Gennep, Arnold van

Arnold van Gennep was born in 1873 and educated at the Sorbonne. He died in 1957 without ever having been accepted into Émile Durkheim's circle of sociologists, a neglect the anthropologist Rodney Needham speaks of as "an academic disgrace" in his preface to The Semi-Scholars (Gennep 1967, xi). Nevertheless, van Gennep's 1909 concept of "rites of passage" represents his prime contribution to thanatology, and subsequently became a major means of interpreting funerary ritual.

Rites of passage are transition rituals that move individuals from one social status to another in a three-phased schema of separation, segregation, and incorporation. It is as though society conducts individuals from one status to another, as from one room in a house to another, always passing over thresholds. This spatial element is important since changed status often involves changing locality. The "magico-religious aspect of crossing frontiers" intrigued van Gennep. For him, religion meant abstract ideas or doctrine and magic meant ritual action, so magico-religious was his idiosyncratic description of practical religious action quite unlike Durkheim's distinction between religion as collective and magic as privately selfish activity. According to van Gennep, in his book The Rites of Passage, the dynamic of rites of transition depends upon "the pivoting of sacredness" during the middle liminal phase, emphasizing why door and threshold (or limen in Latin), in both a literal and metaphorical sense, were important for him. Paradoxically he also thought that numerous landmarks were a form of phallus but devoid of "truly sexual significance." The fear inherent in changing status and responsibilities was managed ritually even if they were not concurrent with biological changes in adolescence. These rites mark a journey through life reflecting physical changes and altering responsibilities. The anthropologist Ioan Lewis expressed this when he referred to rites of passage as "rites of way," describing the phases in terms of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis (Lewis 1985, pp. 131–132).

Funerals both extend this journey to the other world in a series of transition rites and help structure the mourning process of survivors. Transition rather than separation is singled out as the predominating element of funerary rites, affecting both the living and the dead and involving potential danger for each as ritual changes in identity occur. Yet, almost as a law of life, these changes also involve a renewal of much-needed energy. One ignored element in van Gennep's work concerns fear, for funerals may be "defensive procedures," protecting against departed souls or the "contagion of death," and helping to "dispose of eternal enemies" of the survivors. He was an early critic of the French anthropologist Robert Hertz's overemphasis on positive aspects of funeral rites, and underemphasis on burial or cremation as effecting a dissociation of body and soul(s). Van Gennep's energy model of society whose rituals periodically regenerated its power and gave sense to repeating patterns of death and regeneration presaged both Durkheim's basic argument on totemic ritual (made in 1912) and the British anthropologists Maurice Bloch and Jonathan Parry's late-twentieth-century analysis of death and regeneration.

See also: Durkheim, É MILE ; Hertz, Robert ; Rites of Passage


Bloch, Maurice, and Jonathan Parry. Death and the Regeneration of Life. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982.

Durkheim, Émile. The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life. London: George Allen and Unwin, 1915.

Gennep, Arnold van. The Semi-Scholars, translated and edited by Rodney Needham. 1911. Reprint, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1967.

Gennep, Arnold van. The Rites of Passage. 1909. Reprint, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1960.

Lewis, I. M. Social Anthropology in Perspective. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985.

Parkin, Robert. The Dark Side of Humanity: The World of Robert Hertz and Its Legacy. Australia: Harwood Academic Publishers, 1996.


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