Rites of passage

One of the more exciting units in all my programs is a workshop on the topic of coming of age rituals. It begins with a warm up exercise where participants work on a definition of a “rite of passage” or “coming of age ritual” and come up with examples of such ceremonies. Then I show them a series of photos from a quinceañera, a sweet sixteen party, and débutante balls and have them discuss what they already know about these celebrations or what they can glean from clues in the images. These are all celebrations of womanhood, of course, and though I wracked my brain for analogous celebrations of manhood, I couldn’t come up with any examples that weren’t religious (coming of age within a religious community is another unit in the program).

Interestingly enough, the examples I could find all came from tribal traditions. National Geographic posts a number of clips online of coming of age rituals that show how boys and girls (mostly boys) must undergo some sort of extended ordeal before becoming adults in the eyes of their community. In my other blog I asked myself why almost all of these rites of passage were focused on manhood. I later found my answer in the “Rites of Passage” episode of Taboo (S01E12), where an anthropologist explains that very few female coming of age rituals remain in practice today because Christian missionaries and/or colonial governments tended to ban the ceremonies for celebrating female fertility and menstruation.

I want to underscore is the contrast between the first set of rituals (quinceañeras, sweet sixteens, débutante balls)—which are ritual celebrations of completion—and the second set, which are more properly rites of initiation or transformation. The takeaway is that for initiates in rites of transformation adulthood is hard-won.

The group facilitator I am working with would like to find a way to draw out how the youth really feel about excitement and pressures of turning a certain age when the adults around them suddenly expect them to be able to all the responsibilities of adulthood. We are still working on how to put that question to the group that will get them to open up about it.

The culminating exercise is for each teenager to work on designing his or her own rite of passage. (This particular workshop is expressly designed for a mentoring group so I am having each teen work with his or her mentor on this.) I break the assignment down into a set of questions to help participants process their thoughts more easily.

1.First ask yourself to what community or “tribe” do you (want to) belong?
2.Then decide if your ritual will focus on boys and/or girls, and what age(s) it is for.
3.Next consider the qualities you think are desirable in adults in your community.
4.Now think of how you can cultivate and test those qualities in initiates.
5.Finally, invent a ceremony that will turn young girls and/or boys into adults.
I cannot wait for the outcome of this exercise. I’m curious to hear what the participants have to say, what sorts of rituals they will design, and if the rituals will actually be possible for them to perform without many logistical obstacles.

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