Rites of Passage: van Gennep and beyond by Merri-Lee Hanson


(I have chosen Note 90, p.350 from Grimes' "Deeply Into The Bone")

Van Gennep, Arnold. The Rites of Passage. Trans. Manika B. Vizedom and Gabrielle L. Caffee. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960.

Rites of Passage and Transition

Scholars such as Charles-Arnold Van Gennep have noted that virtually all human societies use ceremonial rites to mark significant transitions in the social status of individuals. These rites highlight and validate changes in a person's status, particularly on the occasion of such life-transforming events as birth, puberty, marriage, parenthood, and death, but also may occur upon taking a political office or joining a secret society.

Comparing the structure of such rituals in diverse cultures, Van Gennep discovered that rites of passage often share similar features, including a period of segregation from everyday life, a liminal state of transition from one status to the next, and a process of reintroduction to the social order with a new standing. Given these similarities, he coined the term "rites of passage" as an analytical concept, though others prefer the term "transition rites." Scholars often draw analogies between rites of passage and the human life cycle. In these rites, individuals are symbolically killed, reborn, and nurtured as they take on new social statuses, and then reborn into society as new and different persons. Portals often feature prominently in rites of passage, symbolizing the crossing of a threshold into a new social world.

During segregation, the common beginning stage of rites of passage, initiates undergo rituals meant to strip them of their identities and separate them from their previous social statuses. They may be forcibly moved geographically, or made to strip themselves of clothing, hair, or other physical markings of their previous selves. For example, young women's heads are shaved and eyebrows removed on the first day of the koroseek initiation ceremony among the Okiek of Kenya. Initiates often undergo rituals and ordeals designed to redefine their social standings. For example they may endure a variety of body modification procedures, including haircuts, tattoos, and scarification. Male circumcision and female excision also commonly mark rites of passage. The Luo of Kenya remove initiates' lower front incisors during initiation rites. Clothing and ornaments may also signify the loss of their previous status.

These rituals are often trials in which pain demarcates boundaries between the old and the new. During the Poro secret society initiation rite of the Mende in Sierra Leone, boys first face circumcision (if they are not already circumcised). Those conducting the rites then force the boys onto the ground and cut their backs with razors while forcing their heads into a hole. The resulting scars signify the teeth marks of the Poro spirit that consumes the boys. Having "died," the initiates will then reemerge from the bush reborn with a new social status.

The next stage in many rites of passage transforms individuals to new social statuses through liminal states. Communities often consider initiates exceptionally vulnerable and/or dangerous at this time because they have become socially ambiguous. Anthropologist Victor Turner wrote:

Liminal entities are neither here nor there; they are betwixt and between the positions assigned and arrayed by law, custom, convention, and ceremony. As such, their ambiguous and intermediate attributes are expressed by a rich variety of symbols in many societies that ritualize social and cultural transitions. Thus, liminality is frequently likened to death, to being in the womb, to invisibility, to darkness, to bisexuality, to the wilderness, and to an eclipse of the sun or moon.

Among the Mende, Poro initiates undergo training periods during which they are considered dangerous. They play pipes and yell warning cries to prevent passers-by from coming into contact with them. Poro initiates undergo ordeals during this liminal state, a common feature of rites of passage, particularly initiation rites. They are deprived of sleep, forced to labor, exposed to the elements, forced to seek their own nourishment in the bush, and instructed in Poro law.

The initiates then reemerge, often through formal ritual procedures, to the normal social fabric with a newly defined identity and a changed social status. Van Gennep coined a term to describe this process: aggregation. For example, the Mende Poro ceremony of rebirth makes the reluctant Poro spirit give birth to the initiates it has devoured. Using a rope, a female official pulls the initiates out of the Poro spirit's womb.

Ceremonies marking initiation into adulthood are the most common rites of passage. They often include trials of pain and stamina, periods of introspection, the teaching of sacred and secret stories, and the use of symbolic representations, including dances and masks, as a means of reshaping individuals' identities. Initiations may takes weeks or months, during which the initiates often live together in distinct and segregated houses. While other rites of passage commonly fall into the three phases Van Gennep described, they do not necessarily entail the ordeals associated with initiation rites.

Van Gennep viewed rites of passage as an essential ingredient in the rejuvenation of society. He and other social scientists generally believe that rites of passage serve to preserve social stability by easing the transition of cohorts of individuals into new status and prestige roles; in part, they are a social acknowledgement of aging. As individuals are born and age, their positions in society change. In the absence of rites of passage, society would be fraught with conflict as individuals either struggled to assert new social statuses or resisted these statuses. Some African societies maintain a structure of age-grades, groups of individuals who share similar social status by virtue of their similar age. For instance, the Nuer of southern Sudan are grouped into graduated age-grades, each lasting about ten years. Cohorts who share the same age-grades throughout their lives are called an age set. Ceremonial rites of passage, including ordeals for the earlier age grades, mark the age set's movement from one grade to another. By institutionalizing the transitions in social status, rites of passage help to eliminate the friction that would otherwise accompany the frequent renegotiations of relative status between individuals and groups within a society.

Some anthropologists, such as Bronislaw Malinowski, have sought to explain the prevalence of rites of passage by noting their psychotherapeutic quality. Such rituals give individuals social support in confronting the anxiety they may feel facing new social roles or major life changes, such as parenthood or the death of loved ones. Funeral rites, for instance, help those who are grieving by ritually introducing the deceased into the world of the afterlife. Mourning rituals, in particular, provide the bereaved with structure at a time when their most fundamental social relations have changed. This structure helps them to face the loss of the deceased.

Others see these rites as a means of creating emotional bonds that maintain social order. The rites use symbolism to reinforce social statuses, norms, and values, and they increase group solidarity by promoting empathy. Individuals who undergo a rite of passage together, such as members of the same age set, often develop strong personal bonds and form a community of equals within the larger community. These horizontal bonds are thought to strengthen the social fabric, particularly since they tend to cross-cut other social categories, such as membership in different lineages.

Although many societies maintain rites of passage, and while these rites often share structural similarities, their cultural content varies widely. For example, while rites of passage often roughly coincide with physiological stages, adulthood is a cultural, not just a biological, concept. The meaning of adulthood, and the age at which it begins, varies from culture to culture, ranging from eight years of age among the Gussi of Kenya to between 15 and 18 years among the Maasai. The specific symbolism and meaning attached to rites of passage also varies widely. Moreover, the significance of rituals often changes over time within a society. The scholar Maurice Block has shown, for example, that male circumcision rituals among the Merina of Madagascar have been employed to express changing political beliefs. So, while rites of passage may aid in maintaining stability, they also express cultural and social dynamics, and therefore are constantly evolving.


The real ceremony begins where the formal one ends, when we take up a new way, our minds and hearts filled with the vision of earth that holds us within it, in compassionate relationship to and with our world.

Linda Hogan