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A rite of passage is a ritual that marks a change in a person's social status. It is a universal phenomenon which can show anthropologists what social hierarchies, values and beliefs are important in specific cultures. Rites of passage are often ceremonies surrounding events such as childbirth, menarche or other milestones within puberty, coming of age, marriage, weddings, and death. Initiation ceremonies such as baptism, confirmation and bar or bat mitzvoth are considered important rites of passage. These may be viewed under the following headings

Birth rites

Death rites

Marriage rites

Initiation rites

History of term

Theories were developed in the 1960s by Mary Douglas and Victor Turner (The Ritual Process, 1969).[How to reference and link to summary or text] Joseph Campbell's 1949 text, The Hero with a Thousand Faces and his theory of the journey of the hero were also influenced by Arnold van Gennep.

Rites of passage have three phases: separation, liminality, and re-incorporation - as first outlined by van Gennep. In the first phase, people withdraw from the group and begin moving from one place or status to another. There is often a detachment or ‘cutting away’ from the former self in this phase, which is signified in symbolic actions and rituals. For example, the cutting of the hair for a person who has just joined the army. He or she is 'cutting away' the former self - the civilian. In the third phase, they reenter society, having completed the rite and assumed their 'new' identity. Re-incorporation is characterised by elaborate rituals and ceremonies, like debutant balls and college graduation. The liminal phase is the period between states, during which people have left one place or state but haven't yet entered or joined the next.

Types and examples

Rites of passage are diverse, and are often not recognized as such in the culture in which they occur. Many society rituals may look like rites of passage but miss some of the important structural and functional components. Typically the missing piece is the societal recognition and reincorporation phase. Adventure Education programs, such as Outward Bound, have often been described as potential rites of passage. Pamela Cushing researched the rites of passage impact upon adolescent youth at the Canadian Outward Bound School and found the rite of passage impact was lessened by the missing reincorporation phase (Cushing, 1998). Bell (2003) presented more evidence of this lacking third stage and described the "Contemporary Adventure Model of a Rites of Passage" as a modern and weaker version of the rites of passage typically used by outdoor adventure programs.

Several organizations, such as Boys to Men Mentoring Network and Rite of Passage Journeys in Bothell, Washington, provide nature based initiatory experiences that do include the incorporation phase. At the end of Rite of Passage Journeys' Coming-of-Age trips, parents arrive to work with their children for the final weekend of the experience, so that changes that occurred on the trip can be supported when the youth returns to his or her home environment.

Some other examples of rites of passages in contemporary society are given in the following subsections.

Coming of age rites of passage

  • Adolescent circumcision
  • Bar Mitzvah
  • Breeching
  • Debutante ball
  • Dokimasia
  • First haircut
  • Gempuku among the samurai
  • Graduation
  • Poy Sang Long
  • Prom
  • Quinceañera
  • Russ in Norway
  • Scarification and various other physical endurances
  • Sevapuneru or Turmeric ceremony in South India to mark menarche

In various tribal societies, entry into an age grade – generally gender-separated – (unlike an age set) is marked by an initiation rite, which may be the crowning of a long and complex preparation, sometimes in retreat.


Christ underwent the Jewish circumcision, here depicted on a Catholic cathedral; a liturgical feast commemorates this on New Year's Day

Religious initiation rites

  • Baptism
  • First Eucharist and First Confession (especially First Communion in Catholicism)
  • Confirmation
  • Bar Mitzvah and Bat Mitzvah in Judaism
  • Circumcision, mainly in Judaism (Bris) and Islam
  • Saṃskāra a series of Sacraments in Hinduism.
  • Shinbyu in Theravada Buddhism
  • Rumspringa among the Amish
  • Vision quest in some Native American cultures
  • "Quinceañera" many who celebrate include a Catholic mass

Other initiation rites

  • Secular coming of age ceremonies for non-religious youngsters who want a rite of passage comparable to the religious rituals like Confirmation
  • Walkabout
  • Batizados in Capoeira.

Armed forces rites

  • Accolade
  • Baptism by fire
  • Battlefield commission, equivalent to ennoblement for valor or knighting on the field in the ancien régime
  • Berserker, berserkergang - an initiatory Nordic warrior-rite; the young Scandinavian warrior of old or Viking had to symbolically transform into a bear or wolf before he could become an elite warrior (cf. Cuchulain's transformation)
  • Counting coup
  • Krypteia - a "robber-baron" or "bandit-warrior" rite of the military youths of ancient Sparta
  • Pas d'armes
  • Trial by battle, or Judicium Dei (Judgment of God)
  • U.S. Marine Crucible
  • U.S. Navy: Battle Stations
  • Naval (military and civilian) crossing the equator
  • In the U.S. Navy and Royal Navy, wetting-down is a ceremony in which a Naval officer is ceremonially thrown into the ocean upon receiving a promotion.
  • U.S. Army Victory Forge
  • In many military organizations, as in civilian groups, new conscripts are sometimes subjected by "veterans" to practical jokes, ranging from taking advantage of their naïveté to public humiliation and physical attacks; see Hazing.
  • Soldiers and sailors may also be hazed again on obtaining a promotion.
  • In Greece conscription is mandatory and has been historically linked with maturing of a man. The army was historically perceived as the "natural" way to go and as a final 'school' of socialization and maturing for young men before their comeout to the real world; also it would be the first time a young man would find himself on his own and away from home. Consequently, draft dodgers, deserters, or men unable to serve encountered prejudice, were often frowned upon and deemed useless by conservative societies

Academic groups

Some academic circles such as dorms, fraternities, teams and other clubs practice

Entrance into Medicine and Pharmacy (University) :

  • White Coat Ceremony
  • In Spanish universities of the Modern Age, like Universidad Complutense in Alcalá de Henares, upon completion of his studies, the student was submitted to a public questioning by the faculty, who could ask sympathetic questions that let him excel or tricky points. If the student passed he invited professors and mates to a party. If not, he was publicly processioned with donkey ears.

Sexual orientation and gender identity

See also


  • Bell, B. J. (2003). "The rites of passage and outdoor education: Critical concerns for effective programming." The Journal of Experiential Education, 26, 1, pp. 41–50.
  • Cushing, P.J. (1998). "Competing the cycle of transformation: Lessons from the rites of passage model." Pathways: The Ontario Journal of Experiential Education, 9,5,7–12.
  • Turner, V (1967). 'Betwixt and between: the liminal period in rites de passage,' Forest of symbols: aspects of the Ndembu ritual, Cornell UP, Ithaca, pp.23-59.

External links

Ethnographic examples:

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