More coursework: 1 - A | B | C | D | E | F | G | H | I - J | K - L | M | N - O | P - S | T | U - Y

Anthropology ritual and symbol

I. Classify using Van Gennep's categories and point out aspects which would be of

particular interest to Turner and to Chapple and Coons.

The Mescalero girls' puberty ceremony is an example of a "Rite of Passage," a ceremony

that marks the transition of an individual from one stage of life to another (Chapple and Coons,

p. 484). The ceremony marks the transition from girl to "mother of a nation" (p.252). The ritual

serves as a means of establishing equilibrium after the crisis of puberty (Chapple and Coons, p.

484). It is a method of making this transition from girl to woman easier. I classified this

ceremony as a Rite of Passage, rather than a Rite of Intensification, because it is held in

response to a non-periodic change (puberty) and it affects the participants individually. The

community plays an important role in supporting the girls-by building the tepee, for instance. At

times, as when the boys join the Singers, the community actively participates in the ritual.

However, the community is involved only because of its members' relations to the girls.

Van Gennep divides Rites of Passage into three parts: separation, transition and

incorporation. In the Mescalero puberty ceremony, separation is achieved when the girls move in

to their camp homes. During this stage, the Godmothers and Singers take the role of the parents.

This may be described as a "cessation of interaction between the individual and the group in

which he or she has been interacting" (Chapple and Coons, p. 485). However, there is not a

complete separation from the girls and the community. There are instances (such as the time

when the participants sleep while the community holds contests) when the two are physically

separated, but they are near their families and friends during most of the ceremony.

The stage of transition, or liminality, is a period in which the participants lie "betwixt

and between" two poles (Turner, p.95). For the puberty ceremony, this period lasts for four

days. In these days, the girls receive instruction from their elders-especially from Godmothers

and the Singers. For example, the Singer teaches the tribe's history through his chants and the

Godmother teaches about sex. Gender differences seem to be exaggerated rather than abolished

during this phase, however. The category "female" is related to fire, the color yellow, and the

idea of being protected. "Male" is related to the poles, the color red, and the idea of being the

protector. Yellow pollen, symbolizing women, is applied to the girls early in the ceremony.

Furthermore, rather than being stripped bare, the girls are ornately decorated. However, one may

argue that they have been stripped of the attire they wore before the ceremony. According to

Turner, the liminal period is one of humility, obedience, and danger. The girls do exhibit these

qualities during the period of transition, particularly during the all-night dancing ordeal. I still

would not interpret this as a "low" because of the blessings the girls bestow upon the community

and because of the massages they receive from the Godmothers.

The period of incorporation has been described as phase in which ". . . the individual

begins once again his interaction with the members of his community . . ." (Chapple and Coons,

p. 485). As noted earlier, the girls' interaction with the community is maintained at different

points in the ritual. However, the girls do undergo a radical change during the ceremony,

culminating in their reincorporation into their communities as new individuals. The ceremony

began with the males constructing a lodge and ended with the girls destroying the lodge. In the

beginning, the girls gave blessings and in the end, they received blessings. Through participating

in the ordeal of the dance, the girls gain power. This change is expressed in the following chant:

"Now you are entering the world. You become an adult with responsibilities" (p. 252).

Symbolically, the passage to womanhood is represented by painting the girls' faces white-the

color of purity and Mother Earth.

II. Where do Durkheim and Turner find communitas? What creates feelings of solidarity

in each? Would they find it in this ritual? If so, where and why?

Turner believes that communitas arises out of an ordeal shared by individuals. In the

case of the Mescalero puberty ceremony, the primary ordeal is the overnight dancing session.

Although not explicitly stated in the article, I can imagine strong feelings of solidarity would

arise among the girls participating in the ritual.

Durkheim's theory of communitas (or "collective consciousness") begins with his

analysis of Australian Aborigine culture (Durkheim, p. 34). A totem is used to represent the

community, then rituals are performed which make the totem sacred. There is a circular motion

inherent in such religious traditions: the totem, as a reflection of the group, indicates that the

group is worshiping itself. The rituals performed elicit feelings of effervescence, integration

and revitalization. It is this process that promotes group solidarity, providing a connection to a

larger community and that community's history. I believe that the Mescalero puberty

ceremony is better suited to analysis through the Durkheim model. First of all, the sacred space

is a symbol of the Grandfathers. The fourth Grandfather represents humanity: ". . .(O)n the

fourth day came man, the Apaches" (p. 243). The Grandfathers and the history of the tribe are

integral elements of the ceremony. The ceremony functions to keep the tribe together,

functioning as a cohesive unit. The girls discover what roles they must play in this society and

what is expected of them as women. For example, it is made clear that they are expected to bear

children and to allow themselves to be protected by men.

III. Discuss elements which would be of greatest interest to Rosaldo/Atkinson, Ornter, and Gossen.


The Rosaldo/Atkinson article places symbols into categories of binary opposition. The

dominant binary opposition is that of man the life-taker and woman the life-giver (Rosaldo and

Atkinson, p. 130). Elaborating on this idea, I have divided symbols used in the Mescalero

ceremony into the following categories: "Female" is associated with motherhood, fire, the color

yellow, the protected, and the center. "Male" is associated with warriorship, poles (or structure,

such as a frame), the color red, the protector, and the shield. The Mountain God dancers, for

example, use weapons in their dance. It is hoped that the girls participating in the ceremony will

give birth to warrior sons. If the girls give birth to girls, it is hoped that these offspring will

become mothers of warrior sons. The song tally sticks that are placed outside the fire provide a

framework. These sticks are described as a "pathway replicating the form of the holy lodge and

its runway" (p. 251). There is a balance inherent in these divisions. For instance, the colors red

and yellow are the basic colors of the universe. However, asymmetry is also evident. A basket-

which represents the center and therefore the female-is placed in the center of a circle formed by

poles. The girls wait inside the sacred lodge, awaiting direction from the male Singers. Such

incidents suggest the necessity of being restrained by and subservient to the males.

Furthermore, there are many digressions from the binary categories. At one point in the ritual,

the females dance around the males. Here, the men are the center and the women are the shield,

or framework ( p. 248). We see that the basket represents the center and the heart. The heart is

also associated with the "left." But at another point in the ceremony, the males are painted on

the left side of their faces and the women on the right. Women have been described as mothers

(creators) and men as warriors. Yet it is the men who build the sacred structure and the women

who destroy it!


Sherry Ortner uses the term "key symbol" to describe the symbols that are most

important to a culture. In order to find key symbols, it is necessary to understand their

underlying principles. There are five indicators used to locate key symbols: These symbols are

culturally important; arouse positive or negative feelings; come up in different contexts, are

elaborated by a culture; and have cultural restrictions placed upon them (Ortner, p. 93-94). This

is the criteria I use to examine the key symbols of the Mescalero puberty ceremony. The author

of The Mescalero Girls' Puberty Ceremony locates 5 key symbols. These are: balance,

circularity,directionality, the number 4, and sound/silence ( p. 242). In my analysis, I will

examine the key symbol of sound/silence.

Singing, chanting, playing musical instruments, making "noise" and observing silence

are important elements of the ceremony. The cultural significance of the sound made by the

girls when dancing on the hides is explained by one of the Singers: "This is the sound that a

people will make on this earth . . . Abide by it" (p. 249).

One of the most profound examples of emotional arousal through sound occurs at the

beginning of the ceremony. Before sunrise, the lead Singer begins a song while slowly raising

his left hand. His song is timed so perfectly that when he sings the last line of the song, the sun

rises, striking his raised palm. The writer of the article describes this as "a moment of breath-

taking Beauty" (p. 244).

Musical instruments include not only items such as sticks, but also articles of clothing.

"Jingles" cut from tin cans are sewn onto clothing, providing music when the person dances.

This is an example of a symbol appearing in different contexts. Here we see "musical

instrument" crossing over into the domain of "fashion."

The song tally sticks represent an instance of cultural elaboration. Each stick represents

a song that has been sung. All the sticks together comprise a replica of the holy lodge and its

runway. Whether it is the "high-pitched ululation" of the women (p. 243); the "hooting sound

resembling that of an owl or a turkey" (p. 247); or the chants used to recount history (p. 249),

the symbol of sound is significant in almost every aspect of the ritual.

At one point in the ritual, females who are not participants in the puberty ceremony are

forbidden from wearing clothing or jewelry that might make a noise. Only the participants, the

Mountain God dancers and the clowns may wear such articles. This is an example of a cultural

restriction surrounding a symbol.


The meaning of the symbols used by the Chamulas and Mescaleros differs greatly.

According to Gossen, the Chamula place a variety of meanings upon the cardinal directions.

East is the primary direction, associated with God the Father and Creator (Gossen, p. 116). This

is the domain of the sun, and therefore, the east is also associated with "up." The sun emits light

and heat, through its penetrating rays. Other associations with the east include: male, goodness,

day, fire, and mountains. To the Chamula, the north is also good because it is to the right of God

in the east. Negative qualities are ascribed to the south. The south is associated with killing

frosts and death. The west is "down." Three different levels constitute the Chamula's sky. The

bottom level is what people on earth can see. The second level (in ascending order) is where the

Virgin Mary and the moon reside. The sun and the guardian of animal souls are at the top level.

The Mescaleros associate each cardinal direction with their Grandfathers (p. 243). While

the Mescaleros also consider the east to be the primary direction, they associate the east with the First Grandfather, the moon and stars. The west is associated with animals. The sky-as well as

wind, rain and mountains-lies in the south. Man is in the north, held up by the other three

directions. This can be viewed as a difference or similarity between the Chamulas and the

Mescaleros, depending on which of Gossen's informants you listen to. One person described the

earth as being supported by man while another described the earth as being supported by bearers

at all cardinal points. One of the main differences between the Chamulas and Mescaleros is the

value they place on the right or left sides. Mescaleros give preference to the left, and their

rituals are primarily clockwise in nature. Left is also connected to the heart, to God and the sun.

The Chamulas give preference to the right and to the counterclockwise direction. The Chamulas

connect women to the ground and to coldness. The Mescalero connects women to the ground

and to heat. "Fire" is the primary symbol for the Mescalero women, particularly the pit fire.

Many parts of the puberty ceremony involve the girls' sitting or lying on the ground, symbolizing

a connection with Mother Earth. The Chamula's association between women and the ground,

however, holds the negative connotation of "lowness."

About this resource

This coursework was submitted to us by a student in order to help you with your studies.

Search our content:

  • Download this page
  • Print this page
  • Search again

  • Word count:

    This page has approximately words.



    If you use part of this page in your own work, you need to provide a citation, as follows:

    Essay UK, Anthropology Ritual And Symbol. Available from: <> [06-06-20].

    More information:

    If you are the original author of this content and no longer wish to have it published on our website then please click on the link below to request removal: