Rites of passage, observed with much fanfare among tribal people, is something Western society has left along the wayside to a great extent. Even so, we do manage to observe some such as graduations and promotions along with various religious passages depending on your leaning.
Clan systems were, and in some cases still are exceedingly complex and sophisticated. Advancement through ones clan is often met with initiations, rites of passage. This is particularly prevalent among men’s clans who are thought to have no natural rites of passage as have women. I visit this subject from time to time in Ancestral Airs: The Seedbearers. Concerning men I wrote:
“Winter brought six months of preparation for the first of four initiations we might endure in our lives. Many a young boy lost his nerve on that day the following spring when he might be flogged, whipped, tattooed again, or have to make his first flesh offering, as I did. And some couldn’t do it. There was no shame in that. They could go back to their mothers’ bands free to solicit again, free also to never return.”
I was kind in this portrayal. Chances are it was probably never that easy for the boys of such ancient tribes.
Often rites and initiations were tied to hunting where the initiate had to hunt his medicine animal, generally tied to his clan. I portrayed in detail such a hunt in Ancestral Airs. These pursuits were governed by strict rules and overseen from beginning to end by elders and seasoned clan members. Many groups forbid the taking of this animal with a weapon, requiring that the animal be overtaken and smothered. Some believed that the one pursuing had to shoot the animal’s shadow with an arrow and in doing so the spirit of that animal would come to reside in the man (or boy as we would think today). Processing the animal’s remains was also met with intense scrutiny. The initiate had to know in detail the significance of every body part, how to harvest it, and the prayers required for each. The edible portion of the harvest was considered powerful medicine and shared with anyone who needed a boost such as the elderly, the frail, someone embarking upon a challenging journey, and so forth. The young hunter was actually forbidden to take part as it was believed that eating from his first kill rather than giving all of it away would render him a poor hunter for the rest of his life. He was permitted tokens like bones for whistles, teeth for necklaces, the hide or plumes had the prey been a bird. These items became ritual talismans for him.
Most men endured repeated initiations throughout their lives and were often awarded new names, names that they had earned. Earlier I wrote a piece called What’s In A Name that deals with some of specifics of name giving. It was first published by The Witches’ Voice.
Women’s rites of passage were easily recognized: puberty, childbirth and menopause. Some societies and clans to which women might transition from their birth clans would have rites of passage as well. Such events were widely celebrated and required no fierce sacrifices. Although there is quite a bit more on this in Ancestral Airs, here is a taste of what is written:
“When a young girl reached the age of receptiveness she was honored with a great puberty rite. Her unquenchable desire to bring form to the Unborn led inevitably to the swelling of pregnancy, an event widely celebrated among the women. Those of us who had ever kept vigilant watch over one bearing the bounty of new life were praised briefly before nursing mothers were honored with dramatic portrayals of the mother bear, whose wrathful defense of the newborn was never chanced by a living soul.
The stories continued to unfold. Shortly before birth the Life Givers went off to the seclusion and absolute domain of the clan midwife and would remain there for a month after the newborn had arrived. Concealed in the mysticism she brought the nursling and buried the placenta.
The dramatic finale eulogized the old women, revered for their courage to bear witness to the best and worst of what we were. Their wisdom was untouchable; they were the Crones.” Ancestral Airs: The Life Givers is an entire work on women’s medicine and the Crones.”
Today there remain many tribes that continue to observe these types of things. Some of the Rio Grande tribes still put their adolescent boys in the kivas for eighteen months. When he emerges he is considered an adult and no longer answers to his mother but to kiva elders. The tribes continue to have celebratory puberty rites for young girls, often lasting days after months of preparation.
It seems to me that today what we have left as rites of passage are suspiciously connected to money: education and promotions. Puberty rites are for the most part gone. Pregnancy and childbirth are remembered with small baby showers but the mother rarely gets the help she needs once her baby is born. And what ever happened to name giving ceremonies? No one changes their name anymore as they move through life’s cycles. Perhaps that is why we find ourselves so fond of nicknames rather than our given names; we need rites of passage and the names that commemorate them. And don’t get me started with regard to how elders are treated today. Their final rite of passage is often to a facility where they will be forgotten and left to die.
Perhaps as we try to create a better world and better life within that world we should give some scrutiny to rites of passage for our families and community. Rites of passage are not unlike the sacred cycles of seasons, all of which are intrinsic to spiritual awareness.