Rites of Passage: Puberty
by Sue Curewitz Arthen ©1989
Puberty is defined as the age or period at which a person is first capable of sexual reproduction, in other eras of history, a rite or celebration of this landmark event was a part of the culture. This is true of tribal societies that exist today, but for most of us, puberty as a specific event is part of a much more complicated piece of our lives called adolescence.
In the early twentieth century, G. Stanley Hall, noted American psychologist, first defined adolescence as a distinct stage in human development. This great step in the tracking of our evolution affected the rites of passage for puberty in a permanent way. Instead of a rite that focuses on the crossing of a threshold, moving from childhood to adulthood, we have a random series of experiences spanning a period as long as fifteen years. There are many reasons for this, but three factors contribute in a way that has accelerated in post World War II America.
First is an increased vigilance in protecting our young. One aspect of this is a genuine desire to protect our children from hardship, combined with a yearning for upward mobility. My parents did everything in their power to prevent me from “going without,” as they did growing up during the Depression. Balancing this is a desire to shield ourselves from old age. The changes in the nuclear family have deep roots in this post-war period, and although women were bribed back into the home with the latest in 50’s technology manifested in appliances designed to make their lives easier, men were more likely to return from war with expanded skills, access to education, and no small amount of wanderlust. Families packed up and left the old home town, leaving Grandma and Grandpa behind. Over time, our veneration of our elders was replaced with the adoration of youth. By protecting our children, we keep them “young,” thus preserving the fiction of our own youth.
Second, for most of us, a gap of varying degrees separates our spiritual lives and our physical lives. This gap is supported by a technological world where more and more energy is consumed in using one’s “head.” The result is less energy for one’s heart and one’s instincts. I had exceptional parents, in that when I got my first period, I had been prepared for it by both my parents. The careful, rather neutral talks with my mom, starting at about age ten, were about the changes my body would undergo. I had more “upfront” talks with my dad about what these changes would elicit from young men, and the changes they were experiencing at the same time. But at no time was it suggested that I stop and contemplate what this meant in a spiritual context, although I was now able to bring forth life – connecting hand to hand with numberless women before me, with sacred choices and responsibilities.
Third, a result of overprotection and the spiritual/physical gap is a real denial of sexuality. After a modern upbringing which I hoped to improve on with my own children, I found it a real struggle to say to my twelve year old daughter, “Look, these changes will come to you. You must consider the responsibility they bring, and you have no control over when the changes come. I will support you in your efforts to ease into your woman’s shape, but I can no longer control what happens to you. This is the beginning of claiming your own power.” We are both scared and excited about the whole thing … and for many it is easier to assume that a “child” of nine or ten would be burdened by such a talk. Yet they refuse to connect this lack of loving education with the alarming number of pre-teen pregnancies. In addition, the demand for higher and higher education, and the desire for a career, combined with modern birth control methods, makes it easy for many of us to deny the connections between sex and reproduction.
Puberty rites signaled a tribe’s acknowledgement that one its young women or young men had reached the age of responsibility, fertility, and community productivity, and these rites made an indelible impression on the participant. Puberty rites, which took a variety of forms and have been well documented and analyzed, were an attempt to mold and educate the youngster, and prepare them for their new role in life.
Some rites involved what we call mutilation: scarring, piercing of body parts, and tattooing, all endured in silence. Others revolved around endurance: beating, rigorous fasting, trials of pain, and seclusion, one tribe sequestered their young women for a full year. This seclusion allowed the young women to remove themselves from daily chores and contemplate their new status. In addition, there were rites surrounding the imposition and subsequent removal of taboos, such as single sex mysteries, specific dietary laws, even specific speech restrictions. These things provided a structure for young people to work within. For example, as a child, you can talk to all males, but when you become a maiden, there exists a whole set of guidelines that ease you into the areas of courtship and mating by designating what conduct is appropriate and safe. Common to all types of rites is the use of ritual paint, special clothing, a new name, and specific instructions from the elders about sacred law, daily life and tribal legends. Honor, loyalty, respect, and how these might be maintained or breached were shared with you. You were initiated into adult privilege.
Today, at least in Western cultures, we have no such clearly defined threshold, and our “rites” are randomly scattered throughout the mid-teen years. Getting your driver’s license, entering college, turning legal age, traveling across America or to Europe are all social rites. But the entrance to this most turbulent period of our lives is vague, and veiled in folktales and low expectations. To further complicate matters, the period of adolescence has probably doubled in length since Hall first identified it, our children mature younger and younger and take longer and longer to prepare for fully engaged membership in the adult sphere. Perhaps we need to look at ways to redefine the doorway so that the circle of adolescence is complete.
Adulthood. We give the appearance of having left adolescence behind, but that is a myth. Efforts to integrate the experiences of those years through analysis – personal and professional – occupy vast amounts of time and energy. Shared descriptions of events from that period, most often in single-sex settings, are as vivid as if they had happened recently. Perhaps adolescence is a universal shamanic experience – failing apart, reshaping, agony, ecstasy, coming out new.
With few exceptions, most adult Pagans come from other more established, belief systems and quite often had the appropriate religious ceremonies in early adolescence. In retrospect, however, it is clear that our Christian confirmations or Jewish Bar and Bat Mitzvahs were not entirely fulfilling. This is one place where the gap between what is happening to us physically and what is taking place spiritually is evident. There is a longing among us to have that time marked in ways we would describe now with Pagan definition. Ritual baths, special cords and robes, new names, vision quests are all thought of as ways to mark this passage. More importantly, however, we wish there had been a deeper connection with one or both parents. Given our general age group, we again see the connection to the Post War era. Our parents’ generation was perhaps the first to raise children facing the prospect of a “carefree” teenagehood. The economy was less depressed and middle-class life became the norm. The luxury of a teenagehood must have seemed an alien and confusing thing to our parents, and their confusion is part of the emotional baggage we struggle to shed. Our longing for deeper connections are selfish, both because of our own needs, and also because of a desire to do better by our own young.
Some people had the good fortune to have “rituals” happen to them. One man related an experience that was unique for him, and classic as a rite of passage. This two-fold experience happened during his sixteenth summer, and began with an intense merging with the oneness of the physical universe as he stood alone on a mountainside after an arduous climb. This was followed by acceptance into a group of men via a casually tossed beer, thrown to the city boy after a long, hot day of ranch work with the crew. As I listened to this story, I was struck by the power of that mountainside connection and tasted the sweetness of acceptance and empowerment in that beer.
When I spoke with several Pagan young adults about their teenagehood, I found it interesting that few of their parents, who are also Pagan, actually say they are raising their children as Pagans, perhaps because of issues about labeling and limiting exploration. These people, too, had very typical moments of pain, confusion and loneliness, off set by the joy and excitement of growing independence. But there was a difference in the pattern or energy, a kind of empowerment.
“Empowerment” has become a buzzword, but it truly conveys what that experience evoked. These people have a center, a focus, rooted in nature and nourished by a broader vision of the universe than the one conceived of by their peers. It is this empowerment that helped to ground the confusion and loneliness. This feeling of empowerment partially manifested as a more mature viewpoint than the peer group offered and often set the youngster apart. One woman described it as “having an attitude … some might say a bad attitude!” At a time when most kids could not be more disenfranchised by society, any internal strength sticks out like a red flag.
Although generally more mature, often less impressed by the surface goings-on, these men and women do not believe they were angels, or perfect, or superior. But the mantle of an inner wisdom and maturity, and the sense of being part of a whole universe, helped them form a positive attitude that the community will come to rely on as we grow. It is genuine. It is responsible. Responsibility is a key word for these young Pagans. The lessons of connection to Mother Earth, to one’s community, friends and family, were all absorbed. Coming of age meant taking on rights and responsibilities, and making informed choices. One man feels that a puberty rite when he was younger would have meant less than the rite he now looks forward to, as he celebrates his separation from the circle of his family and the shaping of the circle of his adult life. Informed choices. Knowing there is always some degree of choice, our young adults realize that they can be and they can do, if they have the will and the intention. Entering adoles- cence, taking that first leap off the cliff, means a long terrifying fall to most. This new generation of Pagan adults understands that there is a long scary fall, but that in leaping, one can choose to fly.
Empowerment. Responsibility. Choice. Does this translate at all to the pre-teens with one foot firmly planted in childhood and the other kicking at the door of adolescence? In some ways, it does not translate at all, because we are not truly a physical community. Our kids grow up apart from each other, and often do not see that their cousins, siblings and friends are following the same patterns they follow. In addition, our community is largely made up of adult “converts”: as yet we have few children to hand traditions down to.
A few pre-teens talked to me about their ideas of what lies ahead. They have an abundance of self-confidence, partly in themselves, but more in their ability to choose and to do. They expressed a deep conviction that Pagan beliefs feel right to them, and seemed to question why other children do not have the choices they do. The young women look ahead to their own rites with uncertainty. The idea of a rite of passage for this particular time in their lives is a little alien to them, but the attention that comes with a special rite of their own is exciting. A young man from Maryland describes his rite as the most powerful experience of his life, and looks forward to the rites that lie ahead of him. Whether having their own rites will produce that same enthusiasm for the young women depends on many things.
In providing the context for puberty rites, there is a mandate on us to establish rituals that include the energy of previous times and tribes, and that also embrace the realities of our children. Some girls bleed as young as nine years old. They need to be able to connect with their own power, while feeling supported in the fact that they are not women in society’s terms. Some girls mature emotionally at a young age, and are desperately in need of the transformation that a rite would offer – yet their first menstruation may not come until their mid-teens. Young men fare equally unevenly. The need for support and acknowledgement may come long before any physical signs of sexual maturation.
Let us consider three rituals that together manifest the energy of growth into adulthood. The first might be a ritual, at age nine or ten, which says, “You are no longer a child. You are a Maiden/Warrior/Youth. and you begin the path that will take you to adulthood.” The second ritual, at a girl’s first menstruation and some obvious sign of physical maturity in boys, would say, “You have now crossed into young adulthood. You are a young woman/young man now, and can accept some rights and responsibilities.” Finally, we could close the circle of adolescence with a third ritual – one of separation, which says “Now you are a man/woman. and though the circle of your life will always include energy from the one you have shared with your family, it is time to create your own circle.”
Our rites of passage connect us life to life and generation to generation. By addressing the specific energy of each rite, we recognize the different steps in the transitions from child to adult as they exist now in our culture, honor those steps, and in doing so, we keep the energy of the circle flowing freely.
SUE CUREWITZ ARTHEN was not a writer when we asked her to undertake the Rites of Passage series. Priestess, Heater and Elder, Sue worked with EarthSpirit Community’s Mooticircle and is the mother of two Pagan children.