Rites of Passage #2: Into Adulthood

Some time ago, I wrote a piece about Atheopagan Rites of Passage. In it, I described life milestones that might be celebrated by an Atheopagan, and which we as Atheopagan “clergy” (we’re all clergy, since we have none) might be asked to officiate over.

On reflection, it occured to me that just talking about these rites of passage probably isn’t helpful enough: that having some guidelines for each such rite would be helpful to the community. So here is the second installment in a new series: Rites of Passage.

Modern Western cultures, with a few exceptions such as the Jewish community, do not mark rites of passage into adulthood. This leads to a variety of problems, many of them rooted in people feeling uncertain whether they are ever “really grown up”. Participation in gangs, having children at far too young an age, and other life-damaging activities are sometimes the result. We would be well served to begin again to mark the passage of young people into adulthood.

I recommend this ritual be conducted around the time of the subject’s reaching the age of 18, which is the first point at which the broader society acknowledges their adulthood. While it may be tempting to do it earlier (say, at 16, when the child becomes legally able to drive), it should be remembered that our brains continue to develop until we are around 25. Later is probably better than sooner.

The ritual should be conducted by a circle of adults who have been selected for their relationship to the subject and their family. If the subject has a preferred gender identity, they may be initiated into adulthood by a circle only of those who share that gender identity, if that is their wish and/or the wish of their community.

Rites of passage into adulthood are generally associated with ordeals or quests. If the example given isn’t workable or desired, some other ritual in the form of a challenge or quest is advised.

In some cultures, these rituals involve instilling the subject with an altered state of consciousness. A wide variety of techniques have been used ranging from ecstatic dancing and drumming to consumption of hallucinogenic mushroom tea. You may choose to use such an approach at your own option and depending on the laws in your area.

Here is the outline of a Passage into Adulthood you can use or adapt as you see fit:

Preparation:

Ritual bath: in advance of the ritual, the subject should cleanse themselves, perhaps with special soap provided by the circle of adults who will conduct the ritual.

Fasting: Unless there are health reasons why they should not, the subject should fast during the day leading up to the ritual, drinking only water.

Ritual clothing: New ritual clothing such as robes or a tunic should be provided prior to the ritual (the subject may be charged with making these themself, though they may need help to do so). Alternatively, some communities may conduct this ritual with the subject skyclad (naked) until clothed with a cloak or robe at the point marked below with *.

Arrival: The ritual begins at midnight, and continues until dawn.

First, the Circle of Adults (who have painted their faces with white clay) convenes, invoking the container of the circle and noting that humans have done these rituals since before we were even fully human. The strength of community and the power of history are evoked as the circle comes together. A heartbeat rhythm is begun on a drum; it continues throughout the ritual (drum may be passed from circle member to circle member as fatigue sets in).

Qualities: In turn, passing a rattle, each member of the Circle of Adults speaks into the circle a characteristic, emotion or value they wish to be included in the nature of the ritual.

Welcome: The subject is then invited to enter the ritual space and stand in the center of the circle. Each member of the Circle of Adults welcomes the subject in turn, by name. Once welcomed, the subject is invited to sit (*and given a robe or cloak if skyclad)

Passing of Wisdom: In turn, passing a rattle, each member of the Circle of Adults tells a wisdom story from their life, charging the subject with the powers and burdens of adulthood: honor, dignity, autonomy, capability, political franchise, responsibility. (a few hours.)

Breaking the fast (1): bread or savory snacks and water or wine are circulated to all, including the subject.

Sacred Lore: The Circle of Adults confers the Four Sacred Things and the 13 Principles to the subject, one at a time, passing a rattle, explaining the importance of each. (a few hours.)

Breaking the fast(2) and conveyance of adulthood: When the sun peeks over the horizon, circulate sweet snacks and water or sweet wine to all. A designated Circle member states: “with this sweet taste, we impart the blessings of adulthood to you. You are one of us: you are an adult.” (The heartbeat drumbeat, which has been carried out all night, ceases)

The adult’s pledge: New adult makes their declaration to the community: pledging to hold Sacred the Four Sacred Things and to uphold the 13 Principles.

The Lasting Mark: New adult casts a handprint outline on gray canvas “cave wall” with sprayed ochre-water (diluted brick-red tempra paint). The paint may be sprayed by mouth, as is traditional, or with a spray bottle. This canvas is rolled up and saved to be used for adult initiations by the same community going forward. Over time, it accumulates handprints of dozens of young people becoming adults. The first time this “cave wall” is used, the members of the Circle of Adults may wish also to place their handprints on it, to establish the lineage of adults in the community.

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Gratitudes: In closing, the Circle thanks subject for joining them as adults. They express gratitude to the Earth, the Sun, the Cosmos, to Life itself. The new adult thanks the Circle.

Benediction: A designated member of the Circle declares the ritual complete, the new day arisen, and the circle of the community expanded. May all go forward in joy and health!

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