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HUMN 351 Week Three: Rites of Passage

The Mythic Underpinnings of Life-Cycle Rituals

Author of the Learning Resource, “Rites of Passage” posits four roles that rituals play in society to usher members into various stages of their life cycles. (See below.) These are based on the work of the anthropologists Bronisław Malinowski, Arnold Van Gennep, Clifford Geertz, Mary Douglas, Victor Turner, and others.

Name THREE life cycle rituals that you have experienced (either as a participant or observer) and identify which of the four roles was most prominent in each ritual. Then, identify a myth that underlies each one, and explain the connection between the myth and ritual. Divide your key post into three parts, and state clearly in each section the life-cycle ritual, its social role, and its attending myth.

The four roles that rites of passage serve in society (according to our Learning Resource article, Rites of Passage) are:

  • to give humans a sense of control over natural processes that may be beyond their control, by making it appear that natural transformations (e.g., birth, puberty, death) are actually effected by society and serve society’s ends;
  • to “fence in” the dangers perceived cross-culturally to be present in transitional periods (when individuals are in-between social categories and therefore call the conceptual reality of those categories into question), while at the same time allowing controlled access to their energizing and revitalizing power;
  • to convey, through the emotions and the body, a series of repetitious and unforgettable messages to the initiate concerning the core values of the society into which he or she is being initiated through the carefully structured manipulation of appropriately representative symbols, and thereby to integrate those values, as well as the basic premises of the belief system on which they are based, into the inmost being of the initiate; and
  • to renew and revitalize these values for those conducting, as well as for those participating in or merely watching, the rituals through which these transformations are effected, so that both the perpetuation and the vitality of the belief and value system of the society in question can be assured.

You should study these Week Three Learning Resources about life-cycle rituals as background information to incorporate into your discussion: Rites of Passage and The Life Cycle [overview articles]; Circumcision, Becoming an Adult, Initiation through Trials, Symbols of Release [Joseph Campbell videos], and Norse Myths: Death and the Afterlife [relevant to funerals you have witnessed].

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