The Circle of Life:
Four Universal Rites of Passage that
Unite the “Human Family”
By Alan D. DeSantis
The Circle of Life
• 1) On the surface, our world and its people seem
very different (if not outright strange)
– Different foods, languages, Gods, clothes, etc.
• 2) Below the surface, however, societies share
many commonalities that, at first glance, are not
– Philosophers call these “Cultural Structures”
• 3) One of the most fascinating commonality is the
Four Universal Rites of Passage that Unite the
“Human Family”
Four Universal Rites of Passage
• Every culture celebrates . . .
– 1) Birth
• We enter life
– 2) Coming of age
• We enter into adulthood
– 3) Marriage
• We enter life with a partner
– 4) Death
• We enter the afterlife with the belief that we will be re-born
• In essence, every culture believes that we all symbolically
die and are spiritually re-born many times
Birth and Childhood
• Ever society has a ritual to welcome children into
the world and integrate them into the community
• “When a child is born, they have only a physical
existence; they are not yet recognized by their family
nor accepted by the community. It is only by virtue
of those rites performed immediately after birth that
they are incorporated into the community of the
– -Mircea Eliade (The Sacred and the Profane)
Burgos, Northern Spain
Ekundu-Kundu in Cameroon
Palau, Micronesia
Northern Australian Aboriginals
St. Theresa’s Catholic Church in DC
• “Every church still has its baptismal
font in which initiates are bathed or
symbolically drowned. After a
figurative death in the baptismal bath,
they come out transformed as reborn
– C. G. Jung (Symbolic Life)
Coming of Age
(Passage into Adulthood)
Coming of Age
• To become fulfilled members of their society,
adolescents must understand when 1) childhood
ends, 2) adulthood begins, and 3) what their culture
expects of them
• Girls: In parts of Africa, South America, and various
Native American communities, when girls begin
menstruating, they are secluded and taught the art of
womanhood by the older females in their
Coming of Age
• Boys: typically face an ordeal or trial where they
earn and affirm their passage to manhood.
– This can range from first hunts & ritual warfare
• What ever the case, both sexes understand that the
ordeal will officially mark their entrance into
– They never think of themselves as children again
Congolese Kota Boys
Apache Girl
The song chanted by all members
of the Apache Tribe
• “Now you are entering the world.
• You become an adult with responsibilities . . .
• Walk with honor and dignity . . .
• For you will become the mother of a nation.”
Lesse girl, Zaire, Africa
Seclusion and Womanhood
• From the Zulus of South Africa to the Cuna of
South America, seclusion is an almost
universal response to the onset of menstruation
in non-industrial societies. The menstruation
hut is seen as a safe place where a girl may
complete her physical transformation to
womanhood while learning her adult
A girl in Cairo is circumcised
Kingston, Jamaica
The use of “substances” in rituals
• The use of incense, hallucinogens, or alcohol
to alter the senses is a common initiatory
practice worldwide.
• In our culture, we will often . . .
– 1) Smoke cigars at the birth of a child
– 2) Toast champagne at weddings
– 3) Take wine at Christian communions
– 4) Do shots on our 21st Birthday
• A rite of passage (close to death)
Quite Forest in Italy
Pecos River, Texas
The Importance of Hunting
Around the World
• While hunting is no longer a vital skill in most of the
world, many people in traditional societies still
consider the first hunt to be a necessary milestone
on the road to adulthood.
– 1) Among the Kung in Namibia, a boy traditionally
cannot marry until he has made a kill
– 2) Among the Yupik of Alaska, a passage to manhood
occurs when a boy kills his first seal
Dani tribesmen of Indonesia
Like American football, such games provide a
more harmless outlet for the warrior energy
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Vanuatu Jumpers
• “Boys everywhere have a need
for rituals marking their
passage to manhood. If society
does not provide them, they will
inevitably invent their own.”
–Joseph Campbell
This is one explanation for the extreme popularity of Fraternities
throughout America
East Los Angeles
• “Trials of strength and endurance
are common to all initiations. The
adult must be brave in the face of
danger and must be steadfast in the
face of pain.”
• Professor J. A. Jackson
Maasai woman in Kenya
American adolescents also ritualistically mark their bodies.
Is this to become part of, or separate from, the community?
Coming of Age
• Western cultures have largely abandoned the
initiation rites that honor the adolescent transition
• “Modern society has provided adolescents with NO
rituals by which they become members of the tribe,
of the community. All children need to be twice born,
to learn to function rationally in the present world,
leaving childhood behind.”--Joseph Campbell
• Consequently, we have too many men and women in
“arrested development”—not becoming adults,
acting like irresponsible children well into their 30s
Dallas, Texas
Prom Night--Louisville, Kentucky
Prom Night—Papue New Guinea
• “Comparison of rites from all over the
world suggest that these initiation rites
themselves possess an archetypal
structure, for the same underlying
patterns and procedures are universally
• Anthony Stevens
• For most of humanity’s history, marriage was more an alliance
between families than a bonding to two individuals in love
• Marriages were formed to reinforce kinship lines or improve the
social or economic status of the families involved
• Starting in Europe in the 12th Century, a new impulse began to
take hold—Romantic Love
– Marriage became about personal happiness
• Today, our marriages join love, happiness, sex, procreation,
finance, & family ties into one relationship
– Without a doubt, the most complicated of all relationships
– No wonder 51% of all marriages end in divorce
– Are we asking too much from this one relationship?
A Berber girl in Morocco
(and the legend of Isli & Tilsit)
Kyoto, Japan
Marriage Question #1
• Question: Why are bridesmaids all dressed a like?
• Answer: Roman law required ten witnesses to
make a wedding legal. Several of these witnesses
dressed up exactly like the bride and groom to
confound any evil forces who might show up
• *There is no answer, however, why bridesmaids dresses
are always ugly
Sydney, Australia
Marriage Question #2
• Question: Why is the ring placed on the third
finger on the left hand?
• Answer: The ancient Greeks believed that a vein
in this finger ran directly to the heart.
• *Note: Because of an advertising campaign by the
diamond industry in the 20th Century, we now all think it
is customary to give diamond rings for engagements.
Lendak, Czechoslovakia
Marriage Question #3
• Question: Why does the bride stand to the left and
the groom to the right?
• Answer: Ex-suitors, romantic lunatics, and other
thugs sometimes rushed the alter to take the bride.
Thus, the groom needed to keep his right hand free
so he could grab his sword.
• *Lesson: Always steal the bribe of a left handed groom!
Louisville, Kentucky
Marriage Question #4
• Question: Where did the term Honeymoon come
• Answer: 4,000 years ago in Babylon, it was
customary for the bride's father to provide his new
son-in-law with mead (beer made from honey) for one
lunar cycle (or one month). “Honey month” became
• *Note: Walt Disney World is the #1 site in America for
Honeymooning (replacing Niagara Falls)
U.S. Naval Academy, Annapolis, Maryland
Northeastern Romania
Marriage Question #5
• Question: How much money does the average
American wedding cost (clothes, food, drink, etc.) ?
• Answer:
Wedding Nights Around the World
• 1) Among the Hausa of Nigeria, for example, grooms
bring their brides gifts such as perfume and blouses to
persuade them to be romantic
• 2) In Taiwan, a marriage is consummated on the
wedding night, but only after the bride and groom are
teased for a considerable amount of time
• 3) In Zambia, a bride walks backwards into her
husband’s house and is escorted to her wedding bed by
an older woman who has acted as her sex and marriage
instructor. She presents her husband with fertility beads,
each representing a future child.
• “Every culture has a wedding
ceremony that serves as a rite of
passage for the two young
participants. It marks the end of who
they were and the beginning of who
they will become.”
• Marion Woodman
• When a loved one dies, we go through a gamut of
– Denial, bargaining, anger, depression, & acceptance (5 stages)
• To help us deal with this pain—and to help us face our
own mortality—societies throughout the world have
created a diverse set of rituals
– These rites all honor the deceased and consecrate their passage to
the next world
• Unlike most Eastern and non-industrial societies, modern
Western cultures (including USA) seem to resist and insulate
the reality of death
– Don’t talk about it; If you do, you are morbid and depressing
• “Death is the key to the door of life. It
is through accepting the finiteness of
our individual existences that we are
enabled to devote each day of our
lives—however long they may be—to
growing as fully as we are able.”
– Elisabeth Kubler-Ross
Taoist Funeral, China
Transylvania, Romania
A Christian cemetery in Colma, California
Understanding our Rituals
• 1) Mourning clothing: Pagans dressed in different
(special) clothes so that the evil spirits would not
recognize them.
• 2) Covering the face: Once believed that the dead’s
spirit would escape through the mouth & nose
• 3) The firing of gun shots (21-guns): Once spears
were thrown in the air to try to hit the evil spirits
covering of the dead’s grave
• 4) Why flowers: Floral offerings were originally
intended to gain favor with the spirit of the
The First Act of Humans
• Traces of pollen discovered in burial
caves in northern Iraq indicate that
Neanderthal communities put flowers
on the graves of their dead. So with
bouquets of flowers or gravestones of
marble, humankind has been marking
the final resting places of loved ones
for at least 60,000 years.
Soviet Moldavia
Leatherwood, Kentucky
• “Family and community involvement
in death & dying rituals [like that found in
Leatherwood] give individuals the
comfort of shared responsibility and
shared mourning. It helps all involved
to view death as a part of life.”
– Kubler-Ross
Dani people of Irian Jaya
Some (less-than-poetic) Death Rituals
• 1) Some cultures burn the body out of fear
• 2) Some simply run away from the dead, leaving them
to rot
• 3) Zoroastrians left their dead to be devoured by
vultures. To bury it would be a defilement to mother
• 4) In Tibet, dogs are used for this purpose, believing
that those eaten by dogs will be better off in the other
• 5) Many African tribes still grind the bones of their
dead and mingle them with food to be eaten
New Orleans, LA
Find picture
Indian Funeral Pyre
Bathurst Island, of the coast of Northern Australia
• “Do not go gentle into the
good night, Rage, rage against
the dying of the light.”
–Dylan Thomas
» (writing of his father’s death)
A Baimi tribesman of Papua New Guinea
Concluding Thoughts
• The importance of this finding
– 1) We find that there are 4 universal rites &
rituals that all cultures enact —regardless of
race, religion, & ethnicity
– 2) We find that these universal rites & rituals
supply each culture with meaning and
significant to their lives
– 3) We find that at a deeper cultural level, we are
a lot more alike than we are different
The End