Cultures throughout time immemorial have designed rites of passage to mark transitional periods in the lives of individuals within the society. The term “rites of passage” was first used by Arnold van Gennep (1873–1957) whose seminal work, Rites de Passage, is considered to have had the most profound impact on modern-day study of rituals and initiations.
The term, now used by social anthropologists, wilderness educators and cultural revivalists to name a few, defines rites of passage as:
a series of rituals that conveys an individual from one social state or status to another —for example, from adolescence to adulthood, from single to married, from student to graduate, from apprentice to a full member of a profession, from life to death—thereby transforming both society’s definition of the individual and the individual’s self-perception.
— Rites of Passage, International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences
van Gennep theorized that rites of passage serve as a means of passing gently through three principal stages with varying degrees of importance depending on the nature of the rite:
- Separation from the old
- Incorporation of the next passage of life
Separation: the common beginning stage in which a symbolic detachment from the old is enacted – either shaving of the head, removing clothing or going into the wilderness. Funeral rites generally emphasize separation in an effort to detach the dead from physical life.
Transition: also called the liminal phase, describes the stage of being betwixt and between, no longer part of the old and not yet part of the new and is frequently likened to “death” or to being in the womb.
During a ritual’s liminal stage, participants stand at the threshold between their previous way of structuring their identity, time, or community, and a new way, which the ritual establishes.
Incorporation : the stage in which the initiate returns to normality and is welcomed by community with a new identity or change in social status. A rebirth. A debutante ball or wedding ceremony are examples of incorporation.
In North America, common rites of passage include baptisms, bar/bat mitzvahs, confirmations, graduation ceremonies, Quinceañeras, weddings, retirement parties, and funerals.
In an indigenous setting, rites of passage are often associated with biological/cultural cycles – birth, adolescence, elderhood and death. In a modern setting, transitions such as mid-life, divorce, menopause, miscarriage and career change may also call for transition rites as they often represent a crisis in an individual’s life. In many cases, there is no community to witness these crises; separation and transition are experienced in virtual isolation; and there is no one to welcome the rebirth.
Whilst van Gennep’s three-phased model has been the basis for understanding rites of passage, a model we found useful for our nature encampments with Malidoma Somé is adapted from Rodney Frey, Professor of Ethnography, University of Idaho. In his model, Professor Frey denotes four stages:
Orphaned Status. In this phase, the initiate feels like something is missing in his/her life, a void needs to be filled, there is a need for healing or divine guidance. Individuals may linger in an orphaned state for a long time, wondering what to do or where to turn for answers.
Journey, Death and Sacrifice. This is the moment of separation involving a journey into a liminal state. In the case of the 9-Day Encampment, the journey begins when the decision is made to attend. Once in ritual space, the initiate is brought to the threshold of the sacred, a symbolic death, and surrenders the old psyche, wounds, old ways of being, as sacrificial offerings to nature.
Acquisition of Power and Knowledge. Rendered receptive like warm wax, the ancestors and spirits of nature are then able to fill the initiate with knowledge, wisdom, clarity and renewed vision.
Affirmation and Rebirth. The initiate is reintegrated into the community which acknowledges and welcomes the newly acquired awareness, sense of renewed purpose, deepening of personal power, and perhaps gifts of healing.
To become a man [woman] I must go,
Into Nature’s womb I must return.
But when I come back,
The joy of rebirth for you I will sing.
(from Of Water and the Spirit: Ritual and Initiation in the Life of an African Shaman)