What ever happened to masculine rites of passage?

The Lion Hunt Masai Warrior by David Russell

Though rites of passage have been around since the dawning of time, as a general theory of socialization the concept (and the term) was first formally coined by the French social scientist and anthropologist Arnold van Gennep.

In his book Les rites de passage, Arny (as I’ve taken the liberty to call him) used the phrase to denote rituals marking the transitional phase between childhood and full inclusion into a tribe or social group. Having not read the book myself, I will have to rely on my trusty internet information steed, Wikipedia, for a synopsis of van Gennep’s work:

Rites of passage have three phases: separation, transition, and reincorporation, as van Gennep described. “I propose to call the rites of separation from a previous world, preliminal rites, those executed during the transitional stage liminal (or threshold) rites, and the ceremonies of incorporation into the new world postliminal rites.”

In days long gone by, it wasn’t unusual for a young boy of ten or eleven (maybe younger) to be left out in the wilderness for several days by the elders of his tribe or clan wearing nothing but a loin cloth and having nothing but a small blade to defend himself from the many dangers of the wild. At the end of some pre-determined set of time (possibly several days… maybe longer), the men would return to the spot where they left the boy. If he was still alive, he returned with the men of his tribe no longer a boy, but a man himself. Upon returning to rest of his tribe, a celebration of his transition awaited the recent initiant into the world of manhood. This event, though no doubt frightening for the boy, had all of the ingredients for the rite of passage.

1. Separation. He is left alone to fend for himself in the wild. He is separated from his tribe and those who have historically always been there for him to meet his needs.
2. Transition: While alone in the wild, the boy is clearly no longer a boy, having left the carefree world of childhood behind. But he’s also not yet a man. He has to survive this ordeal before he can call himself a man.
3. Reincorporation: Once he is found by the men of his tribe, if he is still alive, the boy returns with them to the rest of the group where his passage into manhood is celebrated.

For quite some time now, I’ve been lamenting the lack of widely-accepted masculine rites of passage in the world I find myself living. Sure, we have several shared societal firsts which many men go through that often pass as rites of passage, but just because something may be one of many markers of manhood doesn’t necessarily make it a rite of passage. By definition, a rite of passage is more than just some common experience shared at some point by most members of a society or group. To be considered a rite of passage, an experience has to have a clear beginning and an end. There must be a time of separation from a larger group and a time of transition into a new role. Then at some point, there must be re-entry into the group and a celebration or ceremony of the newly achieved status. And so we can’t call registering for the selective service a rite of passage, though military service certainly has all the makings of several rites of passage.

But short of military service, I struggle with pinpointing actual rites of passage in our society today. If college is supposed to be a rite of passage, why do we have so many college graduates still living at home on their parent’s couch a year or two after graduation? The same goes for marriage. I know a lot of guys who are married but who are still completely uninitiated into their lives as men… guys who, though on the outside appear to be men, are still just scared boys on the inside who don’t know if they have what it takes to make it in the world today.

And so I guess for me, that’s what a rite of passage is. It’s some experience (involving the three stages mentioned above) which teaches a boy that within his soul lives a man who is fully capable of surmounting any task or obstacle that rises up to meet him on the road of life.

But what are those experiences in our society today? We live in such a comfortable world that few of us are actually ever tested as men. And when a man is never tested, he never has the opportunity to rise to the occasion. And so our bodies get bigger and we look like men, but for the most part, we’re actually a bunch of softies compared to the men of less a hundred or so years ago.

This is more of a thinking out loud post than anything else, but I’ve really been struggling with this for quite some now as I’ve started having the opportunity to get to know men older than me and mentor men younger than me. It seems like the older men who really get it and who have it together as men have all had some sort of defining rite of passage in their lives. Conversely, with most of the younger men I mentor, I’ve noticed that few of them have experienced anything remotely close to a rite of passage in their lives and so consequently they lack confidence in their abilities as men.

Maybe as we’ve left behind intentional rites of passage as a means of acceptance into the world of manhood, we’ve replaced them with the school of hard knocks. What was once a very linear, very intentional, and very punctuated procession of experiences is now happening haphazardly at odd but natural junctures throughout our lives as we get older and face the challenges of life. Maybe that’s all our world demands today.

And so maybe I’m reaching here, but I can’t help but think that more men could get on with the business of living lives of significance at a much younger age if we only had more intentional and shared rites of passage to initiate them into adulthood. Experiences that gave them confidence in their own abilities to tackle almost any problem. Experiences that gave them acceptance in the world of their elders. Experiences that called on them to leave behind their childish ways. And experiences that were celebrated by the members of society at large.

What do you think? Am I on to something or am I simply reaching for something that’s not there? Am I romanticizing a time and a world where rites of passage were left behind for good reason or is there still a place for them in our world today?

I’m not sure, but that’s all I have to say about it for now. I’ve got to go put on my loin cloth, scabbard my blade, and go find some wilderness to survive in for the next few months. Then again, I’m haven’t been a boy of 10 years for quite some time now.

To close, I’ll leave you with a quote I read the other day on the Art of Manliness that really got me thinking about this topic:

“Our forefathers had civilization inside themselves, the wild outside. We live in the civilization they created, but within us the wilderness still lingers. What they dreamed, we live, and what they lived, we dream.” -T.K. Whipple

Deep stuff my friends. Deep stuff.



***If you’d like to read van Gennep’s book for yourself, there is a free preview of the English translation here which I found just enough within the reach of my layman’s intelligence on this topic to convince me that I want to read the whole thing at some point.