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Rites of Passage

Rites Of Passage Cross-culturally

Birthing and pregnancy rites. Pregnancy and childbirth are often associated with rites of separation; pregnant women may be viewed as dangerous, or capable of polluting men and sacred objects and places (Douglas 1966). Commenting on birthing rites, van Gennep cites at length W. H. R. Rivers's 1906 ethnography of the Tonga of India. Among these people a series of pregnancy rites are performed, first to separate the pregnant woman from her village. After an extended liminal period, a ceremony is held in which the woman drinks sacred milk to purify her, her husband, and their child. Subsequently, the family is reintegrated into their social group. No longer a polluting women, she is re-established in her village as a mother.

Peter Loizos and Patrick Heady (1999) recently co-edited a compilation of essays on the relation of symbolic practice and pregnancy and childbirth among mainly contemporary European peasant societies and from communities in Africa, Asia-Pacific, and Latin America. Consistent with the findings of van Gennep, members of these diverse societies used different means to mark the status transition of pregnancy and the birth of a new human being. The physical birth of the infant may in fact not be the moment at which a status change takes place. Conducting ethnographic research among Indians and non-Indians in the Bolivian Andes, Andrew Canessa (1999) observed that the designation of personhood was not achieved at birth but rather emerged through other ritual practices throughout the life course.

Among a Flemish population of mixed religious background in Flanders, Belgium, Anne van Meerbeeck (1995) found that the rite of baptism was considered a highly desirable ceremony through which to integrate newborn babies into the community. Regardless of their affiliation with the Catholic Church, parents sought its assistance in marking an important stage in the life course of their infant.

Initiation rites. Puberty rites for van Gennep demark social rather than biological events. These initiation rites signify a departure from the asexual world of the child and are followed sequentially by rites of incorporation into the sexual world of the adult. Depending on the society, these ceremonies may take place either prior to attainment of sexual maturity or, alternatively, long after physiological puberty has occurred. These rites are extremely important in that they signify that the initiate is capable of upholding the office of an adult member of the social group. He or she is prepared to take a spouse, meet the occupational demands as a full member of the community, and to parent children.

Anthropologist Audrey Richards (1982) details through rich ethnographic description the chisungu, the month-long initiation rite for young Bemba females of Zambia. In matrilineal societies such as the Bemba, young men leave their families and join their wives' lineages. For Richards, Bemba social structure is reproduced through the chisungu. The female initiation ceremonies place initiates (and their future husbands) within the power structure of the matriarchy.

The circumcision ritual is the key component of the male initiation ritual for the Merina of Madagascar. According to Maurice Bloch (1986), the circumcision ritual represents, on the one hand, a blessing that is bestowed on the young initiate through a connection with his ancestors. Juxtaposed to this act of love and kindness, however, circumcision is also for the young male an extreme act of violence. As Madagascar has undergone considerable change, Bloch analyzes how the circumcision rite prevails through changing sociopolitical contexts. Despite shifting circumstances, Bloch finds an inherent stability to these rituals.

A contemporary classic ethnography is Gilbert Herdt's (1994) description of male initiation practices among the Sambia of the Papua New Guinea Highlands. The first European to observe these A boy reads from the Torah during his Bar Mitzvah. Initiation rites such as the Bar Mitzvah signify that the initiate is capable of acting as an adult member of the social group. NATHAN NOUROK/PHOTO EDIT rites, Herdt found that Sambian males must undergo a long, arduous, ritual process through which to transcend feminized boyhood to ultimately achieve masculinity. "This is ritual custom: it is what men must do to be men, even if they must be dragged into manhood screaming all the way" (Herdt 1994, p. 253).

Betrothal and marriage rites. The anthropological record reveals tremendous variation in marriage patterns. Robin Fox condenses what he calls the "facts of life" for kinship and marriage to four axioms (Fox 1983, p. 31):

  • Principle 1: The women have the children;
  • Principle 2: The men impregnate the women;
  • Principle 3: The men usually exercise control;
  • Principle 4: Primary kin do not mate with each other.

Although Fox's approach is extremely reductionist, his point would seem to be well taken that there are few universals relative to kinship and marriage with the exceptions of gestation, impregnation, a tendency toward male dominance, and incest avoidance. (For an alternative perspective, see Levi-Strauss 1949.)

Similarly, Lucy Mair (1977) documents a multiplicity of marriage practices while providing limited evidence for universal patterns. Mair does, however, include an illuminating discussion of the rites of marriage and divorce.

Mortuary rites. When a person dies, both the deceased and the survivors typically undergo a rite of passage. The dead are separated from the world of the living and incorporated into the domain of the ancestors. This is a significant status passage. Although the deceased may walk with the living as spiritual beings (or not infrequently efforts are made to ensure that they do not), they are, nevertheless, of the afterworld. Likewise, for the living there is the task of separating oneself from the relationship with deceased. One frequently mourns the passing of the relative or loved one. Property must be redistributed. Rein-corporation for the survivors into the community often brings with it a new status, one of widow, widower, or orphan.

Annette Weiner (1976) depicts a lengthy, elaborate funeral ritual celebrated by the villagers of Kwaibwaga in the Trobiand Islands of Papua New Guinea. The funeral ritual exerts considerable effort to restore social harmony, the extent of which varies according to the social status of the deceased. Ceremonial clothes are donned. The spouse straps on a mourning neckband, a ritual object he or she will wear for approximately two years. As the dead body is wrapped, men and women sob and moan. The Kwaibwaga engage in a lengthy, highly structured mortuary ritual in which kinfolk and other villagers exchange gifts. For Weiner, the mortuary ritual provides a dramatic process through which social relationships are articulated and social harmony restored.

In some societies, the period of transition may be very brief. In her moving but deeply disturbing study of mothers in Brazil, Nancy Scheper-Hughes (1992) details the everyday struggles of women experiencing high rates, up to 25 percent, of infant mortality. Rather than to express sorrow, the mother is expected to articulate her joy. Her dead infant—an angel-baby—will have a happy future. As one grandmother put it, "[m]an makes; God takes" (Scheper-Hughes 1992, p. 418). Yet in Bom Jesus da Mata, Scheper-Hughes found little celebration through funeral rituals for angel-babies. Ritual practice did not resolve the rupture in the social fabric caused by the recurring deaths of infants.

Additional topics

Marriage and Family EncyclopediaFamily & Marriage TraditionsRites of Passage - Rites Of Passage Cross-culturally, Cultural Performance, Social Drama, And Rites Of Passage