New Worlds: Rites of Passage

(This post is part of my Patreon-supported New Worlds series.)

You start out a child, you wind up an elder; in between, there are rites of passage.

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?

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About Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is a former anthropologist and folklorist who shamelessly pillages her academic fields for inspiration. She recently misapplied her professors' hard work to the short novel Driftwood and Turning Darkness Into Light, a sequel to the Hugo Award-nominated Victorian adventure series The Memoirs of Lady Trent. She is the author of several other series, over sixty short stories, and the New Worlds series of worldbuilding guides; as half of M.A. Carrick, she has written The Mask of Mirrors, first in the Rook and Rose trilogy. For more information, visit, Twitter @swan_tower, or her Patreon.


New Worlds: Rites of Passage — 11 Comments

  1. My elementary school had an elaborate leaving ritual but the only thing I remember of it was that you had to plunge your whole head in a bucket of water (called “the head plunge”) — mostly because I had a crush on a classmate with braids, and she was right before me, and I still remember her braids dripping water.

    • Odd, the details that stick with you years later!

      When I turned in my senior thesis, the folklore department had a get-together for the handful of seniors, during which it came out that most of us had never seen the Underground Railroad hidey-hole in the building that housed the department. So we all trooped upstairs and moved the bench out of the way and opened it up, and then the seniors took turns going inside it to look around — which, since we were folklorists, naturally led to jokes about how clearly this should become a rite of passage for all graduates of the department, descending into the underworld before re-emerging etc etc. 🙂

  2. The military loves rites of passage. The reasons for this are probably obvious. There may be no other setting in which group cohesion and group loyalty is so crucially important.

    Reading this essay I immediately started thinking about all the rites of passage I have participated in, and the vast majority of those were part of my army service. Which leads me to ask an important question: how long can a rite of passage be? I spent half a year in a military training course that preceded my actual enlistment; my fellow trainees and I had an unusual quasi-military status, being legally civilians but dressed in military uniform, subject to (a version of) military discipline and immersed in a military culture. (The IDF does this, or used to; I don’t know if any other military has anything similar.) It began with the change from civilian clothing to uniforms on the first day of the course, effectively separating the trainees from the civilian world. It ended with the end-of-course ceremony that simultaneously marked us as fully-accredited in our military profession (…we got a pin. It seems incredible to me now, but as young people we could be motivated to heroic efforts by the promise of being allowed to wear a couple of pins.) and returned us to our fully-civilian status for a few more days or weeks, after which we were “properly”, legally enlisted. In between came the training, and the tests, and the cuts – real ones; not everyone who started the course made it to the end, and not everyone who left left by choice. So all the components of a rite of passage seem to be there – separation, liminality, reincorporation. And inasmuch as the purpose of a right of passage is to foster a sense of shared identity, I must say it worked. The sense of belonging I felt when I finished was powerful, unlike anything I personally had ever known before; I continued to identify very strongly with my profession, my unit and the IDF in general for years afterwards, and some of it still remains many years later.

    For soldiers with a more standard enlistment procedure, I’m guessing boot camp works as a more straightforward right of passage – one starts out as a civilian, spends some weeks or months as a “recruit” or “trainee” (Hebrew has a specific word for a recruit in basic training, but I don’t think English does) and ends up a full-fledged soldier. There is a formal swearing-in ceremony at the end, with families invited to watch; one may or may not receive some kind of insignia, may or may not receive a personal weapon. Then there are the parties – at least one, sometimes more. Officer’s training follows the same pattern. (Hebrew also has a specific word for a cadet in officer’s training. It is distinct from the word used for a recruit in basic training, from the word used for a civilian in pre-enlistment military training like mine, and from the more general-purpose word used for a soldier in any kind of training course. There may actually be more kinds of transitional status than of permanent status.)

    Obviously all of these transitions are marked with ceremonies – the Army loves ceremonies – and those ceremonies probably look rather more like the rites of passage described in Marie’s post. There are swearing-in ceremonies, end-of-course ceremonies (those two are sometimes combined), promotion ceremonies every time someone receives a new rank, change-of-commander ceremonies every time a unit of significant size gets a new commander, and the unofficial, less-ceremonious but nonetheless very ritualized discharge celebrations. All of these are followed by parties, or at the very least by soft drinks and cake in the commander’s office. The day I started paid keva (“permanent” or “career”) service, after three years of unpaid hova (“mandatory”) service, I brought in a strawberry cream pie I made and shared with my whole section and various friends. Interestingly, this particular transition is usually not marked in any way – it doesn’t usually correlate with any change in rank or position, and has no associated rite of passage at all. Did I create one? Not by the anthropologists’ definitions. But I saw an important transition, and I advertised my new status that day. (And became, briefly, the most popular NCO around. At least until I ran out of pie.)

    • how long can a rite of passage be?

      I don’t think there’s any kind of formal answer to that, and whether something constitutes a really long rite of passage or a (temporary) life status in its own right is one of those questions that probably depends on how you choose to view it.

      But yeah, militaries tend to make heavy use of this kind of thing, because a sense of belonging is critical when you’re asking people to put their lives on the line. That’s almost certainly part of the rationale behind really intense training periods: sure, you learn important skills and packing them into your head as fast as possible means relatively little wasted time, but it also promotes bonding and a sense of having been through the fire.

  3. I went through Confirmation — a couple of months with regular gatherings (me, the pastor, and the other kids who were undergoing confirmation) wherein we studied, were frequently quizzed on what we had learned & what we knew of of the subject matter (God in our denomination and others, the Bible, Biblical history, etc) from outside the lessons…ending in a final exam, followed by a special Sunday service where we were welcomed & allowed for the first time to take Communion. (some of my older relatives told me that, when they took confirmation, the final exam was a verbal question-and-answer in front of the entire congregation)

    So, the liminality was limited as far as I can tell: before we graduated, we were treated just like any other children of the congregation…there was the expectation that we would finish the course and graduate, granted – not everyone does, even these days.

    • Yeah, I thought about confirmation after I posted this. My own was pretty unmemorable — as in, I remember taking the classes, but recall nothing about how it all ended. (You can tell my religious sentiments were never very strong.)

  4. I’m reminded of masonic traditions and other secret societies. Their rituals have elements of humiliation as well as symbolic death and rebirth. Seems to me, that the more bizarre the ritual, the closer the bond at the end. The ritual truly separates the inductee from the rest of society.

    Same purpose as any rite of passage. Recently there has been an upswing of masonic memberships when 20 years ago it was dying out. Is this part of a natural cycle or has something changed in our society making the exclusive society more desirable?

    • Maybe the upswing is (at least in part) from Masons explaining how “no, we are nothing like those idiots in the conspiracy movies, even if they claim to be Masonic.”

      • I’d honestly expect the upswing to be because of the conspiracy movies. 😛 But yes, as Phyl said, there’s definitely a desire to belong to an “exclusive” group — a desire that may get stronger the more our other social boundaries dissolve.

  5. Have you ever read Terry Pratchett’s “Nation”? One of the major points running through the book is that the protagonist, Mau, is in a liminal state – at the beginning of the story he goes off for a rite of passage, leaving his boy soul, and before he comes back, a tsunami wipes out his whole village, preventing the ceremony which should endow him with his man soul.

    (Late comment, I know; I’m catching up on earlier articles.)

    • No worries about the late comments! I like getting them.

      And no, I haven’t read Nation; I’m working my way very slowly through Discworld, but haven’t gotten to that one yet. I like the concept, though!