Rites of Passage

Teen Initiation

Rites of Passage are something that every culture has. We in our modern Western society have lost much of what was once standard practice. What used to be celebrated as coming of age is now looked upon as just another year in the life.

I think much of this attitude toward Rites of Passage is due to the advances in medical science that have been made in the last century or two. It used to be a real achievement for a baby to be born alive and healthy.

Then there were all the childhood diseases such as Rubella, Polio, and various fevers that were common place not so long ago, that contributed to high child mortality rates.

We’ve also made our world a much safer place. If someone is attacked by a wild animal while walking in the mountains or woods, it’s a newsworthy item.

It used to be that if a child survived to reach puberty, it was an event worth celebrating. That is no longer the case. It used to be that few children survived childhood, now it’s the few who don’t.

It used to be that childhood itself, was a Rite of Passage.

Achievements that are rare, seem worth celebrating, those that become common, not so much. It’s human nature to take for granted that which is common, no matter how large the achievement.

As an example, Apollo 11 put humans on another celestial body for the first time in history. Everyone who had access to a TV, watched as Neil Armstrong landed the Eagle in the Sea of Tranquility, with less than 30 seconds of fuel left.

A huge technical and cultural achievement! Rites of Passage that the entire world took part in.

Yet, just two flights later, no one cared as astronauts sent a live transmission on their way to the moon. It wasn’t until there was a question of Apollo 13 making it back safely, that people paid attention.

When was the last time you paid attention to what happened with the space shuttle? The Columbia disaster?

Modern medicine has virtually assured that any child born today will live to adulthood. Even those with massive physical defects, such as underdeveloped hearts, or lungs, have a good chance for survival.

It is now expected by every parent, that when they take their baby home, it will live to a ripe old age. This isn’t a bad thing, but it has caused us as a culture to take for granted the important milestones in a child’s life, hense, the lack of Rites of Passage.

Sure, baby’s first step, and first words are still celebrated, but after the first couple of years, the excitement fades. Even the events that mark the point of reaching adulthood are muddled.

The age at which a child becomes an adult is no longer a cultural distinction. It has become a legal definition, but not a clear one.

There are still Rites of Passage that all children go through. Somewhere around the ages of 11 to 13, a child becomes physically capable of having a child of their own. At age 16, most of us get our license to drive. At age 18, a person can vote, and defend, and possibly die for their country. Yet they aren’t supposed to drink until age 21.

So at what age does a child become an adult?

Our perception of being an adult, and therefore treated as one, is no longer a single event. It has been spread over a ten year period. It’s no wonder we as a culture no longer have Rites of Passage, we don’t know when that age is.

Some would say that the entire Teen experience is an Initiation, and Rite of Passage, for the Teen as well as the parents. Perhaps then, that is what it should be treated as.

When a child manifests the physical aspects of adulthood, a girl has her first menstrual cycle, and a boy’s voice cracks, maybe we should acknowledge that with a celebration of leaving childhood. Rites of Passage that acknowledge the changes.

They aren’t yet an adult, but won’t be treated as children. What if there were a ritual that explained to them what they could expect in the future, and prepared them for what will come?

At this age, the young person is still very much dependant on the parents, and still wants to be. That will change quick enough. In such a rite, the ages of the Initiates will vary.

The Initiate would have to display the physical attributes required, so they might be anywhere from 11 to 13 years of age. Some might be a little older, others a little younger. The point is that they all have this one thing in common, their bodies are changing.

For a Rite of Passage to be effective, it needs to be acknowledged and reinforced by the community, not just on this occasion, but from this point forward. That has been one of the things lacking in the rites I have seen.

The young Initiate is acknowledged by the community at the event, but then after, everything goes back to the way it was. There is no outward sign of change. One thing that could be done easily, and made part of the Initiation, is robes.

Color is significant to us. We use it in our rituals and spells. We even sometimes use it as a mark of status. Why not use it to mark a person as having achieved something important? White has always been a color of purity and innocence.

The children (for that is what they are until after the Rite) come into the Rite dressed all in white. Those who complete the Rite, are given robes of a different color that they wear at all rituals thereafter, to signify and remind, that they are no longer children, they are young adults.

Red could be used for the females, and green for the males. The robes would all be the same basic pattern, a simple T robe like shown in Buckland’s Complete Book of Witchcraft, is easy to make. As the young person outgrows a set of robes, another of the same pattern would replace them.

As each new set of robes is made, the young person could decorate them as they wish, as a sign of growing individuality and independence. This too is an outward sign of what is happening inside the young person. Not to mention teaching them the skill of sewing.

Learning to fend for themselves is also part of the Rites of Passage.

As the child reaches the age of Initiation, the parents, or community would make two sets of robes for them. One white, the other based on their gender. Because they are still children, this is done for them. The day of Initiation comes, and the community gathers. They feast, and talk, and have fun. The Initiates, in their white robes play as kids do.

At some predetermined point, masked men and women come for the initiates. The masked men gather the boys, the masked women gather the girls. The number of masked adults is determined by how many Initiates there are. If there is only one Initiate, there need be only one masked adult of appropriate gender.

The Initiates stand with their parent(s) before they are gathered. Each is asked if they will go of their own free will, to join the Initiation. It must be their choice, and none should be treated differently, if they are not ready.

Once a child has accepted the challenge to take the Rites of Passage, they are gathered into the group of initiates. At least one parent goes with their child when gathered, fathers with sons, and mothers with daughters, if possible.

Once all the initiates have been gathered, they are lead off to the Ritual. The remaining children and adults wait for the outcome however they choose. Most likely, the celebration will continue.

In our community coming of age rituals, the children spend the night in the ritual. It’s part of the test they must pass. This seems to me to be an appropriate part of the initiation.

This may be the first time a child is away from the familiar life of home and family. It is a symbolic cutting of the apron strings.

The first part of the initiation is attended with a parent. Here the boys and girls are taken to a secluded place, and the symbology of ritual is explained to them. The significance of the chalice and blade, the Maypole, all the other symbols of sexuality and fertility are explained to the Initiates in as graphic a nature as is required.

I have never understood the practice of schools separating genders for sex education. It leads to misinformation, and rumor. These are young Witches, and they are about to be thrust into the most confusing time of their lives.

It is our responsibility as adults to teach them the truth about what is happening to them. Besides, as a Spiritual Path that understands sacred sexuality, I find it hard to believe that at 11 years old, these kids won’t have already been taught something about sex.

The point of this part of Rites of Passage isn’t to teach sex education, but to instill the sacred into sex, and teach the symbology used in ritual, as well as explaining the Sabbats of Imbolc, Ostara, and Beltane.

It may be that the parents have already done this, and that’s a wonderful thing. This is an official teaching that the community acknowledges.

Once the initiates return from the Rites of Passage, everyone knows that they now understand the rituals they are attending, for what they are.

This is also why a parent accompanies their child. It is more comfortable for both parent and child. It should also be explained that the Initiates are not being encouraged to sexual activity (and most likely at this age, they still think the other gender is icky) but that sex and the ability to create life, are sacred.

A child who knows about sexuality, and attaches the sacred to it, is going to be much less likely to just have sex.

It should also be explained to the initiates that having gone through the Rites of Passage, that they will be expected to do more than just attend rituals from that point forward.

They may be called upon to perform in the rituals. Part of growing up, is taking more responsibility. The Teen wants it, and should be given what they can handle.

With this part of the Initiation finished, the parents are asked to leave. When they again see their sons and daughters, they will no longer be children.

This could be an emotional time for Initiates and parents alike. This is a physical separation, and both will be changed by it.

It might even be a good idea for the parents of Initiates to have their own Rites of Passage, run by those who’ve gone through the Teen years as parents already. The parents could use explanations of what is going to happen in the next few years too.

After the parents leave, the Initiates are separated by gender and taken off for separate rites. This will be their first encounter with the Mysteries. There are differences between genders, and these need to be addressed as well.

Being male, I’m not qualified to speak to the Feminine Mysteries, and it wouldn’t be fair to expose the Masculine Mysteries. I think it’s fair to say that both genders should be challenged by the Rites of Passage in ways appropriate to their gender.

Typically, an Initiation involves a challenge, seemingly life threatening to the initiate, but always completely harmless. It can be as simple as telling them to enter a cave where they must die.

The future is unknown, and the unknown frightens us. It is this fear that the initiate must experience in a controlled way.

To enter the unknown, and come out the other side, shows the Initiate that while fear is healthy, it can keep us from progressing forward.

Having answered the challenge, the Initiate has shown that they are willing to face the unknown, and take on more responsibility.

Each Initiate must be challenged individually. In the cave example, the Initiate must be willing to enter the cave alone and unaided. This doesn’t have to be a cave, it could be following a trial into the unknown, or entering a particular room.

The gravity of the situation must be impressed upon the Initiate, and the choice must be the Initiate’s alone. It isn't a Rite of Passage, if the choices are made for them.

Those who are not ready, can be sent back to the secluded area, and given another chance later (though they don’t need to know that).

Once the choice has been made to answer the challenge, the initiate must easily find their way to the next part of the Initiation.

The point isn’t to hurt the Initiate, but to give them a choice of what to do. Someone should be just out of sight of the entrance to the Challenge, to guide the Initiate on what to do next.

Those who make it through the challenge are kept separate from those yet to go. They must also promise never to tell anyone about the challenge. It is a Mystery.

After the Challenge, comes the rebirth. The child who entered the Challenge died, and has been reborn as something else. This is typically the second half of the Rites of Passage.

The Initiate got in, now they must get out. The guide may give some words of wisdom when the initiate reaches them in the Challenge, and then direct them onward.

There are many ways to perform a rebirth, but they all have two things in common; restriction of movement, and a breaking through to the outside world.

A cave might have a small passage back outside, unknown to the Initiates waiting for the challenge, or a barrier might be made inside someone’s house in the Challenge chamber, with a small hole the Initiate must crawl through.

Once the Initiate has been reborn, they are given the colored robes. Red for the women, green for the men. They are told to wear these robes in ritual from that point forward, as a reminder to themselves, and everyone else, that they are no longer children.

A celebration should be awaiting those who complete the ordeal. Food and drink, and if outside, a warm fire, will help to ground the Initiates. Those who complete the test should be celebrated for the success they have achieved.

Any who are unable to complete the Rites of Passage should be taken back to their parents, and told that they are free to try again next time.

Should this happen, no one should look down upon these youngsters, they simply are not ready yet. In time, they will be. Children are ready for different challenges at different times.

It’s all part of growing up.

At some point, whether that night, or the next day, the Initiates who made it through the Rites of Passage should be taken back to rejoin the community as young adults. If at all possible, they should not be taken back by the way they came in. They should not see the place they started.

You can never go back again.

When they reach the place where the community has gathered, they should be announced proudly. Part of the Rites of Passage may have been to take a Craft Name. If so, this name should be used, so the Community knows it.

This reintroduction into the community is usually another excuse to celebrate. Any children who were unable to complete the Rites of Passage should be invited, but it is up to them to attend.

It may be a traumatic event for them. No one likes to be singled out. No matter their choice, these children should be accepted as they are, and it should be understood that they will finish the Rites of Passage in the future.


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