Rite of passage

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Anthropology of religion
Initiation ritual of boys in Malawi.jpg
Initiation ritual of boys in Malawi. The ritual marks the passage from child to adult male, each subgroup having its customs and expectations.
Social and cultural anthropology

A rite of passage is a ceremony or ritual of the passage which occurs when an individual leaves one group to enter another. It involves a significant change of status in society. In cultural anthropology the term is the Anglicisation of rite de passage, a French term innovated by the ethnographer Arnold van Gennep in his work Les rites de passage, "The Rites of Passage".[1] The term is now fully adopted into anthropology as well as into the literature and popular cultures of many modern languages.

Original conception

In English, Van Gennep's first sentence of his first chapter begins:[2]

"Each larger society contains within it several distinctly separate groupings. ... In addition, all these groups break down into still smaller societies in subgroups."

The population of a society belongs to multiple groups, some more important to the individual than others. Van Gennep uses the metaphor, "as a kind of house divided into rooms and corridors."[3] A passage occurs when an individual leaves one group to enter another; in the metaphor, he changes rooms.

Van Gennep further distinguishes between "the secular" and "the sacred sphere." Theorizing that civilizations are arranged on a scale, implying that the lower levels represent "the simplest level of development," he hypothesizes that "social groups in such a society likewise have magico-religious foundations." Many groups in modern industrial society practice customs that can be traced to an earlier sacred phase. Passage between these groups requires a ceremony, or ritual hence rite of passage.

The rest of Van Gennep's book presents a description of rites of passage and an organization into types, although in the end he despairs of ever capturing them all:[4] "It is but a rough sketch of an immense picture ...." He is able to find some universals, mainly two: "the sexual separation between men and women, and the magico-religious separation between the profane and the sacred." (Earlier the translators used secular for profane.) He refuses credit for being the first to recognize type of rites. In the work he concentrates on groups and rites individuals might normally encounter progressively: pregnancy, childbirth, initiation, betrothal, marriage, funerals and the like. He mentions some others, such as the territorial passage, a crossing of borders into a culturally different region, such as one where a different religion prevails.