Rites of Passage
When an individual experiences movement, or a change from an affixed position in society to another position, that individual can easily describe their change as a passage into a new realm of living. A new realm of living is the way in which the individual and society views, acknowledges, and proceeds with their life. Their changes are monumental not only for the individual, but for his/her society as well. Many changes take place during the span of a persons life. They become rites of passage and rituals of initiation-which are more than just simple changes. A plethora of come with these rites and are found in all corners of the globe. Going on vision quests, by the plains Indians of North America, to circumcision by certain Australian cultures, rites of passage present a vast table of religious comparisons(Eliade, p. 287-88).
This essay will examine two rites of initiation, by comparing and contrasting their importance to each culture, and discussing how that importance affects that particular individual as well as their society. Finally, the essay will explore possible reasons as to why these initiation rites hold a deep meaning in their respective societies.
The Kurnai of Australia have an initiation rite for the sons of married men in their perspective villages. Within a section by A. W. Howitt, in EliadeÕs book, From Primitives to Zen: A thematic Sourcebook of the History of Religions , a ceremony known as the ÒShowing the GrandfatherÓ is described(Eliade, p. 288) In this initiation the Kurnai have a formal way of bringing a manÕs son into the highest, and most secret realm of their religion. By incorporating the use of the father and son relationship, this particular ritual involves the revelation of the central meaning, or ÒmysteryÓ of their religion. The men and women are separated. Secrecy is one the most important traditions in this initiation. The initiation is not revealed to the women, or anyone else not of their society. The sons, or ÒnovicesÓ as Howitt calls them, are taught the proper religious traditions that they need to know for the ceremony, and for the rest of their lives, as this initiation will conclude their step into religious righteousness, and manhood. This all takes place the day before the ceremony, while other men, who have already been through the ceremony, prepare by hunting for food and arranging a site, not too far from the village, where the initiation will take place. The next morning, a new day at hand, the novices are taken to the site at which time the ceremony commences. Howitt continues in writing of his recollection of the ritual by inferring that after many ritual movements (gestures of offering towards their god, etc.) and instrumental songs such as the ÒTundunÓ, Òthe Kurnai have two bull-roarers, a larger one called Tundun, or Ôthe manÕ, and a smaller one called ÔRukat-Tundun,Õ the woman, or wife of Tundun.Ó. After this the novicesÕ are instructed of the importance of the secrecy factor, and the laws by which they can be punished if they reveal anything to their mothers, sisters, or anyone other than the men of that society. Howitt even points out horror stories that are told to the novices about the punishment of man, a burning world, because he revealed the ceremony to women back in the village after being initiated. He writes that these stories exist in the Kurnai to scare the novices into not telling anyone the ritual. The ceremony even used to have a part where the men took spears, cocked them back over their shoulders, and pointed them at the Novices. Such a hostile act was used to instill the feeling they would have if they ever revealed the secrets of the initiation, not to mention a cold rush of intense fear. From there the ritual is ended and the novices play the Tundun.
Unlike the secret nature of the Kurnai ceremony the ShashoniÕs of Central-Western Wyoming offer a more open and artistic ceremony for their initiations. During puberty, the boys, by their own motives, participate in the traditional ÒSun DanceÓ, as pointed out in a section by Ake Hultkrantz in Byron EarhartÕs book Religious Traditions of the World,
the boys...participate in the Sun Dance, usually on their own initiative. However their motives today are mainly social: to show other youths their strength and endurance and of course to impress the girls. In a way their present participation in the Sun Dance takes place of the vision quest as a mark of the attainment of adulthood(Earhart, p. 306).
The girls also have rites of initiation. One that is much more involved and detailed, and has many more ÒtaboosÓ associated with them. For example, if a girl is in her menstrual cycle, she is considered to have evil spirits around her, and she must be separated from the rest of the tribe so as to not have the spirits cause trouble for others(Earhart, p. 307) The age at which girls begin to menstruate is the first sign that initiation must take place. ÒShe abstains from eating meat but may eat roots and drink water. After a few days or maybe a week, the girl appears again, shrouded in new cloths and paintedÓ(Earhart, p.307).
The Shashoni boys (out of choice) learn the positives of boasting. Although they donÕt necessarily depend on the Sun Dance as the deciding factor for passing into manhood, it gives them a chance to be in a position of authority, or power which often is needed in adulthood. The more enduring, and well-executed dance, the more attractive they look. It could lead to higher respect, or, in the near future, a good wife It benefits not only the individual boy however, but the entire pack of boys dancing as well. It makes them a strong force of men, not boys who hold no authority. The competition makes the ceremony that much more important. But that is not where it stops; the ritual benefits the rest of the tribe as well. The boys move from childhood to manhood, and in doing so take on the positions, and responsibilities of the elderly, which might not be able to take on those responsibilities in the near future.
The Kurnai see their ritual as something that should not be passed onto anyone other than the men of that particular clan, or tribe. Such secrecy adds a rather interesting dimension to the rite. It obviously governs much of the behavior of the men, in that they learn the meaning of sacredness. Without it they could not affix any importance to the changes necessary for moving into manhood. The religious nature of manhood would be lost. As for the rest of the tribe, the women, and young girls, considerable changes take place in their view of the men. There is a new group of men, with the knowledge of their sacred ritual, and they are ready to carry on the tradition. The women can confide in the new initiates that there are men and not boys being the fathers of the future initiates.
Overall, both initiation rites become a cycle of incorporation into adult life. The importance of examining these two rites leads us to a better understanding of them. The ceremonies act as a turning point in the lives of the initiates, and the rest of the people in each society. The cycle gives the Kurnai a reason to allow the fresh initiates to initiate others in the future. It gives the sense of how sacred manhood is. The Sun Dance allows the young boys a chance to see how to take on the responsibilities of adulthood. It too, like the KurnaiÕs initiation, gives the boys a sense of how sacred, or important adulthood is. Moreover, it gives both societies a reason to move into adulthood. Both ceremonies have their perspective level of importance, but more importantly they both work well in giving meaning to each societies incorporation rites.
In conclusion, A.W. Howitt points out in sections of EliadeÕs, Primitives to Zen, that initiations represent the discovery of the sacred(Eliade, p.287). This might mean that sacred initiations embody what a specific society comprehends as the proper way to practice religion or possibly the proper way to live. Such statements could easily tie into what modern society might see as sacred. We donÕt question the small things we do when we change, whether we enter a new business, or graduate from college, or maybe convert from one religion to another, we just do it. Those small things are what come with taking on that responsibility, or that move from one position to another. The ceremony of the
Kurnai and Shashoni give them the right to enter into a new realm living. Such ceremonies are what drive the Kurnai and the Shashoni to believe that they are entering adulthood the correct way. Their rituals are what they know as the correct way of moving into that next stage. If there were no ceremonies to address the movement from one realm to the next, then there might not be an affixed hype surrounding the passage from childhood to adulthood. It would occur naturally and that would be that. Initiations are what societies accept, and understand as what will carry them into their culture, their understanding of religion, and into their lives.
1. Earhart, H. Byron, ed., Religious Traditions of the World: A Journey through Africa, North America, Mesoamerica, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, China, and Japan. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers, 1993., xx 306-316
2. Extracts from Eliade, ed., From Primitives to Zen: A thematic Sourcebook of the History of Religions. (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1967.), xx 142-45
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