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Rites Of Passage

  Rites of passage are rituals that mark changes in the social status of an individual passing through the ‘developmental cycle’ of birth, puberty, marriage and death. Rites of passage give communal recognition to social relationships which are altered or newly formed. The influential anthropologist Arnold van Gennep, in his book Rites de Passage (1909), demonstrated that the life-cycle rituals of birth, marriage and death followed the pattern of initiation rites. In small-scale societies, elders generally inducted a group of initiates of the same sex into social roles during a period of time in which the initiates were also tested by undergoing privations. Van Gennep\'s model demonstrated that rituals of passage have a tripartite structure: a rite of separation, followed by a transitional state he termed liminal (from the Latin limen, ‘threshold’), and concluded by a rite of reincorporation into the everyday realm of living, but with a different status.

A great deal of anthropological attention has been paid to the liminal state, during which the individual is ‘betwixt and between’ social roles. It can also be called marginal, because the person may be considered dangerous or polluting and therefore subject to taboos. A good example of van Gennep\'s model are those mortuary rites characterized by a second burial, where the bones of the deceased are dug up and then reburied. In Potamia in rural Greece, for example, this happens after five years, at which time the liminal status of the relatives of the deceased (who have been in mourning all this time) is resolved, and they are reincorporated into normal social life while the spirit is sent to its new abode. Funerary rituals, generally, are rites of passage by which the deceased is converted into an ancestor, and the social positions of the living are redefined.

The ambiguity of the liminal state means that social norms are often turned on their head, and during this phase people are given licence to behave in ways that flout social conventions. Many festivals can be seen as liminal: for example, during the Catholic carnival preceding Lent gender roles are often reversed and there is much sexual revelry. In India, during the Hindu festival of Holi high caste Brahmins might ride on donkeys, women initiate sexual liasons and men dress as women. In this upside down world, people are showered with coloured water and powdered dyes, an action which expresses goodwill and social solidarity between people.

In most societies, rites of passage are marked by religious celebration and ritual. Indeed, the rite itself is often regarded as a religious experience, the deity accepting and validating the individual\'s change in human status. Main rites of passage, from the religious point of view, are the postnatal acceptance of a baby into the community of faith (by such activities as baptism, circumcision or name-giving), coming of age, when the child takes responsibility for its own religious observances (for example in such ceremonies as adult baptism, Bar Mitzvah, confirmation or thread-giving), marriage and death (committal to the after-life and separation from the living). These transitions may be perceived as dangerous because of the exposure to divine power, and may be hedged in with taboo. But they are also sacraments, where Earthly symbols denote a divine reality; they are a means of communion with the supernatural, eternal world, and they are acts of personal commitment of profound theological significance. For example, marriage may appear to be principally a social contract, involving the financial and social linkage of two families and questions of succession and inheritance; but in many religions perpetuation of the family is a duty sacred to both the living and the dead, and marriage ceremonies also reflect the theological understanding of the relationship between man and woman. DA EMJ CL

See also death.Further reading Jean la Fontaine, Initiation: Ritual Drama and Secret Knowledge Across the World; , James Frazer, The Golden Bough.



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