A rite of passage is a ritual or ceremony signifying an event in a person’s life indicating a new and different status, usually in reference to adolescence. It is a concept emergent from the academic field of anthropology (Tzanelli, 2007).
Rite of passage rituals are prevalent across different cultures and societies, marking significant moments such as birth, reaching puberty, marriage, or even death.
A rite of passage typically involves three phases: separation, liminality, and incorporation (Van Gennep, 1977).
- Separation: The first step involves leaving behind a familiar and comfortable phase or condition (in the Jewish tradition, for instance, a Bar Mitzvah marks the separation from childhood into adulthood for boys at the age of 13).
- Liminality: Here, the individual experiences their lives from a broad perspective, detached from the specifics of their previous state (for example, in many university settings, the freshman orientation week serves as the liminality stage).
- Incorporation: The individual now assumes a new role in their society (for instance, after the convocation ceremony, a graduate is deemed ready to enter the professional sphere).
While as outsiders we may not fully comprehend the underlying importance of rites of passage within foreign cultures, for participants, these rites usher them into their new roles, forging their identities and facilitating societal harmony.
Rite of Passage Examples
1. Bar and Bat Mitzvah
The Bar Mitzvah (for boys) and Bat Mitzvah (for girls) are significant rites of passage in Jewish culture marking the transition from childhood to adulthood. Upon reaching 13 years old for boys and 12 for girls, they are expected to observe the commandments of the Torah, participate fully in religious services, and assume moral and ethical responsibility for their actions. This rite of passage is celebrated with a synagogue ceremony, where the young person leads a religious service and reads from the Torah, followed by a celebratory meal with family and friends.
The Quinceañera is a significant event in the Hispanic culture, marking a girl’s transition from childhood to womanhood at age 15. It’s a lavish celebration that serves to reaffirm religious faith, family, and community ties. The ceremony involves attending a mass where the girl receives blessings from the priest, followed by a grand party with music, dancing, and a feast.
3. Maasai Circumcision
Culture: Maasai (East Africa)
The Maasai people in East Africa have a rite of passage for boys transitioning into manhood known as Enkipaata, which involves circumcision. Performed without anesthetic, it tests the initiate’s courage and endurance, qualities deemed vital for a warrior. Following the ritual, the boys live in isolation for a few months, learning responsibilities and expectations related to adulthood.
4. Satere-Mawe Bullet Ant Initiation
Culture: Satere-Mawe (Brazil)
The Satere-Mawe tribe in Brazil has one of the most painful rites of passage to manhood. Boys as young as 12 must wear gloves filled with bullet ants (known for their extremely painful stings) for more than 10 minutes. This initiation symbolizes the young boys’ endurance, bravery, and readiness for adult tasks like hunting.
Seijin-no-Hi, also known as Coming of Age Day, is an annual ceremony in Japan celebrating all individuals who have turned 20 in the past year, marking their entry into adulthood. It’s a national holiday where newly recognized adults attend local city halls for speeches, receive gifts, and often visit shrines. The women wear a traditional outfit called furisode, while the men don a formal suit or traditional dress.
6. Sweet Sixteen
Culture: Western, predominantly United States.
A Sweet Sixteen party is a coming-of-age celebration for a teenager’s sixteenth birthday, marking a step closer to adulthood. In modern western culture, especially in the United States, these parties can range from small and intimate gatherings to large-scale events. The birthday girl is often fêted with gifts, and the event may include music, dancing, and a formal meal or buffet.
Culture: Indigenous Australian
In the Australian Aboriginal culture, adolescent boys undergo a ritual called Walkabout. This rite of passage requires the boy to live in the wilderness for up to six months, testing his survival skills and transiting him into manhood. It represents both a spiritual journey and a self-sufficient survival experience, marking the transition from boyhood to adulthood.
Confirmation is a rite of initiation in many Christian churches, typically taking place in adolescence. The confirmed individuals affirm their faith and accept adult responsibilities within the church community. In Catholicism, the ceremony involves the bishop laying his hands on the confirmants, praying for the Holy Spirit’s outpouring, and anointing them with chrism.
9. Vision Quest
Culture: Native American
Traditional among Native American cultures, a Vision Quest is a rite of passage marking the transition from childhood to adulthood. This spiritual journey into the wilderness serves as a period of introspection and connection to ancestral spirits. The participants are expected to fast, pray, and form a relationship with the natural world.
Among the most universal rites of passage, a wedding is a ceremony marking the union of individuals in marriage. This event—varying significantly in customs, traditions, and symbols across cultures—represents the formal acceptance of the couple as a unit within their community. It’s marked by the exchange of vows, presentation of a gift (often rings), and a public pronouncement of marriage.
In Christian culture, baptism is a sacrament signalling initiation into the Christian Church. Infants or adults are either sprinkled with or immersed in holy water, symbolizing purification and admission to the Christian community. Depending on the denomination, baptism can represent the washing away of sin, rebirth, or confirmation of faith.
Culture: Predominantly United States
Prom is a semi-formal high school dance held towards the end of the last two years of high school, marking adolescent students’ transition towards adulthood. It has become a significant event in youths’ social lives where they get to dress up formally, experience a formal dinner, dance, and in some cases, vote for a Prom King and Queen. It is often seen as a rehearsal of sorts for future social occasions and engagements.
Genpuku was a historical rite of passage in feudal Japan for samurai aristocracy boy transitioning into adulthood. The boys, typically aged between 10 and 20, would receive adult clothes, a hairstyle, and a new adult name in a ceremony. The Genpuku signified that they were legally and socially independent and could marry, own property, and participate in warfare.
14. Sunrise Dance
Culture: Apache (North America)
The Sunrise Dance is a four-day ceremony marking an Apache girl’s transition into womanhood following her first menstruation. The girl performs an elaborate dance and enacts a series of tasks reflecting the story of the Changing Woman, an important deity in Apache lore.
15. Hamar Cow-Jumping
Culture: Hamar (Ethiopia)
The Hamar people in Ethiopia conduct a complex rite of passage for boys transitioning to manhood, involving bull-jumping. The boy must successfully run across the backs of several bulls without falling, witnessed by friends and family. On completion, he attains full membership in the adult Hamar community.
Culture: Hinduism (India)
In Hindu cultures, Upanayana marks a boy’s entrance into a spiritual life. Typically performed between ages 8 and 16, the ceremony involves the boy receiving a sacred thread, representing spiritual rebirth. After Upanayana, the boy is expected to regularly recite and meditate on Gayatri Mantra, a vital Sanskrit verse.
Rumspringa, a term meaning ‘running around’ in Pennsylvania Dutch, is the Amish rite of passage for teenagers. During this period, adolescents are allowed to explore the outside world and make their decision whether to be baptized into the Amish church, or leave the community for a more modern lifestyle. It’s an essential process in the journey towards informed adult commitment in the Amish faith.
Culture: Krobo (Ghana)
The Dipo is a traditional Ghanaian ceremony held by the Krobo ethnic group marking a girl’s transition into womanhood. The rite involves various stages like seclusion, education about womanhood, and physical adornments, culminating in a public parade where the girls showcase their elegance and readiness for marriage.
Culture: Western European
Historically in Western Europe, breeching was a significant rite of passage for boys aged between 4 and 8 years. This custom signified that boys were ready to don trousers or breeches rather than the gowns or dresses worn by both sexes in infancy. This change of clothing symbolized the boys’ progression towards adulthood and their readiness for more masculine responsibilities.
Culture: Indian Classical Dance
Arangetram, meaning ‘ascending the stage,’ is a notable event in the lives of Indian classical dancers. After several years of rigorous training, a dancer performs their first solo stage performance, showcasing their skill and dedication to the art form. While not a religious or biological rite of passage, it is a cultural ritual demarcating mastery over a crafting skill.
Culture: Bantu Africa (Gabon, the Republic of Congo)
In various Bantu cultures, the Okuyi mask ceremony is performed to honor deceased relatives, helping their spirits transition after death. It also symbolizes passage into a new existence after death. The dancer wearing the mask represents the spirit of the deceased, playing a significant role in easing the spiritual transition from living to ancestorhood.
Culture: Indigenous Peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast (America)
The Potlatch, a ceremonial feast well known among native peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast, serves different functions, including the transmission of property and rights, marking important events like marriage, birth, and death. The socio-economic phenomenon of giving away or even destroying resources is meant to display a family’s wealth and status symbol.
Culture: Buddhist (Sri Lanka)
In Sri Lanka, Rumsasara is a coming-of-age ceremony for girls reaching puberty, steeped in Buddhist traditions. The event encapsulates a range of processes, from seclusion and traditional medicinal practices to the significant ritual of bathing in clean water, signifying the girl’s passage to womanhood.
24. Graduation Ceremonies
Culture: Predominantly Western
A graduation ceremony occurs when students complete a phase of their education. It’s a public recognition of their academic achievement and transition into the next stage of their life, whether that’s further education or entry into the professional world. With the donning of a cap and gown, the graduate receives a diploma, often followed by celebrations with family and friends.
25. Retirement Parties
Retirement parties celebrate a person’s transition from their active working life to retirement. It’s an opportunity to reflect on the retiree’s career, acknowledge their contributions, and express wishes for a happy and fulfilling retired life. Often, these are filled with speeches, gifts, and festivities.
26. Citizenship Ceremonies
Citizenship ceremonies are solemn events marking the final step in the journey of becoming a citizen of a new country. The new citizen swears a pledge of allegiance, signifying their commitment to their new country and its values. The event often involve an official welcome by a government representative, and distribution of citizenship certificates.
The Importance of Rites of Passage
Rights of passage hold significant importance in society due to their role in marking important milestones and transitioning individuals into new phases of life (Forth, 2018).
They possess great cultural significance, often steeped in history and tradition. For instance, the Quinceañera in Mexico celebrating a girl’s 15th birthday and marking her passage into womanhood (Hill & Becker, 2008).
Rites of passage may also hold religious importance, such as Christening and First Communion in Christianity represent spiritual growth and acceptance into the religious community (Fogelin & Schiffer, 2015).
These rituals can serve as a physical and tangible representation of personal growth. The rite of passage provides a structured developmental process, guiding an individual forward (like a graduation ceremony indicates the completion of formal education and prompts the entry into the workforce).
In terms of psychological development, rites of passage could play an essential role by providing a framework to manage or cope with change. For example, the retirement party helps individuals transition from the working phase to leisure and limits possible feelings of sudden change.
Rites of passage also foster a communal bond. The shared experience during the ceremony can strengthen the sense of belonging and promote unity among members of the community (take the example of a wedding ceremony. Friends, family, and community members come together to celebrate and support the couple’s new phase of life).
Rites of passage are fundamental elements of our societal fabric, enhancing our personal and communal life by providing structure during times of change and growth. They connect the past with the present, the young with the old, and the individual with the community, fostering a harmonious co-existence. They act as a transition system that helps us navigate our growth and change within our respective societies. It’s an integral part of human culture – testifying our progress and growth, as well as our membership of a distinct cultural group.
Fogelin, L., & Schiffer, M. B. (2015). Rites of passage and other rituals in the life histories of objects. Cambridge Archaeological Journal, 25(4), 815-827.
Forth, G. (2018). Rites of passage. The international encyclopedia of anthropology, 1-7.
Hill, J., & Becker, P. D. (2008). Life events and rites of passage. Omnigraphics.
Tzanelli, R. (2007). Rite of passage. The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology.
Van Gennep, A. (1977). The Rites of Passage. Routledge Library Editions Anthropology and Ethnography. Translated by Vizedom, Monika B; Caffee, Gabrielle L (Paperback Reprint ed.). Hove, East Sussex, UK: Psychology Press. ISBN 978-0-7100-8744-7.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]