Rites of Passage

I’ll never forget reading a book about rites of passage in one of my college classes.
The entire class, in fact, was about rituals and rites and how we humans make sense of the world.  I read about some more culturally disturbing rituals, in which young men are required to “take their elder’s seed” into their mouths to receive the knowledge and strength of their elders (they perform oral sex on their fathers, uncles, and grandfathers).  But overall, the threads of that class — how a ritual is structured, the purpose of a ritual, and all of those things — I see them running through my daily life.

I witnessed a Ph.D. defense yesterday.  Well, the public part. They do the actual defense in private, but I had an opportunity to watch him tell a room full of people about his research. Although much like a normal presentation, an oral dissertation presentation has an additional layer of both nerves and giddiness. It’s not uncommon to hear jokes intended to up the ante, like, “We’ll leave all the questions to your committee,” or, “I’m sure they’ll talk about that later.”

Rites of passage are all around us.  From the training videos at national corporations like Target and McDonalds to the elaborate customs and decorations involved in handfastings and weddings, there are often symbols tied up in our everyday activities.

This line of argumentation or description may be helpful to you in your encounters with the non-pagan world. One of the more common arguments from others is that magic isn’t real, or even worse, magic is evil. Magic, if you remember, is the simple act of demanding change from the world. Any time that someone declares “I do” or “I will” in response to a question or statement, they are engaging in magic. From the court room to the DMV, magic and rituals are all around us. Pagans should not be demonized for calling what they do, what it is. The only difference is that the rituals associated with paganism are less common than the rituals associated with church on Sunday.



The last post was really just a forerunner to this one, and I know it is out of the ordinary for me to post two articles in a day. Consider this one for Saturday and Sunday. I felt that the last post may be confusing to those who exist outside of my brain. Therefore, I will go on to explain my perception, the act of, and the result of purification.

To be purified is to be centered, balanced, and ready to enter a circle. I tend to think of purification as taking the trash out – disconnecting all of those little energy lines that have gathered on you since the last time, wiping yourself clean. Historically, this has been done and described in many fashions. One such fashion that sticks out in my head is that of Hawthorn’s The Scarlet Letter.

In this novel, one of the main characters flogs himself to the point of bleeding. There is one very dramatic scene which relays this, and although I read it close to three years ago, the memory is still there. He flogs himself for punishment, and also to try to feel clean again.

This pattern of physical abuse to achieve purification is littered throughout Western history. Christianity especially, makes use of it through monk/priestly purification (not in recent days, I don’t believe), Catholic school discipline(we’ve ALL heard stories) and of course, the heinous religious wars throughout history intended to subdue or eliminate other religions – we’ll leave the Witch Hunts and the Crusades alone for now. The beating of the slaves was used to keep them in line, and in their place, and justified (either rightly or wrongly, depending on the opinion of the day) through the bible and its text.

It is not only prevalent in Christian culture. The use of flogging in formal Gardnerian and Alexandrian rituals is normal. Sensory deprivation, starvation, and other things which place the body under stress are also found in Greek and Native American cultures. I am unsure of other cultural significances of stressing the body across the world, but I am almost positive that 80% more than half of coming of age ceremonies (a purification and a rite of passage) involve some form of bodily abuse.

It is not exactly a mystery as to why this happens. Through many cultures, we have adages that echo something to the effect of, “Only the Strong Survive”. It is the strong that are pure, and best, and closest to God(s). To be strong and wise are things which are striven for. Keeping this base in mind, let us continue in order to examine the relevance of physical abuse to purification.

Coming of age or rites of passage are the ultimate ‘purification’ rituals. These are the biggies. In native cultures, it is during the coming of age ceremonies that you receive your purpose in life. This is why the knights of the round table held a night long vigil, to receive the mysteries from god. This is why some Native American boys were blindfolded, brought to a remote section of woods, and told to either find their way back, or find their purpose, then find their way back. It is the human collective reality that, when under extreme amounts of stress, our mind becomes separate from the affairs of the body, and we are able to receive intelligence from God(s).

As pagans, we are not expected to have a revelation each time we step into circle. Well, we are. But we are not always there for spiritual consul. Sometimes, it is simply to gape at the beauty and awe of our Great Goddess, her Consort, and her beautiful Earth. And so, we do not receive flagellation(bodily stress), except when participating in an initiation, or a special ritual.

So, the flagellation in ritual is the stress that the body needs to free its mind. But, can it be so? The counting of the blows tends to indicate more of a trial than a purification or a search for knowledge.

I contend that the flagellation in ritual is Gardner and Sanders’ interpretation and recognition that there needs to be a trial, to prove one’s worth. Although the text may indicate otherwise, the scourge in initiation is not for purification. In each of the other instances, ideal purification occurs when the mind separates from the body. If there is something as solid as counting for the mind to hang onto, it may wander to, “Only 21 left!” and detract from the process. In some instances, knowing how much is left, etc, focusing on the numbers, may actually cause more pain and discomfort than not knowing.

There is a beauty in pain. I am not speaking of the pain that comes from an aching shoulder, or from tripping and falling in the mud. I am speaking instead of the bearing of pain. In any test. When a test becomes too great, we reach that threshold, and when we emerge, we are purified. We are changed. We are clean.

Gardner has a ritual in which there is consensual flagellation from a willing partner until an answer or revelation is achieved. This separation of body and mind due to physical stress is what I will refer to as major purification. Anyone who has ever reached a new limit, in running, or bicycling, or any event in which they push themselves to the limit has had major purification. Cultural rites of passage focus on this.

If this is major purification, then what is minor purification? Minor purification is what you do daily. When you ground, and center, and visualize, or anoint, you are performing minor purification. You are cleansed, but you are not cleansed to the point of change. It is like emptying the recycle bin on your computer, versus wiping the entire thing and starting fresh. As we are Witches, and we need balance, we need both forms. In the coming weeks, I will most likely speak of specific methods regarding each form.