Rites of Passage

Rites of passage are special rituals societies employ to assist their members at key times of biographical change. These life transitions follow a recognizable pattern of behavior in many cultures; for example, babies are given a name and social identity, youths enter adulthood or marry, others retire, gain particular qualifications such as degrees or enter particular professions, or pass from the world of the living to the world of the dead. Changes of status can be related to changes in identity because the term identity embraces social and psychological aspects of life. The term status tends to refer to sociological values without reference to the personal feelings and self-evaluation of individuals. In this entry, the term status emphasizes the social dimension and identity of the psychological aspects of an individual's life.

The idea of status passage rituals was first introduced by the anthropologist Arnold van Gennep, who saw regeneration as the law of life and described rites of passage as a threefold process with phases of separation, segregation, and integration. For there to be a new self the old self must ritually die. Candidates for some rite would be separated from the status to be left behind, leaving familiar companions, surroundings and home, perhaps encountering actual or symbolic aggression in being wrenched away or carried off. Second, they enter a "between" period devoid of distinguishing marks of status and expressions of their old identity, such as names or clothing. In the case of passage to adulthood, adolescents may together undergo a degree of discipline and share a mutual sense of hardship, bonding them together. Their curtailed freedom begins a reorientation toward their future status and life obligations. This may involve learning the traditions of their society or the skills of some particular profession or trade. Only after this period of learning and endurance is complete do they undergo the third phase of reincorporation into society. However, they do so with their new status and identity, perhaps involving a new name or title, forms of dress or style of language and, almost certainly, new patterns of behavior with appropriate duties and responsibilities.

Van Gennep likened society to a house with people moving over thresholds from room to room. The Latin word for threshold is limen, hence his three phases of rites of passage as preliminal, liminal, and postliminal. He also argued that, depending upon the final goal of a ritual, the preliminal, liminal, or postliminal phase would be stressed over and above the others. Rites of passage sometimes involve more than one type of status change. In a marriage, for example, it is not only the bride and groom that pass from being single or divorced to being married but their parents also become parents-in-law. Parents, siblings, and friends may all enter new relationships.

Van Gennep's scheme was constructed to describe patterns of life in those traditional societies often described as primitive or tribal societies. In such communities of relatively few people and high levels of face-to-face contact, many would acknowledge the change of status and identity of an individual during rites of initiation into manhood, womanhood, or motherhood. However, caution is required when the idea of rites of passage is applied to events in contemporary and large-scale societies where little such recognition exists.

Such understandings of ritual permit insight into the significance of funerary ritual, a rite of passage observed in a great majority of human societies. Numerous changes of identity are associated with funeral rites, affecting the statuses of the dead, surviving relatives, and members of the broader community.

Death separates the deceased from their statuses of living parent, spouse, or coworker. The period of preparing the dead for burial or cremation moves them into a transitional phase when they are neither what they have been nor yet what they will become. Such moments of transition often involve uncertainty and potential danger. The ritual impurity of the corpse derives from its inability to respond to others, yet is still "present" in their everyday routines. Accordingly, people pay their respects to the dead, marking their former identity with them, express sorrow for the bereaved and, by so doing, reaffirm their continuing relationship with them. Stories recounting the achievement or character of the dead and supernatural powers may be invoked to forgive any evil the deceased may have perpetrated and to guide them into the afterlife. Gifts and goods may be provided to assist the individual to depart from this world to the next.

Just as initiates in their liminal period may be taught mysteries of their culture so the dead may be given their own form of education in the form of guidance provided in sacred texts, chants and prayers assist their journey, as in texts like the Egyptian Book of the Dead and the Tibetan Book of the Dead. Very often there are special priests or ritual experts to attend to this task. Sometimes additional rites are performed to assist the departed, often referred to as soul or life forces, to settle in their new world. A major goal of death rites is to ensure that the individual who has died leaves the realm of the living for the realm of the afterlife. Liminal periods of change include uncertainty and are often regarded as potentially dangerous, with the case of death providing powerful examples as

During the Indian Navjote ceremony, the ritual rite of passage where the person is accepted into the Parsi community, a priest ties a sacred thread around the child
During the Indian Navjote ceremony, the ritual rite of passage where the person is accepted into the Parsi community, a priest ties a sacred thread around the child's waist as he or she chants the Ahuna-Vairya (ancient prayers).
key social members depart and others have to take their place.

Just as living persons become ancestors or souls in heaven so the living undergo changes in relation to them. Robert Hertz argues that funeral rites involve a kind of parallel process in which the decay of the dead reflects the path of grief in the bereaved. Bereavement involves both the social change of status of people—from, say, being a wife to being a widow, from being a child to being an orphan, or from being a subordinate adult to becoming the head of the family. It also involves psychological changes of identity associated with such shifts. Human beings become dependent upon each other and, in a sense, each identity is made up of elements of other people's influence. People become "part of" each other, and thus when one dies a portion of one's self perishes as well. Some theories of grief discuss this in terms of attachment and interpret bereavement as the loss that follows when attachments are removed.

The fear of ghosts or spirits, for example, can be related to both the dimensions of status and identity. In terms of status, ghosts and spirits can be seen as the dead who have not been successfully moved from their place in this world to that of the next. They are those who are caught in the between realm of an unintended liminal state, potentially dangerous liminal entities, or phenomena as they symbolize radical change that challenges the social life set up against such change. Sometimes further rites exist to try to get such spiritual forces finally to leave the world of the living and get on with their future destiny. At its most extreme, rites of exorcism serve to banish the dead or other supernatural entities and prevent them from influencing the living. In terms of identity, this time the identity of the living, ghosts and spirits and perhaps we should also include vivid dreams of the dead, all reflect the individual experience of a bereaved person who is still, psychologically speaking, caught up with the identity of the deceased person. Physical death has also been widely employed as an idiom to describe the leaving of an old status and the entry into a new one.

Two other anthropologists, Victor Turner and Maurice Bloch, have developed van Gennep's scheme. Turner explored liminality as a period in which human beings found great strength in the mutual support of others in the same situation. He coined the word communitas to describe this feeling of shared unity among those who, for example, were initiated together. The same might also apply to groups of people in the army or at college together, groups of people at carnivals or in pilgrimages, and those who are bereaved. Together they share the succor of their common humanity as they come together in adversity. For a moment they forget their different statuses and the symbols that divide them to enter into the shared emotional experiences associated with grief. To be with others at such a time is to acknowledge what it means to be human and to be mortal. In these types of situations, people sometimes speak of finding a strength they did not know they possessed, or they speak of the support they felt from others over a period of bereavement.

Maurice Bloch extensively modified van Gennep's scheme, criticizing its stress on the social status aspects of life and its ignoring of more psychological aspects. Bloch added the emphasis upon the psychological realm of experience as basic to human beings. This existentialist-like stress provides a welcomed realization that the anthropology of ritual is, ultimately, about people with feelings. Bloch stressed that while a threefold ritual scheme of preliminal, liminal, and postliminal phases may suffice to describe changes in social status, it does not do justice to the changes individuals experience. It is not that an individual is simply removed from social life, taught new things, and given a new status on re-entry to ordinary social life. Far from it, that individual changes not least because of the experiences of bereavement and grief.

Bloch makes a significant contribution to rites of passage in his theory of rebounding conquest, or rebounding violence. He describes the ordinary facts of life in terms of people being born, maturing, and then dying. Most human cultures, however, are unhappy with this simple progression. Through ritual forms they take living people and in a symbolic sense cause them to "die" and be "reborn" as new kinds of individuals, shedding old, used-up selves so new ones can take their place. Not only are they given a new status but they will also have experienced inner changes to their sense of identity. Many rituals of initiation in religions as well as in some secret societies use the natural idioms of birth and death but reverse them to speak of death and rebirth. It is as though the ordinariness of human nature is "killed" and a new and higher nature is bestowed. In some religious traditions this scheme of rebounding conquest can be applied to death rites when physical death is said to be the basis for a new and spiritual life either in future transmigration of the soul or in some form of resurrection.

See also: Gennep, Arnold van ; Grief and Mourning in Cross-Cultural Perspective ; Hertz, Robert


Bloch, Maurice. Prey into Hunter. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

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

Rappaport, Roy A. Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Turner, Victor. The Ritual Process. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1969.


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