Passage Into Manhood

A modern ritual for young men

One of the articles in Gender (IC#16)
Originally published in Spring 1987 on page 50
Copyright (c)1987, 1997 by Context Institute

As I lived out my own passage I found lots of folk around me wanting to do the same. It was like the world was hungry for this kind of deep, and contagious, experience. So it is refreshing to find Foster’s article spinning out new possibilities for boys (and men) that could be used in many contexts , from a Boy Scout troop or a YMCA camp to more informal settings.

Steven Foster, with Meredith Little, co-founded and co-directed Rites of Passage, Inc. for ten years in Marin County, California. They now direct The School of Lost Borders (Big Pine, CA), a training facility in vision quest methods and traditions. They have accompanied more than 1000 young people and adults through various vision quest ceremonies.

A companion piece to this is "The Vision Quest: Passing form Childhood to Adulthood" in Betwixt and Between: Initiations Ancient and Modern (New York: Open Court, 1987, ed. Louise Mandi).

- Rick Gossett

MODERN AMERICAN MALES possess few meaningful, ceremonial means of formally marking their passage from boyhood to manhood. What our culture does provide (high school "commencement," diver’s license, the armed services, higher education, voting rights, drinking rights, employment, the age of 21, possible marriage and fatherhood) can hardly be said to comprise a coherent rite of passage. Now that nearly 50% of American marriages end in divorce, the father and mother must prepare their manchild for adulthood separately, in different homes, often with contradictory values. Sometimes the influence of the father in the upbringing of his son is negligible or nil. Sometimes the sexual passage, perhaps the single most important adult initiation, is ignored, avoided, or distorted by the parents. The young man is left to piece together the meaning of his sexuality with his peers and such cultural "aids" as the mass media.

In attempting to remedy this by designing a meaningful rite of passage into manhood, we must be aware that a modern passage rite does not contain the full social force of a traditional one. At the present time, our culture does not validate or focus on such rites. For a modern passage ceremony to gain the full power of an ancient one, the very drift of our culture toward secular materialism would have to be diverted. The young would have to grow up knowing, even as little tads, that they were getting ready for their rite of passage into manhood. But given the reality of our culture, we can only start with what we have and work to create the best model possible under the circumstances.

THE COMPONENTS OF AN ADEQUATE MODEL

Before describing a model rite in detail, I will mention a few key elements whose importance must be understood. The basic dynamic of a rite of passage is described by an anthropological formula that underlies all passage ceremonies. First depicted by Arnold van Gennep, this formula divides such rites into three phases: an end (severance from childhood), a middle (threshold) and a beginning (incorporation into manhood). In other words, a rite of passage begins with an ending and ends with a beginning.

The Heart Of The Experience. The liminal (or threshold) phase, the central experience of the rite, is always performed in a secluded, wild zone, away from the encroachments of other humans. Within the sacred threshold enclosure, the boy becomes acquainted with his real Mother, symbolized by that part of himself known as the goddess. Through her, he senses his true place on earth and his true place in his body. She will show him the image of his own fear of death reflected in the natural world around him. The candidate’s power place on Mother Earth will serve as both a womb and a tomb, a place of birth for the man and a place of death for the boy, in the mystery of the natural world. There he will learn the challenge of being a man, a son of the Mother, and a brother to all the things on the earth. He will emerge from the split husk of his childhood with the goddess at his right shoulder. The ritual birth of a man must take place here, in the wilderworld of his true home. It has always been so, and will always be. The boy must learn that his Mother cares for and rewards those who care for and respect her. He cannot learn this sitting in an enclosed room. He must leave the comfortable placenta of boyhood and enter the all-powerful world of the goddess. She visits with him in the winds; she shakes him in her fist of thunder. She blinds him with her lightning eyes. But mostly she blesses him with the birth of herself within him as his own eternal, internal guide.

Taboo And Trial. A rite of passage always includes one or more ordeals or trials. The boy’s experience of the trial is the formal confirmation of his readiness to take on the role of manhood. Though threshold trial models are many and diverse, certain taboos or means of being tried are common to most. One is the trial of aloneness or solitude. The boy is denied the support and comfort of others and is left alone in a wild place for extended periods of time. With no one to go to, he is forced to deal with outward circumstances by discovering inner resources of strength and resolve. Without other human eyes to judge him, the candidate watches himself "be." Apart from the accoutrements of his boyhood life, he learns what is essential to him – and what is not. The closed door of his heart opens to the beauty and mystery of the natural world around him. He becomes aware of and communicates with his natural relations, the other creature children of his Mother. Another restriction almost universally practiced is the prohibition of food. Among ceremonial tools, fasting is one of the oldest and finest. The candidate’s psyche is opened to orchestration by the elements and rhythms of the natural world. Sunrise is his meat and noon is his wine. Although his physical strength wanes, another kind of strength gathers within him: the silent, immovable strength of the great mountains. Without ballast in his belly, he orients himself to the harmony and proportion of his Mother, compensating for loss of strength by applying the muscle of spirit. The goddess rushes into the breach and teaches him about surrender. A man who does not know the power of surrender does not possess true power.

Male Midwives. One of the most important components in any model of an adequate rite of male passage is the presence of older men, or elders, who supervise and enrich the progress of the young men through the ceremonial birth canal. The older men help the younger men to bring themselves forth. They are not there to answer questions, but to ask them. They work to enable their charges to give birth to answers of their own, to know themselves. The midwives are exclusively male, because the time has come for the boys to become men, to live in, to respect, and to accept the men’s world. A father must not be the principal midwife to his son, as the past often shadows them with too many habits for the father to be an effective teacher or the son an attentive learner.

Discipline And Work. The classic archetypal male is unaccustomed to self-indulgence. He has learned to accept hardship as his lot. He does not brag of his harsh life nor does he secretly hope his woman will pity him. This is the man’s way. Any passage rite for men must include components of hard work and self- discipline. The candidates must be expected to be part of the group, to pull their own weight. Hence, the young men facing adulthood must be gathered together within a communal order where each has his work and does it, as part of the preparation for the passage. They must be expected to accept the discipline that communal living brings and to seek the joy that comes with the exercising of self-control and the intimate knowledge of the meaning of work.

Sexual Instruction. Sexual instruction and advice on marriage is traditionally a part of ceremonies of passage into manhood. The importance of a young man coming to understand and accept the power of his own sexuality cannot be underestimated. Any ceremony of passage into adulthood must take into account the young man’s sexual growth and relationships with women (or men, if he is gay or bisexual). Open, honest, adult sexual education would seem necessary and appropriate. Supervised by wise, qualified male elders, such education might also include older women who can present the issue from the feminine point of view. Without the woman’s input, the candidate’s sexual education would only be half complete.

Giving Birth To The Goddess. All young men require an official introduction to the intuitive, psychic, and mysterious darkness of their inner beings. They need to learn how to surrender, how to listen closely to an inner voice, how to clarify their values, how to pray, how to seek vision, and how to prophesy. All young men must ask themselves such questions as: "To whom do I pray?" "Who are my sacred ancestors?" "What is my life story?" "Why was I born?" "Why will I die?" "Who are the true heroes and teachers of my life?" "What gifts have I been blessed with?" "Who are my people?" Above all, young men must confront and ponder the meaning of death. Time spent with death will make an inward space in them, and the goddess will be born and live within this death space. Her presence will enrich his appreciation of life and enable him to face the justice of his own death.

A MODEL FOR A MODERN RITE OF PASSAGE

Applying these elements and more, I have created a model for a modern male rite of passage. What follows is a somewhat detailed description of that model.

The boys who are candidates for passage into manhood formally begin the severance phase one week after their graduation from high school. They leave their childhood homes and families behind and assemble with older men, elders and midwives of the community, at a retreat in a secluded, natural place. There they remain for nearly one month, or one cycle of the moon, during which time they enact the rite of passage into manhood. During the month in which they are gathered together, the young men are not allowed to leave. The area is sealed off and consecrated for the purposes of the rite. No drugs, alcohol, or non-participants are allowed.

Severance: The End Of Boyhood. The severance phase lasts approximately 20 days. It ends when each initiate crosses the threshold and undertakes the ordeal of the second phase. During the time of preparation, the candidates and the older men live together in large tents or yurts in groups of 25 (20 candidates, 5 midwives). All work and cooking are shared on a communal basis among the men. Each group is led through a disciplined routine of daily activities and classes by the five elders appointed for that purpose.

Throughout the ceremony, from end to beginning, each midwife is responsible for the welfare of four candidates. His role is to facilitate their passage through the three phases of the ceremony, to personify the Mentor function to them, to aid them in giving birth to the goddess. He acts as surrogate uncle, teacher, counselor, wilderness guide, vocational guidance counselor, personal friend, or superior officer, according to what is needed at the moment. The curriculum for each group includes the following:

  • Activities related to the natural environment and self-orientation within it: solo or group medicine walks, night hikes, environmental awareness studies, "survival" activities, and individual seclusion in a natural place at least once a day.
  • Activities related to the use of the intuitive or "feeling" faculties: instruction in self-hypnosis, meditation, communication with other species, listening to the "inner voice," praying, and other "goddess" processes.
  • Physical education with emphasis on cooperation, leadership, self-discipline, and consensus democracy: ropes and obstacle courses, relay races, and other activities involving group problem-solving.
  • Sexual education, from the mechanics of "how to" and contraception to broader issues of relationship, including marriage and fatherhood: films, other audio- visual aids, and frank discussions of ethics and manners involving women elders as co-facilitators.
  • Spiritual education with emphasis on individual religious expression: personal values, ethics and morality, storytelling, myths, discussions regarding death, after-life, life destiny, and personal ancestry.
  • Preparation on an individual basis for incorporation as a man: the setting of goals and priorities, vocational counseling, clarification of personal ambitions regarding profession, and other concrete particulars involving life on the physical plane as a man.
  • Ceremonies of togetherness and preparation: saunas, sweatlodges, communal bathing, or other activities involving self-purification.
  • Activities relating to preparation for the threshold trial itself.

On the eve of the threshold trial, all the candidates and midwives assemble together, and a celebration of the end of boyhood is held. At that time, each candidate is given an opportunity to symbolically enact his severance from childhood. Then the individual groups of 20 reassemble with their midwives and embark on their several journeys to remote, secluded areas where the threshold trial will be enacted. The following morning, the trial begins.

Threshold: Passage Through The Goddess. Each candidate is removed from human contact. With just the barest essentials requisite to his survival, he lives alone in a wild, natural place for four days and nights. Though water will be provided during this time, he otherwise ingests neither food nor any other kind of sustenance, relying on the beneficence of Mother Earth to protect, nurture, and teach him. Depending on the advice of midwives, he may or may not undertake certain ceremonial activities during his time alone to heighten his receptivity to Nature, the goddess, and the spirits or deities he worships. But the basic elements of trial – aloneness, fasting, and exposure – must be preserved in as pure a state as possible.

The threshold trial must be designed with an eye to harmony and balance. The idea is not to make the candidate suffer unduly for the sake of a "vision." What really matters is whether or not each candidate stands ready, with a pure heart, to receive impressions from his experience. With the limitation of his fast and his environment, each candidate should feel free to express himself as he desires, to investigate the many dimensions of his being as reflected by the natural setting, He may spend his time walking, sitting, meditating, sleeping, dreaming, praying, crying for a vision, writing in a journal, talking with the stones or the wind. Regardless of what he does, he will learn to yield, to be patient, to watch himself, to look within, and to listen to the voice of the goddess.

The allegorical nature of the trial must be clear to each candidate. He is enacting a story with a mortal/immortal meaning whose main protagonist is both human and divine. The protagonist lives out the plot of the story in an environment having two levels of meaning. The goddess is both nature and his own anima. Fear is both a monster and an opportunity. A dream is both dream and divine visitation. Absence from the company of others is also presence with their spirits. Signs or messages appear in this natural/sacred world, carrying the same double meanings. An animal is both an animal and a spirit. A mountain is both a mountain and a god. A star is both a star and an angel. A mosquito is both a nuisance and a messenger. A sunrise is both a sunrise and a birth.

The midwives should employ effective means to insure the safety of their charges while they are alone. A system of daily checks called the "buddy system," whereby their safety is ascertained (without their solitude being intruded upon) can be effectively used. Provision must also be made for the early return of candidates to basecamp, should they become ill, suffer accident, or otherwise be unable to continue their lonely vigils. The early return of a candidate, for whatever reason, must not be accounted shameful or a failure. Rather, he should be encouraged to come to an understanding of why he returned and what he learned from such an action. He must then be given another opportunity the following year to confirm his readiness by completing the passage.

Incorporation: The Birth Of A Man. The incorporation of a boy into manhood is not without its difficulties. Birthing is accompanied by powerful contractions and much inner conflict. The new man meets and takes on the consequences of his boyhood life; he finds out whether or not he learned his lessons well. His return from the threshold is a delicate matter not to be treated lightly by the male elders. Now he is back in the "secular" world of his everyday body, and his life as a man stretches before him.

The confusion and bewilderment of the incorporation phase (especially in its initial stages) can be mitigated by the elders’ careful, ceremonial attention to the re-entry process. Each candidate’s spirit must be brought back into his body and aided to reside there solidly. Each candidate must be debriefed and helped to see the meaning of his threshold experience. Each must be formally welcomed and recognized as a man, brought into the group of men, and given a symbolic gift by his midwives. Then a sauna, sweatlodge, or bathing ceremony can be held, at which time the dust of the threshold world can be flushed from the new men’s bodies and prayers said in thanksgiving for their well-being. After the ablutions might come new clothes befitting a man, a feast of thanksgiving, and a time of giving. Afterwards, a council of elders may be convened and the young men brought in one by one to answer the elders’ questions regarding their threshold experience. The elders can offer comments and suggestions regarding each young man’s future course, personal gifts, life story, etc., in a positive, supportive manner. Within the first two days of their re-entry, the young men must also be given a good deal of time to be alone, to rest, and to reflect on their encounter with the goddess.

On the third day after their return, the separate groups reassemble for a mutual celebration of their brotherhood, to formally mark the conclusion of the rite of passage. Soon after, the gathering packs up and return to the community. There, a final celebration of commencement into manhood is held for the new men and all those who had a hand in their childhood growth. The parents can be singled out for special honors for their untiring efforts on behalf of their sons and the community at large.

BEGINNING A NEW LIFE

When the ceremonies and congratulations are over, the new men enter the mainstream of adult male life. They live apart, independent of home, working for their bread, attending college, enlisting in the armed services, getting married, etc. They do not return to their boyhood living situations unless, for unusual reasons, they cannot do otherwise. If they must return to their old homes, they must henceforth be treated as adults, and adult behavior and attitudes must be expected from them. As the new men grow older and themselves become fathers, they will return to participate as midwives in the births of other men.

Within a week or two of the rite’s conclusion, most of the candidates will experience a predictable depression, a period of integration when the enormity of the step taken becomes apparent. The new man may feel like forgetting about this manhood nonsense and wish fervently he could be back home in his childhood nest. Such feelings should not be seen as a setback, but as a challenge. For most new men, this depression strengthens their ability and resolve to live as men. Within a few weeks of their return, each group of candidates might plan a reunion meeting with their midwives to discuss their progress in their new lives. Further support meetings might be scheduled by those in the group who feel a further need for them. The emphasis on such meetings would be not on problem-solving but on sharing, friendship, and brotherhood. As time passes, the new men should be weaned away from the glory and hoopla of the rite of passage ceremony and cleave to the goddess and to their "people," those who, as men, they are committed to serve with the give-away of their lives:

Now you belong to your greater mother. And you return to her womb to emerge once again, as a man who knows himself not as an individual but a unit of his tribe and a part of all life which ever surrounds him.

- Frank Waters, The Man Who Killed The Deer