Rites of Passage in Adolescence

By Delaney, Cassandra Halleh | Adolescence, Winter 1995 | Go to article overview

Rites of Passage in Adolescence


Delaney, Cassandra Halleh, Adolescence


Rites of passage in adolescence are a cross-cultural phenomenon. They have existed throughout human history and may be a significant factor in the development of a stable adult personality. Broken down into its most basic elements, a rite of passage involves (1) a separation from society, (2) preparation or instruction from an elder, (3) a transition (in the case of adolescence, from child to adult), and (4) a welcoming back into society with acknowledgement of the adolescent's changed status. The transition itself most often takes place within the format of some ceremony, many aspects of which are common to widely diverse cultures. They generally include (1) literal and spiritual cleansing, (2) physical transformation, (3) offerings, prayers, and blessings, (4) traditional food and dress, and (5) traditional musical instruments and songs. The following is a brief examination of five specific rites of passage as they are performed, noting concrete manifestations of the principals outlined above.

Initiation among the Okiek

The Okiek are a tribal people of Kenya. Their rite of passage ceremony is similar for girls and for boys, ages 14 to 16, though the genders are initiated separately. The initiates are first ceremonially circumsized or excised. After this, they live in seclusion from adults of the opposite sex for four to 24 weeks. They paint themselves with white clay and charcoal in order to appear as wild creatures (cemaasiisyek). Certain secret knowledge is imparted by same-sex elders. The most important knowledge concerns the cemaasiit - a mythical beast that haunts the initiates during their time in seclusion. At night its roar can be heard, and the initiation is complete when each youth has seen and held the instrument used for producing the roar and then produced the roar themselves (Kratz, 1990).

The Iria

The Iria is a rite performed by the females of the African Okrika tribe. Girls from the ages of fourteen to sixteen enter into "fatting rooms" where they are fed rich local foods to make the body "come out." They are taught by the elderly women of the egbelereme society to sing the traditional Iria songs. It is believed among these people that young girls form romantic attachments to water spirits. Before they are considered marriageable and allowed to receive mortal suitors, they must first free themselves from these attachments. This is accomplished by the coming together of the girls at the river on successive dawns to sing the songs they have learned. On the final day, the initiates return to the riverbank and the water spirits are expected to attempt to seize the girls by force. This can be prevented by the Osokolo, a member of owuper society (the male counterpart of the egbelereme). He strikes the girls with sticks, driving them back to the village, ensuring both their safety and future fertility (Gleason & Ibubuya, 1991).

Festa das Mocas Novas

Festa das Mocas Novas is an initiation into womanhood traditionally performed by the Tukuna people of the Northwest Amazon. It begins with the onset of menstruation, and over the next four to twelve weeks, the initiate remains in seclusion in a small chamber constructed within the dwelling of the family for this purpose. During this period, the initiate is thought to be in the underworld and in ever-increasing danger from the Noo, which are demons. For the climax of the rite, guests arrive and some don masks, allowing them to become incarnations of the Noo. For two more days the initate remains in the seclusion chamber, her body painted with black genipa dye as protection from the Noo. On the morning of the third day, she emerges from the chamber. Surrounded and protected by relatives, she is led out into the festivities. The family dances with her until dawn, at which time the dancing stops. The initiate is then given a fire brand by a shaman and instructed to throw it at the Noo. This done, the power of the Noo is broken, and the Tukuna female is safely entered into womanhood (Lincoln, 1981). …

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