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Rites of Passage

Rites of passage are ceremonies and traditions that assist in life transitions. All of the currently studied religious traditions have ceremonies which celebrate and recognize the evolution of life. Many times; rites of passage are aligned with the natural hormonal, neurochemical, and other biological processes that the human body performs and experiences over its lifetime. Every individual has a unique biological clock; therefore, religious leaders and family authority members should consider more than just calendrical age when considering participation in rites of passage. Rites of passage can be observed during birth events, sexual maturation (puberty, gender identification), pilgrimage (knowledge seeking), sexual selection (marriage), purification, conception (pregnancy), transformation, and death (164-165). Rites of passage are events which give order and definition to the bicultural life cycle (177). Arnold Van Gennep, a notable ethnographer and folklorist, interpreted rites of passage as a three step process - where a person leaves behind one social group and passes through the stage of no identity or affiliation before admission into another social group. This process ultimately confers a new identity for that person. The three step, rite of passage process allows for initiation of individuals into special groups (165).

Another notable humanities scholar, Ronald Grime, a Canadian professor and author in the field of religious studies and rituals, proposes a more complex system of behavior within the religious notion of passage. Grime has elaborated on sixteen different categories of behavior. The categories of behavior are rites of passage, marriage rites, funerary rites, festivals, pilgrimage, purification, civil ceremonies, rituals of exchange, sacrifice, worship, magic, healing rites, interaction rites, meditation rites, rites of inversion, and ritual drama (163). There are many things to consider when thinking about behavioral traditions within religion; for the sake of simplicity, this essay will only discuss calendrical rites, rites of exchange and communication, rites of affliction, and rites of celebration.

Calendrical rites give social meaning to the evolution of time. Calendrical rites are marked by changes in environmental phenomena; such as seasons, the lunar cycles, the solar cycles, agricultural customs, and other social events. Many calendrical rites have historically enabled individuals to communicate with their ancestors through planting, feasting, musical presentations, dancing, and social licensing. Many calendrical rites attempt to influence and control nature. In South American cultures, calendrical rites are seen, ‘to keep the cosmos in motion’. The coordination with the timing of the cosmos is thought to allow for more probable success of ventures in travel, marriage, and business (178-179).

The Catholic Church identifies seven ritualistic sacraments or obligations that span over the calendrical life of an individual. The seven sacraments are seen as necessary for living the most proper and holy life within the Catholic tradition. Catholic ritual behavior includes baptism, penance, first communion, confirmation, marriage, anointing of the sick, and the last rites (170). Judaism celebrates life events similarly to the Catholics, especially with respect to their calendrical rites recognizing obligation to God through rituals like the berit melah, bar/bat mitzvah, engagement, betrothal, wedlock, shivah, prayer, and reverence for death and burial (171).

Hindus have calendrical life passages known as samskāras. Samskarās are purifications and transformations which prepare individuals for better rebirth in the next world and a healthier life in this world. Samskarās address fertility, physical well-being, bearing a male child, naming a child, leaving the birth room, eating for the first time, getting one’s first haircut, ear piercing for girls, defining one’s social role, learning the scriptures of the Vedas, returning from academia to marry, deprivation, death, and rebirth. (171-172).

Rites of exchange and communication are rites in which individuals make offerings to god or gods with an expectation of receiving something in return (186). Anthropologist Edward Tylor saw these transactions as the ‘gift theory’; where one gives in order to receive in return. Offerings are typically given to praise, please, and placate the divine power. Rites of exchange and communication come in the form of natural offerings, mental visualization, or sacrifice. God is typically invited to the rites of exchange and treated with great respect. In Hindu culture, God is invited in, offered water for washing and drinking, a small towel, fresh garments, ornaments, perfumes, ointments, flower garlands, and a burning lamp. Food is offered in these ceremonies too; namely cooked rice, butter, fruits, and herbs. At the end of the offering; God is put to bed. The offering is then offered to those in attendance of the ceremony (189). In China and Taiwan, rites of exchange with the divine involve ‘spirit money’. Spirit money is used to transfer money to other worlds. In order for spirit money to transfer to the other worlds, it must be ignited into flames. Spirit money is used to solicit favors from the gods and provide them with the means to take care of business in the courts. Spirit money can also be used to retire one’s destiny. When objects are burned in China, it is thought that these objects are then transferred to other worlds (190). In Mexican religious culture, rites of exchange come in the form of communication of thanksgiving to the divine entities like Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit, the Virgin Mary, and God (191). Native Americans use smoke, dance, song, and the theatrical to communicate with God(s) (192).

As Catherine Bell states in her book, “The concept of sacrifice and communion with the divine is seen within almost all religious traditions and is generally thought to avert evil, placate gods, achieve communion, reconstruct the idealized kinship relations, and/or establish the proper reciprocity of heaven and earth. The offering of something - first fruits, paper money, or human beings - has been a common ritual mechanism for securing the well-being of the community and the larger cosmos” (197).

Rites of Affliction seek to alleviate the problems that the spirit world has with humanity. There are many religious traditions which believe human misfortune is caused by tension between the spirit world and the physical world. This thought is especially prevalent in tribal religions; especially the Ndembu. In the Ndembu culture, spirits of the dead are blamed for problems in hunting, reproduction of life, and other illness. In religious ideologies like Christianity and Hinduism, rites of affliction come in form of sin, pollution, karma, death; essentially concepts which require purification for future successes in this life or the next (197). Typically modes of purification are performed through the rites of affliction. These modes are destined to heal, exorcise, protect, and purify individuals and communities who have been afflicted by tragedy, illness, or problematic nature, or bad luck. Rites of affliction seek to restore balance within the mind, the body, the community, and the world. Rain is often celebrated as a promising purification method (198). Rites of affliction are also seen within the parameters of religiously treating disease. Bell notes this in her book on ritual, “Western medicine is based on the idea that disease is a condition within the individual body system, many other healing therapies are based on the idea that disease takes root when key social relations -among the living or the living dead - are disturbed. Religious traditions suggest that rectification of these societal relationships are an important part of what traditional healing is all about” (199). In Korea, when one is sick they visit a Shaman. Bell elaborates about this visitation by noting a a typical divination session, where the shaman questions their deity while going into a trance to determine the cause of the problem. While in the trance, there is a performance of skillful questioning and other techniques. Many times an ancestor speaks to the shaman because they are upset. In order to correct this problem, a kut is performed. In this ceremony, the shaman becomes taken over by the spirit who has been afflicted and is empowered with the spirit’s voice. The shaman then gives a speech which typically will explain how the illness came up and how to heal it. If it is an evil spirit is responsible for the illness, the shaman will then dance around the patient to drive the spirit out; a straw doll wearing clothing from the ill person may also be burned after the dance to finalize the dejection of the spirit. Music is played for the entirety of this process. When the music stops, the god departs (201). Rituals which seek to alleviate affliction are typically successful with regard to psycho therapeutic cures; namely, because these rituals ask the afflicted to confront their fears, let go of their grief, grudges, and past transgressions. Interestingly, Bell also states that it is important to note the differences between American and European notions of affliction. Euro-American culture typically blames the individual for their innate problems; whereas, cultures from around the world view illness as something caused by a force or an influence outside of the individual; the environmental realm (202).

Purification is the main objective in rites of affliction. Purification allows for the freedom from demonic possession, disease, sin, and karmic consequences of past lives. The ritual of purification attempts to cleanse individuals of pollution; of the physical world, and of the mental, spiritual, emotional worlds. Bathing is a good start; so are candles. Fire and water are the most common ritual agents of purification, but other things like milk, butter, dung, and urine can also be used to purify. In some cultures drugs, dance, music, asceticism, and other intoxicants are used to purify. Some of these agents act as purgative agents; this is what makes them purifying. Vomiting and release of other bodily fluids are noted to be purifying in many religious cultures (204). Rites of affliction generally open up opportunities for reorganization of life and the universe; they give the Earth and its inhabitants a proverbial ‘second chance’ for salvation.

Feasting, fasting, festivals are generally events which draw large groups of individuals into the community to take action. Feasting, fasting, and festivals celebrate culture feelings about historical events or notions of how we view the world in its grandeur. Cultural performances are generally planned to express gratitude and reverence for the spirit world and for the communities that individuals belong to. These performances are viewed as social dramas which allow groups of individuals to create dialogue about themselves.

In the Pacific Northwest, a potlatch is celebrated to display and transfer social privileges. These privileges denote status and prestige; typically the host of these festivals have amassed a great deal of wealth and want to share it with their communities. The potlatch festival allows the recognition of the divine-human interaction. The festival demonstrates the interconnectedness within humanity and the cosmos’ universe. The Pacific Northwest is known to be a hunting and fishing society; a society that celebrates with feasts to give thanks for the stages of childhood, animals, chieftainship, marriage, the creation of buildings, and totem poles. Dances, feasts, storytelling, exhibitions of family histories and traditions, material wealth, and physical prowess are displayed in a competitive fashion during the potlatch. Potlatches require a tremendous amount of planning and have taken up to seventeen years to plan in extreme cases. (206-207). Food feasts are common with regard to communal celebration. They serve a purpose in that they help those who are in need of food and other life substances. There are many festivals like the potlatch in the Pacific Northwest found to be celebrated in other parts of the world. Festivals like Mardi Gras, Holī, Yom Kippur, Carnival allow individuals to come together and get to know one another through the brightest lens of good spirit. These types of celebratory festivals allow individuals to dress up, dance, nourish their bodies, celebrate their hard work, and come together with people who have shared beliefs and ideologies about the world and what it means to live in it.

Fasting is also a very important part of the rites of passage and their innate ritualistic behaviors. Fasting creates a much more somber nature than festivals and feasting; in a sense, fasting can be seen as the polar opposite of feasting and festival. Fasting has been just as common as feasting in religious traditions and rituals over time. Christians, Muslims, and Jews all fast around high holidays; they then subsequently feast. The fasting allows for one to discipline their physical desires; as this increases the chances of avoiding gluttony in the future. The Islamic tradition stresses the importance of fasting in their observance of Ramadan. Muslims believe that fasting demonstrates an individuals’ ultimate submission to God (213).

Rites of passages are phenomena found within various forms of religious histories. Rites of passage have helped humanity understand it is moving through time in similar fashion. Rites of passage allow for the shared experience of human emotions. Rites of passage allow for humans to make progress and over come difficulty. They allow for the difficulties of life to be recognized and discussed in a communal setting. Rites of passage encourage the unique expression of emotion, thought, and desire. Rites of passage give humanity the means of action within a spiritual context. Rites of passage allow for personal interaction with the divine but also allow for the communal celebration; which, in itself is recognition of the divine.


Bell, Catherine M., and Reza Aslan. Ritual : Perspectives and Dimensions, Oxford University Press USA - OSO, 2009. ProQuest Ebook Central,

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