Initiation ritual of boys in Malawi. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.
In modern day America, formalized traditional rites of passage for men have, for the most part, ceased to exist. Sure we have some vague, loose equivalent milestones such as learning to drive, engaging in sexual contact for the first time, or being hazed by a fraternity. However, none of these events carry with them the kind of decorous gravity that many boys undergoing rites of passage from other cultures have endured. Our rights of passage are not watched with anticipation by the community and do not hold the weight of antiquity. Let us take a look at a few of the more bizarre and painful acts of backbone display enacted by boys “becoming” men.
Members of the South Pacific Vanuatu tribe are sent to test their masculinity around the age of eight. In order to prove this they must fling themselves off a rickety 100-foot wooden platform using only vines as an attachment. The process is similar in theory to bungee jumping except vines supply absolutely no give, and craziest of all, the boy’s head must touch the ground- thus no room at all is left for error here.
Deep in the heart of the Brazilian Amazon lives the Satere-Mawe tribe. In this native culture boys must place their hands into gloves that have bullet ants interwoven into the fabric. Participants must remain silent, enduring the pain of the ant bites for at least 10 minutes. It should be noted here that bullet ants have the most painful sting in the ant world and a single bite can produce intense pain that lasts for over 24 hours. The bullet ant’s sting has been described by the Schmidt Sting Index as follows, “Pure, intense, brilliant pain. Like fire-walking over flaming charcoal with a 3-inch rusty nail in your heel.” The intensity of this experience multiplied can only be imagined. The ant mitten test is considered one of manly endurance and stoicism that’s necessary to be effective warriors for the tribe.
The Native American Mandan tribe used ritual suspension to signify the male rite of passage into adulthood. What was known as the Okipa ceremony began with the young man not eating, drinking, or sleeping for four days- in hope of being visited by a spirit messenger. They were then led to a hut, where they had to sit with smiling faces while the skin of their chest and shoulders was slit and wooden skewers were thrust behind the muscles. Using the skewers to support the weight of their bodies, the warriors would be suspended from the roof of the lodge and would hang there until they fainted. To add agony, heavy weights were added to the initiate’s legs. After fainting, the warrior would be pulled down and the men would watch the warrior until he awoke, proof the spirits’ approval. Upon awakening, the warrior would offer his left pinkie finger to the Great Spirit, whereupon a masked tribesman would sever it with a hatchet blow. Finally, participants would endure a grueling race around the village called “the last race” with weights and skewers still in place, to determine who among them was the strongest. Those finishing the ceremony were seen as being honored by the spirits; those completing the ceremony twice would gain everlasting fame among the tribe.
The last Okipa ceremony was performed in 1889, but the ceremony was resurrected in a somewhat different (and presumably less harsh) form in 1983. The Mandans were the first people to suspend humans by their skin and are responsible for many of the suspension methods people presently use. Today, suspension has begun to spread into other groups and subcultures all around the world.
On a less harsh note we have the rite of passage practiced by the Amish of North America. The Amish are a community of sub-sect Christians who are known for their simple modes of living that shun modern culture and technology. In this body politic, teenagers (particularly boys) are given a temporary “free pass” to participate in the activities of modern living around the age of 16. During this time, called Rumspringa (Dutch for “running around”), teenagers are permitted to drink alcohol, use modern technology, and even cohort with the “English” (non-Amish) in bars and clubs. It is believed that by participating in this act of freedom the youths will be able to “find themselves.” It is thought that only with such self-knowledge can one make a fully informed choice to accept the lifelong rules of the Amish church.
On the other side of the world in the Australian outback, Aborigines have instituted a different type of milestone for the young men of their community. Here adolescent boys are sent out into the wild to see if they can survive in the unforgiving Australian Outback, unassisted for six months. During this time they are forced to survive on their own, and spend a great deal of time pondering life’s mysteries. It is through this journey that the young male would trace the paths or “songlines” of their ancestors, imitate them and cherish their ancestral heroic deeds.
Though wide in variation, all of these rites of passage symbolize a recognition of sexual maturity and a status of change from childhood to adulthood. Such rites mark the person’s incorporation into the larger society and the change from a learner to a teacher of cultural norms and values. Some sociologists feel that the loss of formal rites of passage, which we lack in modern day America, leaves individuals with a sense of not having a fixed place in their society. Today, adolescents in the U.S. still undergo periods of life-changing transition, but are not offered the ritualistic and thus significance imbuing aspect of these changes.