The Rites of Passage

The Rites of Passage

by Arnold van Gennep

ISBN: 9780226848495

Publisher University of Chicago Press

Published in Politics & Social Sciences/Anthropology

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Each larger society contains within it several distinctly separate social groupings. As we move from higher to lower levels of civilization, the differences among these groups become accentuated and their autonomy increases. In contrast, the only clearly marked social division remaining in modern society is that which distinguishes between the secular and the religious worlds—between the profane and the sacred. Since the time of the Renaissance the relations between these two realms have undergone all kinds of changes within nations and states. But it is a significant fact that, because of fundamental differences between them, secular and religious groups as a whole have remained separate throughout the countries of Europe. The nobility, the world of finance, the working classes, retain their identities without regard—in theory at least—for national boundaries.

In addition, all these groups break down into still smaller societies or subgroups. We find distinctions between the higher nobility and the landed gentry, between high finance and small moneylending, as well as among the various professions and trades. For a man to pass from group to group—for example, for a peasant to become an urban worker, or even for a mason's helper to rise to mason—he must fulfil certain conditions, all of which have one thing in common: their basis is purely economic or intellectual. On the other hand, for a layman to enter the priesthood or for a priest to be unfrocked calls for ceremonies, acts of a special kind, derived from a particular feeling and a particular frame of mind. So great is the incompatibility between the profane and the sacred worlds that a man cannot pass from one to the other without going through an intermediate stage.

As we move downward on the scale of civilizations (taking the term "civilization" in the broadest sense), we cannot fail to note an ever-increasing domination of the secular by the sacred. We see that in the least advanced cultures the holy enters nearly every phase of a man's life. Being born, giving birth, and hunting, to cite but a few examples, are all acts whose major aspects fall within the sacred sphere. Social groups in such societies likewise have magico-religious foundations, and a passage from group to group takes on that special quality found in our rites of baptism and ordination.

At the simplest level of development, too, there are social groups that reach across boundaries. For example, a totem clan is recognized as a single intertribal unit among all the tribes of Australia, and its members look upon one another as brothers for the same reason as do Roman Catholic priests, no matter what country they live in. Bonds of caste, on the other hand, present a more complicated problem, for here differences based on occupational specialization are added to those founded on kinship. While modern societies reduce to a theoretical minimum the distinction between male and female, it plays a role of considerable importance among semicivilized peoples, who rigidly segregate the sexes in the economic, the political, and, above all, the magico-religious sphere. The family, whether conceived on a broader or narrower basis than in our own culture, is likewise sharply defined among semicivilized peoples. Furthermore, while a tribe may or may not form part of a larger political unit, it is in all cases endowed with an individuality comparable in rigidity to the narrow parochialism of the ancient Greek citystates. To all the above-mentioned group distinctions, the semicivilized add still another—one for which our society has no real counterpart—a division into generation or age groups.

The life of an individual in any society is a series of passages from one age to another and from one occupation to another. Wherever there are fine distinctions among age or occupational groups, progression from one group to the next is accompanied by special acts, like those which make up apprenticeship in our trades. Among semicivilized peoples such acts are enveloped in ceremonies, since to the semicivilized mind no act is entirely free of the sacred. In such societies every change in a person's life involves actions and reactions between sacred and profane—actions and reactions to be regulated and guarded so that society as a whole will suffer no discomfort or injury. Transitions from group to group and from one social situation to the next are looked on as implicit in the very fact of existence, so that a man's life comes to be made up of a succession of stages with similar ends and beginnings: birth, social puberty, marriage, fatherhood, advancement to a higher class, occupational specialization, and death. For every one of these events there are ceremonies whose essential purpose is to enable the individual to pass from one defined position to another which is equally well defined. Since the goal is the same, it follows of necessity that the ways of attaining it should be at least analogous, if not identical in detail (since in any case the individual involved has been modified by passing through several stages and traversing several boundaries).

Thus we encounter a wide degree of general similarity among ceremonies of birth, childhood, social puberty, betrothal, marriage, pregnancy, fatherhood, initiation into religious societies, and funerals. In this respect, man's life resembles nature, from which neither the individual nor the society stands independent. The universe itself is governed by a periodicity which has repercussions on human life, with stages and transitions, movements forward, and periods of relative inactivity. We should therefore include among ceremonies of human passage those rites occasioned by celestial changes, such as the changeover from month to month (ceremonies of the full moon), from season to season (festivals related to solstices and equinoxes), and from year to year (New Year's Day). All these rites should, it seems to me, be grouped together, though all the details of the proposed scheme cannot be worked out as yet. The study of ritual has made great progress in recent years, but we are still far from knowing either the function or the manner of operation of every single rite, and we lack the knowledge necessary to construct a definitive classification of rites. The first step toward the development of such a classification was a separation of rites into two kinds, sympathetic and contagious.

Sympathetic rites—those based on belief in the reciprocal action of like on like, of opposite on opposite, of the container and the contained, of the part and the whole, of image and real object or real being, or word and deed—were first considered as such by Tylor. Later many of their varieties were studied in Great Britain by Lang, Clodd, Hartland, and several others; in France this work was done by Réville, Marillier, and several others; in Germany, by Liebrecht, Andree, Koch, Schultze, and others; in the Netherlands, by Tiele, Wilken, Kruijt, and others; in Belgium by Monseur and De Cock; while in the United States they have been investigated by Brinton and several others. Oddly enough, however, none of the researchers who adhered to the animistic school developed a rigorous classification of the beliefs and rites they outlined. Their writings are collections of parallels taken out of context and divorced from ritual sequences rather than attempts at systematization. Here their thinking undoubtedly shows the influence of Adolf Bastian. In his youth, Bastian had discovered the concept of Völkergedanken ("folk ideas"), and he adhered rigidly to this notion to the end of his long career. Bastian's influence lies at the very foundation of Tylor's Primitive Culture, which for about thirty years after its publication in 1871 provided the framework for all kinds of complementary research, particularly in Russia.

On the other hand, Mannhardt's work led to a new orientation, although it remained unknown until Frazer demonstrated its fruitfulness. Together Mannhardt and Frazer created a school, to which Smith contributed a new line of approach—study of the holy, the sacred, the pure, and the impure. Among those who were to subscribe to this tradition were Hartland, Crawley, Cook, Harrison, and Jevons in England; Dieterich and Preuss in Germany; Reinach, Hubert, and Mauss in France; and Hoffmann-Krayer in Switzerland. Actually, the Bastian-Tylor school and that of Mannhardt, Frazer, Smith, and their successors were very closely related.

Contemporaneously, still another school was coming into being—the dynamistic school. Marett in England and Hewitt in America had taken a stand in sharp opposition to the animistic theory. Both pointed out the weakness in the concept of animism previously glimpsed by Tiele (namely, polyzoism or polyzoölatry) and put forward the dynamistic theory. This theory was further elaborated by Preuss in Germany; by Farnell, Haddon, and Hartland in England; and by Hubert, Mauss, and van Gennep in France (among others); and today it continues to draw adherents.

This double stream of theory enables us to assert that in addition to sympathetic rites, and ritual with an animistic basis, there exist groups of dynamistic rites (i.e., rites based on a concept of a power, such as mana, that is not personalized) as well as contagious rites. The rites in this last group are characteristically based on a belief that natural or acquired characteristics are material and transmissible (either through physical contact or over a distance). We should note that sympathetic rites are not necessarily animistic, nor contagious rites necessarily dynamistic. The four classes are independent, although they have been grouped in pairs by the two schools studying magico-religious phenomena from different points of view.

Secondly, we can distinguish between rites which act directly and those which act indirectly. A direct rite, for example a curse or a spell, is designed to produce results immediately, without intervention by any outside agent. On the other hand, an indirect rite—be it vow, prayer, or religious service—is a kind of initial blow which sets into motion some autonomous or personified power, such as a demon, a group of jinn, or a deity, who intervenes on behalf of the performer of the rite. The effect of a direct rite is automatic; that of an indirect rite comes as a repercussion. An indirect rite is not necessarily animistic. To cite one example, when a central Australian aborigine rubs an arrow against a certain stone, he charges it with a magic power called arungquiltha. Later, he will shoot this arrow in the direction of an enemy, and as the arrow falls the arungquiltha will follow its course and strike down the enemy. The power is thus transmitted with the help of a carrier, and the rite is accordingly dynamistic, contagious, and indirect.

Finally, we may also draw a distinction between positive rites (or volitions translated into action) and negative rites. The latter, now known as taboos, are prohibitions, commands "not to do" or "not to act." Psychologically, they correspond to negative volitions, just as positive rites are the equivalents of positive volitions. In other words, taboos also translate a kind of will and are acts rather than negations of acts. But just as life is not made up of perennial inaction, so by itself a taboo does not make up a ceremony, let alone a magic spell. In this sense a taboo is not autonomous, it exists only as a counterpart to a positive rite. In other words, every negative rite if considered in isolation has its own individuality. But taboos in general can be understood only in relation to the active rites with which they coexist in a ceremony. Jevons, Crawley, Reinach, and several others erred in not having perceived this relationship of mutual dependence.

According to the criteria outlined in these pages, a single rite may fall simultaneously into four categories. When their four opposites are eliminated, there remain sixteen possible ways of classifying any given rite according to the table below:

Animistic rites

Sympathetic rites
Positive rites
Direct rites
Contagious rites
Negative rites
Indirect rites

Dynamistic rites

For instance, a pregnant woman abstaining from eating mulberries for fear that her child would be disfigured is performing a rite which is at the same time dynamistic, contagious, direct, and negative. A sailor who has been in danger of perishing in a shipwreck and as a consequence of a vow offers a small boat to Our Lady of Vigilance (Mary, Star of the Sea) is performing an animistic, sympathetic, indirect, and positive rite. Perhaps additional classes of rites will be discovered, but those listed here already include a considerable number. The difficulty lies only in determining precisely the proper interpretation for each case. Often a single rite may be interpreted in several ways, or a single interpretation may fit several rites whose forms differ greatly. Above all, it is difficult to determine whether a rite is essentially animistic or dynamistic—whether, for example, a certain ceremony designed to transfer an illness has as its object transferring the illness as a quality, or exorcising a demon or spirit who personified the illness. To cite one concrete example, the rite of passage through or across something (which will be discussed later in greater detail) is open to several interpretations—one animistic and indirect, the other dynamistic and direct. In the attempt to formulate an acceptable systematization of rites, general treatises prove of little help: their authors as a rule include only those elements of a ceremony which serve their purposes. Moreover, their classifications are usually based on external similarities rather than on the dynamics of the rite, and this is particularly true in the work of folklorists.

Most ceremonies of a given kind fall into the same category. Accordingly, most pregnancy rites are dynamistic, contagious, direct, and negative, while most childbirth rites are animistic, sympathetic, indirect, and positive. But it is always just a matter of proportion; an animistic, positive ritual will include a counterpart of dynamistic, and positive or animistic, contagious, and indirect rites. Limitations of space prevent me from indicating in each instance the proper category for every particular rite, but at least I should state that I have not interpreted the many rites analyzed here unilaterally.

Once a classification of ritual dynamics has been established, it becomes relatively easy to understand the basis of characteristic patterns in the order of ceremonies. Yet theoreticians have rarely attempted a classification of these ceremonial patterns. There are excellent works on one or another of their aspects, but only a few carry through a complete set of ceremonies in order from beginning to end, and still fewer are the studies of ceremonial patterns in relation to one another (cf. chap. x).

The present volume is intended to be such a study. I have tried to assemble here all the ceremonial patterns which accompany a passage from one situation to another or from one cosmic or social world to another. Because of the importance of these transitions, I think it legitimate to single out rites of passage as a special category, which under further analysis may be subdivided into rites of separation, transition rites, and rites of incorporation. These three subcategories are not developed to the same extent by all peoples or in every ceremonial pattern. Rites of separation are prominent in funeral ceremonies, rites of incorporation at marriages. Transition rites may play an important part, for instance, in pregnancy, betrothal, and initiation; or they may be reduced to a minimum in adoption, in the delivery of a second child, in remarriage, or in the passage from the second to the third age group. Thus, although a complete scheme of rites of passage theoretically includes preliminal rites (rites of separation), liminal rites (rites of transition), and postliminal rites (rites of incorporation), in specific instances these three types are not always equally important or equally elaborated.

Furthermore, in certain ceremonial patterns where the transitional period is sufficiently elaborated to constitute an independent state, the arrangement is reduplicated. A betrothal forms a liminal period between adolescence and marriage, but the passage from adolescence to betrothal itself involves a special series of rites of separation, a transition, and an incorporation into the betrothed condition; and the passage from the transitional period, which is betrothal, to marriage itself, is made through a series of rites of separation from the former, followed by rites consisting of transition, and rites of incorporation into marriage. The pattern of ceremonies comprising rites of pregnancy, delivery, and birth is equally involved. I am trying to group all these rites as clearly as possible, but since I am dealing with activities I do not expect to achieve as rigid a classification as the botanists have, for example.

Excerpted from "The Rites of Passage" by Arnold van Gennep. Copyright © 2013 by Arnold van Gennep. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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