Rites of Passage

by Evlampia Tsireli
(english translation by Athanasios Koutoupas)
Every transition in our life from one state to another is a rite of passage (or separation). From the ancient rituals of initiation, to the most common events of our era, such as military service or marriage, rites of passage characterize every stage in our lives and more often we participate in them unconsciously.
Rites of passage (the French ethnographer and folklorist Arnold van Gennep used for the first time this term in his book “Les Rites de Passage” at 1909) are rituals that help to the transaction of a person from one condition to another. Such rituals mark, for example, the transition from the childhood to the teenage years and then to manhood or femininity, from being alone to marriage and family, and even the transition from life to death.
The first rite of passage in which we participate is our birth. The embryo leaves the familiar environment of the womb and passes to the next stage, which is the foreign and hostile environment outside the womb. The same is happening also with death; if we accept that there is life after death. The dead leaves the present life and passes to the unknown other world, where according to the beliefs and the various theories about it, tries to adapt himself, he re-examines the mistakes of his life and tries to earn a place to Paradise. Among the second stage and the intermediate stage of his transition or his initiation, the person, having two personalities, two lives, two realities, usually does not has an identity and undergoing a waiting period for his new life. During this stage, for example the infant learns to eat, to speak, to walk and to interact with the environment, thereby gradually can join the "society" of people.

Rites of passage usually have three stages: a) the separation, b) the transition or the stage of the initiation and c) the reintegration into society as a new with a new role. In the first stage, people are usually removed from the community and isolated (if not somewhere far away, then in the home) and follow some "rituals of separation”, like the cutting of the hair, some stress tests in pain for the boys, tattooing throughout the body and generally acts that cleave the person from the customs of the "previous" self. These practices are usually aim to initiate and educate.
When joining the new reality the person is admitted with celebrations and honor having followed the customs and won the role it deserves. We find such examples in tribes in Africa, where young teens, girls and boys, sometimes pass terrible and painful procedures to join the adult society and create their own family.
Rites of passage took place throughout antiquity, almost from the beginning of mankind. Transitions and changes in life has always been something very important. Some examples are the circumcision done in the small Jewish children, the Bar / Bat Mitzvah when Jewish children are 13-14 years old, the funeral of the Jews, the Genpuku, adulthood ritual of the Samurai, the 16 Samskaras of Hinduism, the vision quest of the Indians of America and many other rituals around the world.
In tribal societies, what is a man or a woman is not determined from birth, but from the various rituals such as fertility rites for girls or tattoos for boys during adulthood.

Two ancient Jewish Ritual Transition committed until today.

Circumcision: The rite of passage of the male child to the condition of circumcision is called by the Jews berit milah. The circumcision includes the removal of the foreskin of the male genital organ by surgery and the reciting of prayers to welcome the infant to the Jewish society through the initiation into the covenant of Abraham.
It takes place on the eighth day of an infant's life, counting as first the day of his birth.

Ritual: The spiritual mother delivers the child to his spiritual father and he in turn to the mohel. The infant welcomed by the attendees with a prayer in Hebrew: "Blessed is he who comes." The father then declares publicly and officially his will about the circumcision of his son according to the divine commandments. The mohel akes the child and places it in the lap of the sandaq. The surgical procedure involves three steps: 1) the milah, the foreskin removal, 2) the peri'ah, delimitation and folding of the mucosa to expose the glans, 3) the metsitsah, cleaning of the wound by the blood (orally in the past and with a suction pump today). Throughout this process, the sandaq keeps the infant's legs stable. Then the father of the child attributes honors ​​and wishes and then the wine is blessed. A little bit of wine is given to the baby and is named typical. The wine is then given to the parents so the ceremony is completed, followed by a great feast.

Funeral: In Judaism, the role of grieving and mourning rituals is clearly defined. The mourners are those who have the obligation to maintain the ritual of mourning and consist of the closest relatives of the deceased’s environment, i.e. father, mother, sister, brother, daughter, son and the partners of them. Grief itself is defined in three phases: 1) the aninut, from death to burial, 2) the shiv'ah, the seven days after the burial, and 3) the sheloshim, the end of the seven days until the 13th day after the burial. Each one of these phases has its own practices and restrictions. From death to burial, the mourners abstain from any religious enjoyable event, such as the Morning Prayer service. It is also forbidden to eat meat, drink wine, and have fun or to have sex.

Ritual: The body of the deceased is prepared for burial through a washing process (tahorah, purification). After the cleaning, the deceased is dressed with a linen shroud, which is known as bag (takhrikhim). This practice aims to the equality between rich and poor, in order not to offend the poor or their relatives. Then the body is placed in a wooden coffin. Part of the ritual of the mourning is the distribution of the clothes of the dead (qeriy'ah) to friends and relatives. In some cases when the clothes are not distributed, special black strips are distributed and placed over the clothes of the mourners.
Everyone in turn wear this strip, while the rest reciting to each of them the blessing: "Blessed are you, O Lord and our God, the Governor of the Universe, Judge of Truth." Then, the dead carried to the cemetery. The coffin is driven to the grave (keber) by the bearers, who make seven stops along the way, singing Psalm 91. They place on the ground the coffin and cover it with soil. After the burial (keburah), the attendees form two rows, between which pass the bereaved. As they pass, the rest wish them: "May God comfort you together with all the other mourners of Zion and Jerusalem." The end of the burial marks the end of the first phase of the mourning period (aninut) and the beginning of the second (shiv'ah). Upon returning home (usually in the home of the deceased), mourners light a candle, which continues to burn all the seven days after the burial.

The flame symbolizes the human soul. Then the mourners serve the meal of consolation (se'udat havra'ah), which is prepared by friends and relatives. Usually includes round foods, such as eggs, symbol of life and hope. During shiv 'ah mourners remain at home and they do not deal with any kind of work or other activities. Traditionally, they sit on special low seats; they do not shaved, they do not shorn, they do not bathe and they do not deal with any pleasant procedure for themselves (unless there are health reasons). They do not wear leather shoes and they don’t have sexual contact. When the shiv'ah ends and during the third phase of mourning, the sheloshim, the mourners return to their jobs, but they continue to avoid social gatherings until the 13th day after the burial. We see that there are many differences with our own burial ceremonies. The rituals spread from people to people and they have so much power that they have been left almost unchanged over the centuries.

Of course rites of passage do not stop here. They are committed by any man on earth, whether we he realizes it or not. Rites of passage are a way to remind to every human being, whatever race or society belongs to, that needs to belong somewhere. In fact rituals are an expression of sociability. But it is also an expression of religiosity. An expression of proof of what someone can do for his faith. And as many things as someone is willing to do, the higher he rises to the hierarchy of believers. He receives the respect and the admiration of the uninitiated, and the acceptance of the initiated. Some everyday examples of transition is the baptism, the betrothal, the marriage, death and funeral, the military service, the prison, the divorce, graduation from school and attendance at university, the stage of recovery from any kind of substance that we can draw from our lives, the moment we fall asleep, the moment that we wake up and a new day starts, the cessation of work during the summer vacation, Christmas and Easter, the preparations for a night out, the time of a pray and many other examples show that we perform daily rituals of transition and even tripartite, faithfully following three stages, completely mechanically without perceiving the celebration of the ritual.

Rites of passage feed the soul of the man. They help him to move on with his life and to leave behind the past. Psychologists and psychiatrists have essentially filled by people seeking help to move on, to migrate from an old predicament in a new that will offer them a new page in their life, to deal with the death of a relative, or a childhood trauma that does not let them keep calm their lives, to wean from drugs or alcohol and to overcome a breakup or a phobia that haunt them. All these need some processes of separation, initiation / transition and reintegration and the psychologist is essentially functions as a modern educated emcee, a shaman, a spiritual guide.


-Armstrong, A. Terry- Busby, L. Douglas-Carr, F. Cyril, A Reader’s Hebrew.

-English Lexicon of the Old Testament, Zondervan Hebrew Reference Series, Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1989.

-Βέλλα, Μ., Βασιλείου, Εβραϊκή Αρχαιολογία, Εκδόσεις Αποστολικής Διακονίας της Εκκλησίας της Ελλάδος, β’ έκδοση, Αθήνα, 1984.

-Braun, Willy-McCutcheon, Russel, Εγχειρίδιο Θρησκειολογίας, Θεσσαλονίκη,2003, χρησιμοποιήθηκε το άρθρο: Grimes, L., Ronald, "Τελετουργία".

-Eliade, Mircea, Encyclopedia of Religion vol.12. 

-Rites of Passage from Biblical to ModernTimes, Eκδόσεις University of Washington Press.

-Οι Θρησκείες του Κόσμου (συλλογικό), εκδόσεις Ουρανός, 2006,χρησιμοποιήθηκε το άρθρο: Bowie, Fiona, "Τελετουργία και Επιτέλεση".

Επιτρέπεται η ηλεκτρονική αναδημοσίευση μόνο εφόσον αναδημοσιευτεί το πλήρες κείμενο, με ξεκάθαρη απόδοση στη συγγραφέα Ευλαμπία Τσιρέλη,  μαζί με σύνδεσμο στην παρούσα σελίδα. Απαγορεύεται κάθε είδους έντυπη αναδημοσίευση.


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