Rites of Passage, ceremonies that mark a person's progress from one role, phase of life, or social status to another. The term was first used by the Belgian anthropologist Arnold van Gennep. The basic life changes are birth, puberty, marriage, and death. Each change is marked by a transitional period involving specific rituals: removal of the individual from his or her former status; suspension from normal social contact; and readmission into society in the newly acquired status. This transitional process sometimes provides others with the opportunity to adjust to the event, as, for example, the death of a loved one. Rites of passage occur in all societies and often involve symbolism, and reaffirm the values of a society.
Conception, gestation, and birth are ritually assisted by one or both parents, who might modify their dietary, sexual, and other habits in culturally designated ways. These measures might persist through a postpartum seclusion period for mother and infant, which culminates in some kind of public presentation and, often, naming of the new baby. The ceremony of baptism or christening is an example of a religious birth ritual practiced by many Christians that has endured throughout the ages. It marks the admission of a baby into the “community of Christ” and the church.
In many societies, puberty rites are elaborate and prolonged, especially where girls and boys are initiated into adulthood collectively rather than singly. Puberty rites mark the point at which a child takes on the role of the adult. For a girl, this might occur at the time of first menstruation; for boys, the timing varies. In some societies initiates are removed from their families and undergo a lengthy seclusion during which they might be subjected to intense physical ordeals. A variant of such practices was the vision quest of some Native Americans, in which a youth went into the wilderness alone, without food or water, in search of a personal guardian spirit, usually revealed to him in a dream.
Puberty rites generally require initiates to be instructed in the etiquette, arts, and folklore of their society, in preparation for the conditions of full adulthood. The Jewish ceremony of bar mitzvah, for a boy, or bat mitzvah for a girl, marks the passage of a young person into adulthood after a period of prescribed religious instruction.
Marriage rites draw on civil and religious authority to sanctify the union of a man and a woman and establish the parentage of any children born of the marriage. The rites often include formal removal of one party (usually the bride) from the family group, feasts and exchanges of gifts between the families, a honeymoon seclusion, and the reentry of the newlyweds into society. In addition to their religious and economic aspects, marriage rites tend to highlight the political significance of the union. See Marriage.
Menopause (the natural cessation of menstruation) is a gradual process of bodily changes that includes two of the three stages of a rite of passage: removal of the individual from her former status, and the acquisition of a new status. In some Mediterranean societies, women of menopausal age traditionally dyed their clothes black and covered their hair. These were signs that the woman was not to be flirted with or addressed familiarly by men, and that the woman had changed her role. American anthropologist Margaret Mead reported in 1949 that, in Bali, postmenopausal women were allowed greater freedom in their speech and behavior than younger women. In modern Western society, menopause is typically a passage without a ceremony.
Death rites express the reverse of the birth transition. Through illness or aging, the individual is often removed from an active life and normal social contact. After life is ended, prescribed religious or cultural rituals are followed in order to help the survivors accept the new state (see Funeral Rites and Customs). Funerals allow the dead person's community to mourn publicly, and provide an opportunity for the values of the society to be reaffirmed. In some religious beliefs, the soul departs from the body and attains a new status.