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Essay: The Rites of Passage by Arnold van Gennep

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  • The Rites of Passage by Arnold van Gennep
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The Rites of Passage by Arnold van Gennep, is a book describing the rituals that people endure when they cross boundaries of time or social status. Rites of passage typically describe something that is done that marks a sacred transformation. These rituals are usually physical rituals, but can also be philosophical rituals as well. Van Gennep divides rites into three sub-categories, rites of separation, transition rites, and rites of incorporation. Each rite does not necessarily go through these three stages, and every person does not necessarily go through all of these rites. The book then goes on to explain the characteristics of each sub-category, and all the numerous rituals and ceremonies that are considered rites of passage. Rites of Passage come from multiple origins, some are religious, such as sacraments, some are from society, such as a sweet 16 party, and some are just from culture. An individual’s life is filled up of many series of passages from one age to another, occupation to another, status to another and so on. Whenever there are defined distinctions between these passages, special acts and ceremonies are often followed. Rites are divided into numerous categories, and vary depending on culture.

The book begins with the sub-divisions and categories of rites. There are different forms of rites, sympathetic, contagious, direct, indirect, positive, and negative rites. Sympathetic rites are those rites based on belief of the world and dead. Contagious rites are based on a belief that natural or acquired characteristics are material. There is then a distinction between direct and indirect rites. Direct rites are designed to produce results immediately. Indirect rites are initially slow, which set into motion some type of autonomous power. There is then a distinction between positive and negative rites. Positive rites are rites equivalent of positive decisions, and negative rites are equivalent of negative decisions. Negative rites are now known as taboos and are considered prohibitions. Rites are then divided into three sub-categories, rites of separation, transition rites, and rites of incorporation. A complete scheme of rites of passage includes preliminal, which are considered rites of separation, liminal, which are considered transition rites, and postliminal, which are considered rites of incorporation. Van Gennep considers the goal of rites is to ensure a change of condition or a passage from one “world” to another. To Gennep, the transition is symbolic, which involves separation, transitional, and incorporation. The separation aspect is the individual leaving one world. The transitional aspect is the actual transition between worlds. The incorporation aspect is the entrance of the new world and the new life that follows.

This chapter addresses that different cultures have different views of rites and have different rites depending on the culture. An individual that does not have the immediate rite at birth to enter a different territory and establish themselves in this territory, is in a state of isolation. Isolation has two aspects which can be found separately or combined. The first is that the person is weak because he is outside a certain territory, and second he is strong since he is in the sacred realm with respect to the group’s members, for which their society constitutes this “world.” This isolation occurs in these cultures because in these cultures, foreigners cannot immediately enter the territory of the tribe or the village, they must prove their intentions from afar and undergo a stage of rite, best known to the group. Along with these other territories and cultures, there are also many different rites native to certain territories. The various forms of greeting for example fall into the category of rites of incorporation, they vary to the extent to which the person arriving is a stranger to the house or to those he meets. As a stranger or strangers he is to introduce himself or herself in a limited way to the group and then, if he so desires to other restricted group and at the same time to the society at large. Here again people clap hands or make noises, separate themselves from the outside world by removing their shoes, coat, unite by eating or drinking together, or perform prescribed rites before the household deities.

The following chapters discuss the rites of pregnancy, childbirth, and childhood. The ceremony of pregnancy and childbirth go together. Attention is drawn to the customs of seclusion in special huts or in special parts of the home. It has been established that at the onset of pregnancy, a woman is placed in a state of isolation either for the sake of impurity or abnormality due to pregnancy. This is done to protect mother and child from evil forces. This varies according to culture and time. Childhood rites include, Cutting of the umbilical cord, Sprinkling and baths, Loss of the reminders of the umbilical cord, Naming, The first hair cut, The first meal with the family, The first teeth, first walk, first outing, Circumcision, and First dress according to sex.The above ceremonies are grouped into three main rites-rites of separation, rites of transition and rites of incorporation. Some cultures do not have a particular ceremony for a particular rite. And there are always variations in culture. The newborn child is considered sacred and the birth is only guaranteed and confirmed with the flavor of those present. The principal rite of separation is the cutting of umbilical cord and rites that surrounds the portion which dries and falls off by itself. The ceremony of first bath is also considered as a rite of separation. The above ceremonies are as well considered as part of rites of transition. Under rites of incorporation could be found naming ceremony, ritual nursing, the first tooth, etc. The first haircut is also a symbol of incorporation. The childhood period lasts from birth until the age of sixteen, as age sixteen is considered the beginning of the age of maturity.
In the next chapters, initiation rites are discussed. The author exposes and brings to limelight various initiation rites among different tribes especially the “the rite of passage” between puberty and adolescence. It should be noted that these initiation rites take different forms; it can be for acceptance or separation. The author moves further to stress the point that physiological puberty is essentially different from the rites of passage that celebrate puberty (transition.) A girl’s first menstrual period is not considered a rite of passage because it is evident, but the age she is permitted to marry is considered the marking point of transition between childhood and adulthood. Furthermore, the author exposes the processes of membership in the caste system, which he believes in hereditary. Though the caste is also occupationally specialized and each person has his assigned place in a precise hierarchy. It is important to note that incorporation into the caste occurs under specified conditions: A child is incorporated through ceremonies that fall under childhood rites. More so, the tools pertaining to a given occupation assumes an important place here because it is a true rite of incorporation that places an individual in a restricted collectivity. Although one cannot move upwards from a lower caste to a higher one, a person can move in a reverse direction. In this case, the rites of incorporation either are simplified or show a pivoting, because it is a lower caste that is honored and the new arrivals. Each caste is separated from all others by taboos, such that touching, eating, lying down or entering the house of a person in a lower caste automatically removes one from his own caste, though he is not incorporated in the caste of the person he has touched.

The author then goes on to discuss the rites of betrothal (engagement) and marriage. At this point attention is given to the very important dimension of life, marriage. After the initiation and the rites of entrance into adulthood, the individual gradually becomes ripe to assist the society in the act of procreation which is established through the passage into marital life. Since marriage is at the heart of the society (means of sustaining the generation), it requires an important transitory period called “betrothal”. This rite involves the two individuals transiting into the status of marriage, their families and communities. Most cultures maintain a given period of time within which this betrothal would last. In some it is longer (ones that start at infancy), in some cases, the two individuals are allowed sexual relationship. This betrothal period has always been understood as transitory stage towards marriage. The rites that accompany this period all tend towards preparation for marriage. Generally, marriage rites reflect the same symbolic meanings but little differences occur from one society to another. Since this is a passage from adolescence into marital status, those concerned transit from their sex group into married category. Then, marriage ceremony and its rites take different shapes and forms depending on culture. Marriage rite establishes the girl and boy in the category of socially adult women and men, and nothing can take this from them. More still the bond between their families is not broken by separation of the spouse.
The author then discusses that funerals are also considered to be rites of passage. Funerals are the moment of apparent separation between the living and the dead. This is a moment one (the deceased) embarks on a journey to the other world (the world of the dead) and the entrance to it comprises a series of ceremonies which are known as the rites of passage of separation from the living. There are prescribed ceremonies which vary from one culture to another, which are performed to accompany the dead into the other world. At this period, depending on the closeness and kinship, social life is suspended for all those affected. It also extends to the larger community if the deceased is a prominent person (recognized as such by the community) This separation of the dead is not a total one because the living and dead still communicate through commemoration and reincarnation. This communication is reflected in the prayers said before the dead is finally commended into the grave which involves asking him or her to help protect the living, to send their good will messages to the ancestral home. The food eaten, songs sang are all part of this funeral rite. The ceremony is concluded with the solemn placing of the dead into the grave. At this climax moment, there is felling of sorrow, sadness and also reflection on life by the living.

The book then addresses the other types of rites of passage which are not so profound. It tries to demonstrate that each rite of passage is really a rite of either separation, transition, or incorporation. Any rite may be interpreted in several ways, depending on whether it occurs within a complete system or in isolation, whether it is performed at one occasion or another. However, all rites which include the act of cutting, on the one hand, and of tying, on the other, hardly present material for discussion. The author explains circumcision as a rite of separation. According to him, in the rites of incorporation there is widespread use of the “sacred bond”, the “sacred cord”, the knot and of analogous forms such as the belt, the ring, the bracelet, and crown. These are common in the rites of marriage and enthronement. In chapter ten of this work which tries to conclude the ideas brought up in this work. After this research about ceremonies, we have seen that an individual is placed in various sections of society, synchronically in succession; in other to pass from one category to another to join individuals in sections, he or she must submit, from the day of his or her birth to that of his/her death to ceremonies whose forms often vary but whose function is similar.

My critique of this book is that it does a very fine job explaining the different forms and degrees of rites of passage. I personally did not know very much about rites of passage and had a misconception that they were feats that had to be done to prove worthiness. Now knowing what I know about rites of passage, I understand that it is much more complex than just that. I did not know many of these things were considered rites of passage, such as funerals and childbirth. I feel like the author did a very good job of explaining the different categories that rites are divided into and explaining the distinctions between them. The background of Van Gennep is that he was an ethnographer, meaning he studied people and culture. Knowing this information explains how he was able to know so much about the different rites of different cultures. He spent a long time studying these various rites, and it paid off considering that The Rites of Passage is considered his best work. I agree with most of his ceremonies listed as rites of passage, as they do celebrate the transition between two “worlds.” Some of them however I personally do not find to be as symbolic, such as a girl’s marrying age, or a child’s first bath, haircut, tooth, etc. Understanding the meaning behind rites of passage, it makes sense, but in my opinion I just don’t feel that they are symbolic enough to be considered a rite of passage. In general, Van Gennep’s Rites of Passage, is very influential, and I can see how it influenced many other writers such as Joseph Campbell. This book was very educational, and also very interesting, as learning about the different types of rites observed in different cultures was very interesting. We as Americans already know that diversity is everywhere, and no two cultures are the same, so seeing the different beliefs and mentalities of different cultures is important. I would recommend this book to anyone who wants to learn about the history as well as the different rites of passage around the world.

In conclusion, natural human beings necessarily move from one level of growth to another – physiological, spiritual, social etc. No individual can possibly, in any way escape themselves from this reality. Growth is a fundamental part of life, and without it we would all be mediocre people stuck in one spot forever. Celebrating the growth of certain transitions encourages growth, and shows the importance of the growth and transition between the two worlds. The mere fact that the individual is given birth to, implies that he or she must grow and finally must die. Then, in the process of these movements from one level to another, in every dimension of life, every culture prescribes rites (rituals) to depict and accompany that individual in the transitions. This is the basic point Gennep injects to our knowledge in this “Rites of Passage.” There are many different dimensions and aspects to these rites, and we do not necessarily go through all of them in our lifetime. It is therefore left for us to examine our different cultures and discover how these rites are performed and their various significances to our life activities. We must determine what transitions are symbolic enough to us to be considered a rite of passage, and preserve the sacred nature of these rites of passage in order to continue to celebrate them in the future.

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