In almost all known societies, from Amazonian tribes to the Incas to modern Europe, there exists the concept of a Rite of Passage. In its basic form this is a journey that every person goes on, to travel from a child to an adult. Human groups have highjacked this concept to serve many purposes. But historically, this is for the good of the society – to bind its individuals together with common experiences, to strengthen the society as a whole and preserve its societal norms and beliefs. Stories which do not encourage acceptance may exist within small groups but will not reach a wider audience so Rites of Passage tend to have broadly agreed themes. Scholars have also proposed that a rite of passage is about our mental history – our shared folklore of what it is to be a human.
Rites of passage may have three parts or five, depending on custom and variance. But broadly speaking, the sections are birth, separation and death, or child, transition and adulthood. They are the biological processes of life mirrored in our mental journey to maturity. For this reason, much of our culture, literature and art reflects on these rites of passage.
One of the common themes of this journey is about finding oneself, and one’s place. It can therefore be very important in reinforcing what the group (tribe, culture, society as a whole) believes is the ideal – whether that be an idealized type of person, or a role that a person must play. So, for instance, in a patriarchal society a rite of passage is commonly seen to be about a boy’s transition to become a man. Whether this is the stereotypical story of a child who must undertake a trial or challenge to be worthy of leading the tribe (The Lion King) or a boy who is different, awkward, unloved who leaves the tribe to explore the world and returns an adult hero, loved by all (Hercules) – many of the stories will be about the male lead. That is not to say that there are no female hero’s in the making, but the patriarchal society may have to cloak their rite of passage story in order to reveal it (Mulan). This tells us much about that societal group – it has to re-frame a women’s story in the pattern of a man’s in order to show the woman as a hero. Mulan would not be acclaimed a hero if she stayed at home and dealt with the challenges of a woman’s life, (as women were oppressed and confined in her society). Instead, her rite of passage had to be shown in the male mould – going to war and fighting our enemies.
I notice that another theme is often gender – because this mirrors our life processes when a child seeks out who they are, discovers the confines of their gender, and rebels against it to emerge triumphant as their own version of their gender. This is seen in novels by women who were ‘not allowed’ to be authors, taking on a male name in order to tell their story (George Sands). There are also many rites of passage stories that help us to overcome our limited beliefs and understanding of others. A child may not know their own true nature, but by testing themselves against societies rules, they may discover their full adult self (Boy in a Dress) or it may allow the author to scrutinise our prejudices and bigotry where we follow a person’s journey through these challenges to emerge victorious and redefine our society as a result (The Elephant Man).
Ancient societies often had strict definitions of roles for men and women, but recent historical finding reveal that some societies may have accepted non-binary definitions. But in many cases, someone who defied these basic descriptions was hard to categorize and place in society. This is reflected in stories where a person was born one gender but aspired to the role of another gender – and their rite of passage story would be crucial because it would allow both the person and society to understand how they might find their place. A tribe that can support all of its members to be active, useful participants would be a stronger unit, so it has always been important for society to understand that some people are gender-fluid, and others are non-binary, and their story from child to adult is a lesson for us all in tolerance and acceptance. A rite of passage story for any individual must support them to discover who they truly are, their strengths and weaknesses and then society can embrace and celebrate their unique contribution. We need more writers to tell these rite of passage stories to help us walk in someone’s else’s shoes for a brief while.
A rite of passage is also reflected in our customs and traditions. Spanish boys are encouraged to run with the bulls at 14, and young people in the UK go to bars for their first alcoholic drink at 18, but both are viewed by adults as a rite of passage. Perhaps in the UK, we need to study the rites of passage on offer and develop ones which better model our ideal future citizen?
Europe may have lived through a period of relative peace and stability in my and my parent’s lifetime, so our rites of passage may no longer be about preparing for war. Instead they reflect new challenges to society. Climate change, mental health and political instability are big topics affecting us all on a global scale, as is the challenge of pandemics. Rite of passage tales now will reflect these global concerns. Where our tribe used to be only those around our firepit, now it is those of us on the same planet, including all living species and our interconnected environment.
Rites of passage now could be the journey we all take to delve a little deeper into who we are and who we want to be, embracing our physical and mental wellbeing, and preparing to contribute to the planet, the people and living things on it.
Happy Reading !
The Catcher in the Rye JD Salinger, The Bell Jar Sylvia Plath, Heart of Darkness Joseph Conrad, To Kill a Mockingbird Harper Lee, The Hunger Games Suzanne Collins, The Fitz and the Fool Robin Hobb, Curious Incident of the Dog in The Nighttime Mark Haddon, She Who Became The Sun Shelley Parker-Chan...