The Heart of Initiation Rites

Initiation rites—which signify the transition to adulthood—undertake many different forms across various societies. What seems to be universal, however, is the distinction between what it means to be a child and an adult, in terms of social rules, expectations, privileges, or, in short, their place in society. Maturity is undoubtedly a gradual process, where one does not simply “become an adult” overnight. Nonetheless, these rites serve to officiate a “watershed moment”, and shows how the transition is socially constructed and relevant, since what is crucial here is the social (more so than personal) recognition of the individual’s newly assumed role in society.

Having briefly established the social significance of initiation rites, I would like to suggest that the essence (or heart) of these rites is directly parallel to socially esteemed values.

When we see the word “rites”, some of us almost instinctively relate it to that of tribes, or the more “primitive” societies. For instance, the Sepik (crocodile) scarification or Chambri blood initiation in Papua New Guinea, or circumcision in parts of Africa, fit into common, possibly ethnocentric views that “initiation rites” are necessarily painful, dangerous and, above all, unnecessary for one to be considered a “man” or “woman”. One conceivable explanation for this ethnocentric tendency is the basis of ethnocentrism itself: the disparity in what is valued in different societies. In many of these so-called primitive societies, qualities like physical strength and endurance are highly valued, and their respective initiation rites reflect these qualities. Many notorious initiation rites involve piercings, cuttings, and even severing of minor body parts, which palpably denote pain, an emotion strongly linked to one’s strength and endurance.

We could also consider some of our “rites” of initiation to be reflective of what our own society values. Many might mention school/university graduation, suggesting that intellectual capability is indicative of maturity, a connection that I doubt any of us would challenge. The celebration of the 21st birthday is also seen as a liberating moment where one is recognized by law to be an adult, and is now allowed to get a house, vote, etc. The adult, in the state’s eyes, is thus assumed to have for instance intellectual maturity to vote wisely, and a higher ability to manage one’s finances, which are essential in our materialist and elitist culture.

Gendered Rites of Initiation
When discussing initiation rites, I found it hard to ignore the recurring relevance of gender. Most, if not all, of the initiation rites in the aforementioned “primitive” societies strictly distinguish between the two sexes. In these rites, girls are taught what makes a “women”, and for boys, what makes a “man”, both of which are likely mutually exclusive. In terms of prevalence, boys are more initiated than girls, which a larger variety of rites are performed across these societies. For instance, while doing some research on this topic, the results were overwhelmingly male-oriented. This is (casually) exemplified in this website where 8 out of the 10 initiation rites were solely performed on males. Since most societies are and were patriarchal, the most valued qualities tend to be on the masculine side. This is one possible reason why girls’ initiations are relatively less common. Also, a majority of female initiation rites found were on female genital circumcision (FGC) in Africa, which themselves are widely criticized to be performed to accentuate the inferior status of women in relation to men, by making them sexually passive and thus less likely to cheat on their husbands since they would not enjoy sex as much, and supposedly have less sexual drive. Women were also commonly excluded from male initiation rites, some exacting punishments such as gang rape for entering the men’s house as in Sambia.

So where does that put us? If we conceive of school graduation as a rite of initiation into adulthood, are we then a more egalitarian society, by obliterating gender as a prerequisite of embodying a socially valued quality? Or do we still concern ourselves with sex differences, in particular reference to puberty? Or a mixture, perhaps?

Herdt, G.H. 1982. Male Initiation in Papua New Guinea. United States of America: University of California Press.

Shell-Duncan, Bettina. 2000. Female "Circumcision" in Africa: Culture, Controversy, and Change, edited by Shell-Duncan, Bettina, and Hernlund, Ylva. United State of America: Lynne Rienner Publishers, Inc.

Listverse. 2010. 10 Incredibly Painful Rites of Initiation. Retrieved October 23, 2012

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