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Religious Ceremonies that Mark Rites of Passage

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No matter our religion, race, colour, creed or class, at several points in our lives we will have to attend or perform a ceremony that marks a rite of passage either for ourselves, our families or our friends. Below you will find information on diverse religious ceremonies that will help you understand the ceremony you might one day have to attend.


When a Jewish boy becomes a man, at the ripe old age of 13 (when, it should be noted, he is allowed to marry in a synagogue, though presumably not under various national laws) he is invited for the first time to read from the Torah1, as any male member (in orthodox-leaning synagogues) of the congregation is invited to do from time to time. This does not generally take the form of a special service, but he reads the part of the Torah that is up to be read that Saturday (since it is read, in full, from start to finish across the year), and in fact, the process is pretty much invisible (except for the more than usually packed synagogue), since the barmitzvah boy is called up just as anyone else would be. 'Reading' from the Torah often entails singing the part that is to be read out, following notes written in books. It is frequently suggested that it is not coincidence that boys are made to do this just when their voices are breaking.

The ceremony is made more complicated by the fact that vowels do not appear in the Torah - you just have to know how the word is pronounced. Oh, and it's in Hebrew! Touching the actual scrolls of the Torah is not allowed, but a pointer is frequently held just above the page to aid the task - though it is usually hoped that the reader will know his part well enough not to need any help from the actual script he is reading!

After the service there can be some actual reference to the specialness of the day, and it is usually followed by a kiddush which is the ceremonial blessing and drinking of wine and eating of bread. Then comes a party, which is fun. And there's smoked salmon...


First Confession marks the belief that a person becomes morally responsable for his or her actions and deeds at the age of six or seven and involves a time of reflection, meditation, and prayer about the nature of sin, free will, and God's forgiveness. During the ceremony the children pray, sing hymns, and have their first confession with the priest. This used to be seen as a listing off of our sins to await our punishment, but now is more like a spiritual counselling, where the child can tell the priest what he or she is worried about and receive guidance.


As an Anglican priest, I can assure you that Confirmation as a rite does not sublimate any pagan origins. Initiation, in the early centuries, consisted of baptism by total immersion, then anointing with oil by the Bishop, then receiving the Eucharist for the first time Over the centuries, different churches have separated these in different ways. But the Sacrament of Confirmation has always been for an 'infusing' of the grace of the Holy Spirit. In popular Church of England culture, it has been seen as a rite of passage, but that has been grafted on, not the other way around.

In the Roman Catholic Church, the act of Confirmation marks the beginning of a young person's adult life. In the ceremony, they are anointed by a bishop with oil. From that point on they are adults in the eyes of the Church. One gets confirmed usually by learning more about the faiths and traditions of Catholicism. Confirmation is not just a Catholic/Church of England ceremony; most, if not all, of the of the denominations also practice this. It's more to do with being welcomed into 'Gods big family' and being looked at as a mature member of the congregation. The usual age for this is around 13, when we are at an age of much confusion. Really, confirmation is the step after baptism and everybody should be confirmed before they are married (the next step). It also means that you are allowed to take the body and blood of Jesus during the Eucharistic prayer which for many makes that bit of the service far more interesting...

A View from Germany

What has been said about the Confirmation in the Church of England holds mostly true for the Protestant churches in Germany, as I remember my own confirmation. However, the whole act is no longer a demonstration of maturity and adulthood but was intended to confirm one's beliefs, hence the name (wasted effort on me, though).
The great thing about Confirmation in the Ruhr area of Germany, though, was that our uncles, aunts and grandmas would give us some money as a present, which usually was sufficient to fulfil our most desired dreams: our first motorcycles (mopeds). And I tell you, those we used for a number of manhood tests.

Hindu Ceremonies

A Bizarre Wedding

In some Hindu communities, it is not unheard of for a sick child to marry a dog. This is not a marriage that is ever consummated in any way, but rather to ward off the evil eye. The children who are married are often sick or troubled by ill-fortune. It is believed that by marrying a dog, they will transfer all their illnesses and bad luck on to the animal.

This practice is widely condemned in the Hindu community.


Sati is the ancient Hindu practice where a widow throws herself on the funeral pyre of her dead husband. Although now illegal, the practice still happens throughout India today, with the most famous case being Roop Kanwar (see below). Sati is said to cleanse the families of the bride's mother, father and husband. Any children are then orphaned and left to fend for themselves. The practice of sati dates from the time of the Goddess Sati who was so distraught after the death of her husband, she burst into flames. It was particularly popular among the Rajput princely families in Rajasthan.

So why would a widow commit sati? In Hinduism, a woman is regarded as a bird of ill-omen (kulachani). After the death of her husband, she has to walk barefoot, rarely straying from her residence; more importantly, she becomes an economic liability. Widowers, however, are free to remarry.

Roop Kanwar was a young girl belonging to one of the warrior castes of Rajasthan, who, in 1987, committed sati on the funeral pyre of her husband. Reports of the time suggest that she did it spontaneously, despite the fact that hundreds of the villagers turned up for the spectacle. Weeks later it was proved that she had indeed tried to escape the pyre but was either forced back on by her husband's relatives or was packed so tightly with wood she could not move.


The most important religious rite of passage for a Massai male is the one where he goes from boy to moran (warrior). The rite starts with the mass circumcision of boys aged from 13 to 16, after which they are then sent out into the wilderness of East Africa for two years. During this time they have to prove their manhood, virility and strength but they are allowed no contact with established warriors and have to fend for themselves. The ultimate proof of success is if a boy can prove that he has killed a lion while in seclusion. During this time, the boys dress in black robes and are adorned with white markings.

A Traditional Zulu Wedding

To have the opportunity to experience a traditional Zulu indwendwe (wedding) would probably be to have shared in one of life's true celebrations. Unlike the normal European style of wedding, no invitations are sent; the news that there is to be a wedding spreads by word of mouth. The entire community will wish to be involved and to share in this moment. There is singing and ululating (wailing), ancient dances and mock fighting by lone warriors as they fight giya (imaginary enemies). It is a time filled with ibaye (bright coloured wraps) covering shoulders, and married women in indlokos (headdresses), beautiful beaded necklaces, and soft leather aprons swaying to their dances.

Powerful men bearing sticks and shields appear as ibutho (regiment). All the while, respective family groups sing over the existing sounds of celebration and song. An ordered mass of humanity sways back and forth, doing different steps to the same beat, as old women ululating and waving branches of green leaves stagger tiredly back and forth ahead of the girls and young men. Throughout the day, a friendly banter of insults is exchanged as each party tries to outdo the other to show that they have a superior status.

Then there is the lone, powerful call from a single voice - fast, staccato. A response bursts from the men, sitting up expectantly, calling. Then another lone call. Suddenly, hands are being clapped as if to the beat of a drum, a blood-stirring chant, powerful voices rise. A lone warrior appears, flaying sticks and a shield about him in an almost mystical battle with imaginary enemies. A great 'fight', a great warrior, a great giya has been won. A pure celebration of life and masculinity. Women rush around him, staying clear of the whistling sticks.

They encourage, tease and challenge, but he walks off, unconcerned, as if alone and as if nothing has happened. The women continue to dance. Then the amaqhikazi (young engaged girls) run forward. With pebbles in cans tied to their ankles, they perform a strange mixture of jumps and offbeat steps. As neither unattached virgins, nor married women, they are 'in-between' people. They are a group of loners drawn together in a rite of passage. The passage of the bride from her first family to her second.

This then brings us to the bridal party, the veil, and the knife to symbolically cut off the past. This is, perhaps, the most important part of the ritual for the bride's family, as it means the loss of a valuable family member and is the very basis of the tradition of Lobola (bride price). Lobola places a physical value on the girl's contribution to her family and the subsequent loss they experience once she is married. In ancient days, a Zulu father, in giving his consent to the marriage would say 'Ye have stabbed me' indicating that the marriage was a painful loss. Therefore in the words of a Zulu, 'something had to be done to soften the blow'. Thus, the other family would give in return a number of valuable gifts, including cattle. The object of these gifts was to ensure the friendship of the bride's family. With the knife the bride cuts away the past and approaches her husband among the warriors. There are more giya, as warrior after warrior shows their prowess, strength and masculinity. More dance, more song, and more people arrive.

On the hill or ridge above the umuzi (homestead), where the wedding takes place, another gathering occurs. What one sees here will appear to be rampant violence as men, sticks and shields whirl. It is actually another celebration. The men are celebrating masculinity, life, warrior ethics and a joyous test of skills. At first, lines of warriors will spar against one another.

Now the real challenges start with young warriors attempting to move up the ranks, like young bulls challenging the leader of the herd. Two young men become framed by the blurring of whistling sticks. Should one man fall or falter, the warrior captains immediately stop the fight. It is customary, once the tension has subsided after the fight, for the victor to bathe and bind the wounds of his opponent, openly demonstrating that he holds no malice. However, the fight was a fight and there it shall remain, to be remembered in the victor's praise poem. The fight, through its very greatness, will increase the status of these men.

For the marrying warrior this is a time of sadness, but equally, it is a time of growth. As he has married, he has become a provider, a source, rather than a taker of life. He will attend elders meetings and begin to control young warriors. For him it is an extremely stressful period of change.

It is this entire complicated ritual of celebration that comprises the wedding ceremony. At no point are 'vows', in the European context, exchanged. If at any time during the celebrations can it be said that the 'marriage' has taken place, it is with the symbolic cutting of the past with the bridal knife. In addition, during the celebrations, the father of the bride will have told the groom's party to keep her well, and to return her if she causes any trouble or if they tire of her. The whole marriage is only finished when the bride is taken by her sisters to be bathed and examined the morning after!

Freedom from the Body

Many religions are striving towards something more than the obvious bodily transformation, such as birth, puberty and death, and regard changes in mental capacities to be far more important than changes simply to the physical.

In Scientology, the majority of the rituals performed are aiming to free 'thetans' (something like souls, except that there are hundreds or thousands associated with any one body) which are trapped in or on your body. More than anything else in a Scientologist's life, it is the achievement of a higher level of freedom of thetans that is marked by religious ceremonies as rites of passage, and Scientologists endlessly strive to attain higher and higher degrees of 'operational thetans'. Courses are taken in order to achieve such liberation, and while L Ron Hubbard (Science fiction author, and Scientology's creator) advocates some celebration, once a level is attained, there is always more work to be done.

Curiously, while more traditional Western religions tend to look towards positive events, moving from mediocrity to something better (and even Catholicism, with its conception of original sin, does not suggest that we can escape this negative beginning, but seems to argue that we should try to achieve positive things in spite of this), Scientology seems entirely concerned with putting right previous wrongs. While the religion does advocate practices such as marriage, it is the attempts to undo the harm done in the past that is its focus. In fact, many followers of traditional religions are somewhat bemused by the prospect of righting wrongs which seem to be nothing to do with the individual involved. In short, therefore, the major difference for Scientology in terms of rites of passage is that it views them more as a return to a natural, previous state, rather than a step forward to a new, different, and in many ways more dangerous way of being!

1The Torah is the law of God which was revealed to Moses; comprising the first five books of the Old Testament.

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