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The transition from child to adult is important within many cultures, yet in urbanized societies, we ...
2020-08-16 09:00:00

The culture we live in has almost completely rejected one of the basic rituals of humanity: the transition from childhood to adulthood. Is it a good thing to be suspended between child and adult?

Read in 10 minutes

I’m assuming that no-one who reads this had to spend years of their childhood alone in a forest or in the mountains, shaking with cold, hunger and fear of wild animals and demons. Mutilation probably didn’t feature either. In our world, ‘entering adulthood’ is a gentle process – imperceptible, even.


Cultural studies researchers have often commented that one of the things differentiating contemporary Western culture from others is the lack of initiation rituals for reaching maturity. Even if elements of these rituals remain, they are rudimentary and do not generally play any significant role. This is indeed striking, because such ceremonies have been recorded virtually everywhere ethnographers have ever visited; historians have also provided rich material on this subject. This issue is certainly worthy of attention since it entails, as many have claimed, important psychological consequences.

Initiation is a rite of passage – in terms of anthropological understanding, an act accompanying the transition from one social or cosmic state to another. According to Romanian scholar Mircea Eliade, on the archaic world level, the initiation ritual functions primarily to introduce a novice to the world of tribe culture and mythology; on the one hand, the symbolic end of childhood and irresponsibility, and on the other, access to sacred knowledge and full existence.

Some historians explain the uniqueness of our situation with reference to a particular religious tradition. Apart from infant baptism – even baptism among the first Christian sects and in Protestantism, which was preceded by a period of preparation and fasting – it is hard to compare with the complexity, intensity and drama of the initiations of archaic cultures. It should also be noted that one of the significant features of the Christian religion from its very beginnings was the fact that it was ‘good news’ for all: it is essentially a revelation that is open to everyone. As we read in the Epistle to the Galatians (Gal 3:28): “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” It seems all that’s needed is an act of will, a formal conversion experience, to gain access to the Christian sacred reality, to obtain the possibility of salvation without the need for ascetic endeavours or lengthy preparations.

Through death to birth

The initiation rituals to which we have access in the ethnographic literature are innumerable; they come from different continents, but, interestingly, comparison illuminates their significant similarities. In addition, researchers of Palaeolithic art believe that certain cave paintings might depict male initiation. On the clay surface of the Montespan cave, traces have been found of young male feet from 10,000-15,000 years ago, possibly performing a ritual circular dance. We can safely assume that such ceremonies have existed since time immemorial and are derived from a common Palaeolithic tradition.

Let’s start with the initiations of small groups of people with low levels of technological advancement, the tribes of Australia. The script of their ceremonies is always the same: young boys are kidnapped by elders, who may personify the Supreme Being or a demon; the kidnappings are sometimes high drama, sometimes less so, the kidnappers wear masks, and the event takes place in a specific, pre-prepared setting, often with some kind of staging involved. The kidnapping always entails snatching the child from his mother, sometimes literally. This is the symbolic death of the child; some tribes actually recognize these children as dead, and the mothers weep and mourn for them. When the mothers see them again, they carefully examine and touch their faces to make sure it’s them. In the Wiradjuri tribes, all the women from the village are taken away for a period of time; when they are allowed to come back, they find ash and burned branches everywhere and they are told that the deity Daramulum has taken the boys.

The novices have good reason to be terrified, having been convinced by everyone around them that they are about to die. In many Australian tribes they are told that the Supreme Being is coming to kill them, burn them and cut them into pieces; in other variants they might also be swallowed by a monster, which is symbolized by a specially created hut where they will experience darkness and hear the mysterious sound of drumming, heralding the approach of a deity or demon. This ritual death can take place with varying degrees of violence, involving being locked in a dark place, made to lie on the ground with a covered head, and even being beaten by masked elders (the latter, however, is not a standard component of the rite but occurs rarely, most likely as a result of later developments of the ritual). When the novices survive these encounters, they learn that they have been resurrected by the Supreme Being. The symbolism of death manifests itself in many ways – it is a prerequisite for the symbolism of being born again.

Illustration by Michał Loba
Illustration by Michał Loba

On one Indonesian island, novices are brought to a well-hidden wooden shed in the middle of a dense forest. The boys are led inside blindfolded; the families stay outside. Whenever a novice enters, a heavy impact is heard and someone screams. The next moment, a bloodied weapon – a sword or spear – flies out of the hut. At this sight, the mother lets out a heart-rending wail, presuming a demon has killed her son. The women return to the village in mourning. Sometime later they are informed that thanks to the clerics, the demon has resurrected the boys.

Gradually, the elders demystify the whole ritual and the boys become familiar with the ceremonial props and masks. They are forbidden to talk about what happened in the hut.

Through asceticism to adulthood

Departure from the human world is an essential element of initiation. Novices might spend several days in the forest, even several years. In the Wiradjuri tribes, when a boy returns to the village, his mother treats him like a stranger, hitting him with a branch and telling him to return to the wilderness. He may be forbidden to eat or talk; sometimes he has to walk with foliage on his head, sometimes he can only look at his feet. Novices are not allowed to sleep for periods at a time; if they start to fall asleep, the folk healers shake them awake (note that similar techniques are used to torture prisoners of war). It seems that, through this process, all the old habits of consciousness and existing knowledge are gradually ‘erased’. It is also a form of ascetic training.

Among the Ngarigo people, novices are forbidden to use their fingers for six months when eating a meal – since they have been born again, they are like a baby, incapable of feeding using their hands (the same custom is found in the tribes of Tierra del Fuego). Sometimes, the novice cannot use his fingers for a different reason: he is considered dead and is now a phantom, and according to some archaic notions, phantoms feed in this way (similarly, cannibals eat without using their hands, because during an act of cannibalism they do not consider themselves human). Aborigines call these boys apparitions. They are no longer children, the child within them has been killed, but they have not yet become adults, they do not yet exist. A novice may have a guardian assigned to visit him, feed him, and check that everything is all right.

Among the native peoples of North America, young male novices go alone into the wilderness, into the mountains or forest, sometimes even without an assigned guardian, thus breaking away from the whole of society. They practise asceticism – fasting, self-mutilation, submerging in hot or ice-cold water – with the aim of triggering a revelation in the form of a meaningful dream or vision. In the morning, a prayer is offered as an invitation to a protective spirit; at night, the boy sings and dances. The goal of breaking off contact with society is, no doubt, the discovery of the sanctity of nature or the holiness of the world itself. When the novice finally meets with the protective spirit who will never leave him from then on, he may return home.

Pulling out a tooth is also a popular way of proving initiation. In the Australian mythologies of the Yuin and Murring tribes, the novice dies, is torn apart by a deity and then resurrected with one incisor missing.

In the ritual of the Poro tribe from Liberia, novices are marked with incisions on the skin, which are then said to be the toothmarks of the crocodile ghost who devoured them (and spat them out). Tattooing and body piercing are also practised. However, it seems the most common form of initiation mutilation is genital mutilation. The symbolism of this practice is complex and can be interpreted in many ways: some researchers have claimed that it could be an expression of ‘ritual hermaphroditism’, the cutting of the scrotum suggesting a similarity with the vulva.

This hermaphroditism during initiation is also widespread and takes on various ritual forms. In East Africa, male novices don a female costume after circumcision, which they only take off after the wound has healed. Men from the Naven tribe in New Guinea ritually confess that they would love to be women, while the religious leader dresses in a female funeral costume and simultaneously tries to look like a pregnant woman.

Through blood to motherhood

And how about female initiation? Essentially, less is known about these ceremonies because during the time when many rituals were still alive and ‘uncontaminated’ by contact with the West, ethnographers had little access to the secrets of women. However, the first major difference is that women’s initiation usually take place on the individual level rather than as part of a group: this is due to the fact that the initiation is closely linked to menstruation, the appearance of which cannot be predicted. This has an important consequence – since the initiation takes place individually, it is difficult to arrange a collective, grand ritual for the occasion. It could be said that a woman’s entering into adulthood through menstruation occurs somewhat naturally, while a man, having no similar physiological equivalent, must solve this problem with the help of culture.

In any case, many female novices also go on retreats of varying duration. In Australia, the girl spends three days in a specially prepared hut. Following a period of isolation, and painted with ochre, she is led to a stream where she takes a ceremonial bath; she returns to the village, where she is met with a joyful welcome (the ceremonial greeting and ‘presentation’ of the girl is a distinctive feature of female initiation; from that moment on, she exists).

Among the Dajaks of Indonesia, female novices are kept in a white hut for a whole year, during which time they wear white clothes and eat white food. Finally, they consume the blood of a young man. This whiteness probably symbolizes temporary ‘bloodlessness’ and hermaphroditism.

Among the native peoples of North America, when girls begin to menstruate they go out into the wilderness like the boys (interestingly, the difference is that girls are not required to meet a protective spirit).

Similarly to male initiation, an important role is also played by female guardians of tradition: instructors who teach the young people about the world, the secrets of blood and sexuality, and knowledge of spinning or other specific crafts. Most importantly, the girls learn the mystery of fertility and the creation of life – a mystery inconceivable for men.

Both male and female ceremonies are focused on access to sacred knowledge, mythology, the fate of the ancestors, and cosmological and anthropogenic elucidation – in other words, knowledge about one’s place in the cosmic order. Both men and women are forbidden to talk about these matters with the opposite sex or with children.

Born into adulthood

Let us return to the central thread in coming of age initiations – the symbolism of ‘being reborn’. Some novices have their heads shaved and are given laxatives or forced to vomit, to symbolically cleanse themselves of their past; in Africa, boys use a different language after their ritual death. In some cases, age is counted from the moment of circumcision. Novices as bald as babies stop talking, pretend (or don’t pretend) to be unable to walk, and are carried on the elders’ backs. When the initiation is completed, the novice gets a new name: he is a new man.

This symbolism is also found in the religions and rituals accessible through historical testimonies. One example is the Brahmin initiation in India described in the Atharva Veda. The Brahmin is pregnant from the moment he puts his hand on the shoulder of the aspiring boy. The boy becomes an embryo who will live in his teacher’s house for three days, wearing only the skin of a black antelope and begging: it is understood that he is in the belly of the Brahmin. Finally, he is born again and becomes a young priest.

The same use of metaphors appears in Buddhism; the monk ceases to be the child of his parents, receives a new name and begins to be known as a ‘son of Buddha’. Of course,

new names are also obtained in Christianity, and Christians often refer to similar images – for example, when speaking of to those who are ‘born in Christ’.

It is noteworthy that all these rituals involve the image of being born again not from a woman, but from a man – almost as if groups of men have desired to rescind the child’s entry into the world via a woman and culturally create the birth anew.

Male envy of femininity

Thus we move on to contemporary psychology. Bruno Bettelheim is the originator of an interesting concept that frames this attempt at a cultural takeover of birth as stemming from men’s latent, subconscious jealousy of female reproductive capabilities. According to even more radical theoreticians, the development of all rituals and the intensification of intellectual work – and thus, the development of all culture and civilization – results from desperate male attempts to make up for this lack that they feel so acutely.

As I have already mentioned, one of the key elements of male initiation – as anthropologists explain it – is the separation of the boy from his mother. It goes without saying that this thread has not escaped the attention of psychoanalysts, who are known to devote considerable attention to the son-mother relationship.

There have been many interesting descriptions of the consequences of the lack of such ceremonies in our world, especially in the context of male psychology. The most popular is associated with Robert Bly’s famous book Iron John, which is largely a psychological analysis of traditional stories involving initiation-related content. The absence of decisive boundaries between childhood and adulthood, retaining a heavy dependence (usually internalized) on the mother, lack of male associations, ambiguity around the sense of masculinity, fear of the world, and various forms of internal infantility – all this, according to Bly, is a consequence of a lack of similar rituals, a faulty pedagogy. In a similar vein, Wojciech Eichelberger wrote about these issues in his book Zdradzony przez ojca [Betrayed by His Father].

Our society does not provide us with this kind of ceremony. But maybe all is not lost. According to Bettelheim, initiation experiences sometimes happen spontaneously – for example, when leaving for university, breaking away from family life as we know it. It is also something we can try out for ourselves, seeking a total change equivalent to a symbolic death and rebirth into a new, fuller life.

Daniel Mróz – drawing from the archives (no.684/1958)
Daniel Mróz – drawing from the archives (no.684/1958)

Translated from the Polish by Kate Webster

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