What is a Rite of Passage?

This is a central question that partners in Youth Passageway seek to explore.

Over the course of human history ritual forms have emerged that coincide with significant transitions throughout our lives: birth, coming of age, marriage and death are marked and managed through life-cycle rituals. These ritual events not only assist and support an individual’s transition to a new stage, but attend to their relationship to and the needs of their family, community, culture, ancestors, spirit, and nature.

And, the story of rites of passage occurs within the more magnificent story of the Universe.

What’s the Story?

Rites of passage were not waiting for someone to come along and name them. They have been around for an estimated forty thousand years, and are intricately connected to a culture’s cosmology, values, and basic notion of what it means to be a human being. Humans are story-making creatures in ways that help them to understand and obtain meaning from life.

Arnold van Gennep first used the term “rites of passage” in the early 1900’s, which he coined in his book Les Rites de Passage, first published in 1909 and translated for a wider audience in 1960. It was highly influential in the structuring of Joseph Campbell’s 1949 classic The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Over the last hundred years, many others have drawn on Van Gennep’s work.  In fact, many rite of passage offerings today are explicitly grounded in his three-stage model.

Today, the term rites of passage is overused to note everything from a first kiss, to drug and alcohol use, which has caused confusion and misunderstanding.

Rites of passage offer a process that is about individual personal development and socialization (discovering and nurturing one’s gifts and taking on deeper responsibilities within their culture and community) and about reconnecting with a sacred Earth in ways that can nurture life (becoming an engaged and active participant in one’s community, deeply connected to nature, culture and all one’s relations). Rites of passage serve many functions, both for an individual and for his or her community.  Some of these functions include:

  • marking a person’s change of role or status within the community
  • helping the individual and the community form a new identity relative to that change;
  • creating cultural continuity through the passing down of traditions.
  • strengthening a sense of community between people living together that contributes to their well-being and survival.

Youth Passageways is focused on rites of passage that occur during the transition from childhood to adulthood, a key transition point during the human life span.

Would you like to know more? Read on to find out why ROP matters…