Social Importance of Life Rites and Initiations

We as a modern culture, but men in particular, are suffering a real crisis of conscience these days – not really sure of where we belong, not really sure of what our role is in our daily lives as well as how we fit in the overall “plan” of society, and never really able to take the leap from childhood to adulthood quite as seamlessly or as effectively as past generations seemingly had the ability to do.

homer simpson initiation

And while there are a number of different factors that play a role in this specific challenge society is dealing with today, one of the biggest factors that researchers believe is having a transformative impact on our lives – and not in a great way – is the lack of rites of passage and initiations that “triggered” new steps in our lives on the path from childhood to adulthood.


If we look around the world we live in today, rites of passage and initiations have all but disappeared completely. Sure, professional sports teams, colleges and universities, and a handful of small fraternal organizations continue these kinds of practices.


The overwhelming majority of modern people would tell you that the rites of passages that they are parents and especially their grandparents would have gone through our antiquated, outdated, and “no longer necessary”.


It turns out nothing could be further from the truth.


The disappearance of rites of passage and initiations is eroding away culture


Without sounding too doom and gloom and without making this situation out to be some kind of Chicken Little situation, most would agree that our culture – our distinctly American culture – has eroded away and been replaced over the last few generations by a new, more globalist approach to how we see ourselves as citizens of the world but also how we see ourselves as individuals fitting in the machine that is our society.

greek initiation rite

As highlighted above, men in particular are having a much more challenging time understanding where they fit in the whole grand scheme of things in a way that they didn’t struggle with before. There used to be obvious steppingstones from boyhood to manhood, obvious rites of passage that were passed down from one generation to another, rites of passage that have slipped away into the mist and have left this generation of men (and generations of men to follow) feeling more than a little bit listless.


Men now have a much more challenging time stepping fully into manhood, adulthood, and assuming the responsibilities of those positions. The research demonstrates that men in general are getting married later in life, having children much later in life, and even leaving their parents homes much later in life – holding onto every square inch of their adolescence for as long as humanly possible, and a lot of it has to do with the fact that the traditional rites of passage just no longer exist.


EVERY culture – around the world has these critical rites of passage and initiations


While most people are familiar with the “day you get your first real job” initiation, the “day you get your first car” initiation, the “day you become a husband or become a father” rite of passage, or a more culturally specific rite of passage like a bar mitzvah (for example), it’s important not to think that these types of cultural touchstones are specific to the American culture or the Western world culture.


Cultures all over the world, from the Vanuatu Dive in the middle of the South Pacific that takes part in a Land Diving ritual, to even the unthinkable Mardudjara aboriginal subincision process (definitely not recommended), or the Hamar cow jumping ritual, all place an incredible amount of importance on the doorway and the threshold between childhood and adulthood – and all have clearly defined steps that have to be taken in a codified process for children to move through this doorway and emerge on the other side completely changed and transformed.


Because of the way that our modern world works, and because of the fast and almost electric change that we deal with on a day to day basis, our more traditional rites of passage have begun to slip and disappear. It’s important that we do everything we can to bring back the ones that especially work to create a bond between the young adult and the community.  And of course we should be looking at traditional – but safe (read: bloodless) – rites of passage to achieve this.


Breathing new life into rites of passage and the process of initiation


At the end of the day, it falls on us to bring back these rites of passage (or to establish new ones) that allow us to symbolically – and sometimes physically – step through the door that stands between childhood and adulthood and begin to fully embody everything that we want to be.


The time for remaining confused, listless, and nervous has to come to an end. The damage is crippling (as the research bears out) and the impact is far-reaching. Now is the time to embrace rites of passage, create our own rituals, and to become the kind of powerful, focused, and intentional people we are meant to be.

An Introduction to the Tradition of Handfasting


Getting married is something that lovers from all walks of life do. The ceremonies surrounding the union are as unique as the couples hosting them. In Celtic and Pagan communities, for example, a ritual known as “handfasting” has been practiced for centuries. In fact, that’s where the modern world got the expression “tying the knot” when referring to a wedding.

Although seen as a relatively informal ceremony these days, handfasting can still be viewed as a binding agreement between a willing man and woman. Prior to weddings becoming a legally managed enterprise and a church-driven ritual, this type of simple ceremony was the most common way for couples to join themselves in sacred matrimony.

What Is Handfasting?

The concept of handfasting comes from the belief that married couples are eternally bound together in all matters. The ritual is merely a physical manifestation of that belief, involving a literal knot being tied between the betrothed. The “love knot” signified the joining of their lives, and is typically performed by an ordained minister after the vows and rings are exchanged.

And this is regarded as a rather “rational” form of commitment (as opposed to an emotional impulse) because it allows both parties to carefully assess the union for a period of time after the ceremony. The general timeline for a handfasting ritual is as follows:

  • The couple’s hands are bound together with various colored rope. The color of the rope (or cord) is going to vary, especially among practitioners of neo-paganism we’ve noticed.
  • The cord is then kept in an ornate box, protected from harm and containing within it the couple’s ceremonial vows.
  • In general, the box is then kept in a safe place for 1 year and 1 day.

At the end of the “cooling off” period, the couple then removes the vows from the box, considers the events of the past year and their feelings for each other, and then makes a final decision about the relationship. At that time, the binding can become legal with the help of a public official.  (The laws in most Western countries don’t permit a year-long marriage trial so that’s the reason for this final part of the process.)

While handfasting was previously accepted as a legal form of marriage, it is considered a complementary ritual today – more like a more formalized engagement. Others choose to work in the rite as part of their overall wedding service, especially those wanting to add more of a Celtic theme to their big day.

The Significance of the Handfasting Cord

The cords used in the average handfasting ceremony are not regular home center rope. Often hand-woven by the engaged couple or a family member just for the occasion, you can now even find services online that will create a custom one for your rite.  In most cases each cord needs to be at least 48 inches long, allowing the hands of both individuals to be bound. As previously mentioned, the various colors of cord are symbolic of different attributes. Some of the more common meanings:

  • Yellow – Charm, attraction, balance, and harmony
  • Green – Luck, fertility, beauty, and prosperity
  • Red – Love, courage, vigor, and passion
  • Blue – Longevity, strength, pride, and safe travels
  • Purple – Power, progress, vitality, and respect
  • Pink – Unity, honor, romance, and lightheartedness
  • White – Purity, serenity, peace, and loyalty
  • Black – Wisdom, success, vision, and empowerment
  • Brown – Skill development, nurturing, home protection, and talent acquisition
  • Orange – Encouragement, stimulation, attraction, and abundance
  • Gray – Neutrality, balance, cancelling, and return
  • Silver – Inspiration, protection, creativity, and adaptability
  • Gold – Longevity, prosperity, strength, and unity

Important to note is that witnesses must be present for this ceremony, if nothing more than to give accountability to the couple. Modern pagans and wiccans have really brought this old time practice back to the forefront, with unique, beautiful rituals that borrow from several ancient customs.

Experiencing a vibrant resurgence and still traditionally rooted, handfasting is sure to become more mainstream among innovative couples from different walks of life seeking “something old” as they plan their big day.