Male initiation rites – Introduction to a Special Focus
Martin R. Wong, Ph.D.
What makes me a man?
It wasn’t until I was about forty- two years old that I finally figured
I had made it. By that time I had been working for 19 years, had been
married and divorced, had sired one son and fathered another, and had
undergone a vasectomy. I don’t know why I decided at that time that I
was a man. It was probably the collective of all the experiences
society and I had conspired to put me through. I grew up with a
professional father who was busy tending to the needs of others and had
little time to devote to errant sons. Summer camp was probably as close
as I came to a ritual initiating me into manhood. I was left alone to
figure it all out for myself as were most of us. It took a long time, a
lot of mistakes, a lot of pain, and a lot of trial and error. I don’t
think I’m done yet.
Most of us go through rites of passage in addition to the
sexual fantasies of summer camp on our way to adulthood: learning how to
share, prom night, church confirmation, bar mitzvah, graduation from
high school and/or college, fraternity hazing, work, marriage,
childbirth and lots more. There are even societal institutions such as
“Promise Keepers”, the Masons and others that provide further rites.
Some provide guidance but none are specifically designed to turn wayward
youthfulness into responsible adulthood.
For hundreds of years, more “primitive societies” felt it
necessary to stage elaborate rites to move boys into manhood—to more
directly confront the oedipal crisis that can occur when boys turn to
look for male models with which to identify. These proceedings (Eliade,
1958) always involved four distinct phases: separation (rupture) from
mother and from women; into a forced seclusion (isolation) in an all
male society. Numerous “Rites of Initiation” followed over a span of
time that may have taken from a weekend to six months. They usually
involved pain, bloodletting, (ordeal) and introduction to the mystique
of a kind of manhood that would involve arduousness, extreme danger,
sacrifice and responsibility. Finally the newly ordained Men were
triumphantly returned (reunification) into the tribal society.
Only after this initiation were the then men allowed to take
part in the political and social life of the community with full
standings as men.
Robert Bly, in his numerous writings bemoans that modern
society contains no equivalent rite to mark the passage from boyhood to
manhood and suggests that this loss causes confusion, hardship, and
frequently results in prolonged adolescent attitudes among men who
almost reluctantly take on the responsibilities of adulthood. He
argues for the reinstitution of some kind of marking of the transition
that makes it clear when a boy has become a man. A group, “Boys to Men”
has actually attempted to put some of this into practice.
I wonder if these minor initiations or even what is practiced
Africa is enough to become what I would call a “real” man. I know a lot
of males that are not what I would consider men. Is Bush a man? He has
always struck me as a reckless adolescent who was stuck in his oedipal
period by an absent father, by money, by alcoholism, and by drug
In tune with Ed’s
comments (herein) that we are never done with development into manhood,
I like the thoughtful, but struggle-filled stages described in The
Elder Within (Jones, 2001) that bring about “real” men: (1)
Awakening--of a felt sense of failure of the old ways of being,
thinking, feeling and behaving; (2) Choosing whether to be, in a
different manner; (3) Struggling—facing one’s own projections and
shadows; (4) Resolving to grow and to nurture; (5) Accepting—the
turning point wherein one accepts who he is; (6) Becoming a male
who is able to be, in being, and in serving others; and (7) Sharing—the
giving of one’s manhood as a mentor, and as a keeper of the dreams and
Dan Quinn (herein)
takes off from here and sees the stages of the therapy hour as in many
ways akin to the stages of initiation into life. He elaborates on these
from a Jungian perspective.
Ed Tejerian looks
thoughtfully and almost sadly at the role fathers, as well as other
aspects of society, might play in the initiation of their sons.
We offer these humbly as food for thought.
Eliade, Mircea, Rites and Symbols of Initiation, (1958), New
York: Harper and Row.
Jones, Terry, The Elder Within, (2001), Wilsonville, OR: Book
BOYS TO MEN: African Male Initiation Rites into Manhood
Martin R. Wong, Ph.D.
Boulder, Colorado, USA
In the classic mythical male coming of age tale, Parsifal
leaves his mother behind and symbolically all of life that is female and
naive, and ventures forth to seek wisdom and his destiny as a man. He
wears nothing but a crude cloth to cover him, ergo he is unprotected.
Before he succeeds in his quest to become a man he fails, undergoes many
painful ordeals, learning much about suffering along the way. Different
cultures inform this tale in many ways but it is always necessary for
the Parsifal figure, the naïve boy, to survive ordeals and to achieve
some task or solve some problem in order to be made into a man. His
arrival into manhood is never assumed, it takes time, it is not easy,
and the maintenance of the status requires continual renewal (Johnson,
throughout recorded history, a boy is a boy and a man is a man—they are
different entities. A boy is with his mother. A man is with men and
does what men do. As with Parsifal, a boy becomes a man only through
some form of stringent initiation ritual.
The plethora of literature provided by anthropologists and
sociologists about African male initiation rites suggests that it was,
at least until recently, the experience of almost every African boy to
undergo some form of stringent ritual which usually involved painful
circumcision and/or body scarification as a rite of passage to manhood.
There are literally thousands of individually identifiable tribes in
Africa and tens of thousands of villages. Most of these social
groupings had little or no contact with each other, yet within each,
rites to initiate males into manhood arose. Only after successful
completion of this test can a boy claim to be a man. Without successful
completion of the initiation rites the boy remains a boy and does not
have the rights and responsibilities of men. He may often not be
allowed to marry and produce children and cannot take part in village
affairs and even express an opinion. Indeed in some cases a man who has
not endured the prolonged ordeal of such an initiation is not even
considered to be a person (Tucker, 1949).
While each individual initiation may vary in format, content,
and symbolism from tribe to tribe, from village to village, each in its
own way includes six characteristics: (1) separation and seclusion away
from the rest of the tribe—especially mother and women generally; (2)
some form of pain and suffering—physical and emotional; (3) specific
educational instruction; (4) cutting of flesh—usually circumcision
or/and scarification of the body—and spilling of blood; and (5) entreaty
to spiritual and/or ancestral elements; and (6) reincorporation back
into the tribe/village as changed persons. These six aspects may be
specific and taught or may be inferred symbolically but they are to be
found in almost all of the initiatory rites noted in the literature.
Separation usually takes the form of seclusion of the
initiates somewhere outside of their homes, outside of the village,
usually in the bush in a totally male environment. This may last as
long as three months or more, and involves privation. These boys are
often cloistered together in small huts for days at a time, sleeping on
the ground; they are sometimes required to be scantily clothed or even
naked; and they may be exposed to wild animals. While separation and
seclusion may in itself be considered painful, other experiences such as
the very strict, harsh discipline of the camp, having their heads shaved
and their bodies painted, eating only certain kinds of food, sometimes
going without food for a period of time, catching and/or killing wild
animals, learning lore, proving themselves in various ways, all of these
add to the intensity of the initiation process. Often the rites include
various taunts and humiliations delivered by the elders to the initiates
who desire to join their ranks.
Educational instruction usually involves some kind of orally
transmitted stories of the tribe, secrets of male society into which
they are being initiated, specific sexual instruction on appropriate
modes of coitus, specific societal rules and taboos that must be adhered
to, more philosophical topics that bring in the lore and the history of
the tribe and of initiation itself, and often, existential questions
about life. These can be transmitted by riddles and song or
didactically taught. Sometimes the initiate is assigned an elder mentor
who guides and instructs him through the process. Gitywa (1976,
pp169-70) provides us with illustrative, albeit specifically Xhosa
teachings, as follows: “Speaking in low tones with courtesy; Being
outspoken in a guileless manner which comes from the heart; Quarrelling
and forgiving one another; Service and obeisance to chiefs; Reasoning
at the courtyard; Righting the wrongs of life; To support the home by
caring for the family and caring for the stock; Looking after the
parents; Bearing the difficulties which single out men; Obedience to
law of the home and of the nation; He <the guardian> disparages till
the mouth is dry those whose guardian he is.”
The cutting off of the foreskin—circumcision—is almost always
part of the changing/rebirthing process that transforms boys into men.
It is essential to the attainment of manhood (Carstens, 1982)and it is
shameful if not done (Sagnia, 1984). With the act of circumcision the
boy that is left behind as the foreskin is cast into the river is
transformed into a man. (Droogers, 1980). This physical transformation
is how the man is identified. It is a visible physical proof of
manhood. It is a necessary precursor to marriage and in fact an
uncircumcised man may be spurned by the female members of the society (Heald
1999; Gitywa, 1976). The act is seen as a physical cleansing that has
been esteemed for time immemorial (Tucker, 1949).
The surgical act of circumcision is often made more painful
than it needs to be and the boy is admonished to stand stoically still
and not flinch (Heald, 1982). Endurance of pain is part of the male
hardening process (Droogers, 1980), making the man able to face an
ordeal without fear (Heald, 1982). Clearly the ability to endure pain
in the future with indifference is a goal of this process.
The beginnings of the practice of circumcision in
Africa are unknown. Myth and oral histories surrounds its beginnings
and they are often attributed to women (Brain, 1977; Beidelman, 1986;
Heald, 1999; Droogers, 1980). It is said in one myth that men saw women
cutting their daughters and believing that this act made their daughters
“too strong” they began to cut their sons. In another myth, it was said
that some women of the village were at the riverside when they noticed
an empty canoe drifting along with the current. When they looked in the
canoe, it contained a knife, medicinal preparations and a set of
pictorial directions (assumedly on how to conduct circumcision). This
event had been predicted by the ancestors (Droogers, 1980). When women
instigated the practice of clitorectomy on their daughters three of the
daughters died and the practice was abandoned by women. Men took up the
practice and were more successful. Thereafter it frequently became an
exclusively male affair.
In another telling, circumcision is seen as a punishment for
some mythical male transgression against the original ancestor who began
the practice (Vansina,1955). Another writer suggests that the male envy
of women and their ability to give birth and to bleed automatically on a
monthly basis led males to take up a practice that resulted in “rebirth”
of their sons through the spilling of blood (Sagnia, 1984). In fact,
circumcision is usually seen as a rebirth of the boy into a man and is
often accompanied with the giving of a new name. (Kreamer, 1995). In
any case it appears that the beginnings of the practice of circumcision
happened independently in
Africa in many other different places, for many different reasons.
For most African peoples, spirituality is inseparable from
life (Smith, 1946); it is thus inseparable from initiation and
circumcision (Gitywa, 1976; Heald, 1999). The specific act of
circumcision is said to bring the boy closer to his ancestors and to the
supernatural world (Gitywa, 1976). The practice, while introduced by
women is attributed to the Gods or to the fore-bearers who are
considered Gods, and is done with their approval and with much entreaty
and invocation for them to look kindly on the rites and on the young men
who must endure the ordeal set for them by their elders (Beidleman,
1997). In many cases animals are sacrificed to ensure the protection of
the ancestors and to help ward off any evil spirits that may bring
wrongs (Heald,1999). Initiation and circumcision are ties that bind
males spiritually--to the land, to the spirit ancestors who have gone
before, to the living, and to those yet to be born (Sagnia, 1984). If a
boy dies during the period of initiation it is accepted fatefully as the
will of the Gods (Droogers, 1980)
The activity and celebration that surrounds the initiation
ritual frequently begins many months prior to the actual seclusion of
the boys. The culmination of the process of initiation, however, ends
with the boy’s symbolic rebirth and reintegration into the village
society. A joyful ceremony greets the return of the boys heroically
having endured the trials and have become men. Numerous symbolic
rituals often take place to reintegrate the boys back into mixed
society. No justification is needed for the celebratory ceremonies
that accompany the re-incorporation of these now men into the society
other than their safe return from what is seen as a heroic and dangerous
Different cultures may stress one aspect of initiation over
another. The Xhosa, (Gitywa, 1976), for example, emphasize preparation
for adult citizenship in the tribe with marriage and childbearing being
a sine qua non. A formal mentoring system held over several months
inculcates tribal characteristics and ideas about life. Other tribes
choose to stress the dangers in life and the need for toughness,
fearlessness and bravery (Heald, 1982; Droogers, 1980). For some the
act of circumcision, replicates the cycle of life through the spilling
of blood from the reproductive organs--similar to menarche in females (Sagnia,
1984). The implication here is that circumcision is born of male envy
of female power as the givers of life (Brain, 1977). Circumcision also
symbolically transforms the individual male from an asexual to sexual
being.(Droogers, 1980). The initiates are also “born again” and
sometimes even given new names (Tucker, 1949; Kreamer, 1995; Gitywa,
1976). In some cases the process is seen conceptually as bringing out
from within the boy an internal maleness (Heald, 1999). In other cases
initiation is seen as a strict and necessary imposition of male norms
and behaviors onto the initiates—the literal making of men (Gitwa,
1976). For others it is merely a rite of passage that separates boys
from men and binds them with other men, to the tribe, and to their
ancestors, assuring the tribe’s continuity by and linking the male for
all time with his community. (DeJong, 1997; Sagnia, Muytisya, 1996).
Levi-Strauss (1967) tells us that ritual is informed by myth
and that while myth exists on the conceptual level it is ritual that
transforms myth into action. Initiation and circumcision are ritual
acts and as such their meaning and function are understandable only by
subjective interpretation and educated speculation. Anthropologists
have attempted to offer many answers to the inevitable question of why
African societies need to initiate boys into manhood and why this kind
of transformative ritual occurs almost universally among African
cultures that have historically had no contact with each other or with
the greater outside world. Native tribesmen usually explain that these
processes and rituals are spiritual and involve the imputation of
special power to men (Kreamer, 1995; Moore, 1976). They describe the
need to test and produce men that can stand up to the rigors of this
difficult life and defend the tribe against adversaries (Droogers, 1980;
Heald, 1982). Explanations of scholarly investigators often run the
gamut from practical explanations that are similar to those offered by
the participants, to deep psychological discussions of fear of sex,
incest, pollution and death (Brain, 1977).
On a more practical note, social survival depends on
society’s ability to solve the problems of reproduction, safety, and
production. Roles for each of these tasks must be assigned either to
males or females. Females are usually less physically strong and are
biologically physically predisposed to the role of child bearing and
child rearing. Males have few biological imperatives beyond
impregnation but are the physically stronger of the two sexes and thus
the roles of protectors and providers have been taken up by them.
The roles of provider and protector have historically
involved hunting for wild animals, taking part in war, fierce
competition for resources, and other risky, dangerous, and life
threatening behaviors. As Gilmore (1990) stresses in his seminal text
on Manhood in the Making, in societies where hardiness and
self-discipline are required and where resources are scarce, men may
need to be prodded into taking on the role. A special moral system,
“real manhood”, is required to ensure a voluntary acceptance of
appropriate behavior in men” (p221). Boys then must be taught that it
is their honored duty to become men and to take on the dangerous and
often arduous roles of protector and provider. They must be toughened
emotionally and physically and must realize that the survival of their
tribe depends on their willingness to accept this role.
Part of the incentive needed to prod boys into becoming men
is the increase in status achieved in the process, being raised above
females by the tasks that are set for them to accomplish. A boy seeks
solace and protection at his mother’s side and will perhaps continue to
do so if left with her. This overwhelming urge must be overcome; the
male must leave his mother behind if he is to assume his self-reliant
role in the society (Droogers,1980; Webster, 1932). It is the task of
the older men, through specific initiation rituals to carry out this
passage, this transformation. A clear difference in attitude and
behavior is expected from a man who has undergone initiation (Gitywa,
Modernization, the loss of much of the wild bush, formal
western style schooling, and the imposition of Christianity and Islam
(and the subsequent subrogation of manhood rites) have resulted in the
abandonment of the practice of initiation and circumcision among many
tribes—especially among those living in the cities (Sagnia, 1984,
Carstens, 1976; Van Vuuren and DeJong, 1999). Often, circumcision is
performed on boys in the hospital soon after they are born and
scarification of the body has become frowned upon. The rites of
initiation and circumcision seem to be dying out (Mutisya, 1996). The
supernatural force which was once omnipresent in the lives of Africans
(Smith, 1946) is now relegated to mosques and churches and taken care of
by assigned intermediaries. Western style classroom education and
modern health care methods are supplanting more traditional modes of
education. Life is more outward looking and the village and tribe are
not the cohesive centers to which everything is connected. While modern
life may be less stable, it is also less physically combative and
dangerous, and the need for male bravery and aggressiveness is lessened
if not completely unnecessary.
When something as central to life as formal initiation into
manhood dies with nothing to fill the void that it leaves behind, it is
hard to know what the implications may be. There are those who decry
the great loss represented by its discontinuation and suggest that it
has led to the diminution of manhood itself (Bly, 1992). Some urge that
the practice be reinstituted and established even in the
United States and other Western
countries (Bly, 1992; Mustisya, 1996). It may in fact be that with the
decline in the physical rigors and dangers of life, it has outlived its
usefulness and the need for the symbolism and ritual that surrounds
artificially imposed male separation and definition is no longer. Time
Beidelman, T. O. (1986). Moral Imagination in Kaguru Modes of
Thought. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Beidelman, T. O. (1997). The Cool Knife. Washington D.C.:
Brain, J. (1977). Sex, Incest and Death: Initiation Rites Reconcidered.
Current Anthropology, 18, 2.
Caplan, A. P. (1976) Boys’ circumcision and girls’ puberty rites among
the Swahili of Mafia Island, Tanzania. Journal of the African
Institute, 46, 1, 21-33.
Carstens, P. (1982). The socioeconomic context of initiation ceremony
ies among two Southern African peoples. Canadian Journal of African
Studies, 16, 3, 505-522.
DeJong, F. (1997). The production of translocality: initiation in the
sacred grove in South Senegal. Focaal, 30/31, 61-83.
Droogers, A. (1980). The Dangerous Journey: Symbolic aspects of
boy’s initiatioin among the Wagenia of Kisangani, Zaire. The Hague:
Heald, S. (1982). The making of men: The relevance of vernacular
psychology to the interpretation of Gisu ritual.
Eile. L. (1990). Jando: The Rite of Circumcision and Initiation in
East African Islam. Lund, Sweden: Plus Ultra.
Gitywa, V. Z. (1976). Male Initiation in the
Ciskei: Formal incorporation into Bantu society.
Fort Hare, South Africa: Disertation, University of Fort Hare.
Heald, S. (1999) Manhood and Morality: Sex, violence and ritual in
Gisu society. New York:: Routledge, 1999.
Herdt, G. H. (1981) Guardians of the Flutes: Idioms of Masculinity.
New York: McGraw-Hill Company.
Kreamer, C. (1995) Transformation and power in Moba (Northern Togo)
65, 1, 58-78.
Levi-Strauss. C. (1967). Structural Anthropology. New York:
Mark, P. (1992). The Wild Bull and the Sacred
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Moore, S. (1976). The secret of the men: A fiction of Chagga initiation
and its relation to the logic of Chagga symbolism.
Obuh, S. O. (1989). The rites of passage theory and the Okonkwo
initiation ceremony of the Ngwa Igbo of Nigeria. Journal of Asian
and African Studies, 38, 177-87.
Sagnia, B. K. (1984) The Ritual Basis and Character of Traditional
Jola Male Initiation. Banjul, The Gambia: Museums and Antiquities
Smith, E. (1949) Knowing the African. London: Lutterworth Press.
Tucker, J. (1949). Initiation ceremonies for Luimbi boys.
VanGannep, A. (1960). The Rites of Passage. London: Routledge
and Kegan Paul.
Vansina, J. (1955) Initiation rituals of the Bushone.
Africa: Journal of the International African Insitute,
25, 2, 138-53.
VanVuuren, C. J. & DeJong, M. (1999) Rituals of manhood in South Africa.
South African Journal of Ethnology. Pretoria: 22, 4, 142-156.
Webster, H. (1932). Primitive Secret Societies. New York:
in Modern (or Post-Modern) Life
Ed Tejirian, Ph.D.
my years of doing psychotherapy with men, I would say that their fathers
were much more likely than their mothers to be the focus of men’s
longing, need, conflict, and anger. Of course, this was not invariably
true. One of the deepest therapeutic processes that I have ever been
engaged in was that that with a young man whose mother committed suicide
when he was ten years old. But that was the exception. More common
sources of sadness were the experience of separation from the father
because of divorce or death, or the sense of a lack of emotional
involvement on the part of the father.
Is “initiation” a
meaningful concept in a complex and fragmented society such as ours? One
of the characteristics of initiations in simpler societies seems to be
that everyone goes through the process. There may be ordeals and
challenges, but a prerequisite is that everyone succeeds, everyone
“passes,” no one fails or is left behind. For us, there is no universal
rite de passage that everyone goes through. Another relevant question to
ask when talking about initiation is: just what are boys or young men
being initiated into? Masculinity? Manhood? (Are the two things the
same?) Into “adulthood?”
I think that in a
non-communal society (such as ours) organized around the family as the
primary source of socialization and nurturance it falls to the
father—not an organized group of elders—to provide his son with the
experiences that represent the foundation of his initiation into
manhood. He does this not by playing ball with him or going fishing or
doing any of the other stereotypically “masculine things,” but rather by
bonding with him in a close and loving relationship. The security of
that bond initiates his son into an inner sense of himself as a
worthwhile and competent male person, a foundation that he can continue
to build on for the rest of his life in society.
But many fathers are
not very good at doing that for their sons. When I was teaching a
graduate course in Adolescent Psychology, I would ask each student in
the class to do a case study of an actual person. At the end of the
semester, I asked my students to rate both parents of the person who had
volunteered to be their subject for a case study. Were they “good
enough” or not? Typically, about two –thirds to three-quarters of the
mothers were “good enough.” However, I don’t think I had a single class
in which even a majority of the fathers were rated as “good enough.” It
seemed to me that, especially as the family grew larger—say beyond two
or three children—the fathers got overwhelmed with the responsibility of
being (typically) the primary wage-earner and, of course, spending more
time away making money and not seeing their families. Sometimes, the
father became a grouchy, somewhat remote figure who did not provide a
lot of emotional sustenance. And not feeling sufficiently loved or
appreciated himself, he was more susceptible to becoming bitter or even
alcoholic. The upshot was that he could not provide his son a solid bond
of closeness and affection that would serve as the foundation for his
son’s sense of himself as a man. In other words, he could not be the
initiator of his son into manhood.
What happens when a
father is absent altogether from a boy’s life while he is growing up? It
depends, I suspect, on whether we are speaking of absence caused by an
abandonment seen as avoidable or death (which is not.) Even as I write
this, I know that many hundreds of American and Iraqi boys (and girls)
already find themselves in the situation of having lost a father to an
untimely death. (So unfortunately, we may learn more about that question
in the near future.) Is it possible to develop an inner sense of a
worthwhile and competent male self in the absence of a father? I would
think that the answer is: yes, it must be possible. Certainly, a good
relationship with a mother who understands and values his maleness and
personhood can go a long way toward helping a boy to build a sense of
himself as a worthwhile and competent male person. Also, both as a boy
and a young man, he can seek out other, affirming relationships with
older men in his life. And these can provide some of the initiating
functions of the absent father.
In recalling patients
I have had in therapy who lost a father (or mother) to death before
adolescence, the absent parent remained a powerful, unchanging presence
with whom the sense of a loving inner bond, tinged with a sense of
longing and sadness, was maintained. In the case of the young man whose
mother had committed suicide when he was ten years old, it was more
complicated. Since she chose her own death it was also, inevitably, also
experienced as an abandonment. The guilt, longing, and repressed anger
(provoking more guilt still) because of this was a pretty potent and
problematical mixture. His father, however, remained a loving, if
sometimes insufficiently demonstrative, figure in his life.
When abandonment is
the primary factor, the sense of rejection can leave toxic residues of
anger. One of my students, a teacher at Rikers Island (the temporary
holding prison in New York City) did a study for me with a young man who
never knew his father, because he had been one of a succession of men
that his mother had temporarily had in her life. As a late adolescent,
he turned to robbery and drug dealing and ended up being arrested for
murder. The one dream he told my student was of a little black man (he
was African American) whom he chased but could not catch—the unknown
father. At the end of the class, one of the other students approached me
and said he understood the revulsion that most of the class felt toward
the ex-armed robber and drug dealer. But he knew from experience (he was
also African American) why he had done those brutal things. He (the
young man in Rikers) wanted others (all his victims were men) to feel
his inner pain.
As for himself, my
student said that what had saved him were religion and his girlfriend.
My interpretation is that the church was symbolic of the benevolent,
nurturing father he had lacked in his family life, and that a woman’s
devotion helped him to further build a foundation of a worthwhile and
competent male self—which is what “initiation” is all about.
in this story, if the relationship with the father is not available to
help a boy develop such a foundation, alternative avenues –and
relationships—will undoubtedly be sought. I recall a male patient of
mine who felt that his role in the family (he had one older brother) was
to be the “drop-out nothing.” His father was inconsequential in the
family structure and his stance toward his son was one of laissez-faire
ineffectualness. Perhaps as a way of expressing his desire to identify
with the kind of masculine strength that he could not get through
bonding with his remote father, my patient began to ride a motorcycle.
Unfortunately, he broke his leg when a car—in the classic maneuver of
the idiotic driver of a car who fails to “see” a motorcycle approaching
in the opposing lane—made a left turn right in front of him. While
laid-up and recovering, he got a camera, started experimenting with
taking pictures, and looked for work in the field after he was back on
his feet. He got hired by a well-known photographer who took him on as
an apprentice and gave him his start in what would become a successful
professional life. The photographer was a man old enough to be his
father and played the role of mentor and initiator in his life. Not
infrequently, he appeared in my patient’s dreams as a father-figure.
Indeed, my patient remembered sometimes slipping, when they used to work
together, and actually calling him “Dad.”
How about initiation
into the sexual aspects of manhood? Almost nowhere does our sex-obsessed
society break down more spectacularly than in dealing with adolescent
sexuality and its discontents. The subjects of my students’ case
studies were young people typically in their early twenties so that
adolescence was already officially over and we could look at how they
managed to get through it. What one saw was that, lacking anyone to help
them develop a sense of themselves as sexual beings, adolescents did it
for themselves. Thus, a boy would get initiated into the mysteries of
sex and manhood—in a sexual sense—by having sex with a girl hardly out
of childhood herself.
We should be
concerned with helping boys (and girls) to move into society as sexual
beings. But that process has fallen victim, like so much else, to the
“culture wars.” On the one hand, an unholy alliance of religious zealots
and cynical politicians refuse to acknowledge adolescent sexuality at
all, while simultaneously raising the specter of homosexuality and the
“gay agenda.” On the other hand, through the media, adolescents are
regaled with images of sexual romance and physical perfection. (Take a
look at the junior version of People magazine called Teen People.)
Yet when looked at
closely, almost all male initiation rites have elements of eroticism. As
Marty Wong points out, initiation rites in traditional societies very
frequently have circumcision as a nodal point of a symbolic
transformation. The intense focus on the boy’s penis by the men of the
group has to do with initiating him into the sexual and social life of
the community. Although the women are also aware of and welcome this
ushering of the boy into sexual manhood, it is the erotic energy
generated by the intensity of male bonding across generations that is
the prime mover in the symbolic transformation from child to man.
It was in the
Melanesian culture area—encompassing Papua-New Guinea—where, well into
the 20th century, the erotic—in fact homoerotic—energy of
male initiation was perhaps most clearly evident (Tejirian, 1990).
There, transactions of semen between older and younger males were a
pervasive feature of male initiation. Among the “Sambia” with whom
anthropologist Gilbert Herdt lived, boys were turned into men by being
isolated from their mothers. Living in proximity with adolescent boys,
it was necessary that they perform fellatio on the older, sexually
mature boys since it was thought that only by the ingestion of semen on
a regular basis would they be able to mature sexually themselves.
Among the Marind-anim,
who were inveterate headhunters, initiation involved a ritual in which
initiates were made to have sexual intercourse with any number of men on
a night when the village was visited by Sosom, a dema (spirit)—who was a
giant that walked with his penis carried over his shoulder. Later, the
boy went to live with his maternal uncle for a while—the only man
allowed to have intercourse with him. In this culture area, older males
infused the younger ones with sexual power through the act of direct,
We see echoes of
these homoerotic elements in some of the hazing practices in high school
and college athletic teams and fraternities, however, what is lacking in
these situations is the adult guidance and supervision that would ensure
that things do not get out of hand. I ran across an account, on the
internet, of a college boy who was paddled as part of the hazing ritual
of the fraternity he wanted to join. In this context, this constitutes
an erotic act, a displacement of the anal intercourse to which the
Marind-anim youths were subjected. But in a society that would heavily
censure an openly homoerotic ritual of initiation, its denial makes it
susceptible to being transformed into sadism. In the case of the
fraternity pledge, it turned into a beating that required a skin graft.
The African rituals
spoken of by Marty that promoted maleness and male bonding have their
counterparts in traditionally all-male societies from the Knights
Templar to the Masons. In the early 15th century, Philip the
Fair of France and the Inquisition combined forces to accuse the
Templars of holding homoerotic, satanic initiation ceremonies as a
pretext for destroying the order and seizing all of its assets. Williman
Benemann (2006) in his interesting book entitled Male-Male Intimacy in
Early America: Beyond Romantic Friendships relates how rumors of
homosexual rituals in their initiation ceremonies circulated with
respect to the Masons in the early 19th century. There is no
evidence that sexual rituals were actually taking place in either one of
these fraternal orders, but the false charges reflected both an insight
and a projection. The insight is that, in such orders, the
identification and friendship both within and across generations
incorporate an emotional eroticism that is present in all male bonding.
The projection comes from the fact that a society that censures all male
to male sexuality confuses emotional and physical eroticism, projecting
the latter onto the former. In other words, such a society obsessed with
homosexuality looks for it everywhere—exactly the situation we have at
the present time on the political and religious right in this country.
The obsession with it
is such that, each year, many men (and women as well) are discharged
from the military because they have been found to be gay. The irony is
that the introduction of women into the armed forces has undoubtedly
caused many more problems of a sexual kind than would the open
recognition of the presence of gay men. Certainly, other countries that
have dropped prohibitions against gay soldiers, including our closest
geographical and cultural neighbor—Canada—have
not reported significant problems after the change.
But how about women?
Do they play a significant role in male initiation other than in initial
sexual contact? In a great many societies—including ours—men are
expected to marry, and marriage is the next to the last rite de passage
in the achievement of social adulthood. I say “next to the last” because
fathering a child might be considered the last step in the progression
from boy to man. (In a complex society such as ours, these steps are not
absolutely required.) Still, the old patterns—perhaps a Jungian might
say “archetypes”—can continue to exert power. In fact, the power of the
marriage archetype might be one of the elements in the drive for
acceptance of same-sex marriage.
Is there a difference
between looking for love from and with a woman and looking to her to
complete a process of initiation that in some deep, archetypal sense, is
meant to be completed through a male to male relationship? I think there
is. There are men whose sense of themselves is so tied to validation by
a woman that relationships to their children—daughters as well as
sons—are completely subordinated to that need. Such men, after a
divorce, maintain only a tenuous tie with the children of their first
marriage. Freud said that he could imagine nothing more important to a
child than his father’s protection. As we know from clinical experience
a man whose own father failed to meet that need might react by trying
very hard not to fail his own son in the same way. On the other hand, we
know that the reverse is also not infrequently true: he repeats his
father’s failure with his son.
In the current
context of war-time, the news media report stories of young men who use
the military as a kind of initiation into manhood. Television ads used
to show the army as a place where a young man can “be all that you can
be.” Training and education were also promised. The ads for the Marine
Corps would show a young man in Marine dress uniform with the slogan,
“The few, the proud….”
Turning to look at
ourselves, the Society for the Psychological Study of Men and
Masculinity—many of us grew up under the sign of “Masculinity”—a
culturally defined set of gender role prescriptions (and proscriptions)
that, as has been correctly pointed out, was excessively restrictive and
therefore false to what boys and men are really like. If one was lucky
enough to have a warm, supportive father who did not judge one by those
values, initiation into a sense of worthwhile and competent maleness
could still take place through the bond with him. But everyone is not
When the need for
initiation—for laying the foundation of a worthwhile and competent male
self—has not been accomplished earlier on, it can remain a lifelong
quest. From what is known of his life history, George W. Bush is his
mother’s son, not his father’s. (Bush Sr. warned the press that if they
criticized his son, they would have Barbara to deal with.) When
questioned about whether he had asked his father’s advice on important
issues, George W. retorted that he looked for guidance to a “different”
(heavenly) father now. Nevertheless, in 2000 he chose as his
running-mate an older man who is regarded as the most powerful and
influential vice-president in the history of the Republic. At the same
time, he chose an older, extremely powerful Secretary of Defense to whom
he remains devoted in spite of the latter’s demonstrably disastrous
Viet Nam era, when so many
young men rebelled against the war, George W. Bush did not; yet, neither
did he complete his tour of service in the Air National Guard. His
whole career seems to be that of a man to whom much was given and of
whom little was asked. Helen Thomas, the doyenne of the Washington press
corps noted, during a press conference, that all the reasons he had
given for the invasion of Iraq—Saddam’s connection to 9/11, WMD’s,
etc.—had turned out to be without foundation, while there was evidence
that soon after taking office he was determined to have this war. Why
had he wanted it? Of course, he said, he had not “wanted” war (he would
not permit her a follow-up question.) But I think the answer is
obvious: inwardly, his initiation remained incomplete and the war was
necessary for its completion. This perspective gives a whole new meaning
to the famous “Mission Accomplished” banner and his landing (re-birth
and descent from heaven?) on the aircraft carrier.
I see in SPSMM three
interweaving strands: First, a repudiation—and a fixation—on a set of
gender role constructions (“traditional masculinity”) that seems
increasingly irrelevant to a great many contemporary—especially
younger—men. In this, we may still be “fighting the last war”; Second, a
real push to bond around an alternate set of values that involve
openness of feeling and mutual support among men; Third a dependency on
women (via the “feminist theory” of the Mission—that word
again—Statement) that implies that men need women to help them with an
initiation process that they can’t complete alone.
William (2006) Male-Male Intimacy in Early America: Beyond Romantic
Friendships. New York: Harrington Park Press.
Edward J. (1990) Sexuality and the Devil: Symbols of Love, Power and
Fear in Male Psychology. New York: Routledge. See: Ch. 5, “The
Historical / Anthropological Framework.”
Self-Generated Initiation in the Clinical Hour
Dan Quinn, M.A.
Doctoral Candidate, The Wright Institute
Throughout the world, as far back as our history
can reach, village shamans and elders have led their young through
carefully ritualized practices to help them complete their education and
cross the threshold into their adult lives. An aboriginal boy in
Australia, a Massai boy in
Africa, or a Cherokee boy in
America performed remarkably similar rites, faced similar ordeals, and often
encountered similar visions. In these high stakes rituals the
adolescent initiates might perish before they could emerge as adults on
the other side, but the village elders understood that allowing
uninitiated adults to claim a place in the village would risk the
unraveling of that village society.
An African Dagara elder, when asked if an
unitiated man would be allowed to marry, responded with horror, asking,
“Would you put an uninitiated man in the same hut with a woman?” (Some,
2001) He knew it would be an invitation to disaster. (Couples
therapists, take note.) It’s dangerous to allow inflated, uninitiated
boy/men to wander the village (something we might consider in selecting
No shamans, no elders, no village. Our
contemporary society attends poorly to the needs of boy/men and
girl/women, and teens go looking for transformative ordeals on their
own---in gangs, joyrides, drug addiction or fraternities. Or, a
middle-aged uninitiated “teenager” may find himself in the office of a
therapist when the neglected need for initiation arises within him
unbidden. It appears that the psyche, in the absence of eternal
structure, will create its own initiatory processes in the therapist’s
office (Henderson, 2005, Hill, 1992), and a patient struggling with
symptoms of anxiety, phobia, or depression in therapy may be attempting
to self-generate an initiatory experience.
In fact, the therapy experience mirrors the
age-old experience of initiation in many ways. For example, both
processes usually include rigorous containment of a highly ritualized
change process, and equally call upon both a patient/initiate’s instinct
to be tested and challenged and the therapist/elder’s instinct to test
and to challenge. Both rely upon meaningful, transformative ordeals and
the sometimes terrifying destruction of a subject’s identity before a
more adaptive one can be formed. And like modern therapy, the ancient
work of transformation took time: Plotkin (2003, 2006) emphasizes the
importance of recognizing that initiatory rituals are not, alone, the
maturing agents, but a symbolic recognition and the culmination of work
accomplished over many years as an initiate was guided by the village
toward the next stage of life.
The three stages of initiation which Van Gennep
(1960) first identified (departure, liminal/threshold, and return to the
village, see Marty Wong’s article in this edition) all broadly apply to
the therapy process as well, but Joseph Campbell (1949) and others
identified, within those stages, more discrete initiatory components.
These components − found in initiation rituals, within myths, and within
most stories − include such recurring dramas as “The Crossing of the
Threshold,” “The Encountering of Tests, Allies and Enemies,” and
“Resurrection and Transformation Before Reentry to the Ordinary World.”
(Campbell, 1949, Vogler, 1998) These archetypal enactments frequently
occur in the therapy hour. While it is beyond the scope of the present
inquiry to discuss them all, let’s reflect upon a few.
Consider “The Call to Adventure,” often delivered
in stories by heralds or messengers, which launches the initiatory
process as well as many a hero’s journey. Somebody or something
suddenly appears with an invitation to adventure. In the village, when
it’s time for the male initiation ritual, the call often arrives in the
form of howling or chanting men, dressed as gods, who come to take the
boys away. One rarely sees a patient being dragged into a therapy
office by a gang of men wearing masks, but he may be pulled in by
dramatic pressures exerted from within, the anxiety, the depression, or
other forms of intolerable dysfunction, an urgent, wild, perhaps mostly
physical sensation that something must be done. Instead of discomforts
to be erased, these symptoms may be welcomed as heralds who are
surfacing to call upon the patient to embark.
That call, that restlessness, is described by
mythologist Michael Mead as the African Gisu people’s concept of litima,
“that violent emotion peculiar to the masculine part of things that is
the source of quarrels, rootless competition, of possessiveness, of
power-driveness, and of brutality. But (litima) is also the source of
independence, courage, upstandingness, wildness rather than savagery,
high emotions, ideals, the movement toward individuation and the very
source of the desire for initiation… Litima names and describes the
willful emotional force that fuels the process of becoming an
individual.” (Bly, Hillman, Meade, 1991) Shall we consider a DSM-V
diagnosis of “Uninitiated Litima?” The Gisu know to expect litima in
the uninitiated teen, and know that the intervention of the ordeals and
rites of initiation are required to help him contain and channel it.
Not everyone is delighted to receive the call to
initiation, and many resist in what
“The Refusal of the Call.” (1968) When the great Father Snake god
comes roaring for the foreskins of the boys of the Australian Murngin
tribe, the boys run to their mothers. (And who can blame them?) The
mothers pretend to protect the boys with spears from the costumed men,
and they wail with grief when their sons are taken away. (Campbell, 1968)
If not dragged, how many Murngin boys would go voluntarily? How many of
our patients, frightened by the roaring of an internal force, are
refusing an essential call?
The Call, The Refusal of the Call…these belong to
van Gennep’s first stage of initiation, Departure: the need to leave
one’s family or home, to leave the warm (or sometimes cold) embrace of
the mother, the family, or the role of child behind. In therapy, one
thinks of patients who dread leaving their apartments, or who seem to
hope that every person they encounter will be a mother substitute. In
object relations, we might think of The Call as the precursor to the
development of a depressive position, “The negation of subjective
fantasy where all wishes may be satisfied without limit or end.”
(Colman, 2006, p.23) In The African Kurnai tribe a newly circumcised
boy completes his journey by crossing from the group of women to the
group of men, turning to throw water in his mother’s face. The shaman
crosses between the women and the men, severing an invisible umbilicus.
Any therapist will tell you that sometimes a
patient comes to therapy looking for a good fight. But it can be hard
for us to grasp the significance of another phase
“The Atonement With the Father,” during which the initiate is forced to
conform to the will of the group. (Campbell, 1968, p. 126) John Beebe
refers to this as, “the necessary humiliation.” (2005) In one
contemporary example, during the boot camp rituals of the elite Canadian
Airborne Regiment, bread is passed among those who are already
initiated, and vomited and urinated upon before being eaten by the new
initiate. (Winslow, 1999) In another example, the Australian Arunta boy
during this stage stays alive by drinking the blood of his maternal
uncles, who sometimes pass out from blood loss, while the boy lays his
head on his father’s thighs. (Campbell, 1968)
(See also Ed Tejerian’s description of Sambian fellatio and similar
rituals elsewhere in this edition.) Paradoxically, the assumption of
the heroic mantle requires a submission to the will of society, and a
defiant, inflated young man (or an angry middle-aged woman, or…) may
show up in the therapy office looking for someone he respects enough to
battle, or to whom he is willing to submit. “When a young man says
‘Fuck you,’ he is saying, ‘You’re hired.’” (Some, 2001)
So many of the dramas enacted in the therapy
office can be understood as elements of an initiation process. When we
prescribe exposure treatment for phobia − aren’t we sending the patient
off to Slay the Dragon? Aren’t patient defenses a contemporary
manifestation of The Guardians at the Threshold, warning us away from
the adventure? A patient awash in previously unfelt grief can
certainly appear to be in The Belly of the Whale, and what about the
grin of a patient who finally holds his own – can that be the look of
The Triumphant Return? Our patients may be presenting themselves to us
with the hope that we as therapists will take up with them some
irreducible, timeless enterprise, the work that strains in them for
mentoring and the challenge of meaningful ordeals, the project that was
abandoned by their village.
Achievement Academy. (2000) Discover the fire within. Retrieved
December 10, 2000 from the World Wide Web:
(2005). Personal communication.
Hillman, James, & Meade, Michael. (Speakers). (1991) Men and the
life of desire. Pacific Grove, California: Oral Tradition Archives.
Joseph (1949) The hero with a thousand faces. Princeton, New
Jersey: Princeton University Press.
Warren. (2006). Journal of Analytical Psychology. (51), 1,
(1958). Birth and rebirth: The religious meanings of initiation in
human culture. New York: Harper and Brothers.
Joseph. (2005). Thresholds of initiation. Wilmette, Illinois: Chiron
(1992). Masculine and feminine: The natural flow of opposites in the
psyche. Boston: Shambhala.
Robert. (1989) He, revised edition. New York: Harper and Row.
Philip. (1992). Magnificent addiction: Discovering addiction as
gateway to healing. Lower Lake, California: Aslan Publishing.
Maureen. (1990). The heroine’s journey: Woman’s quest for wholeness.
Boston, Mass: Shambhala Publications, Inc.
Nave, Ari. (2000) “Rites of passage and transition: a cultural feature
of many African societies.” [On-line article]. Retrieved December 10,
2000 from the World Wide Web: http://www.africana.com/tt_466.htm.
Plotkin, Bill. (2003). Soulcraft: Crossing into the mysteries of
nature and psyche. Novato, California: New World Library.
Plotkin, Bill. (2006) Personal communication.
Prechtel, M. (1999). Long life, honey in
the heart: A story of initiation and eloquence from the shores of a
Mayan lake. New York: Putnam.
(2001) Personal communication.
(1969). The ritual process. Hawthorne, New York: Aldine de Gruyter.
Christopher. (1998). The writer’s journey: Mythic structure for
writers. Studio City, California: Michael Wiese Productions.
Donna. (1999, Spring). Rites of passage and group bonding in the
Canadian airborne. Armed Forces and Society, 25(3),429-457.
Van Gennep, A. (1960). The
rites of passage. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
back to top