Notebooks

Initiation rites

03 Oct 1994 12:01

When I was younger, and very interested in mythology and ritual, I read a lot about initiation rites, especially in writers like Mircea Eliade and Joseph Campbell. They're full of the spiritual and even metaphysical significance of these rites. But what struck me, after a while, is how much the rituals they described sound like brain-washing or really nasty forms of interrogation. Take people, deprive them of food, water, sleep, normal company; terrify them, especially by keeping details secret; physically abuse them (sometimes quite horrifically and leaving permanent, prominent scars); have ``good cops,'' who insist they're really trying to help and to keep much worse things from happening; and hold out the promise that, at the end, they can join the elite of the torturers. What this suggests to me is that traditional initiation rites are not really about giving the transition to adult life a sense of purpose or what-not; they're really about controlling the young.

See also: Asceticism; Conversion; Persuasion


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