A Lost Practice: Coming-of-Age Rituals

The Man-Birth

Far in the deserts of western Australia, among an ancient aboriginal people known as  the Mardu, a metamorphosis occurs. As a male member of the tribe reaches around 10 or 12 years old, elders knock out a tooth and pierce his septum. The boy is symbolically “dead” and must remain silent throughout the rest of the ritual. The elders take him into the wilderness, where he must hunt and bring back meat for the tribe. Once accomplished, he returns and the tribespeople smear him in blood, symbolizing a second “birth” as a man. The boy is transformed into a man of the tribe, crossing a threshold that solidifies him as a full participant in the community.

Although the particular traditions and customs change across geography and time, these “coming-of-age” rituals have been commonplace for both men and women in many human societies. The societal need to separate its younger members from its full-fledged, adult participants gives rise to a “gateway” ceremony that members must pass through in order to become accepted into a community. Despite their prevalence, the modern west has mostly dispensed with initiation rituals in favor of more legal, less ritualistic distinctions between its citizens. This de-ritualization of the maturation process has left us in the west with a blurred and fractured sense of self, leaving many adults without a clear model or direction for what is expected from them and without a solid “start-date” to adulthood. 

Why are coming of age rituals important?

Coming-of-age rituals are important because they are the physical embodiment of the ideals, goals, and responsibilities that the initiate must uphold or strive for in his or her new role as a full-fledged member of society. The ritual also serves as a separation between lesser members and full members in a society. Those that have completed the initiation ritual are full, responsible members of the society, while those that have not completed the ritual, are not (not yet at least). In this way, the ritual also provides a clear distinction in the participant’s mind of when they must assume full-member or “adult” responsibilities. 

Here are just a few examples of coming-of-age rituals in various societies.

Quinceanera

The quinceanera is popular among many central and south American countries today. Girls typically celebrate it when they turn 15 years old. The tradition begins with a Catholic mass. Here the girl renews her baptismal vows, and solidifies her commitment to her faith and family. After mass, a fiesta is thrown for the girl where singing and dancing take place. One significant ritual that takes place during the quinceanera is La última muñeca (the last doll).  The girl is presented with a doll, said to be the last doll she will own because now she will be too old to play with dolls. She then passes this doll onto a younger family member.

A modern quinceanera celebration

Ancient Roman Coming-of-Age Ceremony

Roman males would typically have their ceremony around 14-17 years old. In this ritual, the boy would take off his bulla (necklace that provided protection and was given to the child at birth) and offer it to a guardian deity. He would trade in his crimson-bordered toga for a pure white toga as well. A procession to the Forum would follow, where the boy’s name was added to the list of citizens. An offering would be made at the temple, and finally the boy would spend a year with a man of his father’s choosing. The man would mentor the new citizen in his military and civic duties until he was ready for full adulthood. 

Bar/Bat Mitzvah

At the age of 13 for boys and 12 for girls, a special ceremony takes place in the synagogue. The child is given all the rights and responsibilities of an adult, including the commandments of the Torah. For boys this means he will wear a tefillin (a pair of black leather boxes containing Hebrew parchment scrolls) and be able to participate in in synagogue services. After the ceremony in the synagogue, a large party is thrown for the boy or girl, welcoming them into the Jewish community

A Bar Mitzvah celebration at the Western Wall, Jerusalem

Coming-of-Age Rituals in the Modern West

Most of us can probably think of individuals that clearly haven’t “grown up” yet. They are childish and immature despite their age, never taking on responsibility or owning up to the consequences of their decisions. In essence they are children in adult’s bodies. It is precisely these types of people who benefit the most from coming-of-age rituals. Since they as individuals fail to embody the spirit of adulthood, tradition may be able to step in and thrust the role upon them as part of the collective. In their book King, Warrior, Magician, Lover: Rediscovering the Archetypes of the Mature Masculine, Robert Moore and Douglas Gillette write: 

“A man who “cannot get it together” is a man who has probably not had the opportunity to undergo ritual initiation into the deep structures of manhood.”

King, Warrior, Magician, Lover: Rediscovering the Archetypes of the Mature Masculine (p. 3)

Moore and Gillette argue that modern society has failed to provide men (though I think the same applies to women) with proper initiation rituals. We have been given “pseudo rituals” instead which can distort or corrupt our ideals of masculinity/femininity. An example of pseudo ritual would be a gang initiation, where the initiate may be required to break the law or harm others in order to be accepted as a full member of the gang. Moore and Gillete write that these are pseudo rituals for two reasons:

  1. They “initiate the boy into a kind of masculinity that is skewed, stunted, and false” The example of masculinity or femininity that the initiate must display is contrary to what is beneficial for the society.
  2. They do not have a “sacred space” (a hut, cave, wilderness, or temple room) or a ritual elder (wise old man or woman to lead the ritual).

There are still a few maturation rituals that persist in modern American society; however they fail to reach the significance or direction that the previously mentioned rituals have. Having your first beer falls flat in comparison to those mentioned above. The “sweet 16” birthday celebration symbolizes growing independence from parents, though it does not instill properly the duties or obligations that one should acquire as they reach this age. Some nations have mandatory military or civil service, which can serve as modern coming-of-age rituals/ceremonies, though this is not done in the United States.

Our modern world has largely dispensed with communal ritual and in the process thrown out important steps for young people to process their maturation and encourage them in their taking on new responsibilities. Our lack of coming-of-age ritual and our “masculinity crisis” are likely connected in some way, however loosely. When the expectations of society are never made known to young men, implicitly or explicitly, it is no wonder they don’t know how to “grow up” when they reach the expected age of maturation. Not to mention that American society fails even to provide them with a concrete start-date to adulthood. Is it 18 when they are no longer legally a minor and can vote? Is it when they graduate high school/college and get their first job and become more financially independent? Or maybe 21 when they can legally drink alcohol? Many of us can still be on our parent’s insurance until we are 26, pushing the age of true independence back even further. We don’t have much clarity here in American society. Maybe a rewriting of these age-related laws or even mandatory military/civil service requirements could help to get us in the right direction.

Overall, I find coming-of-age rituals fascinating. People from all different times and places have symbolized the maturation process in unique ways, though there is often a common thread among them. Taking on new responsibility, striving to help the community, and reaching for the ideal version of man or woman are the central aspects of growing up.

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