RITES OF PASSAGE
by Phil Bartle, PhD
When a change of status needs to be acknowledged
A “rite” is a public ritual, not to be confused with "right" or "write." Passage, here, means recognition that a person (or something) has passed from one social status to another.
Our whole life, start to finish, we do not feel very different from day to day.
Biologically, also, we are about the same from one day to the next.
Yet we know that we all differ through life, infant, toddler, child, teenager, young adult, mature adult, senior. There is nothing biologically or in our experience which provides boundaries between these stages of our lives, except birth, first menses and death.
A rite of passage is a social event which fills this gap. The important element to us in sociology is that it is something which provides social recognition, or acknowledgement from the members of our community, that we have changed in social status.
Not all rites of passage need be observed at a particular age. A wedding or a coronation are good examples. A wedding recognizes the change of status from single to married. A coronation recognizes a change to becoming a king or queen.
In life, the first rite would be recognition that a new person has entered society. In Akan society, this is the outdooring ceremony, which must first wait to see if all seven of the day spirits allow the child to live, after which the father has the right to name the baby. In European societies, especially in the middle ages, a child would be baptized shortly after birth and, although called something else, this served to give notice to the community that a new person has entered the world.
Historically, when it was very important to have babies and perpetuate the community, the rite of passage that changed a person from child to adult, was very important. More importantly was that rite which recognised the change from girl to woman, and therefore of age to marry and give birth. In the European middle ages, this declined as an overt rite, and was absorbed into the ritual of first communion. Today, with the decline in importance of organised Christianity, this has now been replaced with the high school graduation ceremony.
Death is an important biological transition. Rites of passage to recognise that it happened differ from society to society. In Akan societies, those remaining alive dress in red (danger) or black (destiny) but not white (joy) while the corpse is usually dressed in white. The funeral is a rite of passage that marks the transition of elder to ancestor, who will be considered to maintain involvement in the family, lineage and community after death. In original Christian theology, the deceased will remain in stasis until the apocalypse when the messiah will return to raise all from the dead and send them each to heaven or hell. In secular society, there is no overt theology, but a vague celebration of saying good bye to the deceased.
Today we have photo identification, which was absent in the past and in simple societies. Government gives certain privileges and obligations according to age, and instead of a public ceremony, the photo identity document is sufficient to determine status.
Smaller rites are often spontaneous and unstructured today. When a person’s age changes on a birthday from legal child to legal adult, that person and a few friends may go out to a bar or licensed restaurant to celebrate the right of that person to buy alcoholic drinks.
On occasion friends may get together to invent new, non universal rites of passage. One such is the divorce ceremony. Another is the lease breaking party.
When a child leaves for school, kindergarten or pre-school for the first time, the pangs of emotion experienced by the mother or father substitute for a rite of passage. Similarly when a grown up child leaves home for the first time to live away. There may be no formal ritual, but the event is recognised as a change in status.
Sometimes a rite serves a dual purpose. A baby shower is held ostensibly to celebrate the arrival of a baby, but if it is the first child, it also is a celebration of the mother changing status from childless woman to mother.
Initiation rites may or may not be linked to rites of passage. They are often associated today with entering a new training or educational institution, such as a military college. In East Africa they are an elaborate set of tests and endurance which are part of the circumcision of the boys, after which they are considered to be men.
There is some debate about the difference between boys' and girls' rites of passages to adults. Girls have a biological marker, their first menstrual period, for which there is no direct equivalent for boys. In some societies, boys to men rites are more elaborate so as to counteract this difference, as in Bar Mitzvahs in Jewish communities. In other societies, the girls to women rites are more elaborate, because female fertility is more important than male fertility, as in matrilineal Akan communities.
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