In every aspect of life, form the moment that we take our first breath to that singularly sacred moment when we breath out for the last time, do we partake in rituals; rituals that see us through all the different stages in our lives. Van Gennep (The Rites Of Passage, 1908) said that: “, a person is not just born into society, but has to be created through rites of passage as a social individual, and accepted into society.” (Oxford, Dictionary of Sociology, 2009: 653). This accounts for more than just being born, but also for being accepted into other stages or statuses in life. In this essay I attempt to explain Van Gennep’s theory of ‘Rites of Passage’ and Victor Turner’s uses of the terms ‘liminality’ and ‘communitas’ (Turner, 1969) by using an example from a ritual I have witnessed and experienced personally.
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According to Arnold Van Gennep (Van Gennep, 1908: 10,11) rituals are events or actions that assists people to transition through different stages of life, whether it’s being born or getting married. It marks a change in status.
To try and explain rituals as “rites of passage” Van Gennep separated it into three stages:
Rite of Separation
Rite of Transition/The liminal phase (Turner, 1969)
Rite of Reintegration
Rites of Separation could be explained as moving or breaking away from the status or stage that the person is currently holding. Rites of transition, the phase where one is moving from one point to the next, almost like a plane in flight. Rites of Reintegration are the last part of the ritual where a person moves back into society but at a different level than when the ritual was first begun.
Van Gennep also explains that rituals differ and that emphasis of the three stages might change from ritual to ritual.
Victor Turner took up Van Gennep’s ideas and developed it further (Turner, 1969; Bowie, 2004: 152). On focusing on the 2nd stage (liminal) Turner explains that a person is in a state of nothingness, “betwixt and between”. In terms of initiation rites, usually, in this phase all the initiates are brought to the same level of status, communitas. Through being stripped of everything that singled a person out, all the initiates become one in likeness and stature, humiliation could form a great part of this process. A sense of community and mutual understanding draws the initiates closer to each other.
He explains further that the phases are often marked by the use of various symbols with some deeper meaning, especially the liminal phase.
I will attempt to explain these theories by use of the following initiation ritual:
Working at a performing arts ministry based in Pretoria: 13thFLOOR.
Rite of Separation
Our parents dropped us off on the first day, spending their last day with us. Everybody is eating and drinking and getting to know all the friendly new leaders that we will be having for the rest of the year. Nametags are also being handed out to everyone, your colour matching the colour of your team. At last the final greetings are being said and the parents leave.
The whole team gets together in the hall and suddenly its not funny anymore. The leaders yell and ask why we are sitting when our elders are walking into the room? Have we no respect? We had to get down and do twenty push-ups, no ladies push-ups for anyone, and then run around the campus. They introduce themselves and tell all the students that they expect of us to know all their names. They also gave us five minutes to go and pack a bag with a week’s worth of things, just knowing that we will have to carry it for kilometres and will probably get wet. No food and no technology allowed.
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The drive to an unknown destination lasted for 3 hours, after which we were dropped off in the middle of no-where (in the middle of the night) and told to make our way in a general direction for several kilometres until we reached a certain landmark. Upon arriving at the destination we spent what little of the night was left sleeping in a sheep-shearing pen.
The next morning they put each team (a team comprises of 17 members) in a very small cow-feeding ring (made of solid metal) with our entire luggage. No person was allowed to leave the ring and we weren’t allowed to put the ring down. Like this we walked through marshes and fields for about 15km. We were allowed water, but we haven’t had food for about 24 hours by then. Reaching the camp, each team had to build their own shelter with two torn tarps (it was raining) and make a fire old school style.
Each person was handed a raw egg that had to be kept safe through the whole of the week, if it broke you had to carry a rock, and if you forgot your rock, you had to carry two and so on and so forth. As a whole, the team were given two giant logs (impossibly heavy) to be carried everywhere and at no point was the logs ever allowed to touch the ground. As the week progressed we had to participate in various gruelling activities that took you from being beyond tired to knowing that somehow we all possessed inhuman strength. The elders would try to teach us a lesson/lessons through each activity, moulding us into a unity. We had little to no sleep, maybe and apple and a slice of bread per day (not each, for all 17 people in the team), and if you were lucky a can of dog food with a bag of chips. There were no facilities so toilets had to be dug, water fetched from the river and no one even tried to get the cow dung or mud off for the duration of the week.
Rite of reincorporation
At the end of the week we all got into the busses again, drove the 3 hours back to our campus and showered. We had debriefings and were told that we are now officially part of the team. The lessons learned at the camp would be what carried the teams throughout the year.
Many people (especially the American initiates) thought this whole ritual to be barbaric and completely out-dated. I will even go so far as to compare it to some people’s reaction towards virginity testing in South Africa (Scourgie, 2002:64-66)
Like with the Venda girls’ initiation (McNeill, 2011: 100), humiliation was used to create and equal footing amongst the initiates. This also helped enforce communitas between the initiates. Similarly, where they had three phases of initiates, there was also a difference between the initiates of the teams. There were team leaders in each team, which already implies a difference in status, though they still went through everything the same way as all the others in the group (apart from some minimal differences). The team leaders already went through the whole ritual in previous years but they are once again put through it to guide the new initiates. Their status doesn’t necessarily change through this ritual even though they are partaking in it fully, going through all the phases. In this one aspect I differ from Van Gennep and Turner, that a ritual does not always mark a transformation of some sort. But that is not the purpose of this essay and therefor I will not discuss it in further detail.
Various symbols were used in the events of the separation and liminal phases, mostly to teach the initiates lessons of some sort.
The nametag and colour: separating us into groups and creating an equal footing for everyone to get to know each other.
The cow-feeding ring: to bring the realization that we are a unity and will have to function as such in the future no matter what the difficulties.
The egg/rocks/logs: the responsibility that every member of the team, as well as the team as a whole, will have to bear through the year. It also taught stewardship.
Through trying to explain the rite of passage that I experienced by use of Van Gennep’s and Turner’s ideas, I tried to bring to attention the change and growth that going through every part of the ritual brought. And it doesn’t matter if it’s an initiation ritual or a funeral; they all mark a passage of some sort. Respectively going through a rite of passage singularly changes and forms a person for the rest of their lives. It creates memories, initiates and carries out change, and brings people together in a sense of community. A necessity for living a life that is every changing.