I have gone through each of these Rites and cannot tell you which one of these defined it. Yet I know that I am a man. This revelation of my manhood came to me the other day. I was just standing there watching my three-year-old princess run laps around the cul-de-sac at the end of our neighborhood, when BAM! It fell on me heavily. You are a man Nathan. The idea stuck with me -- I am. But when did it happen?
Rites of Passage
Many cultures still have their Ritual Rite of Passage into manhood intact. I read an article once about a group of high school boys who were going to Africa to participate in the Ghanaian into the bush rite of passage. This sounds like a great idea, except that in 2000 two boys died and 50 others were hospitalized in Sebokeng (a town near Johannesburg) after this ritual. What kind of permission slip did the parents sign for that field trip? The boys would be joining the Xhosa people of Kwamagxaki, South Africa, for three weeks of seclusion in the bush followed by circumcision by a non-certified bush doctor or rookie leader. Often, this is done using the same knife, handed down from past generations, without cleaning it in between each boy. Not surprisingly, this leads to infections and complications, often resulting in the loss of the penis or death.
Also in East Africa, the Maasai tribes boys give away their childhood possessions. Their hair is shaved and replaced with ashes. They wrap themselves in black cloth and begin a complex initiation. During a hunt they must find many feathers from different birds to make a big headdress. This nest is a symbol of rebirth, and the new hair growing is the hair of a man. The head is blessed by elders using an elixer of water, milk, and honey and encased in thick red paint. Then the hair is made into dreadlocks.
I was also told about an old Cherokee legend of a youths Rite of Passage. The father takes him out into the wilderness, blindfolds him, and leaves him alone sitting on a stump. He is required to sit still and not cry out for help until sunrise. The young boy is naturally terrified -- he can hear all sorts of noises around him -- some wild beast might come around and hurt him. At last the night is over and he is a man. The boy removes his blindfold only to see that his father was there watching him all night, protecting him from harm.
Where Are We Today?
These rituals are nothing like the few scattered Rites of Passage that we have in our culture. A contributing factor of the lack of transitional rituals may be the lack of masculine influence and mentorship in todays young boys. For the most part, men are not expected to fulfill the need of a boys confirmation of his manhood. Yet, not all American men have given up on this important event. I have been to one ceremony that included men from the church who were involved in the lives of boys. There were speeches, parable life lesson activities, and gifts. The boys leave ready to grow into manhood, in theory at least.
When I was a child, I remember friends telling me about a ritual that would happen around age 18 or before leaving the home to go to college. The boy would be taken hunting, given his own gun and attempt to bag his first deer. He must wait and wait, no video games or Mtv, until he kills one or until deer season is over. If he shoots one he then will have to cut out the heart and eat it raw and pumping, (at least a bite) and drink a little blood; then he must skin and process the deer. I have been told that this is an ancient tradition passed down from Native American tribes.
Whats the Point?
So whats the point of all this? Is it just to hack up our private parts and
cover ourselves in dirt and blood,
and eat things we maybe shouldnt eat? And then when its all over weve magically become men?
No, its not even important what the ritual involves, just that there is one. The point is, after the ritual, what has changed is the boys perception of himself. If he feels like a man, hell begin to act like one. Also, the fact that this is a public event will change the way everyone else sees him too. If he is pronounced a man by other men, then he is one.
In this light, its pretty evident why so many cultures continue to pass down these rituals from generation to generation. Maybe as men, its time for us to start new Rites of Passage. It doesnt have to be dangerous or bloody, just something.
Nathan Wildman is a writer from Traverse City.