’s “Rites Of Passage”, Durkheim And Turner’s Theory Of Communitas Essay, Research Paper

Van Gennep’s “Rites of Passage”, Durkheim and Turner’s Theory of Communitas

I. Classify using Van Gennep’s categories and point out aspects which would be

of particular interest to Turner and to Chapple and Coons.

The Mescalero girls’ puberty ceremony is an example of a “Rite of

Passage,” a ceremony that marks the transition of an individual from one stage

of life to another (Chapple and Coons, p. 484). The ceremony marks the

transition from girl to “mother of a nation” (p.252). The ritual serves as a

means of establishing equilibrium after the crisis of puberty (Chapple and Coons,

p. 484). It is a method of making this transition from girl to woman easier.

I classified this ceremony as a Rite of Passage, rather than a Rite of

Intensification, because it is held in response to a non-periodic change

(puberty) and it affects the participants individually. The community plays an

important role in supporting the girls-by building the tepee, for instance. At

times, as when the boys join the Singers, the community actively participates in

the ritual. However, the community is involved only because of its members’

relations to the girls.

Van Gennep divides Rites of Passage into three parts: separation,

transition and incorporation. In the Mescalero puberty ceremony, separation is

achieved when the girls move in to their camp homes. During this stage, the

Godmothers and Singers take the role of the parents. This may be described as

a “cessation of interaction between the individual and the group in which he or

she has been interacting” (Chapple and Coons, p. 485). However, there is not a

complete separation from the girls and the community. There are instances (such

as the time when the participants sleep while the community holds contests)

when the two are physically separated, but they are near their families and

friends during most of the ceremony.

The stage of transition, or liminality, is a period in which the

participants lie “betwixt and between” two poles (Turner, p.95). For the

puberty ceremony, this period lasts for four days. In these days, the girls

receive instruction from their elders-especially from Godmothers and the

Singers. For example, the Singer teaches the tribe’s history through his chants

and the Godmother teaches about sex. Gender differences seem to be exaggerated

rather than abolished during this phase, however. The category “female” is

related to fire, the color yellow, and the idea of being protected. “Male” is

related to the poles, the color red, and the idea of being the protector.

Yellow pollen, symbolizing women, is applied to the girls early in the ceremony.

Furthermore, rather than being stripped bare, the girls are ornately decorated.

However, one may argue that they have been stripped of the attire they wore

before the ceremony. According to Turner, the liminal period is one of

humility, obedience, and danger. The girls do exhibit these qualities during

the period of transition, particularly during the all-night dancing ordeal. I

still would not interpret this as a “low” because of the blessings the girls

bestow upon the community and because of the massages they receive from the


The period of incorporation has been described as phase in which “. .

. the individual begins once again his interaction with the members of his

community . . .” (Chapple and Coons, p. 485). As noted earlier, the girls’

interaction with the community is maintained at different points in the ritual.

However, the girls do undergo a radical change during the ceremony, culminating

in their reincorporation into their communities as new individuals. The ceremony

began with the males constructing a lodge and ended with the girls destroying

the lodge. In the beginning, the girls gave blessings and in the end, they

received blessings. Through participating in the ordeal of the dance, the girls

gain power. This change is expressed in the following chant: “Now you are

entering the world. You become an adult with responsibilities” (p. 252).

Symbolically, the passage to womanhood is represented by painting the girls’

faces white-the color of purity and Mother Earth.

II. Where do Durkheim and Turner find communitas? What creates feelings of


in each? Would they find it in this ritual? If so, where and why?

Turner believes that communitas arises out of an ordeal shared by

individuals. In the case of the Mescalero puberty ceremony, the primary ordeal

is the overnight dancing session. Although not explicitly stated in the

article, I can imagine strong feelings of solidarity would arise among the

girls participating in the ritual.

Durkheim’s theory of communitas (or “collective consciousness”) begins

with his analysis of Australian Aborigine culture (Durkheim, p. 34). A totem is

used to represent the community, then rituals are performed which make the

totem sacred. There is a circular motion inherent in such religious

traditions: the totem, as a reflection of the group, indicates that the group

is worshiping itself. The rituals performed elicit feelings of effervescence,

integration and revitalization. It is this process that promotes group

solidarity, providing a connection to a larger community and that community’s

history. I believe that the Mescalero puberty ceremony is better suited to

analysis through the Durkheim model. First of all, the sacred space is a

symbol of the Grandfathers. The fourth Grandfather represents humanity: “. . .

(O)n the fourth day came man, the Apaches” (p. 243). The Grandfathers and the

history of the tribe are integral elements of the ceremony. The ceremony

functions to keep the tribe together, functioning as a cohesive unit. The

girls discover what roles they must play in this society and what is expected

of them as women. For example, it is made clear that they are expected to bear

children and to allow themselves to be protected by men.

III. Discuss elements which would be of greatest interest to Rosaldo/Atkinson,

Ornter, and Gossen.


The Rosaldo/Atkinson article places symbols into categories of binary

opposition. The dominant binary opposition is that of man the life-taker and

woman the life-giver (Rosaldo and Atkinson, p. 130). Elaborating on this idea,

I have divided symbols used in the Mescalero ceremony into the following

categories: “Female” is associated with motherhood, fire, the color yellow, the

protected, and the center. “Male” is associated with warriorship, poles (or

structure, such as a frame), the color red, the protector, and the shield. The

Mountain God dancers, for example, use weapons in their dance. It is hoped

that the girls participating in the ceremony will give birth to warrior sons.

If the girls give birth to girls, it is hoped that these offspring will become

mothers of warrior sons. The song tally sticks that are placed outside the fire

provide a framework. These sticks are described as a “pathway replicating the

form of the holy lodge and its runway” (p. 251). There is a balance inherent

in these divisions. For instance, the colors red and yellow are the basic

colors of the universe. However, asymmetry is also evident. A basket-which

represents the center and therefore the female-is placed in the center of a

circle formed by poles. The girls wait inside the sacred lodge, awaiting

direction from the male Singers. Such incidents suggest the necessity of being

restrained by and subservient to the males. Furthermore, there are many

digressions from the binary categories. At one point in the ritual, the

females dance around the males. Here, the men are the center and the women are

the shield, or framework ( p. 248). We see that the basket represents the

center and the heart. The heart is also associated with the “left.” But at

another point in the ceremony, the males are painted on the left side of their

faces and the women on the right. Women have been described as mothers

(creators) and men as warriors. Yet it is the men who build the sacred structure

and the women who destroy it!


Sherry Ortner uses the term “key symbol” to describe the symbols that

are most important to a culture. In order to find key symbols, it is necessary

to understand their underlying principles. There are five indicators used to

locate key symbols: These symbols are culturally important; arouse positive or

negative feelings; come up in different contexts, are elaborated by a culture;

and have cultural restrictions placed upon them (Ortner, p. 93-94). This is the

criteria I use to examine the key symbols of the Mescalero puberty ceremony.

The author of The Mescalero Girls’ Puberty Ceremony locates 5 key symbols.

These are: balance, circularity,directionality, the number 4, and sound/silence

( p. 242). In my analysis, I will examine the key symbol of sound/silence.

Singing, chanting, playing musical instruments, making “noise” and

observing silence are important elements of the ceremony. The cultural

significance of the sound made by the girls when dancing on the hides is

explained by one of the Singers: “This is the sound that a people will make on

this earth . . . Abide by it” (p. 249).

One of the most profound examples of emotional arousal through sound

occurs at the beginning of the ceremony. Before sunrise, the lead Singer begins

a song while slowly raising his left hand. His song is timed so perfectly that

when he sings the last line of the song, the sun rises, striking his raised

palm. The writer of the article describes this as “a moment of breath-taking

Beauty” (p. 244).

Musical instruments include not only items such as sticks, but also

articles of clothing. “Jingles” cut from tin cans are sewn onto clothing,

providing music when the person dances. This is an example of a symbol

appearing in different contexts. Here we see “musical instrument” crossing

over into the domain of “fashion.”

The song tally sticks represent an instance of cultural elaboration.

Each stick represents a song that has been sung. All the sticks together

comprise a replica of the holy lodge and its runway. Whether it is the “high-

pitched ululation” of the women (p. 243); the “hooting sound resembling that of

an owl or a turkey” (p. 247); or the chants used to recount history (p. 249),

the symbol of sound is significant in almost every aspect of the ritual.

At one point in the ritual, females who are not participants in the

puberty ceremony are forbidden from wearing clothing or jewelry that might make

a noise. Only the participants, the Mountain God dancers and the clowns may

wear such articles. This is an example of a cultural restriction surrounding a



The meaning of the symbols used by the Chamulas and Mescaleros differs

greatly. According to Gossen, the Chamula place a variety of meanings upon the

cardinal directions. East is the primary direction, associated with God the

Father and Creator (Gossen, p. 116). This is the domain of the sun, and

therefore, the east is also associated with “up.” The sun emits light and heat,

through its penetrating rays. Other associations with the east include: male,

goodness, day, fire, and mountains. To the Chamula, the north is also good

because it is to the right of God in the east. Negative qualities are ascribed

to the south. The south is associated with killing frosts and death. The west

is “down.” Three different levels constitute the Chamula’s sky. The bottom

level is what people on earth can see. The second level (in ascending order) is

where the Virgin Mary and the moon reside. The sun and the guardian of animal

souls are at the top level.

The Mescaleros associate each cardinal direction with their Grandfathers

(p. 243). While the Mescaleros also consider the east to be the primary

direction, they associate the east with the First Grandfather, the moon and

stars. The west is associated with animals. The sky-as well as wind, rain

and mountains-lies in the south. Man is in the north, held up by the other

three directions. This can be viewed as a difference or similarity between the

Chamulas and the Mescaleros, depending on which of Gossen’s informants you

listen to. One person described the earth as being supported by man while

another described the earth as being supported by bearers at all cardinal

points. One of the main differences between the Chamulas and Mescaleros is the

value they place on the right or left sides. Mescaleros give preference to the

left, and their rituals are primarily clockwise in nature. Left is also

connected to the heart, to God and the sun. The Chamulas give preference to

the right and to the counterclockwise direction. The Chamulas connect women to

the ground and to coldness. The Mescalero connects women to the ground and to

heat. “Fire” is the primary symbol for the Mescalero women, particularly the

pit fire. Many parts of the puberty ceremony involve the girls’ sitting or

lying on the ground, symbolizing a connection with Mother Earth. The Chamula’s

association between women and the ground, however, holds the negative

connotation of “lowness.”