Rituals and Rites of Passage


Once upon a time rites of passage were a very important component of culture, an aspect that was present in pretty much all human communities across the globe. Why would ancestral culture believed it to be important to mark important moments in life with specific rites? This is one of the many questions anthropologists, ethnographers and evolutionary psychologists are trying to answer.

The most obvious one that comes to mind is social order, to have a clear demarcation in society that divides children from adults, the married from the single, entering parenthood, the elders from the rest, just to mention a few. These life milestones were marked by specific rituals, and ritualised ceremonies, that would include a girl having her first blood being accepted in the women’s community, boys returning from their first solo hunt and being accepted in the community of adult men, or hunters. The examples are countless, from a point of view of social order the purpose is clear, to have a clear divide between the tasks and expectations concerning different groups in society. What about the psychological aspect of the Rites of Passage?

I remember a long time ago when I joined my local scout group, after one year the troop’s elders council met to consider if I was worthy of taking the Scout Oath, at first they talked among themselves, then they summoned me to ask a few questions such as what is being a scout for me, what it means to serve others and other questions. I left the circle, and later that evening my patrol leader told me that I was considered worthy, he explained to me the meaning of scout symbolism and handed me a copy of the Knight’s Code of Honour for me to study, and to memorise the Oath and Scout Law. That night, I was tasked to sit alone by the fire and contemplate the uniform and scarf I would receive on the next day at sunrise. Morning came, I of course did not sleep, and the whole troop gathered to listen to my Oath and celebrate my welcome into the community each patrol by yelling their motto. For a 12 year old I was extremely proud of myself, felt a sense of connection and belonging, moreover, even to this day when looking back at the July night in the mountains, I still consider that date as the day when I bid farewell to childhood and childish games, and considered myself a teenager, as a clear life milestone. 


To many extents our societies still have some elements of rites of passage, take weddings and stag or hen nights, take end of school exams and so on and so forth; however, what we have lost is the consciousness and awareness that this is indeed a rite of passage from one stage of life to another, which begins with a challenge to overcome and ends with a celebration, to mark the accomplished quest of overcoming the obstacles and to become part of another group. And what if this does not happen? If there is no clear mark of separation the risk is of course of never letting go of certain attitudes and behaviours and to drag them along for the rest of our lives where we do not need them anymore, and here we see adults who carry along into their adult life teenage or childish behaviours and attitudes, especially because they never went through that clear separation in between life stages. As a matter of fact what our culture maintained is oftentimes the celebration and party element of the rite of passage, and greatly diminishing the challenge or obstacle to overcome that is necessary to make this a rite. 

To give an example in New Mexico an organisation called the School of Lost Borders offers a programme to high school students in the final year, after they take the final exam they take the students for a week outdoors and facilitate a rite of passage type of activity, to mark their entrance into adult life.

Practically how does this work? According to the main scholar who dedicated his life to the study of rituals and rites of passage, Van Gennep, we are looking at 3 stages:  Separation; Transformation and Return.  

Separation is the stage where the person is separated from his everyday life world and society, to undergo an important task, quest, activity. Like the American school pupils separated from their homes and neighbourhood to go into the wild; or me getting separated from my patrol and troop to tend the fire by myself in preparation for the ceremony. 

Transformation; this is where the desired change happens, the obstacles and challenges presented are actually faced by the person, and hopefully overcome successfully. Just as the American pupils go through a series of outdoors challenges, or as I sit by future uniform throughout the cold night, unable to leave and move until sunrise. 

Return; this follows the transformation, and the renewed self returns to their community and society within their new role and function. The American pupils return home and to their communities as adults, whereas they left as teenagers; I return to my scout troop this time wearing the scarf like all those who took the oath. 

After these few paragraphs, what do you think are rites of passage still important today?