Rites of Passage

All cultures mark the changes in life. Birth, death,  marriage and entering adulthood are imp. occasions and are celebrated by separate rites or ceremonies.  These rites contribute to the stability of the individual and to society because they help us cope with the unexpected and sometimes difficult times.

Rites of passage:  ceremonies that mark a person's progress from one phase to another or social status to another.    Some examples are: religious ceremony like baptism, death of a close relative, first communion, first date, first sexual experience, high school graduation, driver's licence  and first paid employment. 

Stages in life are vague and defined differently in different parts of the world.  ( becoming a teen did not happen one day)  Markers in our lives also vary, we are all born and we all go through puberty and we all die, but not all of us get married.

Some markers are based on religion like first communion and baptism,  and others are associated with culture, such as when Latin Americans celebrate a girl's 15th birthday or some have ancient origins like baby shower, even when it is not for the child, because it is not born yet.  Remembrance services  vary and are for the family not the deceased person.

Rituals: ceremonial acts prescribed by tradition or by religion that set humans apart from other species.

Rites of passage occur in similar patterns across cultures and correspond with imp. events in the life cycle--birth, puberty and initiation into society, mating and reproduction and old age and death.  Some are related to religion and some with social change

Rites of passage all contain three-step process:

  1. You are changed from what you were to something new.
  2. You remove yourself from society temporarily.
  3. You are re-admitted to society as a new person.

Example:  Japanese Birth Tradition

Stage 1, woman learns she is pregnant.  She abstains from certain foods and eat others (this is partly health, partly religious) and prayers by relatives for the well-being of child and mother.

Stage 2, near birth date, mother is isolated except for the attending women, also isolated after birth ( approx. 33 days) considered dangerous to others and the supernatural beings. Must cover the head so as not to offend the sun god. 

Stage 3, mother and female aids perform a ceremony where they spread salt on the floor of dwelling to purify it.  Ceremonial meal to follow.

Ritualistic Symbols - rites of passage often accompanied with imp. symbols, such as new clothing, jewellery, or body ornamentation.  The person at center of ritual sometimes goes thru a symbolic death and rebirth or an ordeal to test strength and courage. 

Mehendi Party - traditional art of decorating women's hands and feet with henna to celebrate a wedding for the modern Indian or Pakistani woman.  A  female artist will make up the henna paste, the palm is finely decorated with detail and the sole of the foot is left bare.  While waiting for the henna to dry, the bride cannot feed herself, male relatives take care of household chores, and family and close women friends dance, sing and entertain the bride during the painting.  The occasion is sad and happy as the wife leaves her family after the wedding.  On the wedding night if the groom can find his family name initials in the decorated artwork,  he will dominate the bride, if he cannot find them, the bride rules the groom.

Reasons for Rites: 

  • relieve stress
  • help understand growth
  • anticipate inevitable life changes
  • entertainment value as can be humorous or serious
  • whole culture benefits as pass on traditions, religious or moral values


Sri Lanka, learning so imp. solemn ritual to acknowledge child's mastery of first letter  The teacher is also commemorated. 

Some of the most imp. rites of passage throughout history are the coming of age marking puberty, or the significant transition from childhood to youth. (Productive members of a social group and sexually mature enough to reproduce)    Teens experience many initiations into adult hood, some wonderful, some growing pains, some are shared, some are alone, some are old, some new, some talked about.....

 Many coning of age rites of passage continue to be imp. because people still experience the same bodily changes.  Bodily hair still means a ritual of shaving, but shaving takes many forms in different cultures.

Some rites involve initiations which share common features:

  •  mutilation:  scarring,  piercing and tattooing
  • Demand endurance: beating, fasting, seclusion
  • Special clothing, markings, new name
  • Instruction in proper adult behaviour and  lessons on morality

Anthropologists discuss the coming of age rites with the perspective of history and cross-cultural  studies, psychologists discuss these rites and the impact they have on mental health and stability and sociologists discuss the various rites within the different social groups using factors such as  gender, race and economic status .

Questions to Answer:

  1. What are the various components of all rites of passage?
  2. How have coming of age rites of passage changed along with modern society?
  3. Some rites are experienced alone, and some are  experienced with a group.  Explain using examples. 
  4. How is body adornment connected to rites of passage?


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