, swamps, denizens of the night, and places of darkness and decay. In many of her early cultural manifestations, men were undoubtedly sacrificed to her. As millennia passed, conceptions of the goddess became more sophisticated. She was associated with more than just the visible world. She began to be perceived as an inward image or agency at work in the male psyche (what the Jungians call an “archetype”). She became a mythological goddess. But before the mythos of the goddess ever filled the mouths of men, the ethos of the goddess existed – in the tree, the mound, the ocean, the clam, the whale, the jaguar, the moon, the rain, the seed, the owl – in a million other natural forms of energy, living or dying. These entities comprised the goddess, and early man, our sacred ancestor, stood in the midst of them.

To understand the presence of the goddess in the consciousness of men, we must trace her back to her original, incoherent state, when men loved and feared her without knowing her name, when Mother Nature assumed the shape of man’s every fear and joy, and the contents of his unconscious lived before his very eyes. The American Indians, our closest example of a “primitive” culture, revered the natural world and called its myriad forms “Grandmother. They identified this world as essentially female, ancestral, and sacred. They projected the contents of both their conscious and unconscious selves upon their “grandmotherly” environment and interacted with her. Modern man would be severely amiss if he claimed that what primitive man saw in his environment was superstition. What the American Indian saw (and what modern man is all too often afraid to see) was himself reflected in the mirror of nature. That is, he saw his essentially natural state, for he belonged to the world he lived in. One of the most important reasons why he belonged was because he grew up knowing that his environment was his sacred Grandmother, that she cared for him, and that someday he would go back to her. His Grandmother was his teacher and nourisher. She reflected back to him wisdom, the arts and sciences, hunting, agriculture, horse taming, the obsidian stone, the clay pot, and the art of building shelter. In her name he celebrated his rites, gatherings, and religious assemblies. He constructed sweatlodges and went into the hot darkness of his Grandmother to pray, to see, to heal and be healed.

Tiresias would never have met the naked goddess if he had not gone into the “deep woods.” The dark forests that reflect the human unconscious are her abode. On one level of interpretation, the Tiresias story is about what happens to a man when he confronts nature alone, without protective shielding. She (Grandmother) takes her clothes off. Her awesome power overwhelms (blinds) the eye (“I”). He is lost in the sheer magnitude and mystery of her dimensions. He crawls like a blind ant across a fraction of a millimeter of her body. He cannot rationally comprehend either the infinite complexity or the subtle simplicity of her ways. With fingers of wind and starlight she forces him open and exposes his unconscious. Even as it is blinded, the unconscious sees its Mother.

A civilized man can enter the “deep woods” and be blinded as easily as Tiresias. Neither Mother Nature nor the human unconscious have lost their potency. But many men have. They have trusted their own potency, forgetting that it came from their Grandmother. Trusting in their own power, many lost touch with the goddess part of themselves as well. Civilized males are far more helpless in the “deep woods” than their primitive counterparts. Nevertheless, his very fear of his own darkness gives birth to blind behavior as savage as his weapons of mass destruction. Only men who willingly go alone and naked into the secret heart of nature to worship her know how to walk with their own darkness.

Mother and the Goddess

In the myth, Tiresias’ mother was “a friend of the goddess Athene.” This fact alone was enough to soften the goddess’ heart. In recompense for involuntarily treating her friends’ son in this way, she gave him gifts to enable him to live on his own as a man and to prosper among his peers. Otherwise, he might never have made it out of the blinding womb-woods. All his life he might have floundered in the passage, a burden to his mother and father, a liability to all.

Is it too small a reward for a mother to have her son finally leave her – only to return a blind man and a stranger? Surely, at one time in our sacred history mothers were friends of the goddess. They brought up their sons to be strong, courageous, sensitive, and independent enough to endure the encounter with the goddess in the deep wood. They knew their sons would come back changed, that they would take up the role of men and live elsewhere. They were proud of their service to the goddess, of their ability to prepare their sons to pass the test. They remembered their own rites of passage – when they went into their own dark place and met the spirit of the god who took away their girlhood and impregnated them with the power to be a woman, a mother, and an elder. But that is another ancient story and one that must be told by women. What concerns us here is the quality and intent of the mother’s preparation of her son for the manhood passage.

From his infancy, the boy’s mother can chose to raise her son in such a way as to engender receptivity to the earth and to the goddess-place within him – or she can chose to raise her son in such a way as to bind him to her indefinitely and thwart his inborn attempts to find and negotiate the manhood passage. Either way, her influence on her son will always be strong and pervasive. If she is a friend of the goddess, her values, teachings, feelings, and example will make him a worthy candidate in the eyes of his real Mother. The fact is the mother has her own destiny apart from her son. Her ability to live a strong, balanced, fulfilled life after her son’s departure, to cleave to her own life story or myth, will greatly strengthen her son’s ability to fulfill his own destiny.

The mother is the forerunner of the goddess. She goes on ahead and tells everyone the goddess is coming. The terrain she travels is motherhood. She prepares the way by opening doors in her son – leading into the inward places of himself, where she helps him cultivate self-knowledge, acceptance of his own sexuality, “conscience” or inner restraint, awareness of the spiritual world, and love for nature – to name a few of the feminine attributes of the goddess of the west. By the time her son reaches the threshold passage, a way for the goddess has been fully prepared.

Her son is now ready to care for himself in matters formerly the pre-occupation of his mother. He can cook, wash, clean, sew, and perform other domestic duties pursuant to self-reliant living. As he grows older, his mastery of such tasks will aid him to see his mother, not as the all-powerful, all-nurturing goddess, but as a human face of the goddess. Then he can begin to love her for who she is, not with the rose-colored spectacles of youth, but with the love of a grown son. Truly, the intent of the male initiation is not to reject the childhood mother or her values, but to incorporate them into manhood. The archetype of the feminine, founded by the mother, must continue to grow richly and healthily as her son ages. Her inner image must acquire accretions, as nacre of pearl forms around a grain of sand, until her original impetus can only be seen in the beauty of the finished product. Inwardly she will remain, an image of the goddess. He will never be able to blot her out. He will carry her wherever he goes, even into the love act with another woman.

Giving Birth to the Goddess

Attempting to avoid dethronement by a male heir, Zeus swallowed Metis. As it turned out, he was mistaken about the gender of the child she carried in her belly. Athene was destined to be his staunchest supporter on Mt. Olympus – and the only goddess in the pantheon born of a god.

Athene’s father-birth unmistakably marks her not only as a goddess for men, but as a goddess birthed exclusively by men. But she would not have been born in such a curious way if her father had not been afraid of dethronement by a son. He gave birth to her because he sought to control his own destiny, to keep his place intact in the succession of generations. The allegorical intent of the myth seems clear. If the father is to survive the rise of his son to power (and if the culture is going to survive the rise of its children to power), then the man must give birth to the goddess. Not only must he create her, he must teach his son how to create her too, and so on through succeeding generations.

The creation of the goddess – that is, the activation of a young man’s feminine side – is one of the primary tasks of the initiation into manhood. As the myth suggests, the birthing process is not particularly nice. The rational mind develops a splitting headache. Hermes (thought) is called in. Hermes surveys the situation and summons Prometheus (inspiration) who drives a wedge into the initiate’s skull, setting free his feminine nature, the blinding goddess of the west. She springs forth with a great shout, fully armed and ready to aid her chosen warrior.

The birthing tools of the goddess are the hammer and wedge (work tools), the male cranium (the mind), and, of course, the introjected image of the mother (the swallowing of Metis). The seeming “nuts-and-bolts” manner of birth indicates its use on a widespread scale as a reliable and predictable means of birthing the goddess among young men. The passage model must include a means of bringing the goddess forth without having literally (!) to split the candidate’s skull. Most of this birthing can be effected before the young man ever crosses the threshold. The severance phase of a rite of passage is itself a splitting apart, a separation of the young man from his mother and his childhood. The absence of the mother and her pervasive influence intensifies the young man’s labor pains. The empty place where his mother was cries out to be filled. But, though she shadows his every move, his earthly mother cannot come to his aid. In the darkness of the threshold world, his true Mother, symbolized by the goddess, waits to blind him with her nakedness – and to align with him as protectress and guide.


It is said that the prophet Tiresias lived for seven generations in the legendary city of Thebes. He was known as “Lord Tiresias” and his psychic abilities attracted inquirers from near and far. Some accounts say that he lived for seven years as a woman, but was spitefully turned back into a male by Hera when he disagreed with her contention that men have more pleasure in love. His soothsaying counsel was vital to the Thebes during the Siege of the Seven. He finally died when Thebes fell to Theseus. Fleeing the city, he stopped to drink water from a bad spring.8
Though Tiresias perished, his “shade” never lost consciousness or memory. This same mythical seer reappears, centuries later, in Hades, talking with the classic father figure, Odysseus, about the woes of his homecoming:

I see destruction
For ship and crew. Though you survive alone,
Bereft of all companions, lost for years,
Under strange sail you shall come home, to find
Your own house filled with trouble: insolent men
Eating your livestock as they court your lady.9

The Return of the Father

When Odysseus, father of young Telemarchus, returned home, disguised, after twenty years of absence, he met his own father in the ancestral olive groves under Mt. Neion. “Who are you, of what city and family?” old Laertes asked the stranger. “I come from Rover’s Passage where my home is, and I’m King Allwoes’ only son. My name is Quarrelman,” answered the wily Odysseus (xxiv, 304-6). Any 45 year old father might give the same answer – after twenty years in the “rover’s passage” of male adulthood. Indeed, how much of the father’s life is spent “away” from home, whether physically, psychologically, or in spirit? The Odyssey only tells an old, old father-son story. Until he is twenty (or thereabouts) the son lives in the mother world of home. He does not leave the “island.” His father, however, ranges far and wide in the affairs of men. He has work to do, people to see, oceans to cross. Though the paths of modern fathers do not always diverge as far from home as did Odysseus’, their adventures parallel those of the mythical father: wars or threat of wars, years of hard work pulling the oars, savage storms on the open seas, opposition of the gods, lotus lands of stagnation and addiction, shipwrecks on alien shores, sexual pigstys in Circe’s back yard, caves of fear inhabited by Cyclops, perilous passages, Sirens, and even descents into hell. Cursed by his fate and the inexorability of his own mistakes, many a father has wandered farther from home even as his desire to get back grew stronger every day.

The return of the father is the culmination of the male mid-life passage.10 He has found his way through the obstacle course set for him by the gods and men. He has fought and schemed his way to his heart’s desire, only to find that one great test awaits him: facing the trouble at home he himself has caused by his absence. His long passage will not be complete until he is ready to face the karmic consequences of the last twenty years. Much of what he must brave is the result of his own fathering. Has his son grown to be a man? Will he join his father in the world of men”? As it turned out, Telemachus was more than ready. He armed himself and his father and took his place beside him in the banquet hall against the insolent suitors. Who are the suitors? They represent the consequences of the father’s actions – and they threaten the very existence of his ancestral home, his place on the earth, the love-mate of his heart, and the succession of his only son to kingship.

The father, however, is not entirely to blame for what has come to pass in his absence. The gods and fates opposed him, despite his best intentions. Once, he lost all his shipmates. Once, he was seduced by a sorceress, Calypso, and held in thrall for years. How could he have known that his taunting of the blind Cyclops would reach the ears of Poisedon? But his best intentions didn’t get him home quickly enough. His household became helpless against the onslaught of the suitors. His wife became a prisoner in her own home while his son was still too young to defend her. Even as the mess at home grew larger, Odysseus encountered new obstacles to his return. What he did not know was that the timing was perfect. The goddess Athene herself had arranged for the separate paths of the son and father to converge in a momentous meeting on their home island of Ithaka.

Disguised as a beggar, Odysseus asked his son for protection. Telemachus answered that he was “not old enough or trained in arms” and wondered whether he could defend himself “if someone picked a fight with me.” Odysseus chided him: “If my heart were as young as yours, if I were son to Odysseus, or the man himself, I’d rather have my head cut from my shoulders … if I brought no hurt upon that crew!” (meaning the suitors; xvi, 106-110). Before long, Athene arrived and changed Odysseus’ disguise to that of a lithe, young man in rich clothing. Telemachus was thunderstruck: “Stranger … you are one of the gods who rule the sweep of heaven?” Odysseus replied: “No god. Why take me for a god? No, no. I am that father whom your boyhood lacked and suffered pain for lack of. I am he” (xvi, 198-200).

At this juncture, the father has almost come full circle. He has almost returned to his homeland to claim the legacy of his past. But what about those bestial karmic suitors rooting around him? Will his be a victory or a dismal failure? No use in wishing he could live his life over again so that those suitors did not exist. They would exist no matter what he’d done. He faces a decisive event. He must put to rest all the “what might have beens” and concentrate on what is. He must trust that his experiences have prepared him to face the challenge of the return and the incorporation into the life he left behind. He must attend to the passage of his son into manhood. Will Telemachus ally with him to protect their ancestral holdings?11

One might consider Odysseus a poor father, seeing as how he was gone most of his son’s life. Indeed, the son had sufficient cause to be bitter: “He’s gone, no sign, no word of him; and I inherit trouble and tears – and not for him alone, the gods have laid such burdens on me” (I, 244-46). But when his father appeared (i.e., when Telemachus reached manhood), all bitterness was gone: “Ah Father, even when danger comes I think you’ll find courage in me. I am not scatterbrained” (xvi, 307-10). Perhaps he was a bad father. But somehow he had done enough. With the help of Athene, he arrived just in time to witness his son’s first attempts to be a man like himself and his father before him – not just to witness, but to actively participate in his son’s confirmation – to be the one who stood at the manhood end of the passage and called to the son: “You are old enough. You are ready. You have been trained. Now we have some work to do. Stand with me to defend what’s rightfully ours.”


The Goddess as Mentor

True, Odysseus did not take a direct hand in the preparation and training of Telemachus for male adulthood. But he was present indirectly, as a paragon to be emulated, a model of noble manhood, a hero in the eyes of gods and men. Stories of his many and varied adventures flooded the ears of the son until his father lived again – in him. If Odysseus had not been an inherently good man, the father tales would never have been told. There were, of course, others who were directly involved. Telemachus’ mother, Penelope, a friend of the goddess, and Mentor, Odysseus’ trusted old friend and advisor, were primarily responsible for the son’s uprearing.

The mysterious figure of Mentor bears some investigation, for he was the “surrogate father” to the growing boy. Formerly “comrade-in-arms of the Prince Odysseus, an old man now,” Mentor had been entrusted with Odysseus’ family and estate. His presence in this mythical tale of initiation points out the need for such figures in the growing lives of young men everywhere. The task of the surrogate father, uncle, or other male elder is not only to link absent father with son, but to prepare the son to meet the blinding goddess of the manhood passage. From a more abstract perspective, a Mentor function is also performed by various educational institutions or mediums within the growing boy’s life – school, organization, athletics, church, part-time jobs, hobbies, etc. – particularly those where men are involved in the teaching and growth of young man.

What makes Mentor such a curious figure mythically speaking is Athene’s constant use of him as a medium through whom she communicates – with Penelope, Telemachus, and Odysseus himself. The last words of The Odyssey are a reference to her habit of utilizing the Mentor agency: “Both parties later swore to terms of peace set by their arbiter, Athene, daughter of Zeus who bears the storm-cloud as a shield – though still she kept the form and voice of Mentor” (xxiv, 551-3). The fact is, Odysseus’ trusted friend and Telemachus’ surrogate father, the clear-headed old Mentor, was actually the goddess in disguise. Through Mentor she arranged for the passage of Telemachus to the western islands to seek news of his father – the son’s own passage to manhood. And in the banquet hall, when the odds were overwhelmingly against the father and son she loved, she stood beside them, again “in the form and voice of Mentor.”

Now let us take Mentor one more step. Because she lives inside the man, the goddess of the west (Mentor) lives in any man, father or son, who has gone into the “deep woods” and seen her naked. As an agent of self-instruction, she empowers them to look within and find the clarity and insight necessary to meet darkness, blindness, the monsters of karma and chance, and death itself. In this respect, she is the male-born goddess who lives in a body disguised as a man. As a lover of those men who love her, he/she makes her advice and guidance available to them. Mentors, or men though whom she speaks and acts, are the proper surrogate fathers and teachers of young men who learn by the maieutic method.

The Passage of the Son

Even while his father was held fast in the spell of the nymph Calypso on the distant isle of Ogygia, Telemachus took his first conclusive step toward confirmation of his manhood (the equivalent of Tiresias’ foray into the deep woods). Athene/Mentor suggested that he leave the island and travel abroad for news of his father, for he was a child no longer: “You’ll never be fainthearted or a fool, Telemachus, if you have your father’s spirit; he finished what he cared to say, and what he took in hand he brought to pass. The sea routes will yield their distances to his true son” (ii, 275-80). Offering to accompany him on the journey, Mentor challenged the young man: “The son is rare who measures with his father, and one in a thousand is a better man, but you will have the sap and wit and prudence – for you get that from Odysseus – to give you a fair chance of winning through” (ii, 282-86). Little did Telemachus know that at the end of the journey suitors would be waiting to ambush him – or that he would stand with his father against them all.

Accompanied by Athene/Mentor, Telemachus sailed for the mainland, to prove himself alone, without the aid of his father. There were other older men to help him along the way: King Nestor at Pylos, and Menelaos, king of Sparta, husband of fabled Helen. These older compadres of his father entertained the young man with favor, and regaled him with stories of Odysseus. Like Mentor, the elders served as a means of confirming his attainment of manhood. When, in the goddess’ wisdom, it was time for Telemachus to return to his home island, she cautioned him: “… now take heed: the suitor’s ringleaders are hot for murder, waiting in the channel between Ithaka and Same’s rocky side…. Bear well out in your good ship, to eastward of the islands, and sail again by night” (xv, 17-27). With her help, Telemachus eluded the monsters of the dark passage and safely disembarked on Ithaka, hastening to a midnight interview with the stranger who was his long lost father.

Is The Odyssey telling us that the son does not find his father until it is time for him to become a man? Is that why the father was gone all those years? Is it not true that from the time the son is born he begins a search for his father and his father’s world that is not rewarded until he becomes a man? First, he looks close to his cradle. Then he begins to search around the house. Gradually, he increases the area of his search. Everywhere he finds evidence of his father and hears of his father’s doing – but he does not yet know his father. In the meantime, things are getting intolerable at home. The domestic world is too small to contain the son’s search. He must leave his island home and hazard the dark passage, seeing news of his father and proving his mettle as an independent man. Still, he does not meet his father, though other men including his most respected teachers and guides predict that soon he will. By the time he has returned to his home island, he has confirmed his worthiness to find and be the son of his father. But is he a worthy man? His first test as a man will be to meet and enter his father’s world:

… and the prince
Telemakhos, true son of King Odysseus,
belted his sword on, clapped his hand to his spear,
and with a clink and glitter of keen bronze
stood by his chair, in the forefront near his father. (xxi, 430-4)

Victory is assured if father and son align together against the forces that threaten their ancestral succession. The goddess is with them, in the dark time of fear, building their intent, deflecting their enemies’ best shots. The father fulfills the terms of the mid-life passage and incorporates into the life of an aging man. The son confirms his attainment of manhood and assumes his place as the rightful heir. Now the father must teach what he knows to the people and the son must embark on his own journey through manhood. Eventually, Telemachus will arrive at his own mid-life rendezvous with his past, coming home to his own version of the suitors. Looking like a beggar, he will stand in front of dim-eyed old Odysseus. And what do you think the chances are that he will say: “I come from Rover’s Passage where my home is, and I’m King Allwoes’ only son. My name is Quarrelman.”


Myth must now be translated into a practical design or program of events, a curriculum as it were, capable of implementation within the modern social context. Viewed from the allegorical perspective of a ceremony of passage into manhood, Tiresias and Telemachus become modern men or sons on the eve of their “graduation” from childhood. They are “candidates” participating in a rite of initiation into manhood. Odysseus becomes the symbol of their fathers – and a symbol of man’s world into which they will be
incorporated. Athene, or the goddess, will represent the anima, or feminine side of man. She (the feminine archetype within him) will be activated by the young man’s candidacy, not only through childhood-long preparations with “mentor” and mother, but by direct encounter during the threshold ordeal. The candidate will meet the goddess in her most primitive and powerful form in the “deep woods” of his psyche (as mirrored by the wilderness world in which he will dwell).

Like Telemachus, the young initiate will leave his boyhood home and embark on a passage-quest for the world of his father. During this journey, he will be the guest and student of older men who, like Nestor and Menelaos, will introduce him to the world of his father. Though he leaves her behind, his mother will accompany him in spirit. The goddess will also be with him, disguised in the body of an older male companion. The boy will face the threat of death, as represented by the suitors lying in ambush in the darkness of the passage. But he will elude the grasp of these monsters and will incorporate in the man’s world, taking his proper place beside his father.

The ceremony which young Telemachus undertakes will confirm his attainment of adulthood.12 The son will not be “transformed” into a man. He will “confirm” his already-attained manhood. Therefore, the threshold ordeal which he must undergo is not expected to produce radical changes in the young man. The ordeal exists as a means to demonstrating his mettle, of validating his capacities as a man. Obviously, if he is not prepared, the desired change in life station will not be effected. If he has not prepared to be a man, he cannot be expected to suddenly become one by virtue of his experience of a life passage ceremony. Any model of a rite of passage into adulthood must be founded on the all-important fact of childhood preparation. In modern times, there is no generally agreed upon rite of passage for young men. Therefore, it is difficult for parents and others concerned with the raising of the boy to concentrate their energies toward any specific ideal of preparedness. And because no manhood ceremony is officially sanctioned or recognized by the culture, the boy grows into a contradiction of cultural forces – one which calls him to eternal puerility and the other which calls him to manly independence and self-responsibility.

Referring to the Greek mysteries, of which he was an initiate, Aristotle maintained that it was “not necessary for the initiate to learn anything [italics mine], but to receive impressions and to be put in a certain frame of mind by becoming ‘worthy’ candidates.”13 In other words, it is not as important for the young man to have mastered a certain body of knowledge, as it is for him to be open to “impressions” that engender a certain attitude in him that says, “I am a worthy candidate.” In the absence of meaningful manhood initiations, modern education has abdicated its share of the Mentor function, placing the cart before the horse by stressing scholastic achievement above readiness for adulthood. But what are these “im-pressions” Aristotle talks about? They suggest an inner state – as opposed to “ex-pressions.” Anyone who has faced a life crisis or any challenging growth-event knows what these impressions are. They have to do with feelings in the gut, with sensations of fear, apprehension, awe, openness, vulnerability, and helplessness. On the eve of the vision fast threshold I have read these impressions on the faces of young men. They are asking themselves: “Can I do this? Am I strong, courageous, and mature enough to endure the threshold trial? Am I ready?” But the impressions run deeper than this. They run all the way to the source of spiritual feeling in him. He realizes how tenuous his life is, and how vulnerable to the whims of Mother Nature. His fear is absolutely genuine. Prompted by his existential condition, he leaps readily into realms of faith, trust and prayer.

The ancients understood that feelings and impressions had more to do with a young man’s readiness for manhood than intellectual knowledge. They knew that an “impressionable young man” made a worthy candidate because he was ready to experience the rite without preconceived notions. He didn’t have a “big head.” He was amenable to the power of the rite. Because his mind was unclouded with useless information, he would not easily forget his passage experience. As the years of his childhood preparation progressed, feelings produced by the boy’s contemplation of his impending trial prompted him to be ever more honest with himself, shaping him into a posture of worthiness.

The Components of an Adequate Model

An adequate modern rite of passage for men must include components which are typical of such rites the world over. Many of the essential components are found in The Odyssey. Rather than to rely on conflicting conceptions of anthropologists regarding the essential ingredients of a pan-cultural manhood ritual, one can go straight to the “singer’s mouth,” to the first epic song to evolve from the European Neolithic age. In The Odyssey are found the sacred ancestral roots of what is now called Western cultural. The archetypes and ceremonial ways of many of our ancestors are there, phrased in the ancient poetry of the blind singer-compiler of an even more ancient oral tradition of story-telling. The goddess side of the modern Western male, the unconscious side that receives “impressions,” still recognizes the ancient human truth of the epic, and lends assent that is deeper than thought.

A Natural Setting

Telemachus sailed into the wine-dark sea; Tiresias entered the “deep woods”; Perseus braved the Gorgon’s cave; Heracles waded through the swamp. The liminal rite is always performed in a secluded, wild zone, away from the encroachments of other humans. Within the sacred threshold enclosure, the boy becomes acquainted with his real Mother, symbolized by that part of himself known as the goddess. She nurtures, sustains and schools his spirit. Through her, he senses his true place on earth – and his true place in his body. She will show him the image of his own fear of death reflected in the natural world around him.

The candidate’s power place on Mother Earth will serve as both a womb and a tomb, a place of birth for the man, a place of death for the boy. Here the child will be blinded by the mystery of the naked seed. In the blind instinctiveness of Mother’s world, serpents will reach into the candidate’s ears and lick them clean. He will hear what the birds are saying to each other. He will converse with the stones and the wind and the spirits of the sacred ancestors who went before. Then he will know the challenge of being a man, a son of the Mother, and a brother to all the things on the earth. He will emerge from the split husk of his childhood with the goddess at his right shoulder.

The ritual birth of a man must take place here, in the wilderworld of his true home. It has always been so, and will always be. The boy must learn that his Mother cares for and rewards those who care for and respect her. He cannot learn this sitting in an enclosed room. He leaves the comfortable placenta of boyhood and enters the all-powerful world of the goddess. She visits with him in the subtle winds of the south, the howling winds of the north, the dark winds of the west, the dancing winds of the east. She shakes him in her fist of thunder; she blinds him with her lightning eyes. But mostly she blesses him with the birth of herself within him as his own eternal, internal guide.

Taboo and Trail

A rite of passage always includes one or more ordeals or trials. The boy’s experience of the trial is the formal confirmation of his readiness to take on the role of manhood. For Telemachus, the trial was the night passage through the ambushing suitors. For Tiresias, it was aloneness, apartness, and vulnerability to the power of the goddess. For young Odysseus, it was the goring tusk of a wild boar in the steep thickets of Ithaka. Though threshold trial models are many and diverse, certain taboos or means of being tried are common to most.

One is the trial of aloneness or solitude (often termed “seclusion” by anthropologists). The boy is denied the support and comfort of others and is left alone in a wild place for extended periods of time. With no one to go to, he is forced to deal with outward circumstances by discovering inner resources of strength and resolve. He turns within for communication with his psyche. His own special kind of inwardness is the directional power of the goddess of the west, and is an infallible fund of self-knowledge. Without other human eyes to judge him, the candidate will watch himself “be.” Apart from the accouterments of his boyhood life, he learns what is essential to him – and what is not. The closed door of his heart opens to the beauty and mystery of the natural world around him. He becomes aware of, and communicates with, his natural relations – the other creature children of his Mother.

Another restriction almost universally practiced is the prohibition of food. As a ceremonial tool, fasting is one of the oldest and finest. The candidate’s psyche is opened to orchestration by the elements and rhythms of the natural world. His environment rushes in to fill the void in the pit of his stomach. His senses eat for him – his eyes devour, his nose tastes, his mouth inhales, his ears ingest, his body swallows the air. Sunrise is this meat and noon is his wine. The dark wind sets a banquet for him. Although his physical strength wanes, another kind of strength gathers within him – the silent, immoveable strength of the great mountains. Even as his knees shake from weakness, his “spirit knees” hold firm, tree-like. Without ballast in his belly, he orients himself to the harmony and proportion of his Mother – compensating for loss of strength by applying the muscle of spirit.

It would seem essential that any modern threshold trial for young men include the taboo of food. American plentitude has dulled cultural awareness of the power of the fast and has substituted anxious fear of going without, even for a meal or two. But a boy cannot grow into a man without experiencing the rewards of such self-denial. And how can he be happy with what he has if he has never gone without it? Moreover, fasting calls in the imagined threat of Death, an indisputable, eventual truth with which his life as a man must deal. The specter of Death nudges his heartbeat up a bit and engenders hollow sensations in the gut. His boyhood veneer begins to crack. The goddess rushes into the breach and teaches him about surrender. A man who does not know the power of surrender does not possess true power.

Other taboos may be derived self-evidently from the above. The young candidate must “go without” other things as well, crossing the threshold as nakedly as possible, shorn of the clothing of his childhood. Of course, his ultimate safety must be provided for. But the margin must at least appear slim to the impressionable boy who faces the unknowns of manhood. Again, The Odyssey is a guide. Times of hardship and trial are ahead for the newly born man. He must confront the wrath of gods who tear his ship apart, kill all his shipmates, rend the clothes from his back, and immerse him in the deep salt sea with only a piece of mast to keep him afloat. Hence, the candidate for manhood must demonstrate his ability to go without all but the barest essentials. Exposure to the elements will strengthen his instincts for survival and teach him his own unique way of dealing with personal crises.

Male Midwives

When Telemachus officially embarked on his voyage of passage, he came under the tutelage of three men: Menelaos, Nestor, and Mentor (the goddess in disguise). All three served as elderly midwives to the birthing young man by telling tales pertinent to his growth and holding up the image of his father. One of the most important components in any model of an adequate rite of male passage is the presence of older men, or elders, who supervise and enrich the progress of the young man through the ceremonial birth canal.

“Maieutic”: “Designating or of the Socratic method of helping a person to bring forth and become aware of his latent ideas, gifts, or memories” (Webster’s New World Dictionary). “Bring forth” is a key phrase. The older men help the younger men to bring themselves forth. The maieutic elders are not there to answer questions, but to ask them. They labor to enable their charges to birth answers of their own – to “know themselves” in the Socratic sense. Of course, the midwives are exclusively male because the time has come for the boys to become men, to live in, to respect, and to accept the men’s world. Women, of course, cannot perform this function for boys who are leaving their mothers and cleaving to their manhood – nor can men midwife young girls who are cleaving to their womanhood. Furthermore, again for obvious reasons, a father must not be the principal midwife to his son. The past often shadows them with too many habits for the father to be an effective teacher or the son an attentive learner.

Discipline and Work

To elude the ambushing suitors, Telemachus made his passage by night. A true son of his father, he kept a steady hand on the tiller all through the night and brought his brave ship a hundred miles over the open sea to Pylos. The Odyssey makes no bones about the fact that the lot of a man is to work and endure. On board the ship, every man, every brother had his place, his work, his role in contributing to the journey’s enterprise: “Tipmast, Tiderace, Sparwood, Hullman, Sternman, Beacher and Pullerman, Bluewater, Shearwater, Runningwake, Boardalee, Seabelt, son of Grandfleet Shipwrightson, Seareach … son of the Launching Master” (viii, 112 – 16). The journey must be won, the winter must be survived. Every man must do his work, therefore, not only for his own survival, but for the survival of his crew, family or people. He disciplines himself to employ the oar of his body and to hoist the sail of his mind to accomplish the venture at hand. He works all his life and so gives of himself, of his body and spirit, until all is gone and he dies. He does this so that his people, and his shipmates may live.14

The essence of a man who belongs to the brotherhood of seafarers (all men whose souls captain the frail barques of their bodies) is contained in the disguised Odysseus’ response to Penelope’s offer of a soft bed:

Honorable lady,
wife of Odysseus Laertiade,
a weight of rugs and cover? Not for me.
I’ve had none since the day I saw the mountains
of Krete, white with snow, low on the sea line
fading behind me as the long oars drove me north.
Let me lie down tonight as I’ve lain so often,
many a night unsleeping, many a time
afield on the hard ground waiting for pure Dawn. (xvix, 339-46)

The classic male archetype is unaccustomed to self-indulgence. He has learned to accept hardship as his lot. He does not brag of his harsh life nor does he secretly hope his woman will pity him. Rather, in Odysseus’s words, we find a special appreciation of the beauty of his hard, seafaring life. Alert, watchful, protective of his brothers, he lies awake through the night of fear and is rewarded by the light of dawn. This is the man’s way.

Any passage rite for men must include components of hard work and self-discipline. The candidates must be expected to be part of the crew, to pull their own weight, to avoid being parasitical. Hence, the young men facing adulthood must be gathered together within a communal order where each has his work, and does it, as part of the preparation for the passage. Moreover, they must be expected to accept the discipline that communal living brings and to seek the joy that comes with the exercising of self-control and the intimate knowledge of the meaning of work.

Sexual Instruction

Sexual instruction and advice on marriage is traditionally a part of ceremonies of passage into manhood. It is not by chance that Telemachus met certain women in the passage, chief among them Polykaste, Nestor’s fair daughter, who gave him a bath, and Helen, Menelaos’ famous wife whose erotic beauty rivaled that of Aphrodite and incited the Trojan Wars. The regal Helen looked with favor on the young Telemachus and presented him with a man’s garment – a kingly robe of state -- nor did the man-talk between he and his father’s comrades steer clear of the subject of women. Menelaos told the tragic story of the return home of Agamemnon to his murder by Aigisthos and the perfidious Clytemnestra (a classic tale of the unfaithful wife).

The importance of a young man coming to understand and accept the power of his own sexuality cannot be underestimated. Any ceremony of passage into adulthood must take into account the young man’s sexual growth and relationships with women (or men, if he is gay or bisexual). In some traditional cultures, the young man loses his virginity via an older woman or sexual surrogate.15

Such practices are rarely found in modern culture. Nevertheless, open, honest, adult sexual education would seem necessary and appropriate. Supervised by wise, qualified male elders, such education might also include older women who can present the issue from the feminine point of view. Without the woman’s input, the candidate’s sexual education would only be half complete.

In recounting his adventures to young Telemachus, Menelaos did not forget to mention the time Helen stood outside the Trojan horse and “called by name the flower of our fighters, making [her] voice sound like their wives, calling.” Crouched inside, the Greek warriors wept with frustration, swept by “waves of longing – to reply, or go” (iv, 77-81). Only Odysseus kept his cool. The presence of women in a male passage ceremony could very well induce the same effect. After the manner of Odysseus, male elders would be responsible for the discipline of the camp should Helen make her appearance.

Giving Birth to the Goddess

In The Odyssey, human life is sacred. The quality of a man’s actions is important to the immortals. “The gods were never indifferent to your life,” Athene told Telemachus. A good deal of the son’s tutoring dealt with the development and growth of his spiritual nature. It was very important that he had access to spiritual sources of guidance and strength, that he could read signs and communicate with spirits of place and time, that he had a sense of personal destiny, and that he knew how to give birth to the goddess within him and fare well under her regard. In those days, men who had no faith, who did not pray to or commune with their own Gods were like ships without a crew, like sails hanging limply in the absence of wind, like stories with no one to tell them. Nothing has changed. Nowadays, more than ever before, men need spiritual keels.

All young men require an official introduction to the intuitive, psychic, and mysterious darkness of their inner beings. They need to learn how to surrender, how to listen closely to an inner voice, how to clarify their values, how to pray, how to seek vision, and how to prophesy. All young men must ask themselves such questions as: “To whom do I pray?” “Who are my sacred ancestors?” “What is my life story?” “Why was I born?” “Why will I die?” “Who are the true heroes and teachers of my life?” “What gifts have I been blessed with?” “Who are my people?” Above all, young men must confront and ponder the meaning of death. Time spent with death will make an inward space in them. The goddess will live and be born within this death space. Her presence will enrich his appreciation of life and enable him to face the justice of his own death.

Preparation for the Threshold Ordeal

On three separate occasions Athene appeared to Telemachus in order to discuss her plan that he go abroad in search of his manhood. It was important to her that the boy fully understood what he was doing. Any adequate passage model must, of course, include preparation for the threshold ordeal itself. An unprepared candidate cannot be put into a passage ordeal and be expected to make meaning of his experience. He must be readied on physical, psychological, mental, and spiritual levels to undertake the passage. He must be helped to recognize the dangers that he faces so that he can assess his ability ahead of time to dance with them. What is anticipated is no substitute for the “real thing.” But there is also no substitute for preparation. The candidate must return from the threshold trial in one piece with a mark or brand on his psyche that he will never quite forget.

The Three Phases of a Rite of Passage

The basic dynamic of a rite of passage is described by an anthropological formula that underlies all passage ceremonies. First depicted by Arnold van Gennep, this formula divides such rites into three phases: an end (severance), a middle (threshold), and a beginning (incorporation).16 In other words, a rite of passage begins with an ending and ends with a beginning:

To make an end is to make a beginning.
To end is where we start from.
 T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding

First, the candidate severs (he ends his association with childhood). He prepares to leave his old life behind. He prepares to make an end so that there can be a beginning. Next, he encounters the second phase of the ceremony. This phase, the threshold, is the actual experience of a trial or ordeal of passage. The threshold encompasses a sacred natural world wherein, like Tiresias, the candidate is blinded by the goddess. When his threshold trial is complete, he enters the third stage of his rite of passage – incorporation. He ends his celebration of the passage ceremony with a beginning. He is intimately united with the corpus of a new growth stage -- manhood. Literally, he takes on the body of a man.

Note that the ceremonial formula is quite the opposite of the flow of life as we tend to perceive it. Usually, we think of our birth as the beginning, our life as the middle, and our death as the end. But the ceremonial formula takes up where life leaves off and death begins. In the symbolic phraseology of a passage rite, we begin with death, pass through the middle phase of death (the “death passage” of the spirit, the underworld journey, or the Bardo), and end with birth. This “death journey” is the irreducible, adamantine, symbolic kernel of a rite of passage. It is the secret of the transformation of life station.

Severance: Boyhood’s End

Any adequate, workable model of a modern passage rite must assume that, as in ancient times, the severance phase informally begins with the birth of the male infant. In other words, from the beginning, the parents, relatives, community, and all those concerned with the welfare of the boy child will help groom him for the manhood ceremony. The youngster will follow preparational steps and participate in activities geared to eventually lead to his severance from boyhood. Parents will be aided in the rearing of their son by individuals, schools and other agencies in the community (the Mentor function). In families with absent fathers, surrogate fathers or male relatives (Mentors) will help rear the child. Preparations will focus on the following areas: learning how to work for the benefit of others; learning how to think, reason, contrive, design, or otherwise use his noggin; learning to be self-reliant, resourceful, and independent; learning to appreciate his sexuality, to cope with sexual frustration and rejection, and to find enriching relationships with the opposite sex; learning to face the consequences of his deeds and to accept responsibility for them; learning to live soberly and in balance in a world of drugs and intoxicants; learning to worship God in his own way, with his own symbols and ceremonies; learning to love and respect his parents as individuals apart from his relationship with them; learning to perceive the world in terms of a mature value system; learning to recognize, appreciate and use the feminine side of his nature; learning to use introspection as a tool of self-knowledge; learning to accept his unconscious self and to use the Mentor function of his dreams; learning to respect and honor elderhood; learning to appreciate the fact of death in his life; and, above all, learning to respect, honor and serve his Mother Earth, as a true steward of her beneficence.

Preparing in the above areas, the young men will formally begin the severance phase one week after their graduation from high school. They will leave their childhood homes and family behind and assemble with older elders and midwives of the community at a retreat in a secluded, natural place. There they will remain for nearly one month, or one cycle of the moon, during which time they will enact the rite of passage into manhood. During this month they are gathered, the young men will not be allowed to leave. The area will be sealed off and consecrated for the purposes of the rite. No drugs, alcohol, or non-participants will be allowed.

Beginning with the arrival of midwives and candidates, the severance phase will last approximately twenty days. It will end when each initiate crosses the threshold and undertakes the ordeal of the second phase. During the time of preparation, the candidates and the older men will live together in large tents or whatever, in groups of twenty-five (twenty candidates, five midwives). All work and cooking will be shared on a communal basis among the men. Food will be provided by the older males. Each group will be led through a disciplined routine of daily activities and classes by the five elders appointed for that purpose.

Through the ceremony, from end to beginning, each midwife will be responsible for the welfare of five candidates. His role is to facilitate their passage through the three phases of the ceremony, to personify the Mentor function to them, to aid them in giving birth to the goddess. He will act as surrogate uncle, as teacher, as counselor, as wilderness guide, as vocational guidance counselor, as personal friend, or as superior officer – according to what is needed at the moment. The male elders will exercise discipline and discretion in the superintending of their charges. Each group of candidates will receive the same exposure to the severance curriculum as the other groups, although, for the most part, each group will be tutored individually by the midwives. The curriculum will include the following:

Activities related to the natural setting and self-orientation within it: solo or group medicine walks, night hikes, environmental awareness studies, “survival” activities, and individual seclusion in a natural place at least once a day.

Activities related to the use of the intuitive or “feeling” facilities: instruction in self-hypnosis, meditation, communication with other species, listening to the “inner voice,” praying, and other “goddess” processes.

“Physical education” with emphasis on cooperation, leadership, self-discipline, consensus democracy: ropes and obstacle courses, relay races, and other activities involving group problem solving.

Sexual education, from the mechanics of “how to,” and contraception to broader issues of relationship, including marriage and fatherhood: films, other audio visual aids, frank discussions of ethics and manners involving women elders as co-facilitators.

“Spiritual education” with emphasis on individual religious expression: personal values, ethics, and morality, story telling, myths, discussions regarding death, after-life, life destiny, and personal ancestry.

Individual preparation for incorporation as a man: the setting of goals and priorities, vocational counseling, clarification of personal ambitions regarding profession, and other concrete particulars involving life on the physical plane as a man.

Ceremonies of togetherness and preparation: saunas, sweatlodges, communal bathing, or other activities involving self-purification.

Activities related to preparation for the threshold trial itself.17

On the eve of the threshold trial, all the candidates and midwives will assemble together and a celebration of the end of boyhood will be held.18 At that time, each candidate will be given an opportunity to symbolically enact his severance from childhood. Then the individual groups of 20 will reassemble with their midwives and embark on their several journeys to remote, secluded areas where the threshold trial will be enacted. The following morning, the trial will begin.


Threshold: Passage Through the Goddess

Each candidate will be removed from human contact. With just the barest essentials requisite to his survival, he will live alone in a wild, natural place (the “deep woods”) for four days and nights. Though water will be provided during this time,19 he will otherwise ingest neither food nor any other kind of sustenance, relying instead on the beneficence of Mother Earth to protect, nurture and teach him. Depending on the advice of midwives, he may or may not undertake certain ceremonial activities during his time alone to heighten his receptivity to Nature, the goddess, and the spirits or deities he worships. These activities, self-initiated and non-mandatory, are not to be seen as time-fillers but as means to self-knowledge. The basic elements of trial – aloneness, fasting, and exposure – must be preserved in as pure a state as possible.

The threshold trial must be designed with an eye to harmony and balance. The idea is not to make the candidate suffer unduly for the sake of a “vision.” Self-mutilation, branding, or flesh offerings are not necessary. What really matters is whether or not each candidate stands ready, with a pure heart, to receive impressions from his experience.20 Within the limitations of his fast and his environment, the candidate should feel free to express himself as he desires, to investigate the many dimensions of his image as reflected by the natural setting of the threshold. He may spend his time walking, sitting, meditating, sleeping, dreaming, praying, crying for a vision, writing in a journal, talking with the stones or wind. Regardless of what he does, he will learn to yield, to be patient, to watch himself, to look within, and to listen to the voice of the goddess.

In the threshold phase, the candidate comes to the balance point between two opposing forces in his life – the past (the end) and the future (the beginning). Anthropologists have given descriptive names to this stage. Van Gennep calls it a “neutral zone.”21 Campell uses the metaphor of “the belly of the whale.”22 Bridges describes it as a “time of fallow chaos,” and “a primal state of pure energy to which the person returns for every true new beginning.”23 Modern anthropology often defines threshold with the word liminal (“limit”).24 In other words, the candidate steps beyond the limit or margin of his former life station. He widens the circle of his life by undertaking “a rite of spatial passage” that becomes “a rite of spiritual passage.”25 The boyhood husk of the seed drops away. The spirit germinates in the fallow chaos of Mother Earth from which the man will spring. Symbolically, the fallow chaos is the goddess within each candidate.

The allegorical nature of the trial must be clear to each candidate. He is enacting a “story” with a mortal/immortal meaning whose main protagonist is both human and divine. The protagonist lives out the “plot” of the story in a “double-meaninged” landscape or environment. The goddess is both nature and his own anima. “Being blinded” is both the intractable wilderness without and the unconscious wilderness within. Fear is both a monster and an opportunity. An empty belly is both physical hunger and spiritual fullness. A dream is both dream and divine visitation. Absence from the company of others is also presence with their spirits. Signs or messages appear in this natural/sacred world, carrying the same double messages. An animal is both an animal and a spirit. A mountain is both a mountain and a god. A star is both a star and an angel. A mosquito is both a nuisance and a messenger. A sunrise is both a sunrise and a birth – and so on, the story runs, like two tracks beneath one train – or is it two trains on one track?

The midwives should employ effective means to insure the safety of their charges while they are alone. A system of daily checks whereby their safety is ascertained (but their solitude unintruded) can be effectively used.26 Provisions must also be made for the early return of candidates to basecamp should they become ill, suffer accident, or otherwise be unable to continue their lonely vigils. The early return of a candidate, for whatever reasons, must not be accounted shameful or a failure. Rather, he should be encouraged to come to an understanding of why he returned and what he learned from such an action.27 He must then be given another opportunity the following year to confirm his readiness by completing the passage.

Incorporation: The Birth of a Man

When Telemachus completed his seaward passage he took his place as a man beside his father and faced the suitors in the great banquet hall. He stood against what his threshold encounter with the goddess had only confirmed he was ready to face. At last he was prepared to accept his inheritance, to defend his place on the earth. He would survive as a man and would, in his own time, travel as extensively as his father. One tradition has him marrying Circe and having three children by her. But first, there was the matter of the suitors – and his meeting with his long lost father.

The incorporation of a boy into manhood is not without its difficulties. Birthing is accompanied by powerful contractions and much inner conflict (symbolized by the suitors). The new man meets, and takes on, the consequences of his boyhood life. He finds out whether or not he learned his lessons well. His return from the threshold is a delicate matter not to be treated lightly by the male elders. Now he is back in the “secular world” of his everyday body, and his life as a man stretches before him. In a way, he is again like an innocent child who must now start the painful processes of growing up.

The confusion and bewilderment of the incorporation phase (especially in its initial stages) can be mitigated by the preparedness of the elders and their careful, ceremonial attention to the re-entry process. If certain precautions are taken, the difficulties are eased. Each candidate’s spirit must be debriefed and helped to see the meaning of his threshold experience. The first two days of their return, the new men can be brought through a series of ceremonial activities that center them in their bodies as men. Each must be formally welcomed and recognized as a man, brought into the group of men, and given a symbolic gift by his midwives. Then a sauna, sweatlodge, or bathing ceremony can be held, at which time the dust of the threshold world can be flushed from their bodies and prayers said in thanksgiving for the wellbeing of the new men. After the ablutions might come new clothes befitting a man, a feast of thanksgiving, and a time of giving. Afterwards, a council of elders may be convened, and the young men brought in one by one to answer the elder’s questions regarding their threshold experience. This would be a good time for the elders to offer comments and suggestions regarding the young man’s future course, personal gifts, life story, etc., all given in a positive, supportive manner. Within the first two days of their re-entry, the young men must also be given a good deal of time to be alone, to rest, and to reflect on their encounter with the goddess. If they do not seem eager to be alone, this integrative solitude must be required of them.28

On the third day after their return, the separate groups will reassemble at the place where the severance phase was basecamped for a mutual celebration of their brotherhood to formally mark the conclusion of the rite of passage. Soon after, the gathering will pack up and return to the community. There, a final celebration of commencement into manhood will be held for the new men and all those who had a hand in their childhood growth. The parents can be singled out for special honors for their untiring efforts in behalf of their sons and the community at large.

When the ceremonies and congratulations are over, the new men will enter the mainstream of adult male life. They will live apart and independently from home, working for their bread, earning their keep, attending college, enlisting in the armed services, getting married, etc. They will not return to their boyhood living situation unless, for unusual reasons, they cannot do otherwise. If they must return to their old home, they must henceforth be treated as adults – and adult behavior and attitudes must be expected from them. As the new men grow older and themselves become fathers, they will return from their seawarding lives to participate as midwives in the births of other men.

Within a week or two of the rite’s conclusion, most of the candidates will experience a predictable depression, a period of integration when the enormity of the step taken becomes apparent. The new man may feel like forgetting about all this manhood nonsense and wish fervently he could be back home in his childhood nest. Such feelings should not be seen as a setback, but as a challenge. For most new men, the predictable depression will strengthen their ability and resolve to live as men. Within a few weeks of their return, each group of candidates might plan a reunion meeting with their midwives to discuss their progress in their new lives. Further support meetings might be scheduled by those in the group who feel a further need for them. The emphasis on such meetings would not be on problem solving, but on sharing, friendship and brotherhood. As time passes, the new men should be weaned away from the glory and hoop-la of the rite of passage ceremony and cleave to the goddess and to their “people” – those who, as men, they are committed to serve with the give-away of their lives:

Now you belong to your greater mother. And you return to her womb to emerge once again, as a man who knows himself not as an individual but a unit of his tribe and a part of all life which ever surrounds him.
ν Frank Waters, The Man Who Killed the Deer


1) Joseph Campbell, Myths to Live By (New York, 1978), p. 45.

2) Others might include the Greek myths of Apollo, Oedipus, Hercules, and Dionysis. Also, see King David boy and man (Hebrew), the Aurthurian legends,Quetzalcoatl (Mayan-Aztec), the fairy tale of “Iron Hans” (Brothers Grimm), and such literary “myths” as The Brothers Karamazov (Dostoyevsky), “Song of Myself” (Walt Whitman), Siddhartha (Herman Hesse), and Ulysses (James Joyce). For a cogent, autobiographical development of the Odysseus archetype, see Report to Greco (Nikos Kazantzakis).

3) Hesiod, Theogony, 886-900; Pindar, The Olympian Odes, vii, 34ff; Apollodorus, I, 3.6. As quoted by Robert Graves, The Greek Myths, Vol. I (Baltimore, 1959), p. 46.

4) Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology, and Legend, Maria Leach, Ed. (San Francisco, 1972), p. 1114. See also Robert Graves, The Greek Myths, Vol. II (Baltimore, 1960), pp. 10-11.

5) From teachings received from Hyemeyohsts Storm, a modern Northern Sheyenne shield maker.

6) Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology, and Legend, pp. 10-11.

7) A Northern Cheyenne term for the goddess of the west.

8) Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology, and Legend, p. 1114. See also Robert Graves, Vol II, pp. 10-11.

9) Homer, The Odyssey, Translated by Robert Fitzgerald (Garden City, 1963), xi, 116-121. All other quotations are from this version.

10) See William Bridge’s treatment of the Odysseyan mid-life transition theme in Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes (Reading, Mass., 1980).

11) Should the father successfully complete his mid-life passage home he is by no means done with the works of his life. His greater years lie before him. Coming home was just a beginning. The prophecy of Tiresias’ shade described the future course of the man-father:

. . . go overland on foot, and take an oar,
until one day you come where men have lived
with meat unsalted, never known the sea,
nor seen seagoing ships, with crimson bows
and oars that fledge light hulls for dipping flight. (xi, 126-30)

There he must introduce these people to the use of the oar and offer sacrifices to Poseidon. Finally, a “seaborn death soft as a hand of mist will come upon you when you are wearied out with rich old age, your country folk in blessed peace around you” (xi, 139-42).
12) Anthropologist Victor Turner draws a distinction between “confirmatory” and “transformational” rites: “Betwixt and Between: The Liminal Period in rites of passage, (The proceedings of the American Ethnological Society, 1964).

13) Quoted by M. Eliade, From Primitives to Zen (New York, 1967), p. 301.

14) A traditional Plains Indian vision quest “lament” goes: “Great Spirit, take pity on me, so that my people may live.”

15) In the Zuni tale of “The Boy Who Had to Learn to Marry,” a boy’s grandmother makes him ready for marriage by sleeping with him herself. Dictionary of Folklore, p. 68

16) Van Gennep, The Rites of Passage (Chicago, 1960), p. 11. The terms used by van Gennep are separation, marge, and aggregation.

17) The Vision Quest: Passing from Childhood to Adulthood, Foster and Little (Lagunitas, CA 1983), contains a thorough review of what these preparations might entail for the threshold model described here.

18) This ceremony, and the subsequent incorporation ceremonies, might best be designed by the midwives, rather than adapted from any specific cultural or religious source.

19) In this threshold model water is provided for safety’s sake. Medically speaking, four days and nights without water would endanger the lives of certain young men without the physiological capabilities to endure a water fast.

20) I have noted a distressing tendency among vision fasters to judge each other’s quest in terms of the difficulty of the threshold trial, as though degree of hardship equaled quality of vision or degree of spirituality. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. It all depends on the quality of the individual undergoing the trial.

21) Van Gennep, p. 18.

22) Joseph Campbell, Hero With a Thousand Faces (New York, 1970), pp. 90-94.

23) Bridges, p. 119.

24) Cf. Victor Turner, “Betwixt and Between.”

25) Van Gennep, p. 22

26) The “buddy system,” an old Outward Bound technique, has ceremonial dimensions as well. See Foster and Little, pp. 40-41. See also Stephen Bacon, The Conscious Use of Metaphor in Outward Bound (Denver, 1983).

27) Cf. Foster and Little, pp. 58-60.

28) Cf. Foster and Little, The Roaring of the Sacred River: Modern Apprenticeship to the Ancient Ceremony of Passage (Big Pine, CA, 1995). The last three chapters describe necessary components in the incorporation of modern vision fasters.

29) Note: This model does not take into account age (21) as a cultural determinant of manhood. The candidates are presumed to be men and heirs to the responsibilities and privileges of their life station.xx

We do not go into the desert to escape

people but to learn how to find them:
we do not leave them in order to have

nothing more to do with them,
but to find out the way
to do them the most good.

Thomas Merton-