What is a rite of passage?

What is a rite of passage?

Hello, and welcome to the Folklore & Fiction newsletter. In this edition, I'm writing about rites of passage with help from scholars Arnold van Gennep, Alan Dundes, and others, discussing rites of passage in fiction, and providing you with storytelling insights related to the topic. Rites of passage are customs underpinned by the beliefs that inform them, much as myths are narratives about the beliefs that inspire them. This understanding of folklore genres as flexible or slippery is an important one, and it's often examined in folklore scholarship. As I move into a second year of genre discussion, I plan to mention these crossovers when I see them so that you can begin to think in multiple ways about the topics I present and bring that thought process to your creative work.

Folkloric Discussion of Rites of Passage

Alan Dundes writes that although Arnold van Gennep had little experience researching and teaching in a university, his analysis of ritual made a tremendous impact upon scholarship in several disciplines. Before this analysis, rituals were often categorized by type, which produced sets of birth, marriage, death, and other sorts of rituals (Dundas 1999, 12). Van Gennep changed this methodology with the realization that most rituals share the same three-fold sequential structure:

  1. Separation: A ritual or the part of a ritual in which a person departs from the old way of being. An example of this might include a marriage proposal and acceptance, which signifies the intention of individuals forming the proposed partnership to leave behind their lives as single people. Ritual activities associated with separation might include removing old clothing or embarking upon a journey.
  2. Transition: A ritual or the part of a ritual in which a person exists between the old way of being and the new. An example of this might include the period of betrothal before marriage, when individuals forming the proposed partnership come to see themselves and be seen by society as a couple. Ritual activities associated with transition might include bathing or the period of travel between the beginning and end of a journey.
  3. Incorporation: A ritual or the part of a ritual in which a person arrives at the new way of being. An example of this might include a wedding, in which the marriage of individuals forming the proposed partnership is publicly affirmed. Ritual activities associated with incorporation might include dressing in new clothing or reaching a destination/returning from a journey.

Rites of passage socially mark a person's movement from one status to another, but it's important to note that social changes and any biological changes they mark are different things. For instance, a child isn't usually baptized at the moment of birth; baptism happens later at a social event. We can take from this that rites of passage and the life transitions they mark are separate but related. Van Gennep also points out that his subcategories are not developed equally across all cultures or in every ritual. Separation rites are more important at funerals, transition rites during pregnancy, incorporation rites in marriages, and so on (van Gennep 1961, chap. 1).

Still with me? Great! This is a complex topic, so I'm going to change gears now and apply it to a single fictional example.

How Rites of Passage Have Been Used in Fiction Writing

The excerpt that follows is from Terry Pratchett's excellent novel Monstrous Regiment. In it, Polly Perks pretends to be a boy in order to join the army of Borogravia and locate her brother Paul, who is missing in action. The rites of passage here are not religious, but there are two, and important beliefs underpin them both. I selected this example because it offers plenty to chew on but isn't a tidy representation of the ritual pattern. In fact, it's easy to miss these rites of passage altogether unless you're looking for them.

Rite #1: A Rite of Gender Transformation from Female to Male.

The separation and transition stages of this rite happen before the excerpt begins. Polly sets the ritual pattern in motion by cutting her hair and leaving home. Both are classic separation activities. On the road between home and the recruitment station, she spends time thinking about and practicing boy behaviours. Both the travel itself and the practice are classic transition activities. At the recruitment station, Sergeant Jackrum and Corporal Strappi's teasing about her alter-ego's virility is a ritualized behaviour among men and teenage boys, which indicates their acceptance of her as one of them. This ends the rite by incorporating her into a masculine group.

The beliefs underpinning this rite are primarily concerned with gender roles; the ways men and women are expected to look and behave, the activities they are expected to undertake or avoid, and the consequences for transgressing gender boundaries. These beliefs are widely held in Borogravian culture, and they give rise to both the informal rite of passage Polly undertakes and the plot of the novel itself.

Rite #2: A Rite of Identity Transformation from Civilian to Soldier.

We'll come back to this rite of passage in the exercise below. For now, give the excerpt a read.

Fictional Rites of Passage in Monstrous Regiment

. . . Polly pushed open the door. The recruiting sergeant and his corporal looked up from the stained table where they were sitting, beer mugs halfway to their lips. She took a deep breath, marched over, and made an attempt at saluting.

‘What do you want, kid?’ growled the corporal.

‘Want to join up, sir!’

The sergeant turned to Polly and grinned, which made his scars move oddly and caused a tremor to shake all his chins. The word ‘fat’ could not honestly be applied to him, not when the word ‘gross’ was lumbering forward to catch your attention. He was one of those people who didn’t have a waist. He had an equator. He had gravity. If he fell over, in any direction, he would rock. Sun and drink had burned his face red. Small dark eyes twinkled in the redness like the sparkle on the edge of a knife. Beside him, on the table, were a couple of old-fashioned cutlasses, weapons that had more in common with a meat cleaver than a sword.

‘Just like that?’ he said.




‘You don’t want us to get you stinking drunk first? It’s traditional, you know.’


‘I haven’t told you about the wonderful opportunities for advancement and good fortune, have I?’


‘Did I mention how the spanking red uniform will mean you’ll have to beat the girls off with a stick?’

‘Don’t think so, sir!’

‘Or the grub? Every meal’s a banquet when you march along with us!’ The sergeant smacked his belly, which caused tremors in outlying regions. ‘I’m the living proof!’

‘Yes, sir. No, sir. I just want to join up to fight for my country and the honour of the Duchess, sir!’

‘You do?’ said the corporal incredulously, but the sergeant appeared not to hear this. He looked Polly up and down, and Polly got the definite impression that the man was neither as drunk nor as stupid as he looked.

‘Upon my oath, Corporal Strappi, it seems that what we’ve got ourselves here is nothin’ less than a good, old-fashioned patriot,’ he said, his eyes searching Polly’s face. ‘Well, you’ve come to the right place, my lad!’ He pulled a sheaf of papers towards him with an air of bustle. ‘You know who we are?’

The Tenth Foot, sir. Light infantry, sir. Known as the “Ins-and-Outs”, sir,’ said Polly, relief bubbling through her. She’d clearly passed some sort of test.

‘Right, lad. The jolly old Cheesemongers. Finest regiment there is, in the finest army in the world. Keen to join, then, are yer?’

‘Keen as mustard, sir!’ said Polly, aware of the corporal’s suspicious eyes on her.

‘Good lad!’

The sergeant unscrewed the top from a bottle of ink and dipped a nib pen in it. His hand hovered over the paperwork. ‘Name, lad?’ he said.

‘Oliver, sir. Oliver Perks,’ said Polly.


‘Seventeen come Sunday, sir.’

‘Yeah, right,’ said the sergeant. ‘You’re seventeen and I’m the Grand Duchess Annagovia. What’re you running away from, eh? Got a young lady in the family way?’

‘’e’d ’ave ’ad to ’ave ’elp,’ said the corporal, grinning. ‘He squeaks like a little lad.’

Polly realized she was starting to blush. But then, young Oliver would blush too, wouldn’t he? It was very easy to make a boy blush. Polly could do it just by staring.

‘Don’t matter anyway,’ said the sergeant. ‘You make your mark on this here document and kiss the Duchess and you’re my little lad, you understand? My name is Sergeant Jackrum. I will be your mother and your father and Corporal Strappi here will be just like your big brother. And life will be steak and bacon every day, and anyone who wants to drag you away’ll have to drag me away too, because I’ll be holding on to your collar. And you might well be thinking there’s no one that can drag that much, Mr Perks.’ A thick thumb jabbed at the paper. ‘Just there, right?’

Polly picked up the pen and signed.

‘What’s that?’ said the corporal.

‘My signature,’ said Polly.

She heard the door open behind her, and spun round. Several young men— she corrected herself, several other young men had clattered into the bar, and were looking around warily.

‘You can read and write, too?’ said the sergeant, glancing up at them and then back to her. ‘Yeah, I see. A nice round hand, as well. Officer material, you are. Give him the shilling, corporal. And the picture, of course.’

‘Right, sergeant,’ said Corporal Strappi, holding up a picture frame on a handle, like a looking-glass.

‘’Pucker up, Private Parts.’

‘It’s Perks, sir,’ said Polly.

‘Yeah, right. Now kiss the Duchess.’

It was not a good copy of the famous picture. The painting behind the glass was faded and something, some kind of moss or something, was growing on the inside of the cracked glass itself. Polly let her lips brush it while holding her breath.

‘Huh,’ said Strappi, and pressed something into her hand.

‘What’s this?’ said Polly, looking at the small square of paper.

‘An IOU. Bit short of shillings right now,’ said the sergeant, while Strappi smirked. ‘But the innkeeper’ll stand you a pint of ale, courtesy of her grace’ (Pratchett 2010, 8-11).

How Rites of Passage Might Be Used in Fiction Writing

Rites of passage should be built on existing cultural world-building and reflect your fictional society's religious and secular beliefs. Rites may be formal and include rituals for all three parts of van Gennep's pattern, they may be informal and include the storytelling beats of separationtransition, and incorporation, or they may be a blend of the two like the excerpt above. The power may lie with the culture to force the rite of passage upon its members, or it may lie with the individual, who chooses to undergo the rite. Finally, it may be an old rite with strong cultural resonances, or it may be a new rite that borrows from other cultures.

That said, I would agree with Barry Stephenson's concern that ritual experimentation requires imaginative thinking, and forcing van Gennep's pattern onto newly-crafted rituals might limit the role of imagination in their construction (Stephenson 2003, 35). So what would a four-part ritual pattern look like, and how would it play out in your fictional worlds and cultures? How would a society operate if rites of passage were actively prohibited? What are the stages of life for a sentient sun, and how would you write Sol's understanding of the passage from dust cloud to nuclear fusion reactor to red giant to white dwarf?

Now that you have a basic understanding of Arnold van Gennep's rites of passage pattern, how would you transcend it?

An Exercise in Understanding Rites of Passage

In this exercise, you're going to outline the second rite of passage in the excerpt above. I'll help you with the first part of van Gennep's three-fold pattern and a few pointers for the others. As you begin, remember that this is a rite of identity transformation from civilian to soldier.

  1. Separation: The separation part of the rite may be said to occur when Polly leaves home. It may also be said to occur when she opens the door at the beginning of the excerpt and announces her intention to become a soldier. In either case, I would argue that separation is less important than transition and incorporation here.
  2. Transition: Look for clues about Polly's transition in the power dynamic and dialogue between the characters in the scene. Where do these exist outside the pages of the novel? Hint: My husband is a veteran, and he found them quite familiar.
  3. Incorporation: Look for clues about Polly's incorporation into the military as a soldier in the ritualized activities she undertakes near the end of the excerpt. Hint: Providing a signature is one of these.
  4. Beliefs: What beliefs about Borogravia, the military, and the Ins-and-Outs underpin this rite of passage?

If you want to practice further, watch the The Hunger Games. You might also watch the first season of The Handmaid's Tale. As you do, think about the social beliefs underpinning these narratives. How do Katniss Everdeen and Offred retain a sense of personal agency in the rites of passage they undertake, especially since they aren't willing participants in these rites?

That's all for now. Thanks so much for your time! I'll be back next month with a discussion of superstitions.


  • Dundes, Alan. 1999. International Folkloristics: Classic Contributions by the Founders of Folklore. Blue Ridge Summit: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.
  • Pratchett, Terry. 2014. Monstrous Regiment. Reprint. Harper: New York.
  • Stephenson, Barry. 2003. ‘Ritual Criticism of a Contemporary Rite of Passage’. Journal of Ritual Studies 17 (1): 32–41.
  • Van Gennep, Arnold. 1961. The Rites of Passage. Translated by Monika B. Vizedon and Gabrielle L. Caffee. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Kindle.

Monthly Folklore Meme Archive

Here are the folklore-related memes I published to social media in December 2019.