by Hazel Anna Rogers for the Carl Kruse Blog
Rites of initiation have been used for centuries to establish or celebrate a person’s entrance into a new aspect of life — the start of puberty, entry into a secret society or religious order, or the end of formal schooling.
I am lacking in my own personal experience of official initiation rites or rites of passage, save for drinking excessive amounts on my 18th birthday. Perhaps growing up in England is to blame for that. I suppose I remember one instance of an ‘initiation’ of sorts; at the end of secondary school, I attended ‘prom’, an American tradition dating back to the early 19th century whereupon high schoolers dress up in formal attire for a dance to celebrate the end of their studies and their emergence into adulthood. There wasn’t much dancing at my prom, just party food and lacklustre pop music that people stood around listening to.
Many initiation rites are based around the cultural significance of maturation as opposed to defining puberty or maturation as purely biological. We see this especially in cases of male rites of passage; while (many) women have the biological marker of menstruation indicating the beginning of puberty, it is much more difficult to scientifically pinpoint the beginning of male puberty.
Circumcision, though a practice now deemed by most to be harmful to the recipient, is an initiation rite that has existed for centuries among various populations for boys and girls to indicate sexual maturity and establish status within a society. However, as circumcision is practiced on boys of varying ages from birth to their early twenties, the rite is not always used to indicate maturity.
More often, men and women are required to perform acts to ‘test’ or ‘prove’ their entrance into adulthood. For the Inuit populations of North Baffin Island, boys and girls (only recently were girls permitted to take part in this rite) are required to leave their homes and hunt with their fathers in the cold wilderness of Canada to test their gall and hunting skill. In Tanzania and Kenya, the Maasai tribe boys will move to specially constructed houses away from their own in preparation for the rites that will establish them as warriors within their tribe. The initiation rites which the Maasai boys (between the ages of 10 and 20) must engage in include dancing and singing at dawn after a night sleeping in the forest; eating huge quantities of meat and drinking an elixir containing fresh milk, alcohol, and cow’s blood; and finally, circumcision – throughout all of these rites, the boys must not show any indications of suffering or hardship or else their bravery will be doubted and their families shamed. Once these initial tests have been completed, the boys will live away from home at the ‘warrior’s’ camp and learn skills to prove their strength and hunting abilities. After 10 years in the camp, the now-warrior boys are permitted to marry.
In Japan, youths aged 20 will dress up in beautiful traditional dress on the second Monday of January for ceremonies and festivities to celebrate their transition into maturity. This initiation is called Seijin-no-Hi. In Amish tradition, at the age of 16 youths are permitted to go out into the world and experience life outside of their secular religious communities in order to make a choice about whether they wish to continue on their religious trajectory or live apart from their families and childhood friends for the rest of their lives. New members of rugby teams throughout the Western world will engage in many acts determined by their team mates to show their dedication to the cause; such acts may include excessive drinking, cross-dressing, and sexual acts or nudity. We have probably all heard of the infamous initiation rites of the Cambridge boys; allegedly, part of England Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s rite of passage into the Cambridge elite involved placing his phallus into a dead pig’s mouth.
I could continue detailing initiations, so bountiful, fascinating, and diverse they are! But I wish to speak for a moment on initiations or rites of passage that may not be established yet are equally important in the cultural and social maturity of young populations throughout the world. One of these ‘rites of passage’ is first love; for myself, my first relationship and break-up was integral in my sexual and mental growth from my late teens to my early adulthood. From a very young age, one hears about the pain of lost love and the excitement to be found in relationships, yet one can never truly understand the intricacies of love before experiencing them oneself. My first break-up began to build up my resilience for emotional pain, and for the first time I felt a pain I had never felt before: the aching torture of a broken heart.
I smoked marijuana for the first time when I was 15 and experienced my first ‘whitey’ when I was 18 – a ‘whitey’ occurs when a person smokes too much weed during a short space of time leading to loss of vision or distorted vision, pale skin, and sometimes fainting or vomiting. A whitey will often happen when one mixes weed with other drugs, such as alcohol, nicotine, and other substances. I did not vomit during my whitey, but I remember nearly doing so, and feeling as though my limbs and eyes could no longer function properly. Such an experience brings communities together to tell stories about times they ‘overdid it’ and leads one to a better understanding of one’s physical capacity for marijuana, alcohol, and other drugs. For weed-smokers, whiteying is a sort of initiation rite that most go through on their journey with the drug, and for this reason I think it significant to note as one of the rites of passage that many young people go through.
Other moments in my life have been integral indicators of my entrance into adulthood. The first time I was able to pay for a meal for my family was a moment of pride and joy that I felt in my ability to give back to those who raised me. The first time I left home and lived abroad to work taught me much about the hardships and responsibilities of living alone. My first job taught me the importance of taking care of my earnings and establishing a good routine. The first time I got caught stealing something led to me deciding never do it again for the shame and humiliation it brought me.
So many moments like these occur in all of our lives, and though they may not be considered as official initiations or rites of passage into maturity, they all teach us vital lessons about what it means to be human, what it means to be an independent adult in whatever society we live in. It is certainly strange to look back upon one’s childhood and recall all of the jargon one heard from parents and adults while growing up, such words as ‘mortgage’, ‘salary’, ‘pension’, ‘loans’, and more, and to realize that all these words have somehow acquired meaning through the process of growing up. I am still growing up now, and I think we all are, however old we might be. Initiation rites may imply some sort of palpable maturity that can be attributed a date or an age, but adulthood comes in the trials and errors that one encounters in one’s banal day-to-day existence. I think it beautiful that every day I am getting older, wiser, and stronger through rites and initiations that I may not even think twice about in the moment. I think it wonderful to consider the moments that will come to test and challenge me through the rest of my life.
This Carl Kruse blog homepage is at http://carlkruse.at
Contact: carl AT carlkruse DOT com
Other articles by Hazel include the Central Governor Theory, A Positive Spin on Hustle Culture, and Sleep and the Enduring Insomniac.
Carl Kruse is also on Medium.