The Social Importance of Rites of Passage and Initiations


A ritual is a traditional and ordered sequence of collective actions in which participants achieve a sacred purpose through an interplay between the sacred and the mundane world.2 Moore and Habel define seven types of ritual, stretching over all aspects of life. In this brief study, I will focus on initiation rituals and rites of passage.

Initiation Rituals

A rite of passage is according to Moore and Habel a Ritual action through which the initiate is ‘separated ́ from one ‘world’ and taken into another.3 Rites of passage are performed on special occasions and mainly deal with entering a new stage of life. Many cultures perform birth rituals, puberty rituals, marriage rituals and death rituals; In the Catholic Church, for example, these turning points in life are celebrated with Baptism, Confirmation, Matrimony and the Extreme Unction.

Besides initiation rituals to demarcate stages of life, there are also initiation rituals for special occasions, such as a coronation, ordination of a priest, academic graduations, membership to a (secret) society or the initiation of the shaman.

Rites of Passage

Arnold van Gennep (1873–1957), a French anthropologist, born in Germany to a Dutch father, is famous for his study of rites of passage. In his book Les Rites de Passage (1909). Van Gennep argues in this book that rites of passage comprise of three ritual stages; the so-called tripartite structure: séparation, marge, and agrégation (separation, transition, and reincorporation), or pre-liminal, liminal, and post-liminal stages (before, at, and past the threshold).


In these rites, the initiate will be symbolically—and in many cultures physically—removed from the world to which they have belonged. Separation rites often involve symbolic actions as removing clothing or removing parts of the body.4 After the rite of separation, the initiate is in what van Gennep calls the liminal world, a social and religious nowhere land. The word liminal is derived from the Latin limin (threshold).


During the performance of these rites, the person is in the liminal world, between old and new states. During this stage, the initiate gets instructed in the responsibilities of the new role. Transition rituals express the liminal condition of the candidates.

In this condition, they are often considered to be in danger themselves, or to others. To mitigate this negative influence, they are provided with a sponsor whose role it is to protect the candidates.5


In the final step of the tripartite, the initiate is confirmed in his or her new status; the initiate crossed the threshold so to speak. These rites may include spitting on the new member, or investing the candidate with new clothes, rings, tattoos etcetera.6 These marks of identity publicly announce that the individual belongs to the new group or status.

Religious Meaning of Initiation

Rites of passage have multi-layered meanings. The purpose and intent of the ritual can be social or psychological as well as spiritual or religious. Certain rites of passage represent first and foremost transformations in the religious status or circumstances of the initiated. The earlier mentioned Catholic initiation rituals primarily have a spiritual meaning. The Catholic Encyclopaedia describes the spiritual significance of these rituals or sacraments as follows:7

“By Baptism we are born again, Confirmation makes us strong, perfect Christians and soldiers [. . . ] Matrimony, primarily affects man as a social being, and sanctifies him in the fulfilment of his duties towards the Church and society. Extreme Unction removes the last remnant of human frailty, and prepares the soul for eternal life”.

For the Catholic, these rituals are an inseparable part of religious life; one can not be a Catholic if these rituals are not performed.

Eliade argues that the meaning of initiation is always religious because a religious experience produces the change of existential status in the novice.8 The ceremonies were in primal cultures founded by the divine beings or mythical ancestors. The Council of Trent defined that Christ instituted the above mentioned Catholic sacraments.


Some scholars, like Robert Brain, stress the psychological importance of rites of passage. According to the psychological approach, all people have a psychological need to have the support of ritual at transitions in their lives. Brain asserts that Western societies do not have initiation at puberty, instead of ritual, we have disturbed teenagers and infantile adults. At the age of eighteen teenagers are magically converted into adults.9 The brain is, however, wrong in assuming that Western culture does not have any rites of passage. Besides the religious rites of passage—such as practised in the Catholic Church—there are numerous examples rites of passage in Western secular culture. The rituals may be less ceremonial and without the intent of actually being an initiation, but the psychological drive is still apparent. Examples of secular rites of passage are birthdays—especially the 21st—marriages and also funerals. The most noticeable difference between the secular rituals and examples from other cultures is the intent of the activity.

Academia has many rites of passage.
Masters degree graduation ritual.

Secular initiations are not formalised, and participation is voluntary. In postmodern western society, one can choose to marry or decide to be buried formally. In many other societies, your are not wholly or properly a human being until he has undergone the rites of passage appropriate for his age and sex. For these people, there is no choice to participate in the ritual or not. Studying at a university is in a certain way a three or four-year initiation to eventually become a member of the academic community. Universities conduct Rites of Separation at the opening of the academic year. Some schools perform very traditional and formal ceremonies for this purpose. The candidates are placed in a liminal state; they are not yet part of the academic community, they are students. The actual studying can be referred to as the Rite of Transition. It is during this stage that the student consumes the knowledge presented by the ‘elders’. The final graduation ceremony is the Rite of Incorporation. The student is through this ritual accepted as a member of the academic community.


  1. Written for the Open Learning Australia course Myth, Ritual & the Sacred

  2. Moore and N. Habel, On religion related to education, (Adelaide: SACAE, 1982), p. 204. 

  3. Ibid. 

  4. Normal Habel, Michael O’Donoghue, and Marion Maddox, Myth, ritual and the sacred. Introducing the phenomena of religion, (Underdale: University of South Australia, 1993). 

  5. Ibid. 

  6. Ibid. 

  7. D.J. Kennedy, ‘The Sacraments’, in Catholic Encyclopaedia, (New Advent, 2001). 

  8. Mircea Eliade, Rites and symbols of initiation: the mysteries of birth and rebirth, (New York: Harper & Row, 1975). 

  9. Robert Brain, ‘Passage to adulthood’, in Rites black and white, (Penguin, 1979). 

10 thoughts on “The Social Importance of Rites of Passage and Initiations”

  1. I understand that western culture has those kind if similar rituals for rite of passage, but I still agree with Brain that we produce infantile adults. The danger part and the proof of great courage is an important element if you consider not the responsibility to live in “our society adult world”, but to live as a responsible human living on planet earth. I see that under the perspective of nature, this ‘adults’ are exploiting the environment in an infantile extractive way. This kind of ‘adult’ didn’t receive the knowledge of becoming a provider of their own survival and resourses as a grown up responsible.

  2. Hi Daniela,

    I agree with you. In this article, I aim to say that rituals have not disappeared in our society as some people think. Rituals also exist in secularised society. The fact that there is no clear point when a teenager becomes an adult could be the cause of many issues in our society. Becoming a responsible adult is being postponed as long as possible.

  3. I find that as. Parent of a teenager in this society that I am forced to go against the grain. There is a pressure to go along with the notion of kids being kids. There is a real lack in expectation of teenagers to become very responsible for their own actions and responsible for themselves. I find that I need to have clear expectations as well as clear consequences in our relationship. Quite a few parents around me would encourage to let certain irresponsable behaviors go because that’s just what they do. So I’m really grateful for the article because its an affirmation to my values as a human.

    1. Hi Ty,

      Thanks for the kind words. There is something to be said for a ritual that provides teenagers with a clear departure from their childhood years. Such a ritual could help set expectations for their behaviour.

  4. It’s actually a cool and helpful piece of info. I
    am glad that you simply shared this helpful information with us.
    Please keep us informed like this. Thanks for sharing.

  5. This is such an interesting topic to me. I wonder when rites of passage, as they existed throughout hundreds of thousands of years of human evolution, and still in exist in some modern indigenous cultures, began to fade out and why?

    Now the focus is on how much an individual will sell his/her time for, a focus on mimicking those with the highest socioeconomic outcome. In this race it seems so much depth is lost, so authentic adulthood is being replaced by perpetual adolescence.

    How to bring meaningful rites of passage back into Western societies? I think this is a very important question.

    1. Hi Tiffany,

      Thanks for your thoughtful comments.

      Your comment about perpetual adolescence is driven by marketing and politics. Both commercial and political forces have no interest in having people think for themselves. This is not a new development. Ancient Roman poet Juvenal had it right when he said that all people are interested in our bread and games.

      Most rites in the traditional sense have meaning because they are linked to a transcendental idea, such as religion. Our world is a secularised world has no such foundations to build a ritual on. I am not advocating that we should become or remain religious to find meaning.

      Having said this, there are many rituals in our modern society that go beyond practicality. Why do we have graduation ceremonies whereas just mailing a degree to somebody would be enough?

      The one thing missing is a ritual that defines an adolescent as an adult, a threshold young people have to pass after which they are legally and psychologically adult. A 21st birthday party is perhaps a weak version of such a ritual. The marketing and political forces mentioned earlier are possibly holding people back from making the transition to adulthood.


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