Since this issue appears at the onset of the invigorating, transformative season of Spring, we felt it only natural to turn our attention to the subject of our own growth, and the way it is also divided into almost seasonal stages. In this spirit, we solicited accounts of pivotal life events that change us as we grow up. Our own ‘coming of age’ stories show a variety of aspects inherent in this growth process.
A few are rooted in the succession of generations and the passing on of knowledge—the acquisition of which, in itself, constitutes a rite of passage. Others detail a breaking away from established institutions and bonds, and often entail a series of ‘self-initiations.’ The initiations and rites-of-passage involved in coming of age might also involve a journey, literal or figurative, and meeting a teacher/guide or set of teachers. As Heathens start to raise families, and face providing rites of passage for their growing children, perhaps a brief overview of several past practices might be in order.
In his sweeping study Le rites de passage, Arnold van Gennep divides the rites of passage into three stages: the rites de séparation, which start the process of transformation. Applied to the rites involved with coming of age, this could involve the ritual severing of bonds from the parents or from childhood. The second stage, rites de marge, consists of the actual rituals of passage, which can also involve tests and ordeals, as in the case of warrior initiation. The final stage (rites de aggrégation) consists of the actual consecration and affirms the youth’s newfound power and status within the tribe. Thus, at the end of adolescence, the youth literally becomes mündig (German “attains his own voice”).
As an example how to mark the first stage, Ulbricht mentions an intriguing fire rite during which the adolescent burns some beloved object or toy from their childhood to symbolize the process of letting go. Among the ordeals and tests of van Gennep’s second stage, the sacred hunt is very predominant. According to the Roman writer Amminanus Marcellinus, the young warriors of the Taifali tribe had to single-handeldy kill a boar or bear. Hunting definitely involves a multitude of skills and character traits, such as patience and perseverence, that will be useful in all aspects of life. Randall Eaton sums it up well when he asserts that “hunting is a basic aspect of a boy’s initiation into manhood. It teaches him the intelligence, beauty and power of nature. The young man also learns at a deep emotional level his inseparable relationship with nature as well as his responsibility to fiercely protect it.” Other practices involve periods of fasting, and are part of what von Nemenyi calls Ginning (ON), the Nordic version of the vision quest. A possibly related practice is utiseta (ON “sitting out”).
The concluding rites de aggrégation most often consist of three aspects. First of all, the initiate receives a weapon, traditionally a sword. Becoming a full member of the community means being able to defend it; the right to bear arms is the external symbol of this new duty. This practice was already documented by Tacitus (Germania 13). Young women might also have received weapons in some places (in Bushido-era Japan, they received the kai-ken, a small dagger). Secondly, the new man or woman were often also given a byname. A good example would be Frodi (ON), a byname derived from frodr (ON “wise”). Cassirer afirms that the “individual is not unchanging—just as the human being wins a different being and a new self with the entry into each decisive new phase of life, so this transformation is above all mirrored in the change of one’s name.” Finally, the rite of empowerment often involved swearing an oath to protect the community.
The surviving European folk customs of Easter (Old Norse Varblot) and May (ON Sigrblot) are still marked by their symbolic reenactments of courtship and initiation. The sword dance may well be a survival from initiatory warrior rites, and usually results in the symbolic death of the accolyte, which doubles as symbolic sacrifice for fertility. The blossoming of nature was rightly seen as a reflection of the budding of womanhood and manhood. The traditional Nordic Spring assembly is the Varthing which Paxson identifies as possibly being named after the goddess Var, “the one who hears oaths.” The name already refers to an aspect involved in the Innvigsla (ON “initiation”), which von Nemenyi asserts was undertaken at that time of year. The rough Roman equivalent is the holy feast of Liberalia (March 17th) during which male youths receive their toga virilis as sign of their manhood.
In Viking Age Scandinavia, the Varthing was also the time when men were selected for the upcoming raids, which was usually their first journey away from home. Similar practices survived long after the onset of Christianity and in a non-warrior context. “Die Wanderjahre,” (German “wandering years”) refer to the practice of sending apprentices in the medieval guilds out to learn about new work methods, and foreign customs and lands, accumulating precious life experience in the process. This practice lasted until the onset of industrialization. The rough modern equivalent for American teenagers would be backpacking around Europe after finishing high school.
Among the Amish there of course exists the analog practice of Rumspringa, a period where adolescents experience a loosening of rules, often travel to the ‘outside world’ for the first time, and at its end receive baptism and become a full member of the community. A small minority might also decide to leave the community. In addition, Rumspringa is also the time when most Amish court and find a spouse.
The so-called Free-Thinkers in 19th Century Germany were the first to institute a non-religious coming of age ceremony, the Jugendweihe (German “youth consecration”), as a counterpart to the Catholic and Protestant practice of confirmation. The Weihe is usually preceded by a course teaching basics in human relations and culture, the responsibilities of adulthood, etc. Norway, Finland, Iceland, Sweden, and Denmark also have similar institutions.
Present day Heathen families and communities can do much to restore and revitalize these coming of age rites. By making rites of passage a resacralized custom, and reconfiguring or adapting the old lore to meet our current needs, we can create powerful moments out of time that give shape to the hopes and values of the next generation.
The next issue of HEX will include a more in-depth article on the initial rite of passage, the consecration with water of the new born and the subsequent naming.
Eaton, L. Randall, Ph.D. “Why We Hunt”
(Eaton is also author of The Sacred Hunt: Hunting as a Sacred Path, 1998. An interview is hopefully forthcoming!)
Nemenyi, Geza von. Götter, Mythen, Jahresfeste. Heidnische Naturreligion. Holdenstedt: Kersken-Canbaz-Verlag, 2004