Throughout history, ceremonial rites of passage have been used to honor transitions from one stage of life to the next. The elements of the natural world and wisdom of cultural traditions guided the journey for individuals who were marking important transitions such as those from childhood to youth, and from youth to adulthood. The timing and prescription of ritual rites stood out prominently in community life.
Though the symbolic markers of societal rights and responsibilities are now less distinct and seldom occur at the same time, our need to celebrate and integrate these transitions into the fabric of life has not diminished. The challenge for us today is to draw on the wisdom of both ancient and modern times to create meaningful rites of passage.
Rites that succeed in this effort make use of ceremony as an agent of change. They create a context in which positive experiential learning can take place and an individual’s role is not narrowly defined or expressively constrained. Ceremonial rites can challenge us to evolve our way of living and relating by developing a mythological story in our own lives. Thoughts, feelings, actions, and the relationship between ourselves, others, and our shared world combine to provide a rich arena in which meaning can be discovered and our story can unfold.
One organization that has explored this arena is the Institute for Cultural Affairs (ICA). Over the past 27 years, ICA has drawn on its network spanning 31 countries to evolve rites of passage programs that make use of wilderness settings and honor the cultural traditions from which they’re drawn. ICA programs include the Coming of Age Journey, Tour de Cultures, and Vision Quest.
The Coming of Age Journey is for 6th and 7th graders and uses the metaphor of Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey to mark a transition from childhood into youth. Campbell’s hero, who is drawn from ancient and modern mythologies of East and West, depicts an individual, who – though initially reluctant to respond to Life’s call – nonetheless embarks on a journey of trials characterized by both failure and success. This hero is ultimately forced to confront death and must use the wisdom of the heart to find safe passage into new life.
ICA weaves this metaphor through a ropes course that challenges the group to scale a 14-foot wall by themselves. They participate in the cleansing and purification ritual of the Native American sweat lodge, and each child spends 24 hours alone without food or sleep, tending their fire, and writing reflections in a journal. This vigil marks their transition from childhood to youth. Finally, an incorporation weekend with parents sets the groundwork for how new learnings will affect their rights and responsibilities in everyday life.
The Tour de Cultures is for 8th, 9th, and 10th graders. Youth explore the various cultures of Washington’s Puget Sound region through 600 miles of bicycling, community service, participation in cultural events, and various ceremonial activities designed to foster citizenship in a diverse world.
The Vision Quest is for high school students. It serves to mark a journey that must be taken as an individual: the journey from youth into adulthood. Mind, spirit, and body are challenged. Youth are guided to trust nature as land-based peoples did. Reflection, dialogue, and sweat lodge purification prepare the youth for a three-day solo vigil in the wilderness.
Rites of passage can also bring deeper meaning to existing youth programs. In Fall Creek, Wisconsin, the Sons of Norway offer a camp with Viking Age crafts, sports, and storytelling, along with more modern aspects of Norwegian culture such as language, music, and food.
This year for the first time, the Viking theme was taken to a new level with the introduction of the idrottir and the Fellowship of Yggdrasil. The idrottir are a series of accomplishments (both intellectual and athletic) that were valued during the Viking age, and for which challenging and safe activities were created for the campers. Pursuit of one or more idrottir was voluntary, but the campers who reached their goals in three or more skill areas were initiated into the Fellowship of Yggdrasil on the last night of camp.
In the following articles, youth who have participated in these programs tell their stories and highlight the impact and significance of entering ceremonial space and sacred time to honor life transitions. This section concludes with an explanation of wilderness rites, their origins, and the elements of typical modern quests.
by Ellie Roper-Ater,
Last summer, when I was 18, I was a counselor for the Coming of Age Journey. Halfway through it I turned to the other counselor and said, “I thought this was supposed to be a rite of passage for them, not us.” I’ve always considered myself a responsible person, and about three or four days into my experience as a counselor I realized that up until that point I’d only had to be responsible for myself. For the first time I was responsible for the safety and well-being of six other people. Trying to become comfortable with that role was a huge part of the experience for me.
Part of my role required learning to live with six people in very intimate and stressful situations. We were all exerting ourselves physically, having a lot of discussions about the dynamics of the group, and learning how to work as a unit under stressful conditions. We came to an understanding early on that if we were going to make it through this, we would have to help each other. We were only as strong as our weakest members.
As one of the counselors, I had to learn how to maintain an even keel and not get upset with how people work. It’s hard for me to share space with people. I had to do whatever I could to remain calm. If that meant going on a little hike by myself, sitting in the woods, washing in the stream alone, or getting up earlier than anyone else, I’d do it. I needed enough time with myself so that when things got hectic or we were in a crisis situation, I wasn’t confused about how I was feeling. It was easier to remain calm.
Learning to be a “hero” is what the Coming of Age Journey is all about. When you’re up against a huge physical or emotional challenge, you say, “No, no, not me, I’m not a hero.” Yet you rise to the occasion. We were constantly made aware of the fact that it was our choice to be there. For example, I would say, “My name is Ellie; I choose to do this willingly.” Then I would step through a physical boundary. This is important if you are six miles into a forest and the only way out is to hike. When you know everything you do is by your own volition, it gives you a vested interest in what’s happening.
An important aspect of the rites of passage journey involves placing yourself in a vulnerable state, in your human state, out in the wilderness among the elements. If you’re cold, wet, tired, hungry, and sore, it’s a triumph to come out of that situation. You can look back on the Coming of Age Journey and feel a sense of self-security, self-respect, and a new sense of capability.
Having had these experiences, I will know in the future when I need some adversity, time alone to think about changes that are taking place in my life, and time to think about how I’m going to make these changes smoothly. At times you inadvertently end up on a rite of passage where you have to face your fears, travel a road where you’re uncomfortable, and return to incorporate a new piece of knowledge into your life. I don’t think that only applies to sixth and seventh graders … or 14-year-olds or 18-year-olds! It applies to everyone.
by Nina Davis,
The feeling that made me want to do the Vision Quest wasn’t logical at all. It was something that I felt a need to do; I couldn’t really describe why. I went into the Vision Quest with an open mind. There wasn’t something bad going on in my life that I needed to leave behind. It was something within me. The Vision Quest for me was symbolic of dying and being reborn.
For my vigil, I was in the desert. There was a beautiful tree and a river bank, and I stayed in that little area.
I was scared the last night. I stayed up all night because it was really stormy. But it felt OK to be scared. I sang songs we had learned and sung together on the trip. I waited all night for the sun to rise. I have a distinct sense of when the sun rose. That was like a new beginning for me. I was going to go back to the group and I was going to be an adult.
I felt a new independence and a sense of self-reliance that came from being alone with my thoughts for three days. I thought about my place with other people in the world. I thought about people that are close to me and how grateful I am to them.
I learned an appreciation for the Earth, for everybody that I love, and for people in general. These aren’t new ideas, but I understand them now in a real way. When the sun rose it felt like this strong part of me was able to come out and rise up. I knew this part of me would stay with me.
After everyone had spent time alone on their vigil, we hiked as a group for several days. We came out of our vigils with resolutions of who we wanted to be, and the physical challenge of hiking gave us a chance to actually apply them.
There were social challenges with the group being so close together for so long and many conflicts coming up. When there were abrasive feelings between people, everybody would have to sit down and deal with them. I felt like we developed a sense of trust and openness that was really special and that didn’t come easily.
The big thing was we didn’t feel limited at the end of the trip. I felt like I could do anything! I look back on it when other things come up, and I think, “I could do that, so I can do this!”
There are some situations when I’m frustrated with people because they’re so stuck in one mindset and I really want them to go on a vision quest and do something really difficult; spend time with themselves and really think about their place in the world. I don’t think the vision quest is the only way to get that perspective, but I think you have to break away from things that are familiar and be in a new place and a new time.
by Sean Tuftedal,
Camp and the fellowship really changed me. I felt more responsible because I was the oldest guy. I was 15. There were 14-year-olds and everything, but they all followed me around. So if I would have goofed off or if ‘d been a druggie or something, they would probably have been too, because they thought that whatever an older guy would do would be cool.
I knew this was my last year at camp so I set the goal of preparing for the Viking fellowship. We competed in Viking sports, learned about their myths and stories, and learned to speak Norwegian.
During the initiation, the counselors talked to us about the fellowship. They told us about how the gods created Norway and about the world tree [Yggdrasil, which houses the nine interconnected worlds of ancient nordic spirituality]. We’re not supposed to break that world tree; we’re supposed to help protect it. They told us about our responsibilities. At the end, they inducted us into the fellowship.
Then we each picked a little rock. They were runestones. Each of them had a sign on them; mine was Courage. We talked about what courage means; that I have to have a lot of courage in life and help other people.
Every weekend I look at my camp stuff and think about what happened. Most of the time when I go out I carry that rock because it reminds me of the changes in my life.
When I learned to set goals, I saw my life open up before my eyes. I set the goal to go to work and not to quit. I set goals for myself that are harder than the ones I used to set. Before I was in the fellowship I was just slacking around. Now I keep doing things to help out. At school, if there are new people, I try to talk with them, introduce myself, so they have a friend.
At my church, I help with the programs for the handicapped. All the other years, I just said, “Oh, I don’t want to do it.” Now, I’m giving back to my community.
My parents trust me more. Last year they kept calling me when I was home alone to make sure I wasn’t goofing off. Now, they know that I mean what I say, and I help them when they need my help.
My life’s basic: I work, I do homework, and I help in my community. People think if you’re a teenager, you’re a goof-off. I took that big step of showing people that I’m not a goof-off and that I mean what I say.
I hope that everybody gets to be in a fellowship. I’ll never forget the experience. It’s reassuring because you learn that you can do stuff if you set your mind to it. That’s what I want my kids to know when they grow up.
by Stan Crow
Wilderness rites of passage are based upon an ancient tradition — going to the wilderness, alone, to find one’s vocation, to find peace, to seek a vision of the future, to seek guidance. Jesus, Buddha, and Mohammed all went on such a quest. In many indigenous cultures, quests were taken whenever an individual was preparing to make a passage to another life phase, or to take on a new responsibility.
These quests are not a sort of heroic dragon-slaying venture, but rather focus on the inner work necessary to discover personal strength and bring balance to one’s life.
There are three elements of the typical modern quest, Severance, during which the quester’s work is to shed the ties and other baggage that might get in the way of doing the inner work of the quest; Threshold, the actual time of leaving all else behind and allowing oneself to cross over into an unfamiliar place of self-discovery; Incorporation, processing the experience of the Threshold and relating the learnings to the world one enters again. For most people who quest, this last phase can continue for several months after the return to “civilization.”
The quester’s time in the wilderness typically involves fasting, meditating, and waiting. The rapid pace of our modern lives makes this experience both exhilarating and difficult for most of us who have seldom spent an afternoon by ourselves, let alone several days.
Stan Crow is ICA director for rites of passage programs.