The Ancient tribal rites of passage that develop boys into men – how modern day society is failing our boys

Foreword

The following presentation is on the work of Arnold van Gennep an early 19th century Anthropologist and focuses on some aspects of human development that I personally feel we have lost as a society in the present day. In particular this presentation is talking about how boys in tribes were raised into men and even warriors.

This presentation is aiming to create a foundation of understanding about where modern society is currently failing men. It is not intended to be taken literally but to help raise awareness about the concepts these rights of passage were based around, which remain valid nonetheless.

In particular two tribes that can be researched further are the African Maasai and the ancient Greek Spartans. Though there are more tribes that have their own rights of passage that can be researched too.

What is a Rite of Passage?

Traditionally, a rite of passage is a ritual event that marks a person’s transition between childhood and full inclusion into a tribe or social group. The concept of the rite of passage explores and describes various other milestones in an individual’s life when their social status is forever altered.

Initiation rites are a natural and necessary part of a community, just as arms and legs are an extension of the human body. These rites are paramount to the development of an individual as well as the community.

Most of the ancient rites of passage can be separated and classified into five groups. Rite to Birthright, Rite to Adulthood, Rite to Marriage, Rite to Eldership and Rite to Ancestorship. Although there are five different rites of passage, they can more or less be distilled down to three steps: Separation, Transition, and Reincorporation.

Step 1: SEPARATION

The initial stage of the traditional rite of passage is the separation. During this phase an initiate is separated, either literally or figuratively, from his or her former life. During the separation phase, the individual’s past is expelled as the initiate prepares a new life.

Before the separation stage in tribal life, was that of the infant and pre teen child phase of life. During these early years the children would spend most of their time with the mothers and other women being nurtured, but also being involved in daily tasks such as helping with cooking or activities that the women of the tribe were responsible for. The children would not be raised by one woman alone, but by a group as a whole being overseen by the matriarchs of the tribe who had more experience. 

During this stage the men of tribe would not be overly involved with the raising of the child, but would still have involvement when they returned from whatever activities they were doing throughout the day. This is when the father/son bonding would take place. This is important to not because below the ages of 8/9 the nurturing aspect of raising boys and girls was very similar. Likewise having more than just one woman involved in the raising of the children, in particular an older and more experienced matriarch would help to balance out the aspect of inexperience of the young mums and potential overprotective/biased attitude towards their direct offspring. It’s also interesting to note that the education aspect correlates directly with the role required of that tribe as a unit, as opposed to a school which has not direct relation to the children that attend.

The separation stage would take place around the age of 8/9 years old but even younger of around 6 or 7 years in the Spartan tribe. This first right of passage would be marked by a ceremony where the women of the tribe would hand the boys over to the men. In some instances but not all, the boys would not spend any time with the women of the tribe until the final right of passage on their return, but in all cases the main raising of the young boys would now be done by the men.

During this time spent with the men of the tribe, the boys would be taught how to hunt, build, scavenge and defend themselves. The young boys would be around older male members who they could look up to and take advice from. They would learn first hand what it takes to survive and go through experiences which were tough, but ultimately served the purpose of building them into warriors that could look after their tribe. At this point the boys would also learn important fundamentals about respect whilst having firm boundaries put in place by the older stronger male members of the tribe, which ultimately would keep them in line.

Step 2: TRANSITION

The second stage of the traditional rite of passage is the transition. During this phase, the initiate is in a state of transformation, or for the faithful, limbo. The individual is no longer part of his or her old life, but not yet fully inducted into a new one. The transition is usually marked by a series of tests deeming whether the initiate is worthy of this new life.

Once the first stage of the boys training was complete and they reached around the age of 16, the boys would have to face the second yet what could be considered the most difficult but important stage. 

At this point with the boy now what could be considered young men, they would be sent off to survive in the wild on their own for a period of time, often around 3 months. During this time they would have to put to use all of the skills that they had learnt from the training they had received during the preceding years. If the boys returned alive, they would officially be classed as a man, if they returned with a dead tiger they would be officially classed as a ‘warrior’.

This stage would no doubt have been one that was very scary and fraught with danger, but the process of leaving everything they know and feeling the fear and going through it, would ultimately enable the psychological transformation from boy to man, equipping them with tools they need to provide and protect to ensure the continued survival of their tribe. 

Step 3: REINCORPORATION

The third and final chapter for the initiate is reincorporation. After the individual proves himself or herself worthy through a series of tests, the initiate is welcomed back into society and given a grand celebration of their new life.

The final stage once the boys had returned would involve another ceremony of mass celebration, congratulating them on their achievements and initiating them into the adult roles of the tribe. This celebration would honour the young men and make them feel a valued member of the tribe. They would feel secure in their purpose and take pride in serving their community.

In some instances the men would only be allowed to marry and father children themselves once they had passed this stage, which is interesting because it ultimately denotes that the man has shown he has what it takes to be a good father. 

During all phases of the process, the elders who have previously gone through the ritual themselves guide the young initiate on his or her journey. By controlling the rite of passage, the community decides when a boy becomes a man, a girl becomes a woman, or a civilian becomes a soldier.

TODAY’S SOCIETY IS LACKING IN TRADITIONAL RITES OF PASSAGE.

Bringing the rights of passage to modern day

What is important to note in regards to the old tribal rights of passage, is that as a society we have progressed far from what could be judged by modern day standards as quite a brutal/barbaric way of raising young men. 

Things such as being sent off into the jungle to survive for months, not being something that should be advocated for today. There are however some key take away points from it which we should implement into how we raise modern day men.

  • There needs to be a solid social structure for boys to spend time with positive male role models, ones that not only nurture but provide leadership and adequate boundaries.
  • That a process in the form of rites of passage could be implemented, allowing boys to progress along and be celebrated for.
  • That being too protected from the reality of life only inhibits emotional growth, and there is a need for some pain and suffering for this to be achieved. Just not to the extent that it causes developmental trauma. Psychological strength needs to be built over time.
  • There are key biological physical and psychological differences between males and females which need to be taken into account when raising a child. Differences which if not accounted for can lead to a whole array of issues.
  • Men need to be honored for the role they play in their community.
  • Modern day education from nursery to university could be partially considered this, but it is limited in terms of who can succeed (e.g neuro-divergence), and does not focus on psychological/emotional development. (Hunter vs Farmer theory).
  • The focus on nurture appears to become the dominant driving force in educational and school policies, with leadership and character building appearing to have taken a back seat.
  • Boys need that positive masculine influence in order to develop into emotionally mature and capable adults.

Men NEED to be honored for the role they play in their community.

We currently have a set up in Britain and much of the western world where in many ways, the role of providing for the family (traditionally a male role) has been taken over by the government/state. 

Whilst this is a good step forward and enables many children to have their basic needs met and looks after women, Broken homes have become an all too common theme, with many boys being raised by single mothers. Leading to a gaping chasm of leadership and discipline left in its wake. Absent fathers play a role in this too, but this is a separate subject for another article.

The boys of today are growing up in a system where they are not getting the right balance of nurture vs leadership. All too often they are getting to their teenage years, not having had the right boundaries and discipline put in place when they were younger, and becoming too physically big and strong for their mothers to control. 

They are also falling in a category where they cannot be dealt with by the law sufficiently as they are classified as minors, yet they have no methods of dealing with them at home or by the authorities either. 

Under current child protection legislation, unless they are at risk from danger from an adult or to themselves, the issues such as lack of boundaries at home and even abuse to the parent are massively overlooked. Authorities regularly fail to take proactive measures to deal with this area.

The young men, looking for a sense of connection and belonging, whilst simultaneously wanting to emulate those that they see and having strength and power, turn to gangs and criminal activity. There is also the aspect of poverty that plays into this, often motivated by wanting to take care of their mother and siblings when they see her struggling financially, combined with wanting status and power in their community. Often surrounded by a whole community of people who only know crime as a way to succeed, these young boys never acquire true aspirations to aim towards.

They then continue along this path to where they become adults and then get incarcerated as criminals, which all too often by this point is too late for them. Many of the current issues we are seeing with gang, gun and knife crime could be prevented by intervening at an earlier stage.

What needs to be done now is a solution implemented that bridges the gap between those vital early years of nurture to one that guides young boys along the path to being a man.

The problem around this is that in many scenarios, the only way this could be achieved is by creating positive alternatives to youth offending institutions that focus on development rather than punishment..

When a man has not learnt to control his emotions

  • Hair trigger temper (resulting in unnecessary fights).
  • Insane jealousy leading to controlling behaviour and stalking.
  • Alcohol, drug abuse and binge eating, seeking to smother their feelings.
  • Emotionally insecure people who require constant validation leading to manipulative behaviours.
  • Narcissistic and neglectful parenting.
  • Abusive behaviours.

Solutions

  • We need to develop solid social paths for men that are inclusive and lead to recognition.
  • We need to develop men psychologically and emotionally, building resilience and self control.
  • We need early interventions that recognise and deal with these issues before they reach the criminal stage.
  • We need education the be more inclusive around different learning styles and needs so that more have a chance to succeed. 
  • More education around trauma (generational) and working with families to heal and transcend from it.
  • We need to incorporate more positive male role models into the education system that focus on the social/emotional aspect of development rather than just academic achievement.
  • Boxing and martial arts training works directly with a mans drive for dominance and provides a safe channel and outlet for expressing these tendencies.
  • These sports can also be used as a mechanism for achieving rights of passage stages e.g training (separation), competing (transition), recognition of achievement on completion.

In conclusion

  • This is not a full solution, the problem is complex and  requires a multifaceted approach.
  • Socio-economic, cultural and political factors all play a part
  • Fixing it begins by creating a strong foundation for  raising young men and an understanding of what young men need.
  • Common values for community/society need to be established and worked towards.

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