“In the universe, there are things that are known,
and things that are unknown, and in between them,
there are doors.” – William Blake
Rites of passage are ritual activities and teachings designed to help individuals transition from one stage to another in their lives. These transition points might include puberty, marriage, having children, graduation, or death. They differ from “rites of celebration” which simply acknowledges the event. Unfortunately, our modern society, with its fast pace and stress, has caused many rites of passage to become lost to obscurity or labeled “quaint.”
The phrase, rites of passage, was popularized by Arnold van Gennep (1873–1957), a French anthropologist, in his book “Les Rites de Passage (1909).” There he discussed ceremonies that he found across cultures and societies that celebrated an individual’s transition from one state to another. In particular, he found four different circumstances where these rites were used:
- Change in status. Modern events might include marriage or an initiation.
- Change in location. Modern events might include moving into a new house or to a new city.
- Change in situation. Modern events might include starting a new job, graduating from high school, or coming out as LGBT+.
- Passage of time. Modern events might include entering puberty or eldering.
Based on his extensive survey of preliterate and literate societies, van Gennep held that rites of passage consist of three distinguishable, consecutive elements: separation, transition, and reincorporation.
In this first stage, the individual is removed from their current state and forced to break with their previous practices and routines. This detachment or “cutting away” from the former self often involves a metaphorical “death.” This stage is necessarily destructive because destruction is necessary for regeneration.
During a rite of passage, the individual might symbolically or literally show their willingness to remove themselves from their current state. This might be accomplished by having the individual give away or destroy something representing their current state. In a marriage rite of passage for example, you may see the father present the bride to symbolize the transition from her childhood home.
During this stage, the individual has shed their old state but has not yet transitioned. Van Gennep used the word “liminality”, from the Latin root, limin or “threshold”, to describe this state.
It is here that the individual’s reality may feel altered. Parts of their identity may feel as if they have completely unraveled, even dissolved. This dissolution of the known can cause feelings of uncertainty and anxiety since we are hard-wired to belong to a certain place and time. The individual can feel sorrow, even grief, about what has ended, been destroyed, or died (metaphorically or physically). That is why it is so important to have a ritual leader that knows more than just the “script” of the rite but can help guide the individual through this important step. The liminal portion of the rite entails an actual traversing of a threshold and we do not want the blind leading the blind through this tenuous moment.
Witches and magicians have, for thousands of years, known that these liminal states can make magick powerful and amplify any working that occurs within them. Contemporary Pagans will often refer to this state as a “crossroad”, a “gate”, or even “a place that is not a place; a time that is not a time”. One might conjecture that the individual, existing momentarily between states, is put into a position where literally anything seems possible and barriers that usually prevent the manifestation of thoughts is bypassed and yet until something is done, everything is also unmanifest. Judika Illes in the book “The Element Encyclopedia of 1000 Spells (2010)” wrote that “Magically speaking a crossroads is the place where multiple forces converge, where anything can happen, where transformations may occur. Energy is liberated and expanded at the crossroads. Instead of hopping over boundaries, you can stand in the center and be inundated by power, potential, and choices.”
During the rite of passage, the individual is prepared mentally, physically, and/or emotionally to cross this threshold. Some of the ritual techniques may include having the individual spend time in a contemplative state such as meditation while the ritualist holds sacred space. Sometimes mysteries might be shared. The individual might have to overcome a challenge or ordeal. The ritualist may have the individual physically or symbolically cross through a gate in order to help them feel, imagine, and experience this crossing.
In this final stage, the individual has crossed the threshold and is now removed from isolation and re-incorporated into the community where they are acknowledged for the first time as a “new” being. This stage is often characterized by elaborate recognitions such as formal dinners, debutante balls or college graduation ceremonies. They might be presented an emblem of their new status such as jewelry, new clothing, or a new name. This stage often involves individuals, immediate family, and larger community.
Life’s great passages are by nature spiritual. Rites of passage provide us the tools for co-creating our own lives and help us “connect the dots” between our major transitional turning points. They affirm the human mystery and mutability, our connection with the universal.
Contemporary Pagans can use rites of passage help them find and define the patterns and cycles in our individual lives that might otherwise seem to be random happenings if viewed separately. They can help us transition intentionally the “terrible cloud of unknowing” rather than becoming paralyzed, running away, or going through it alone. By reclaiming these rites, we can fill a spiritual void in our modern lives and fully realize and honor our connection and place in the Spiral Dance of life.
“The moment in between what you once were,
and who you are now becoming,
is where the dance of life really takes place.”
– Barbara de Angelis