Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
15 Nov

Do We Need Rites of Passage?

The young native American teen sent off into the darkness with nothing but a bow and arrow and expected to return with a wolf pelt or two or three. The Masaai warrior tasked with stalking and killing a lion in single combat. The donning of a glove lined with stinging bullet ants to commemorate becoming a man. Ritualistic tattooing, branding, or mutilation upon reaching a certain age or completing a certain task. The bar mitzvah and bat mitzvah, celebrations of a Jewish boy’s and girl’s respective entrances into adulthood. The Latin American quinceañera. Rites of passage are nearly universal throughout human cultures, both ancient and modern. Universally-preserved behaviors, whether physiological traits, or cultural artifacts, are usually there for very good, or at least very important reasons. So let’s take a closer look. Why do we have rites of passage? Are they still a significant part of growing up in the modern world? If not, should they be?

Most anthropologists (PDF), citing Arnold van Gennep’s major work, “The Rites of Passage,” will say that rites of passage exist in order to consolidate social ties, establish roles, and give members of a group a sense of purpose and placement. They’ll say that the smaller the group, the easier it is to have cooperation and social cohesion. Consider a single family of hunter-gatherers – mom, dad, son, daughter. The four people in this situation aren’t like family; they are family. Cohesion is built-in, it’s natural. There’s no jockeying for position, no confusion over who does what and who listens to whom. The parents protect and provide for the youngsters, the youngsters listen to the parents. This is biological. No artifice required.

Meanwhile, the larger a group gets, the more it requires formalized roles, boundaries, and relationships to enable the same kind of cooperation and cohesion. To maintain social cohesion and maximize survivability, hunter-gatherer groups composed of not one but five, ten, or twenty families are going to have to figure out how to emulate the familial ties and bonds. It will contrive and create social connections and establish roles and statuses for the members. You can’t have everyone doing their own thing without a thought to the group, because survival will be that much more difficult. Resources are scarce – or, at least, there are no guarantees, no grocery stores – and working together improves their chance at thriving and surviving. People in the group need to feel like they belong to the group. Everyone needs a stake in a tribe, and rites of passage help provide that by establishing and formalizing the roles at various life-stages.

I certainly won’t argue with that analysis. It’s well established that humans are social animals, hominids that fight and argue and bicker and laugh and cry and, yes, work together. That’s just who we are, and it’s who we’ve always been (as long as we’ve been human, at least). We form groups, we band together, and we feel intrinsic bonds with our family members. We cohere and cooperate, and I agree that rites of passage and ritual make these social ties stronger and easier to establish. But I suspect there’s more to it.

Humans are self-reflecting, introspective, eager to ascribe deeper meaning to everything, and convinced that we’re the center of the universe. After all, all we know of the world is what we can perceive; our perceptions and our thoughts and our language effectively form our world. The world, in that respect, revolves around us, and our thoughts are more gonzo journalist than impartial observer, running commentary, giving a subjective slant to everything, and shaping our experiences as we go about our day. Is it any wonder that we’d ring in our passage into adulthood with burning brands, stinging ants, huge parties, and complex and solemn ritual, rather than go quietly into the next phase? 

And of course, many rites of passage boil down to simple tests or indications of a person’s courage, fortitude, and/or aptitude. Going out by yourself and a spear and coming back with a lion’s pelt doesn’t just mean you’ve been ushered into the world of men. It also means that you are a capable hunter, a valuable addition to the group who can likely handle what the world will throw at you. Graduating college isn’t just a badge of honor; it (ideally) means you’ve garnered the skills necessary to flourish in your chosen field. Having your first menstruation isn’t just a symbolic shedding of your girlhood; it means you’re physiologically capable of getting pregnant. Rites of passage are also very utilitarian and practical, then.

Today, we have ID cards and social security numbers, badges and political party affiliations and Facebook friend lists, jobs and resumes and official titles to remind us and others who we are, where we are in the world, what we do, and who we know. Do these suffice? Or are we missing out on genuine rites of passage? Do we need the physical and mental ordeals? Do we need the formality?

Maybe. In many Western countries today, young people construct their own rites of passage, cobbling together experiences based on what they think becoming an adult actually entails. There seems to be some innate yearning for the rite of passage, some deep-seated sense that various “stages” of life exist, are real, and should be observed. “Am I a wo/man and no longer a child?” “When do I feel like a grown-up?” “What affirms this?”

I think we could all benefit from a rite of passage at one point or another to satisfy this yearning. But into today’s increasingly complex world there’s not going to be a “one size fits all” approach. We’re not living in small to large bands where you either take up hunting or fishing or medicine work, where what role you inhabit is limited by your immediate physical surroundings and the needs of your group. We have far more options and roles and jobs to fill, and we’ll have to find the rites that work for our unique situation. In that case, what would a modern rite of passage even look like?

Consider what Claire Potter did for her thirteen year old boy. She devised a list of thirteen challenges covering thirteen different areas of life for him to tackle and complete, including shopping for clothes on a budget, taking public transportation to far away cities, doing chores, learning a musical instrument and playing in public, and learning a language. He didn’t hunt lions or endure stinging ants, because he doesn’t “need” those skills. He’s more likely to use the skills he did learn in his life in this world.

This is just the tip of the iceberg on this topic, but I hope this gets a conversation going and gets you thinking about what role a rite of passage may or may not have played in your life.

What do you think, readers? Do we still need rites of passage? Do the old ones still apply, or do we need entirely new ones that make sense in today’s world? If so, what would they look like? Have you gone through a rite of passage? Tell us all about it in the comment section!

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. About the age of 13, as my body started the changed to being a women. My grandmother took me shopping for the day. We had lunch in a fancy restrant. And at the end of the day she before she took me home she gave me a “real” birthstone ring. And was told to ware it as a reminder that i was now becoming a woman and should act like one. She also did this for my sister.
    Many years latter my sister an I both still remeber it as a very special time in our life.

    ponymama wrote on November 16th, 2012
    • I LOVE this. I *hope* my oldest daughter still has a few years (she’s only 8), but I could see this as being part of a rite of passage for my girls.

      Elizabeth wrote on November 19th, 2012
  2. A lot of religions have this. I’m Catholic, so when I was confirmed I was an “adult” in the Church. Jews have bar and bat mitzvahs. Religions have always had this sort of idea, I think.

    Emily wrote on November 16th, 2012
  3. As an actual, practicing modern day wilderness rites of passage (aka the vision quest) guide, I have a few thoughts on this.

    Although there were tests of manhood that involve hunting, most American Indian rites of passage for young men involved them fasting alone and praying at some sacred place for four days or more. (For girls, the onset of menstruation initiated them into womanhood, and they then spent time isolated with the women in order to be instructed in what that meant for them and the group.)

    Ok, back to the young men. Young men are problematic – all that testosterone means all they want to do is fight and f**k. Which means they can be an internal danger to the group. Fasting alone served several purposes for the individual and the group.

    It demonstrated that they could control their appetites, and hence themselves. It demonstrated that they could function as adults – take care of themselves as adults. It demonstrated that they cared enough to pass the test of being initiated as an adult member of the group. It was also an opportunity for them to discover their ‘medicine’ – their gift to the community.

    All of this was seen and held and acknowledged by the community on their return! This is a critical piece, because a rite of passage is just as much for the community as it is for the individual. Initiated men serve and strengthen the community, uninitiated boys don’t.

    We’ve modifed some of that to fit our modern culture. The questers go without food, unlike the Indians, who went without food AND water. And we are more conscious about intention. These more traditional kinds of rites of passage programs are happening all across the world – for youth and adults.

    Rites of passage aren’t just limited to youth – although that transition is probably the most important for healthy development. I lead men and women of all ages on quests who are transitioning into different lives or life stages – like elderhood.

    And there are lots of men who have never been initiated, so they still a have some ‘boy’ left in them. Some of them have a lot of boy left in them.. we all know some of those.

    Anyway, rite of passage are alive and well. We just aren’t hunting wolf and lion. We’re in search of bigger game.

    Munro wrote on November 16th, 2012
  4. I think 2 years of National Service, military or otherwise, would be in order. Preferably in an underdeveloped nation or in an extreme poverty area of the U.S. No exception unless disabled to the extent that it made it impossible/impractical to serve in any way. Then, after service, guaranteed admission to college or trade school at a subsidized rate.

    Don in Arkansas wrote on November 16th, 2012
  5. Mark:

    You might find James Hollis’s book “Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Lide” interesting on this subject. He argues, based on Jungian psychology, that there is a spiritual component to rites of passage, as well as a teaching by adults of how to be a man versus a boy or a woman versus a girl.

    Kathleen Aguilar wrote on November 16th, 2012
  6. Yes we do. Rites of passage are important, especially for boys, I think. That is why my son will have several in the course of his life, starting with the ritualization of his first haircut on his third birthday (yes, he was frequently mistaken for a girl before then, but the ritual marking his passage from baby to little boy was important to me), and the ceremony in which he earned his black belt.

    Danielle wrote on November 16th, 2012
  7. I think our society is full of rights of passage, but we are very used to them. They mean less now because because we have found workarounds. For example, say what you will about morality and all that, marriage used to be a right of passage for the ability to have sex. I realize that marriage is way more complicated than sex but that was a big deal to men because they weren’t allowed to have sex before. I was never in the military but I feel like the military my grandfather was part of in WWII is different than the one I have seen my friends be part of today. My undergrad really didn’t do much for me confidence wise but eventually I went back to school and got a masters degree. My wife still says there was a marked change in my self confidence and demeanor once I put the work into that degree that I paid for myself while working full time.
    These are all rights of passage, but we miss out on the joys because we live together before marriage, drink our way through college, and expect everything paid for us after 4 years of “service”. I’ve found more recently in life after making some of these mistakes that my life took a turn for the better when I started holding out for what was better rather than immediately taking what was easy sooner. I was promoted at work to a new position that I didn’t qualify for because I did a good job in the position I was in. That did way more for me than switching companies for a huge pay raise because the people I was working with validated my efforts with a promotion.
    All that said, I wish my dad had been part of the validation process earlier so I could have skipped the nearly alcoholic almost-got-2-girlfriends-pregnant idiot phase.

    Drew wrote on November 16th, 2012
  8. As Archie Bunker would say “We don’t need no stinking Rites of Passage!” We need people who work at achieving some level of maturity or wisdom that provides them the ability to live successfully in our world today. That may mean many things – we are all differently gifted and trained. Tolerance has never been more desired in our society that it is today – as are good communication skills. BTW, all most as much as the message, I appreciate Mark’s excellent communication skills.

    Rich wrote on November 16th, 2012
  9. Off topic, but I had a total Blink moment with today’s photo. They’re all female. I had to study it for a moment to figure out why I Just Knew that.

    em wrote on November 16th, 2012
  10. I am glad you are bringing this to light. I would like to bring up an amazing author, Bill Plotkin, who wrote two books:
    Nature and the Human Soul.

    He is a psychologist who leads nature excursions for the basis of soul development and letting go of old ways of being, thinking, and living.

    In Natur and the Human Soul, he specifically addresses the idea that our current society is immature in its emotional, mental, and spiritual development, and that this maturity happened more frequently in hunter-gatherer societies that performed these rites of passage. This immaturity is then reflected in our government, our treatment of the Earth, and our social interactions. But really, the book is there to provide a blueprint for how to bring maturity and these rites of passage into our society today.

    You should check it out, Mark!!

    Kelley wrote on November 16th, 2012
  11. It’s so funny that I just read this article today because just yesterday I was thinking about this same thing. I gave birth only 2 weeks ago in the privacy of my own home for the second time. Having a natural intervention/drug free birth is a truely grueling and yet incredible experience that has had a great effect on my life. I almost feel like, in a way, giving birth as nature/God intended it is a rite of passage into womanhood. It is physically demanding that requires months of physical and mental preparation. it requires faith in oneself and self sacrifice for the health of your baby. I am sad that so many women don’t even consider natural birth in our culture because they have been scared to death by the medical community about ‘so many things that could go wrong’ or they aren’t educated about the dangers of unnecessary intervention or they don’t even qualify for a natural birth because they aren’t healthy! I feel like some women are robbing themselves of one of the most phenomenal experiences they could have in life and are copping out of the climax of the rigorous physical process of becoming a mother.

    Rebecca wrote on November 17th, 2012
    • I totally agree (2 homebirths myself). I think women are largely forfeiting our power by acting helpless in our most profound moment. Giving birth naturally made me feel that I could conquer anything. And it really is best for the kids to be born without drugs, if possible.

      Kathy wrote on November 17th, 2012
    • When I was having babies, in the sixties, it was perfectly normal to have your baby at home and I had two home births without any trouble. However I had twins in hospital which was just as well as I had full blown Eclampsia and nearly died. I dread to think what would have happened if I had not gone to hospital then.

      Annakay wrote on November 17th, 2012
    • Couldn’t agree with this more. My first was a grueling hospital birth. My 2nd and 3rd were unassisted homebirths and there simply was no comparison. My first homebirth quite literally changed my life. I knew then that I could accomplish anything that I set my mind to. I was a mother before. I became a Mother. (Disclaimer: this is no judgement on how anyone else chooses to birth, or their experiences. It is simply a commentary on MY experience.)

      Elizabeth wrote on November 19th, 2012
  12. So. Relevant.

    “Men in this country are not guided into manhood by other men. They are guided into childhood by other boys.”

    HaydenT wrote on November 18th, 2012
  13. I think my rite of passage was not really fulfilled until I got my first black belt. The 2hrs or so spent sparring established black belts in rapid secession without any breaks, and then the 2hrs of curiculmn display in front of 100’s of people was the culmination of 4-5 years of training 10-15hrs or more a week.

    After that I learned so much about myself, and even though I was in my early 30’s I felt I finally knew I was capable physically…much like I am sure young warriors and hunters felt at the end of their youth.

    I really didn’t have that feeling at high school graduation, college graduation, or even really when I landed my first real job on my own. I think, there is just something primal and instinctual about physical rites that the more mental rites of passage cannot tap into.

    Matt Jones wrote on November 18th, 2012
  14. I support this post. Far too many good ideas here to list, but it’s one of the critical missing aspects of life. Poet and Men’s therapist Robert Bly hits all of this information spot on. His book Iron Jhon is an interesting read, in both his dissemination of the actual tale (and how it impacted this critical stage of a man’s life), and the impact overall of a lack of solid RoP in our lives in western culture.

    While our culture has many ways of challenging both men and women, and while many of them are very beneficial, they are still missing that critical element. None of them are really “connected” with our culture. there is no real transition into adulthood aided by the community. In most “primitive” cultures, it wasn’t just the mom or dad that did it. It was the community at large.

    the men of the community would take the boy away, and through either a physical trial, or through a ritualistic process, he was brought into the community as an independent man. I think that without a community sense of connection, the process, while beneficial, is still lost much of its scope. But I still think this trial is important..I just wish our culture had a more definitive sense of itself to draw upon for these young men.

    the connection and purpose is critical. a loose group of challenges is fine…but other then knowing that you are in shape and/or can meet a challenge (which is good!) how is it a trial of passage? In my old martial system, we held very strongly to the idealisms of yudanshi…or heritage. your trial of passage connected you closely with the master of the system…You essentially became “part” of his extended family.

    The phillipino systems do this as well. at one systems version of a black belt test (they don’t use belts), the tester who passed signed his name in blood on their “clans” list. to this day they still do it (though the blood is drawn in a vial earlier according to OSHA standards). but the feeling of connection in those tests was strong. there was an essence of belonging, in both systems, that I have never found anywhere else.

    I think this sense of belonging to something…of having a connection coming into adulthood, is critical for the RoP to be completely fulfilled.

    Malachi wrote on November 18th, 2012
    • For me, more then the trial was the bonding. At the end of our sparring session there was a long discussion about what being a black belt was, that you are now representing not only yourself but now the entire dojo and thus you now must take that into consideration with your actions.

      Along with this the head instructor (Hanshi) announced that we would now be called Sensei which further solidified the “rite of passage” feelings.

      This may not have been a greater community bonding, however it was a community bond to the black belts in our system which IMHO a community is a community.

      I do agree there should be a greater community bond such as rite of passage, it’s one thing I really do not like about the US…our cultures are so diverse there is no sense of connection to the country except in times of dire need. Sure we have bonds with our immediate family, but there really isn’t much outside of that other than organizations. Organizations can provide this community feeling, however I think society would be healthier as a whole if a true communal bond existed to recognize coming of age.

      Matt Jones wrote on November 20th, 2012
  15. This is a great article and great convo. I really like what the mom did for her son…those exp’s can define a life.

    GullahBonito wrote on November 19th, 2012
  16. The articles on Mark’s Daily Apple are usually great. I find myself agreeing with most everything Mark says; however this feels like something from a bad sociology text book. It is a subtle criticism of the way we do things…yes, by all means, glorify other non-western civilizations and/or their practices as a way to criticize, like Roussau’s “noble savage.”

    Moreover, already have intellectual rites of passage–i.e., LSAT, GRE, SAT, MCAT, admission to the bar–and physical rites of passage, all of which reduce conflict and show who’s who, so this article is pointless and counterproductive.

    anon wrote on November 20th, 2012
  17. Well I am about to do a vision quest and my friend just challenged me on if it’s nececessary which is why I am here. I am both clear in why I want to do it ( build confidence, self knowing and courage for clarity and direction in purpose and life) and also open to explore the modern rites of passage form, because our lifestyles have changed, and the rites of passage I ma doing is modern. called the butterfly quest.
    I want to talk about creating our own vision quest and then share why I think traditional vision quests have a place.

    6 years ago I did my own vision quest, unaware, which was me leaving the city and living in the woods for 7 months with conscious people, and other times alone. Growing veg, meditating, facing my fears of being alone, living off the land, enhancing my senses, exploring healing music, exploring physic skills, getting into the body, building intuition, expressing creativity in the moment, wood working, crying and screaming, loosingmy mind, meeting my insecurities, being still and slowing down.

    Exploring and deepening my relationship to self and earth. I chose day to day, moment to moment what it was I wanted and needed. This was one of the most powerful times of my life. I discovered my place in life, and found a deep compassion for life, people, earth and transformation. Before I thought much about myself and was caught up in solo ambition. I was moved so much so I have spent the last 6 years trying to go deeper into working with spirit of the land, ceromony and want to train as a rites of passage guide.
    Now as i said I was unaware i was doing a rites of passage. I only reconised about 2 years ago. The reason I say traditional rites of passage has a place is because it is a deep journey, and if not supported can drag out and be damaging.
    I found it very hard to integrate back, to share my experiences in the city, and found myself reclusing and running away to the hills, even hating people.

    I believe there are many people offering rites of passage in modern setting that don’t involve hunting and gathering. For me it is having a sacred fire, having clear explanation and time to prepare, having solo time with clear intention, and having a space to share experiences with authentic, humble and compassionate people. Having a support network for your return.

    Modern rites of passage: time in nature with intent, supported by connected people, space for exploration, community to further.

    joie wrote on August 13th, 2013
  18. Hi,
    I’m glad you got the discussion going. I think it is one that should be brought to the public arena and discussed indefinitely as we develope our rites of passage in modern society.
    We do need new rites of passage. Learning to shop and all these things are no longer survival skills, now that we are facing the greatest threats to humanity’s survival this century. On top of that we are not even surviving socially. With the boundaries you mentioned, between families in a tribe, we have so many now that we do not trust one another.
    What we all need (no matter what age) are initiations of group trust, at every scale (in the family, in the local community, nationally and globally). The consequences of our actions are no longer isolated from one another. Our daily actions affect everyone. Therefore we must experience group passage and inter-group passage.
    Let me know your thoughts.

    Allan wrote on December 24th, 2015

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