These are the ceremonies that mark a transition from one social status to another. The iconic example is the transformation of a child to an adult, as seen in the Jewish bar mitzvah and bat mitzvah, or the Latin American fiesta de quinceañera. That particular threshold has more or less fallen by the wayside in modern white Protestant American society, but that doesn’t mean we entirely lack rites of passage; graduation is one, and a wedding is another.
Something like getting your driver’s license or the right to vote, however, is not — at least not according to the definition anthropologists use (laid out by a guy named Arnold van Gennep). A rite of passage, at its core, consists of three stages: separation, liminality, and incorporation. The first divides the individual from the social status they used to have; you were X, but now you are not-X. That puts you in a liminal zone, a term that indicates you are standing on a metaphorical threshold, neither fish nor fowl. Finally, incorporation removes you from your liminal state and makes you a member of the new group.
How is separation achieved? In a relatively stripped-down version like high school or college graduation, clothing is a major component. See somebody in a cap and gown? You know exactly what’s going on. Same thing with a bride in a white wedding dress. Other ceremonies, especially in other parts of the world, may incorporate other elements, ranging from body paint to an all-night vigil to the use of hallucinogens to induce an altered state of mind. The passage to adulthood in a hunter-gatherer society could be a multi-day affair, with tests of skill or religious ceremonies not permitted to be seen by people of the opposite sex. Basically, the more obviously an individual is marked out and divided from the normal world around them, the easier it is to tell that you’re looking at a rite of passage.
This puts you into a liminal state . . . and I have to say that, as a writer, this is the part that makes me sit up and take notice. Folklorically speaking, liminal things are powerful, and they are dangerous. Societies depend on organization for their stability, and so anything that slips free of the usual categories is at a minimum charged with psychological power. Past the minimum? Being liminal is literally magic. For example, women undergoing Shinto weddings wear a white hood over their hair to conceal the demon horns they supposedly grow. And if you’re writing fantasy . . . yeah. You can run with that “liminality is magic” idea as far as you like. Especially if the person undergoing the rite of passage gets separated from society, but never reincorporated (e.g. because something interrupts the ceremony).
But it would be a pity if they never got reincorporated, because that’s where the parties happen! There are probably rites of passage that don’t involve a big feast afterward, but it’s such a standard element of reincorporation that I just tend to take it as a given. More ceremonial stuff can happen, too, like the individual being formally welcomed by their new peers, or given their first chance to exercise the rights they’ve just gained.
Reincorporation especially matters if the separation and liminal stages were traumatic. Our modern rites of passage are usually pretty tame, but anthropologists have documented some pretty severe practices, with the person undergoing trials for which the word “torture” wouldn’t be exaggeration. Is this done out of cruelty? No — at least not in general, though it’s always possible that the individual in charge of the whole show is cruel and abusing their power. Rather, the idea is that the more you go through as a part of your rite of passage, the stronger a bond you feel to your new group when you join them.
I can attest to this, at least on a minor level. In college, our marching band had what we called “freshman cuts,” which was the point at which freshman who failed to measure up to a certain standard would (theoretically) be cut from the band. We all knew this wasn’t true — they wanted as many warm bodies on the field as they could get — and the college had rules against hazing anyway, so the various activities around freshman cuts were 100% optional, and everybody knew it. If you didn’t want to go through with them, nobody would say boo. Me? I was majoring in anthropology and folklore. Of course I went through it. And I came out the other side with the story of what the “Brown punch” was like my year, a story that got shared with the band members both senior and junior to me, just as they shared their own tales. I’ll spare you all the details, saying only that every component of the punch was perfectly potable or edible and utterly revolting when combined with all the other ingredients . . . and that drinking it, though in no way a “fun” experience, is one I don’t regret in the least. Because it did what it was supposed to: it created a bond, a sense that I had gone through a trial that had made me kin to everyone else who had done the same thing.
Because rites of passage are a two-edged sword. Colleges outlaw hazing rituals because they make people who don’t go through them feel excluded, and there have been excesses that leave people traumatized or outright injured. But such rituals also promote bonding and group identity, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. And while having a rite of passage to mark the transition from one life state to another may result in you being thrust into a new role before you truly feel ready for it, it also makes it crystal clear what your role is. Do you have the rights, responsibilities, freedoms, and privileges of a child, or those of an adult? A single person, or a married one? A civilian, or a member of a military group? Muddying the waters between those things may cause difficulty.
What things have you gone through that you would consider a rite of passage?