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Quest for the Burning Feather

Initiation for Adolescent Males

by Peter Wallis

This article appeared in the March 1996 issue of M.E.N. Magazine


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Take the young ones to the desert

teach them how the arrow flies

How to smell the beast upon the wind

and run with mother nature's loving lies

Oh you need that rite of passage

before you can continue on

That brave self understanding

you can lean your dreams upon

-Scottish song by Dougie MacLean

With a few careful strokes of his comb, Steve adjusts the purple streak of hair that runs straight through the middle of his scalp, as an electric-guitar solo cascades through the bathroom. At fifteen, Steve is in the midst of a middle-class adolescence. Every morning he watches his father gulping his coffee with a glazed look on his face, rushing to the morning commute. Steve scornfully rejects this; he knows that he is seeking something better in life. At school, Steve alleviates chronic boredom by getting high with friends. Drugs are one of his few ways to escape and "feel good," at least until he's old enough to drive a car at high speed. Steve typifies many American teenagers who feel confused and lost, with little sense of direction or challenge in their lives, who can only look at adulthood with great fear or little hope.

Meanwhile, across the world in east Africa, a different scenario is unfolding for the teenage youth of the Maasai tribe, as described by Michael Meade in Men and the Water of Life. The boys have given away their childhood possessions. The hair on their heads has been shaved and replaced with ashes. They've wrapped themselves in black cloth and are prepared to leave the village. Thus begins an elaborate process of initiation, a rite of passage into manhood, conducted by the elders of the tribe. Eventually, this period of darkness and loss is succeeded by a hunt, during which the initiates must capture many feathers from different birds that will be used to make a broad headdress.

The youth will wear this bird's nest on his head as a symbol of rebirth. Inside the nest will grow not only the new hair of the emerging man, but also the dreams and ambitions of adulthood. When the nest is taken off, his head is blessed by elders using water mixed with honey or milk, and then encased in a thick red paint. The hair is braided into dreadlocks, which resemble burning feathers. Red has replaced black and stands for intensity of passion in the young initiate, passion that is tested and molded through the remaining rituals of the rite of passage.

These two contrasting slices of adolescent life make a dramatic point: modern industrial society has lost touch with a basic human need-the need for ritualistic acknowledgment of transition from one life stage to another. In older, tribal, societies these transitions were called "rites of passage" and were a crucial part of village life.

American teenagers have no clearly marked rituals to make a successful transition to young adulthood. Parents see their adolescents going through awkward growing pains and identity-confusion. They help where they can, but mostly they cross their fingers and hope their struggling teens make it somehow into "adulthood." Tribal societies have understood that the transition from child to young adult is so vast that it takes a monumental event to successfully bring about this transformation. In American society, the rise of gangs and reckless behavior dramatizes the plight of youth desperately seeking some sort of initiatory process, in the absence of anything provided by the culture. Malidoma Somé puts it this way: "Young people are feared for their wild and dangerous energy, which is really an unending longing for initiation."

The adolescent soul hungers for real tests, ordeals by which it can stretch and grow and feel its vitality directed toward a purpose. Native Americans knew that a boy could grow into maturity and integrity only through strict procedures and rituals, and utilized the "vision quest" for this reason. Ceremonies such as high school graduation have little meaning in today's culture, because the adolescent has not been given tests that truly meet the soul's longing to be engaged in a heroic quest.

We need adolescent initiations that meet the needs of modern youth, that draw on tribal rites yet are feasible in an urban culture. We live in a highly technical society and need new forms of rituals that are appropriate to urban teenagers, and yet bring spiritual forces into the initiation process. The other crucial ingredients are elders willing to devise and perform such rituals and a supportive community that will honor and sustain the initiated teen. How can these necessary ingredients-elders, rituals, community-be brought together to create a cauldron of initiation for modern adolescents?

One model for a rite of passage some of us are developing locally utilizes a weekend format with three distinct stages: severance from parents/solo time; initiation ritual; and community celebration. A brief description:

1) Solo Time: The initiate is taken to a place in nature where he spends 5-7 hours in isolation doing assigned physical and emotional tasks, such as preparation of a campsite, specific journal writing, tying of knots, and contacting a nature/spirit ally.

2) Initiation Ceremony: In an evening fire ceremony, the initiate releases his childhood in the presence of silent elders by burning journal pages and rope knots that represent difficult childhood experiences. He then encounters elders in the guise of four male archetypes, who emerge to give messages and empowerment to the youth. He is then sent off to sleep by himself and instructed to pay close attention to his dreams. The morning ceremony honors the initiate with words of praise and the sharing of the struggles and joys of manhood.

3) Community Celebration: The initiated teen is returned to the larger community of family and friends and presented with gifts and letters acknowledging his new entry into young adulthood. A power staff or a "life arrow" is presented to the initiate so that symbolic objects and written notes can be attached that describe his aspirations, goals, and desires for adulthood.

Malidoma Somé stresses the importance of the community validating this event: "This welcoming must be massive ... a wholehearted valuing of the initiates' power to contribute to the community." Indeed, from our experience, it's clear that an extended family or small community needs to support the boy's rite of passage from the beginning. The bonding that can happen among family members and close friends from doing initial preparation can then carry over into the strong embrace needed in the community celebration portion of the rite of passage.

The impact on young teens going through this rite of passage format is profound. Parents report that their teens show increased feelings of self-esteem, greater willingness to take on responsibilities, and a deeper sense of themselves as spiritual beings. Moreover, adults involved as elders in this process find that the weekend can become their own internal "rite of passage," triggering not only their own adolescence but also what it means to be an adult male in today's world. The community creates a ritual for honoring the death of childhood, and out of this comes new life and creativity, not only for the initiate but also for the men involved.

Peter Wallis is a freelance teacher and consultant, who does "Hero's Journey" work with preteens and Rites of Passage work with teenagers and adults. He can be contacted at (206) 782-3341.


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