What Purpose Do They Serve?


At the time van Gennep observed the processes associated with changes over the course of the life cycle, his studies were among people living vastly different lives than they do today and in cultures far removed from Western consciousness. Subsequent writings over the last hundred years on initiation and rites of passage spanned the great realm within the human experience.

Many more authors since van Gennep have written about initiation and rites of passage that have informed hundreds, perhaps thousands of programs around the world aiming to achieve the transformative outcomes for today’s children.

Famed mythologist Joseph Campbell (1904-1987) tells the story of the “hero’s journey,” in his book, The Hero With a Thousand Faces (1949). He formulated his Monomyth model, which involved a journey of Separation or “Call to Adventure”, a Transitional stage where the “hero” goes through “tests and ordeals”, and a final Incorporation stage where the “hero” returns to the community where the journey is shared and celebrated.

The child sets forth on their journey within the psyche as “ME” and returns with a sense of being connected and in relationship to all things within the psyche as “WE”. When a community welcomes their children - the “hero - back from their journey and honors and affirms the child’s change of status a place for their emerging adulthood is set forth.

Victor Turner (1920-1983) focused on the structure of ritual and gave us some brilliant lines like: “liminality is the mother of invention” and “betwixt and between” to note the place where the dynamics of rites of passage are heightened into the cauldron that forges an individual’s authentic sense of “self” connected with a soul and the greater mysteries in the Universe.

Mircea Eliade (1907-1986) wrote in his classic work, Rites and Symbols of Initiation (1958), “… in the modern Western world significant initiation is practically non-existent.” He noted, as did other early authors that initiation was of particular importance in traditional societies because only through such rites would a child be accepted as an adult and a responsible member of society. These initiation rites, especially the “ordeal”, introduced the child to the spiritual life and values of their culture. Through the symbolic death and rebirth experienced in the ordeal one is placed into a primal position to re-experience the sacredness of life. It reconnected the child to their soul and authentic self within the realm of the Spirits and Gods established at the beginning of time. It gave the individual a real authentic sense of the sacred within a deep connection to community, nature and their people’s culture and history.

Jungian psychology explored the archetypal symbols within humans that contribute to an essential foundation of human behavior and existence. Carl Jung (1875-1961), the Swiss psychoanalyst believed that death and resurrection are archetypal (universal) processes that are part of our collective unconscious. That is, a part of our mind that contains universal symbols that shape our personal experiences. The psychological process of death and resurrection were central tasks of psychological transformation and growth and a central function of initiation.

While the transformative potential of these initiation processes is clear what is questionable is if and how they can be of service in contemporary Western society, which is markedly different from the time, place and cultures that van Gennep observed.

One position is that they cannot. Contemporary programs designed to replicate and become rites of passage miss the mark. Unlike authentic, community-based, culturally relevant initiation and rites of passage processes many contemporary forms do not offer the initiate knowledge of or entry into their own culture and community.

This is particularly difficult in the ‘melting pot’ diversity of modern America. Youth are often sent outside the community for a rite of passage program experience, but the family and community are unable or often unwilling to accept the changes within the youth. The family and community may not be engaged with or even understand the external rite of passage program in such a way that they can adequately welcome the child home, celebrate their change of status and, most importantly, accord to them the respect that goes along with the responsibilities of their new status.

Furthermore, the community has made no place for them to demonstrate their new skill and status in ways that serve the community and affirm for the child their ascension into their new roles that will be acknowledged by their community.

Unless you are welcomed back to the village and honored for completing an ordeal you become sick. The transformation was complete when we returned and were honored and welcomed back into the community.

Malidoma Patrice Somè

The work of initiation is individual while responsibility for its transformative potential belongs to the community. We have must come a long way to experience the journey back to ourselves.

However, all is not lost and the story of initiation and rites of passage can still be of great, even life sustaining and saving value, if we consider their other primary purpose. Although not a central focus of many observers and analysis, another view is that an essential purpose of rites of passage was also as a community organizing process for strengthening the resilience and adaptation of the group in order to survive. It responded to human’s need for a sense of community, the sense of belonging and being connected to other people, and the natural setting in which they live amongst their ancestors and Spirit world. The separation and transition efforts of individuals fail if there is no community to incorporate back into with personal changes and growth celebrated. The entire process is reciprocity between the individual and community, which serves to insure the survival of our species in balance and connection with nature and our sacred Earth.