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The Rites of Passage


Every culture has rites of passage.  In The Rites of Passage, Arnold van Gannep seeks to explain the commonalities and differences between the rites of passage in cultures across the planet.  I was first introduced to the work while reading William Bridges’ Managing Transitions.  It’s appropriate, because Bridges uses the same model for change and transition that he saw in rites of passage.

Some, like Robert Lewis in Raising a Modern-Day Knight, have attempted to keep these rites and rituals alive in today’s world, because they believe that these rites are important to our development.  Van Gannep points out that there’s no research to indicate there’s any less need for rites today than in previous times – though his words were written in 1908.

The Core Types

Van Gannep defines three key kinds of rites:

  • Preliminal/Separation – These are about embarking on the journey of transition.
  • Liminal/Transition – These represent the time during transition or change.
  • Postliminal/Incorporation – Reintegration into the group. The completion of the separation or transition.

These are the phases of Bridges’ change model – with different labels.  They represent the highest order of archetypes for the rites.

The Characteristics of Rites

The more specific list of characteristics of rites, as van Gannep perceives them, are:

  • Animistic – Related to the spirits/essences of a person.
  • Dynamistic – Based on the concept of transferring or conferring power.
  • Contagious – Based on the idea that characteristics can be transferred.
  • Sympathetic – Based in reciprocal action, including like-on-like, opposite-on-opposite, etc.
  • Positive – Designed to produce a positive impact for the person or people performing the rite.
  • Negative – Curses and prohibitions.
  • Direct – Intended to confer the benefits (or consequences) immediately.
  • Indirect – Intended to influence over time.

It’s important to note that these are not mutually exclusive.  Each rite can – and probably does – have multiple of these characteristics.

Life Periods

Although van Gannep acknowledges that great attention has been paid to the rites associated with puberty, he proposes that rites occur with the passage between stages of life.  While each culture defines the transitions differently, they typically have rites to separate one from another.  Perhaps one of the most common contemporary set of stages for development is Erikson’s stages as he lays out in Childhood and Society.

One of the challenges with other views of these developmental stages is the failure to distinguish between the physical and social transitions.  In most cases, van Gannep explains that the rites are about the social transitions and are often decoupled from the physiological changes that occur – like puberty.

Importance of Changes

Even the change of seasons wouldn’t be marked except that it has economic impact on the society.  Agrarian societies have festivals and events that would mark the transitions of the seasons, but largely because they signaled an economic change for the society.  Spring as a period of investment.  Summer as a period of tending.  Autumn as a period of reaping.  Winter as a period of dormancy, rejuvenation, and waiting.

If we accept this premise, then we expect that rites of passage are about the change in economic status of the individual members of the society.  Often, the rites are built around a degree of independence or interdependence.  It’s this changing relationship with the society that the rite signifies.


One of the most common rites across culture is “breaking bread.”  That is, the process of sharing a meal with someone is a way to incorporate them.  This process is affirmed as an incorporation rite in van Gannep’s work.  However, he also identifies many cultures where the incorporation of strangers includes sexual intercourse between the male visitors and the females of the group.  This often included the wives, sisters, or daughters of the host.  While polygamy is generally shunned in contemporary culture, it was and still is common in many societies.  (See Anatomy of Love for more.)  Van Gannep makes the point that this “loan” is often the equivalent of a shared meal.


Van Gannep cites several places and ways that homosexuality was incorporated into society and into rites of passage.  As I mentioned in my review of After the Ball, the admonishment of Sodom was likely as much about the failure to respect the wishes of the host as it was the homosexual contact that the Biblical story implies.  Put into the broader cultural context, it makes sense that the refusal of the host’s daughters is a very important slight.

Betrothal, Marriage, and Divorce

It’s clear that bearing young was important among tribes – even those that practiced polygamy.  In some cases, husbands were provided rituals to ensure the first born was theirs.  In other cases, a woman couldn’t be married until she had given birth to at least one child.  Sometimes, a child born from sexual activity during the betrothal but pre-marital phase was shunned – in other cases, no negative connotation was attached.

In short, the ideas varied.  However, the keys seem to be that sex post-betrothal was relatively common.  Marriage was a public, social custom, and it was the betrothal that led to physical union.  As was discussed in Anatomy of Love, marriage is a way of binding the father to the commitment to raising a child.  Divorce was a way to dissolve that binding – sometimes less easily than others.

Cycles of Repetition

One of the most revealing things about rites of passage is that they replicate.  They’re largely similar across cultures.  They occur from generation to generation.  Rites of incorporation are similar between marriage and adoption.  There are the archetypes like Joseph Campbell found in his analysis of myths.  (See The Power of Myth.)  Some rites even tie to others, with the participants regaining the same marking and mutilations that they had during the previous rite (if they weren’t permanent).

Just like seasons, there’s a cycle to life.  As we navigate, it’s good to know The Rites of Passage.