Ritual wounding

Traditional rites of passage and initiations are commonly associated with ritual physical wounding.

In his book “The Rites of Passage”, Arnold Van Gennep describes the following examples of ritual wounding:

  • circumcision
  • clitoral excision
  • knocking out teeth
  • cutting off the little finger
  • cutting of the ear lobe
  • perforating the septum
  • tattooing
  • scarifying
  • perforation of the hymen
  • section of the perineum

And study materials from the University of Idaho  adds subincision (cutting the underside of the penis) to the list.

The list is enough to make me wince for sure. So it begs the question, Why? I mean these woundings at best result in life long disfigurement and at worse lifelong disability.

For example, Wikipedia tells me subincision can result in increased susceptibility to sexually transmitted infections, decreased ability to impregnate the vagina with sperm and greatly affect urination often requiring the subincised male to sit,  squat or use a tube to urinate. While perforating the septum (the nose divider) can cause crusting within the nose, bleeding and discharge from the nose and, most dramatically, whistling on inspiration (caused by air whistling through the perforation).  A New Scientist article study found circumcised women have been found to be more likely to have lower abdominal pain, genital ulcers and urinary tract infections.

So again, Why?

Well, Van Gennep believes they are carried out as a form of permanent differentiation. The target of wounding is body parts which attract the eye because they project out from the body and the mutilation of which will not endanger life.

Mutilations are a means of permanent differentiation, Van Gennep, 1960


Differentiation allows the young man or women to feel they now a member of the world of adults and in particular an adult within that particular group or tribe. They have suffered the pain of wounding and can now feel proud to be able to stand alongside the men and women. To feel included, part of something bigger.

We are all familiar with differentiation. We send children to school in school uniform. Teenagers like to wear whats fashionable with their peers.

Even as a child I could recognise Teddy Boys and Rockers from the distinctive hair cuts and clothes each wore to show which sub-culture they were part of.

We have probably all seen the neck rings of the Kayan people of Myanmar. We know our football team colours and wear hats and scarfs with pride. We understand differentiation by having a mobile phone, exam certificates, a Duke of Edinburgh’s Award, a car, a house.


Many differentiators, however, are temporary. They tend not to include wounding. In contrast, scaring from the woundings would be a permanent reminder of their membership. A membership they had earned through pain.

I remember I and my classmates had a BCG injection at around 13 years of age to protect against tuberculosis. I remember the injection hurt and left everyone with a permanent scar. But I was glad to have had it as I felt a kind of solidarity with my classmates. We had been through it together and wore our scars with pride as evidence of our collective bravery.

So it not just being able to have a visual reminder that was important, but the fact that all other members of the sub group of society had that same scarring, creating a permanent sense of identity.

But I think there is something more to it still. Van Gennep describes the separation process of initiation into totem groups as follows:

“The intention of all that is done at this ceremony is to make a momentous change in the boy’s life; the past is cut off from him by a gulf which he can never re-pass”, Van Gennep, 1960

By making a permanent scar, it is now impossible for things to return to how they were.

Ritual Wounding and Young People

I remember our daughter announcing she wanted to get here ears pierced like a number of her friends. She was at an age when this was not an entirely unreasonable request and we arranged for her to get this done professionally rather than let her try this on her own with friends. In essence we arranged for her physical wounding in order that she might become permanently differentiated now as a member of womenhood and no longer a girl.

An estimated two million women and girls undergo genital mutilation every year.

A common form of contemporary gang initiation for new members involves assaulting the new recruit in a process, which gangs call “beating in” or “jumping in”.

An article by Pew Research noted about half of Gen Nexters (18 – 25 in 2007) say they have either gotten a tattoo, dyed their hair an untraditional color, or had a body piercing in a place other than their ear lobe. The most popular are tattoos, which decorate the bodies of more than a third of these young adults.

The Mirror newspaper reported Rihanna’s septum piercing.

Ritual wounding is clearly still common in contemporary society, but often initiated by the young people themselves.

Does this mean young people are voting with their feet by seeking permanent differentiation through tattoos even if their parents have dropped this tradition? A 2003 survey of 1010 people conducted by Ohio University found that young adults about 10 times more likely to have at tattoo compared with their parents.

There is strong case to make that in the absence of adult led Rites of Passage, teenagers will create their own forms of passage. Is this such an example?

Permanent Differentiation in Contemporary Rites of Passage

Creating permanent differentiation is no less important as part of contemporary community Rites of Passage.

That’s why its important parents make a permanent change in the way they treat their young adults after they have completed a Rite of Passage eg a change in room, bedtimes, privileges etc

Andrew Lines, creator of the Rite Journey school programme, considers one advantage of running Rites of Passage in schools is that students can be surrounded by others who have had the same experience. Its less easy to forget and slip back to old ways of living. For those undertaking Rites of Passage outside of school, having a permanent reminder could be helpful, but only if it had recognition within the groups in which the teen operates eg school, church, wider society.

Tattooing young adults on Rites of Passage camps may as yet be a step too far for many parents, but may be more accepted by the next generation of tattooed teenage parents.

For now, perhaps creativity is required to provide permanence without permanent wounding. A listing on an official website, a tree planted in their name in a public place, a plaque or photo on a wall. Many of these ideas are familiar with those seeking to remember those who have followed the passage from life to death. The passage of adolescence should have no less significance and recognition.

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