The tribal initiation and rite of passage for men/woman through culture have probably as many facets of unique display as there are tribes among them. Every band of peoples are colored by their customs, their environment, and establishment. I wish to first take a look at some global rites;
The Babongo are a tribe of Gabon in Africa who have founded an entire religion based on the consumption of Iboga during initiation. The Hamar Men of Ethiopia beat their women, and then made to run along the backs of cows to win a mate. In Papua New Guinea, men will bloodlet by shoving cane tines down their throat, shove sharp reeds into their nostrils, and get cut with arrows several times on their tongue. By doing this they feel they are getting rid of any feminine blood they acquired at birth. In the Amazon, there a rite belonging to the Satere-Mawe where the men will stick their hand in a specially made glove of bullet ants, twenty times, which leaves him uncontrollably shaking for days.
In Spartan-age Rome, boys were taken from home at the age of 7 and put in the Agoge, a training system that would hone them as soldiers. They learned for 10 years, how to fight, and kill, and all the military tactics their fathers knew. After this he would undergo the rite called the krypteia, where he would be left in the country and was to kill as many helots (state slaves) as possible and return to the school, where he would become a Spartan if he survived. The Mandan tribemen of the Plains, before being considered real men or acknowledge by the tribe, would feast for days, some would perform the Buffalo Dance until exhaustion, and others, would be taken into a hut to perform the flesh hook suspension, with two hooks either between their shoulder blades or through their pectorals. A shaman would sing around them, and it was common that they would pass out, while others stabbed them while hanging.
These are some international examples of varied rites, and upon studying these topics and watching several documentaries, it seems to be more of a Southern and Eastern practice, especially in less civilized countries. Most of them seem to involve the central tenets of pain, endurance, drugs, use of animals, and nature. What I am interested in with this article is finding out if there are any purely Northern remnants of the rite to passage.
Initiation rites, or rites of passage are fundamental to human growth. The metaphors and symbolic sentiment behind the rites are a way of marking ones transition from an individual, that moves into the functioning of a group. Membership and acceptance, often came through the judgement and determination of an elder or appointed identities within the tribe. These acts were not directionless performances of human ability, but a necessary part of a healthy community and relationship with others.
Male rites of initiation
Hordaland 800 A.D. You are a Norseman of Bergen, and looking to find your place in the society. Life would have been a very stoic time, where it was encouraged that every person have a role to fulfill. Unlike today it was hard to remain anonymous. In traditional custom, a boy, or man-child would become initiated into the Earl’s band, and take precedence under his rule by the giving of the arm-ring. The ring would bind him to the laws of the Earldom. He would make his oath of allegiance to him, and attain brother-ship with his fellow men who had done the same ceremony. In the sagas, it is typical that the rite of passage for a man happens when he undertakes a significant act in their life. A boy decides he wants to control or take charge, and goes to join a fleet for a raid, or acquires his own land or takes up the homestead, or woos a woman to his favor. He sets about making a name for himself by deed, and honoring his ancestors. Few women undertook this ring taking but it did happen; the shieldmaiden Hladgerd (Lagertha) for instance.
The truest way for any man seeking acceptance, is the act of self-initiation in order to prove oneself to the tribe.
The Heathen society of the Odin Brotherhood, which is claimed to have been founded in 1421 practice several initiations and rites of passage which they claim are preserved from pre-christian Germanic paganism. Their initiation rite involves a disciplined diet of bread and ice, a knife, a white shroud, a dagger and fire. According to one of the Highland members, they make three cuts on their body, most often the chest by the neophyte, after a considerable purification. The ‘Marks of Joy’ ritual cutting are based on the ‘Marking of the Spear’ rite in the Ynglinga Saga by Snorri. The female however does this only on her finger, as the brotherhood believes the breasts are too beautiful and important to be mutilated.
They incorporated a vision quest, involving the solitary exile into the mountains for 3 days and 3 nights, which was finished by the blood ceremony. The blood given by the neophyte which the Sal (soul) is embodied is symbolic of a ritual death and offering to the Gods. These rites were only done at the solstices and revolved around the sacredness of blood, because of it’s linkage to power in ancient spirituality.
“Odin died in his bed in Swithiod; and when he was near his death
he made himself be marked with the point of a spear, and said he
was going to Godheim, and would give a welcome there to all his
friends, and all brave warriors should be dedicated to him”
on a bed of sickness, and before he died made himself be marked
for Odin with the spear-point.”
Secret societal initiations often resemble shamanic initiations, including solitude (symbolizing the “beyond or other world”), a prohibition from an act (an austere diet), covering the body with something that is white, and some kind of test or harsh ordeal.
Prospecting is a brand of initiation or passage used by most gilds, hearths and kindreds of Asatru. Wherein for instance the neophyte vitki spends time in the outer circle, and starts to associate themselves deeper with members, and gets to know their ways, or adopts similar lifestyles. Suggested and required teachings are given to be studied, and remembered. Some incorporate a training regime of physical fitness, strength, pain or ordeal before being taken in as a full member. This status could be that you are allowed to wear their patch, or attend the moots, and contribute to the growth and change from within. The Odic initiation of ‘taking up the runes’, or learning of the magic of the runes is an essential rite of passage for any vitki. This would entail that the magician is competent in working and using the runes for the betterment of the clan/tribe and for themselves.
Initiation can be largely dependent on the Garth of the boy’s family, as he will be judged by his adaptation to expected change and plan for all possibilities of circumstance.
From saga tales, there seems to be a threefold of becoming for a man; if it be concerning maturation, then identity, autonomy, and achievement. If it be for a tribal or mannerbunde type initiation they would be judgement, role taking, and some kind of brotherhood oath or closer friendship with other members of the group.
In the Völsunga saga, when Sigmund and Sinfjötli metamorphose into werewolves, the paradigms of the initiation can be seen if one dissects the myth. The two of them go out into the wildlands and find wolfskins which they adorn themselves with, and are imbibed with the ferocity of wolves. They separate and both encounter different numbers of men, whom they kill. Then they meet again, and Sigmund resents Sinfjötli for not coming to his aid when he met with 7 men, while Sinfjötliwas able to kill 11 by himself. Sigmund leaps on him and bits through his neck, then a raven comes with a leaf and puts it on Sinfjötli, and he springs him as if uninjured. The first paradigm for the rite of passage, or manhood becoming is the withdrawal into nature into the all-male society, the second stage is transcending the human condition, by becoming the hamr. The third is being out on his own and forced to fend for himsef. Fourth, he experiences a near death or symbolic death, and fifth is the symbolic rebirth where he is then intigrated into the society/clan/tribe.
At Yule Time, as observed in the Hrólfs saga kraka, a mock beast slaying in public marks the passing of a pathetic and scared young man into a heroic warrior type man, seen by the people. He is given a weapon and a new, more appropriate name which crown his becoming. The newly transformed man from his younger and less mature state is referred to as karlmannliga (manly).
In Grimnismal, the model of passing lore from Grimnir to Agnarr, indicates that the Nobleman’s son is able to take heir to the King, his dead father. In Havamal, Hár gives rede to Loddfáfnir, a young man by a fire. The Rök stone carries a very similar telling of a very old man of 90 years instructed a dedicated younger man in the mysteries of Thonar,
Other saga lore preserves the use of a plant, food, or drink that intoxicates the one who consumes it, and instills them with extraordinary powers, abilities, or wisdom. Odin’s gift mead which is given to the worthy few, who are then possessed with the ability of skaldcraft, Sigvahtr’s eating of the raw fish; the berseker who is commonly believed to ingest the Amanitas mushroom in his Hamramr, or Sigurd who drinks the blood of the dragon and eats his roasted heart.
The central tenents here from the mythos, described in loose terms, involve self-sufficiency, isolate ordeal, lesson and lore teaching by someone more experience, communal judgement, honor of the ancestors, and public praise after the rite of passage is complete. Those taking the rite usually have some form of qualifying persona traits, or introductory adherances to the tribal/gild ideals. In the wisdom of Heimdall ‘The unworthy exclude themselves’. The naming ceremony is what I shall get into next.
In the old traditions, a kid is not considered to ‘exist’ until given a name in a ceremony, and hallowed by the gods/godesses. A transitory time during the Christianization of Scandinavia preserves some of this tradition where the kid was sprinkled with skywater, because it fell from the high halls, then blessed in attendance of his/her other family.
The author of this article (Ulvseidmenn) strongly believes that for any form of initiation into a secret society, one must receive direct signs either through life experiences, the metaphysical world or dream. Symbols and metaphors that appear in the lucid dream state can be interpreted by oneself or through one of the other members and taken into consideration for waylaying one person from there outsider status to becoming a member. This is also a central shamanic ‘per-requisite’ that has been preserved with the Tungusic, Altai, and Siberian seers. They then pass into apprenticeship under the advisory watch of one of these elders, and are taught the secret wisdom needed. This usually lasts several months to several years before fully qualified or ready to take on the higher responsibilities.
The prospecting stage ensures that the initiate is able to comprehend and align themselves completely what he/she is about to become, and serves as a kind of filtering process. Those are can not prove themselves, or bring shame, or blaspheme the methods and ideals of the elder/tribe/teacher/gild will be disregarded the attention and all prospecting and teachings will stop. Thus initiation is holistic, guarded in a traditional way, and exists as it has forever though in a myriad of forms.