Puberty rites and coming of age ceremonies are celebrated around the world. Sadly we often associate them with horrific mutilations, or drug use, or cultural practices which out of context we cannot understand. Over time some have also become diluted, commercialised, or rejected by the youth for whom they are intended.
In times or cultures where the cultural value of ritual is recognised, often the greatest effort was given to the rite of passage from childhood to adulthood – and yet paradoxically it is the one that is now most often lost. Although birth and marriage and death were marked, the greatest importance was given to the puberty rite as it was recognised that this was the most crucial transition to get right, both for the individual and the community.
Researching puberty rites across time and around the world there are many common elements – which I have detailed in Key Ingredients for a Rite of Passage. Follow The Journey menu down the right-hand side of this page to support your own daughter as she comes of age. Co-creating your own rite of passage gives you guidance in designing your own rite of passage with your daughter.
Below I have written fictionalised accounts of rites from different countries and religions to give you a flavour:
My name is Ama. My people are the Urubu-Kaapor and we live on the banks of the river Amazon in Brazil. I am thirteen years old. Last week began my bleeding and so now I am in my kapyk at my home where I must stay alone for one moon cycle until my next bloods. I can hear the sounds of my family in the main part of our home but I cannot see them because they have hung palm-leaves to separate me. I miss playing with my sisters. I must stay in my hammock and not let my feet touch the ground to keep the magic in me. My mother brings me food and warm water to bathe in. Usually we wash in the river. The warm water is nice. The food is not too good though. I am only allowed u’i and jaxi te – cooked white cassava meal and stewed white tortoise. Yesterday my father cut all my hair off and I will only be allowed other foods when my hair has grown long again. I am spinning my carauá string. My mother has shown me how. When I join the village again I will give some to each of my relatives and the rest will be tied around my neck with feathers like the other women in my village. Every day the women come to teach me. They bring sacred objects and tell me our stories. They are preparing me for my marriage to Tapu, our head goatsman. My mother says he’ll be kind to me but I feel sad to leave my home. I will have new duties, duties of a wife.
Next week my father will put tapia’æ, ants, onto my skin under cloth binders around my stomach and forehead. They will bite me but I will show my pyratã, my strength, I will not cry out. The pain will make me strong. This will show that I am ready to be a woman.
When it is time for me to leave my kapyk there will be much dancing and eating. First my father will peel a cassava for me and I will make soft balls to bake in the sun. I must prepare my own fire and toast the cassava grains by myself and then take the grains to every family in the village. I will also make cassava drink for my family. Then I may wear the woman’s feather necklace. My mother will give me my waistband. For the ceremony I will paint my face with urucu, pink paint, on my forehead and chin. I will then be a woman. The men will kill and cook a goat and the women will sing and dance until the sun rises again. Then I’ll go home with my new husband. My name will then be Amatapu.
Well, my prom was pretty cool, I went with this guy I knew, Jared, that I’d been crushing on seriously for like the whole year. I spent a lot of time trying to decide whether to ask him or not, I was so petrified to make a fool out of myself, but finally some buddies of mine convinced me to just suck it up and ask. If I had known he’d say yes it would have saved me a lot of worry.
With that out the way I could get down to the really serious planning. I’d been getting Prom Magazine all year so I knew how much had to be done. I only had three months and most of my girlfriends had already got their dresses and that. First thing I did was book my hair and make-up. I was lucky ‘cos they get really booked up and you end up with a late appointment and no time to dress after. But I got the same time as my friend Katie so she planned to come back to mine after and get ready together. We checked with our dates and they agreed to share a limo, and with our friend Kristin and her boyfriend. Mum said she’d go shopping with me for my dress but that would have been a nightmare. Her taste and my taste are totally, totally out of sync. But she was a sweetie my Mum; she argued with my Dad when he had an epi’ about how much it was all costing. She said that prom night for a girl is the best day of her life and that he shouldn’t cheat me on it. That scored me the extra jewelry. In the end they let me go shopping with Kerstin and we both found awesome dresses. We went to Summerset Mall three hours drive away so that no-one else would have the same as ours. Mine was a Jovani, black with diamante straps and cut up the leg and it was like, the best. I found diamante shoes with just a half inch heel ‘cos I wanted to be able to dance and a bag to match. Dad gave me some diamante earrings. Mum treated me to a facial, eyelash tint, manicure, and wax too.
Jared is not the type to dance or get dressed up. So when he agreed to go to the prom with me, I was psyched. I was actually going to see him in a tux. When we discussed plans, he told me that we could meet at my house so our families could meet, and we could do pictures. This was the first time we were going to meet each other’s families. Everything was perfect, my hair was all pinned up with corn rows in the back and these little ringlets around my face, I had pink lipstick, pink nails and then he was going to bring a pink corsage. Katie and I were really psyched waiting for the limo to arrive.
When the boys arrived we took masses of photos and Jared was really polite and that to my Mum; he even brought her some flowers. We sat next to each other in the limo and went to pick up Kerstin and her boyfriend. Then we all went to the Westerbrook Lodge for a really fancy meal, starters and everything, though I didn’t want to eat too much or I’d burst out my dress! We got to the prom at seven and you should have seen all the balloons and ribbons and banners and stuff. It was cold while we were outside waiting to go in, so he let me wear his tux jacket. I got many compliments on my hair and dress. Even Jared’s friends were like “Man how in the world did you get her!! I was soooo happy! The dance was so romantic, we danced to almost every song, even the slow ones. When they announced prom King and Queen, guess who got it… yeah you guessed it! We did. And during our dance together in front of everyone, he told me in a voice that everyone heard, “I wouldn’t want to be anybody’s king but yours!” Can you believe that? He said that in front of all of his jock friends, and everything. It really made my heart melt. And when he dropped me back home he kissed me! We were all in the papers the next day and I will never forget that night as long as I live!!
Onawah’s Sunrise Dance
My name is Onawah which means ‘wide-awake one’. I am of the White Mountain Apache Tribe in Arizona. My people have lived here for many years although things have changed a great deal in that time. I am thirteen years old and I am a woman now.
Plans for my na’ii’ees, my Sunrise Dance started the month that we knew it was my time. For six months I had to run, more every day to build up my strength. At dawn we visited Udit, our medicine man, and laid the eagle feather at his feet and he picked it up. Then we went to Elina’s house and she too picked up the feather. This meant that she accepted to be my godmother. Udit and Elina worked with me for many hours teaching me our sacred ways with stories and songs, showing me herbs, and other ways of healing. Everybody helped, the men built a lodge and for many weeks we prepared food and my mother worked on my buckskin dress.
The Sunrise Dance lasts four days and nights and everyone is invited. There are too many sacred ceremonies, dances, songs, enactments, and blessings to tell you them all. Udit led it all and Elina stayed with me the whole time. First she painted me all over with cornmeal and clay which could not be washed off and then she ran with me towards the east until I could go no further. Each day at dawn we ran to the east, each day a little further, then back again. Udit called on our Great Spirit and the spirits of our ancestors to guide me and keep me safe. In dances, chants and stories I played the part of White Painted Woman, the first woman, so that I may know the ways of our women. With White Painted Woman’s spirit inside me I learnt my healing powers and people came to me for blessings and healing. They also brought me gifts and their blessings. Every day we danced and sang for many hours, each day longer than before. Elina and my cousin, Kushala, danced with me, helping my spirit. Elina brought me food and drink. Each day I also ran as far as I could to the south and to the north and to the west, towards each of the four stages of life. My family made food and gifts for all our visitors. Every night Elina massaged me to ‘mold’ me into the shape of White Painted Woman so that I may become her. Udit led the dancing, drumming, chanting, and praying which went on through the night. Even as I became more tired than in death itself, I showed only my good spirits for how I carried myself at Sunrise decides how I would be in adult life. Elina helped me to push away my giving-up thoughts and my bad thoughts towards others when all I wanted to do was be allowed to sleep. On the last day, when I had truly found my healing powers, I blessed everyone in my tribe with pollen and everyone could gain good health by my touch. We ended with a feast.
Now I feel proud to be Apache. An Apache woman. I never realised before how much that would mean but now I do and Elina will be my special guide all my life.
For all my relations. Ho!
Ilana’s Bat Mitzvah
Hi, my name’s Ilana and I’ve just turned twelve. I live in Golders Green in North London with my Mum, Dad, older brother and our dog, Zipora (which means bird, go figure!) Anyway last month I had my Bat Mitzvah but there’s not much to tell. I’m Jewish and I suppose you could call us practising Jews although we’re nothing like as religious as some round here. Anyway according to Jewish Law every girl becomes bat mitzvah when she turns twelve which means that we have to obey God’s commandments, fast at Yom Kippur and stuff – before that we’re just kids and of course you’re supposed to obey God’s laws but it’s more your parents fault if you don’t. Someone said that bat mitzvah means responsible female so I guess that’s what I am now. The boys they don’t have their bar mitzvah until they’re a year older when they’re thirteen and even that’s too early in my opinion. Have you ever met a responsible thirteen year old boy; I know I haven’t. Anyway you should have seen the big deal they made when my brother had his bar mitzvah. Months of classes learning Hebrew and studying the Torah, that bit I wouldn’t want; or having to read from the Torah and lead the prayers in the synagogue. But the party, you should have seen the fuss they made. Caterers, a band, two hundred guests; you’d have thought he’d really done something special not just got a year older. And the presents – he could have made a small fortune on ebay if he’d not wanted to pile them up and gloat. All I got was a charm bracelet and a few candles and silly stuff. And a little party at home with Mum, all my ‘aunties’ and their women friends. I suppose some of the things they said were kind of nice, like my Aunt Rachel saying I was a credit to the family. Still, I wanted it to be more special, not just to make it fair, but to make it feel like, well, more.
My name is Charlotte Wilson but soon it will be Charlotte Teresa Wilson. That’ll be after my confirmation next Sunday when we take the name of our favourite saint. I like Teresa because she didn’t find it easy to be a good catholic and neither do I. My whole family is catholic and when I was a baby I was baptised. Now that I’m nearly twelve the promises that my parents and my godparents made for me at my baptism, well I can make them for myself. We have to learn all about our faith in special classes, catechism classes every week after church. We’re supposed to prepare for everything to do with being an adult in the Catholic Church and sometimes the classes can be a bit serious. We still manage to have fun though. We each have a sponsor who is a grown-up who helps all during the time that we are preparing for our confirmation. I’ve got my Aunt Lucy, she’s my mother’s little sister and she’s much younger than my Mum. We get along really well and she understands what it’s like growing up, you know, growing up and being Catholic; much better than my own Mum sometimes. Lots of my friends aren’t Catholic and they can be a bit mean sometimes when I can’t do the same things as them on Sundays because of my religion and everything. My best friend, Susie, she doesn’t make a big deal out of it though; once she even said that she wished she could have a special ceremony like we do.
I’m really looking forward to my confirmation day – well mostly I am. I’ve got a really pretty, new, white dress and Mum will put flowers in my hair. We’ll all be doing it together, my catechism class. I’m a bit nervous because the bishop asks us questions to see if we’re ready and I’m sure I’ll forget stuff I really know. My sponsor will be there too though, so that will help. There’ll be a special church service and everyone will come and the bishop will put this special oil on my forehead and then with his hand on top of my head he will pray and ask the Holy Spirit to enter me. I wonder if I’ll feel different then. Next the bishop gives us all our first Holy Communion – that’s a sip of wine and a wafer of bread which is what Jesus did to his disciples at the last supper and we’re supposed to think of it like receiving the body and blood of Jesus Christ. I think the wine is watered down though. After that, on Sundays at church I will be able to go up with the adults whenever there is holy communion. There’ll be a big party afterwards and I’ve asked Mum to make my favourite lemon cheesecake and it’ll be my special day all that day. Once I’ve been confirmed as well as my birthday I have my saints day, which for me is October 15th, which is a bit like another birthday. My sister was confirmed last year and Mum and Dad gave her a beautiful silver necklace – it was a locket with a cross on it that opened and she could put a picture inside. She’s got a photo of her boyfriend inside but only I’m supposed to know that. I hope they give me one too.
Kali’s Coming of Age
Hi, my name is Kali and I just did this amazing thing. My Mum asked me if I would like a ‘Coming of Age’ ceremony and at first I was like no way, but then after we talked about it I thought it might be kinda cool. I don’t think I’ll tell my friends at school about it though; my best friends I would but not the others, I don’t think they’d get it. My Mum has always been into weird stuff like chanting and solstices and stuff. We can hardly sneeze without her lighting a candle for it! Anyway, that’s just my Mum and I’ve kinda grown used to it.
So, my ceremony. Well, my body’s been changing in the last while, and my moods too. God, sometimes I just feel so pissed off and they just treat me like a child and, well, I just can’t help myself, I can get really mean. Then some mornings I cry for absolutely no reason. I think more about how I look, get embarrassed more easily. I know it’s all normal but it’s a lot to deal with on top of school, and judo, and my irritating brother. Anyway, I’m changing and Mum said she’d like to do something with me to make that feel special. I wasn’t sure what she meant but I really got into it once we got started.
We picked a date for my ceremony; May Day, just before my twelfth birthday. Then we invited my godmother and my favourite aunt to come over and help me to decide what to do. We started out really serious but then it got all giggly as they talked about some of the things they did when they were my age. We had masses of ideas but my godmother kept saying, “Keep it simple. Keep it simple.” Mostly it was me who designed the ceremony and my godmother offered to lead it. There was quite a lot to prepare so we met up again a few times before the day. I got to know my aunt and my godmother in a different way, it was nice.
I made invitations – my family, my best friend, my judo teacher, my sort-of-boyfriend, one of my cousins; I wasn’t sure about inviting my grandparents ‘cos I knew this wasn’t their thing but I did in the end and I’m glad ‘cos my granny even cried to be asked.
I was really nervous on the day but mostly I was busy with getting everything ready. My godmother stayed over the night before and she and Mum helped me dress and do my hair, which I’m not if it made me feel a bit babyish. I began to feel really special too, ‘specially when I could hear people starting to arrive downstairs.
When it was time my godmother tied a ribbon around Mum and my hands and led us down the stairs and out into the garden and everyone followed. They stood in a circle and we stood in the middle and we lit a candle (well how could we not with my Mum and all?!) Then I read this piece that I had written about my life so far and then my godmother gave me some scissors and I cut the ribbon that was tying me and my Mum together. Next I was supposed to say something to my Mum about cutting myself free but still wanting her nearby but I totally couldn’t at first ‘cos of feeling all choked up. Then she said something to me which I can’t even remember now it was all so intense. Then she joined the circle and I stayed in the middle while everyone took a turn to say something to me, their wishes and blessings for my journey from being a girl to a woman. I thought I’d find it really embarrassing but the things people said, it was like they really knew me and wanted all these good things for me, it just felt, I dunno, really lovely. Then we put on this wicked piece of music, one I really like to dance to, and everyone danced in the circle. It was like a party, and a huge relief, and we blew out the candle and went inside for this feast of all my favourite foods that me and Mum and my aunt had made.
Things were different after that. Not in a big way but inside I felt different. I feel like I’m behaving better. Mum and I aren’t fighting as much either. It’s like what’s happening is special – growing up.