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Chapter 9

Coming of Age

Something our culture does not do well is to help our children make the transition to adulthood. We do our best to raise them, but they are never quite sure if they have earned adulthood. The crisis is especially acute among males, and is the source of much machismo with all the suffering that brings, both for the males and for those they come in contact with. If coming of age rituals are not provided by adults, they will be created by adolescents. The results are such disasters as street gangs and train surfers.

An effective coming of age starts young. Children are shown how adults act, are told the responsibilities and privileges that come with adulthood, and are taught about the changes they will undergo during puberty. An eight-year old who has discussed both the physical and spiritual side of menstruation with her father is less likely to be embarrassed by a coming of age than one who has not discussed it at all or who has discussed it only with her mother. A boy who has learned that responsibility comes with manhood is likely to accept that manhood when its responsibilities are given to him and then carried out.

Coming of age is not just a ritual. It is a process that takes place over a number of years and for some of us never ends or ends too late. A rite of passage is a good beginning, though, and for a well-prepared youth it may be enough.

One function of such a ritual is to show the importance of coming of age. It is an acknowledgment that the community considers growing up important, so important that it will help acknowledge and celebrate the youth's accomplishment.

The ritual may sometimes be merely a formalization of growing up already done. It may also be the beginning of a process about to start. And it may give direction to something that has started already. What it is not is a mere ceremony, marking something that has occurred, like a graduation ceremony. It is a ritual, and it has effects on all levels. It is a magical act, and it has magical effects. It helps create the coming of age rather than just recognizing it.

Pagan cultures are very good at marking comings of age. Studies of these rituals fill many books and journals with accounts of ordeals and celebrations. There are patterns in them that we need to use ourselves.

A coming of age ritual begins with a separation. In both boys and girls this will be a separation from childhood; in boys it will mean separation from the world of the female as well. (Even in two-career families the home is equated with mother.) This is especially difficult for Pagans, since we revere the female as sacred. How is the boy to separate without learning distrust? How is he to separate without becoming alienated from the female?

Initiatory separation is frequently involuntary, sometimes amounting to a kidnapping. Growing up happens to us whether we want it or not. The child is brought to a sacred space, where he is tested and taught the ways of adulthood. At the end of this is an acceptance as a man or woman by the same sex group, followed by a reincorporation into the society as a whole, along with a recognition by the opposite sex.

This pattern has to modified somewhat to be applied today. It is simply not possible to fit everything an adult has to know into one period of seclusion. That period would have to be several years long, something that would hardly serve the purpose of preparing the child to function in society. Instead we have adolescence. Is it any wonder adolescents are confused and frequently in psychological pain? They are in the midst of the ordeals of their rites of passage, and there are no elders showing them the way.

If it is not possible to use the coming of age ritual to teach our children all they need to know, we can at least mark the beginning and end of the transitional period. We can push them into their adolescence, guide them through it, and welcome and acknowledge them at the end. This requires two rituals, separated by a period of years during which the child can mature and be instructed. The first takes place at the entry into adolescence, for the girl at menarche, and for the boy whenever it seems appropriate. Thirteen is a good age for boys, although some may be ready earlier or later. If a physical sign is desired, the time can be when the boy's voice starts to change.

More than anything else in this book, these rituals are written in an ideal form. They require much: land, a community, and a child who is ready for them. If it is possible to perform them as written, then do so. If it is not (and be honest; sometimes "not possible" just means "incredibly inconvenient"), then substitute. The important factors are a separation from childhood, a test, teaching, and acceptance by adults as also an adult.

The needs of boys and girls, and the nature of their sacred power, are sufficiently different that their coming of age rituals must also be different. These are rituals of coming into sexual power, and each sex has its unique form of this power. Each sex also needs its own way of coming into power.

Both rituals end in a party. Parties are one way our culture has of saying that something is worth celebrating. Presents are given. These can include a bag of money to buy an athame with (if the family is Wiccan), a drum (if the family is shamanic), or a key to the house. Even if the child has a key already, a new one is presented ritually. This is a sign of being able to come and go. New women are given garnet, pearl, or moonstone jewelry, in honor of their bleeding and connection with the moon. A new man may be given a gold pendant, in honor of his new ability to act in the God's place. After the giving of gifts there is dancing, both sacred and secular.

As well as receiving presents, the new adult must give some. He gives away some of his childhood books and toys to younger children as both a rite of separation from childhood and the assumption of adult responsibilities to care for children.

Don't limit yourself to religious rites. Is there something you've told your child she could only do when she was old enough? A camping trip, ear piercing, wearing high heels or pearls, going somewhere alone, staying up past a certain time, being allowed to wear makeup or a two-piece bathing suit, having a perm -- these can all rites of passage and something should be made of them. They are all things that can say to your child, "You are old enough. You have crossed a threshold."

Traditions to raid: Roman Catholic confirmation, Baptist baptism, Jewish Bar and Bat Mitzvahs.

Before leaving to go to the place where the ritual will take place, the adolescent cuts his or her hair. This could be as drastic a cut as he or she thinks right. The hair is laid before the family shrine overnight, with these words:

Guardians of my childhood,
I give you this gift,
growth of my childhood.
I am leaving my childhood behind
but still wish your protection.

In the morning the hair is taken outside and burned. After the ritual the new adult again visits the household shrine, and this time gives an offering of incense.

Girl's Puberty Ritual

As in many traditions, the girl initiate is shut off from light for most of the ritual. In some cultures this is an attempt to prevent impregnation by the sun during this vulnerable time. Other meanings are more relevant here, though. The girl in the dark is separated from male space: she does not see the sun, the preeminent God symbol. She is in the dark womb, waiting to be reborn. She is in the chrysalis, undergoing metamorphosis. She is by herself, without even the light to show her other things. She is out of time, separate from the passage of the sun through the sky, and thus she is in the Original Time, the Beginning Time, the Dream Time, where the world is begun. She is present at That Time, and it will give birth to her as a woman.

A woman may choose to return to the hut of seclusion at times crucial to her spirituality. Such huts are famous for being used during menstruation. They were not meant as a punishment, or as an expression of spiritual pollution coming from a menstruating woman. Like the original Polynesian concept of tabu, the idea is protection of the rest of us. There is great magic here that must be brought under control. The new woman will have power, but the power is for the good of society. The seclusion hut keeps society safe from the sudden unleashing of that power.

There is still more to this, though. The hut (and it could be as large as desired) is female space. In small groups it is not uncommon for all the women to menstruate at the same time. The hut then becomes a place for women to gather and celebrate the mysteries of womanhood. Its presence in the puberty rite is the first introduction of the girl to this. Even if she has been part of a Pagan community, she has not been allowed into women's mysteries before. Now she will be, and will know that she is grown up by that very fact.

One more way of looking at the hut is as an incubator of the new woman she is becoming. Here there are no distractions to give her an excuse not to do the hard work she is about to do. She has no choice. Which of us does have a choice about whether to grow up? But how many of us still try not to?

A new woman has proof of her new status. She has begun to menstruate, she has become part of the turning. What she needs to do is go into herself and ask what that means. So she goes into the hut and goes into herself. The mother may come in and talk and paint designs. Others who have gone this way may give advice. But in the end it is solely up to the new woman. All by herself she sits in the hut and asks herself the questions. Who am I? What am I becoming? How will I do that? How will I know?

The hut itself prevents the new woman from looking outside herself for her power. Later, when she is secure in her self, she may wish to go out on quest to see what mountain and tree have to tell her. For now, though, she has the harder task of finding her purpose in her own self. It would be too easy to grasp something outside of her; to help her resist the temptation, the number of outside stimuli is reduced. For the night, it is just her in the hut. If she is to find meaning, that is where she will find it.

This ritual would work best if done at a women's gathering, or at a Pagan gathering with women's space. It is written for a place that has a lake or pond where outside nudity is possible. It can be adapted to other circumstances, (I will give suggestions for this at the end) but finding a way to do it as written would really be best.

Choose a woman to serve as the girl's guardian. She might be the same woman chosen as her guardian at her dedication or another woman. Choose someone trusted by both you and your daughter. It will be her job to guide the child through adolescence, answering all the questions the child is too embarrassed to ask her mother.


The seclusion hut is preferably built like a sweatlodge (without the hot stones) or a wigwam, but a dark enough tent will do. (Make sure it is not airtight.)

At sunset the girl goes to it, accompanied by the women who will take part in the later part of the ritual. She is naked (skyclad). (If you cannot achieve sufficient privacy, or if the girl would be too embarrassed, she can disrobe immediately in front of the entrance to the hut or after entering it.) As the women walk with her, they say:

The butterfly enters the chrysalis,
The seed enters the ground,
The child enters the womb,
To be transformed
To be transformed.

She is left there for the night. Before she is left her mother says:

You are becoming a woman
and now you must find your way.
Go deep, daughter.
The only way out is through.

The girl must open the door and enter without any help or coercion. Once inside, she sits facing away from the door. She sits there for the night by herself -- meditating, thinking, wondering, fasting, and just plain worrying. The worrying is OK; it builds tension which will intensify the ritual. She does her best to stay awake.

Finally, at dawn, her mother joins her, carrying a candle and body paint and bringing water to drink. When she enters she allows as little light as possible to enter. She tells her daughter stories of the daughter's childhood and the mother's teen years. As she talks she paints designs on her daughter's body with the paint, appropriate to the story being told. If she has had a secret name given her at her saining, it is now repeated to her, along with its meaning and the reason it was given. It is written on her body with the paint. Throughout the day periods of teaching and talking alternate with periods of seclusion. This continues until dark.

After dark the mother blindfolds the girl and leaves. The girl's guardian comes in and leads her to the beach and out onto a dock to water about waist deep. Other significant women in the girl's life (adult friends, relatives, friends who have already gone through the ritual) have gathered skyclad and lined up one behind the other in the water, facing the shore, their legs spread apart. Her mother or her guardians asks:

Who were you?

She answers with names she was known by in childhood. Her mother or her guardian asks:

Who are you?

She answers with the name by which she wishes to be known as a woman. It might be the name she has been known by before or one that has come to her in her meditating, or the secret name given her at her saining. After she answers, she is pulled into the water by her guardian and then must crawl/swim through their legs (helped by them and her guardian.) As she goes through each woman's legs, that woman says:

[Her new name] is born.
A woman is born.

Her mother is last and she helps her to her feet. The mother towels her off, wiping off any marks that may still be on her. Her blindfold is removed and she is wrapped up in a blanket and carried to the door of the building where the party will be.

At the door, she is set down on her feet. A moon crown is placed on her head, a cup in her right hand, and an ear of corn in her left. A necklace is placed around her neck, and the women bow to her, saying:

You are the Mother of All.
From you are born the peoples of the Earth.

Each woman draws a symbol of the Goddess on her with body paint, explaining it as she does so. They then have her turn to face the door and spread her legs. They crawl thorough her legs into the building. She follows them.

What happens next is up to the women, but it should include elemental blessings. This is also the time to talk about womanhood and sexuality from a sacred perspective.

When this is done and the women dressed again (the new woman in something special) but things are still going on a signal is given to the outside (without the new woman's knowledge) and men come, chanting, drumming, and dancing. These are men who are significant in the new woman's life (her father, other male relatives, friends of the family). They are challenged at the door but finally admitted. The new woman has to give permission before they can enter.

When both parents are present, they give a blessing to the new woman. This may be a short prayer or a ritual purification. It should express hope for a happy and productive life.

The ritual can be performed indoors if necessary. It should be in a house or apartment other than the girl's, to emphasize that she is leaving her childhood behind. The hut can be replaced by a room that has been completely emptied and had blackout curtains put on the windows. A freestanding tent is even better, again in a dark room. The bathtub can be used to immerse the girl, with the crowning as Goddess either in that room or in another. If nudity is not possible or desirable, the girl can wear white or unbleached natural fiber cloth. She should still be nude while in the hut, however, disrobing upon entering it and being dressed when leaving. The other women can wear the clothing they would wear to any celebration for the party and bathing suits for the immersion.

Boy's Puberty Ritual

The classic boy's coming of age ritual consists of a forcible separation from boyhood and his mother by divine beings, usually the ancestors, who test him, teach him, and accept him. The ancestors can be either of two types, the biological or the mythological. The meaning in either case is that these are the ones who have done these things before and have made them sacred. These are men, and they are the ones who can make the boy a man. They are the fathers, whose approval is necessary if the boy is to grow up.

A boy's coming of age of necessity involves more of an ordeal than a girl's. The boy does not have the major body signals to convince him that he has indeed become a man. He must feel tested and he must feel that he has passed that test. Anything else will leave him in doubt of his manhood. There must be no doubt; that is the whole point of having this ritual in the first place.

The adolescent boy must be accepted by the world of the fathers. If the separation from the mother is not done he will do it himself, with adolescent rebellion with all its dangers. (Perhaps the dangers are its appeal. He seeks an ordeal.) If he is not ritually accepted by the fathers, he will spend his life trying to prove his adulthood, with all the dangers for society (and himself) that this entails.

This is why there must be fathers to be accepted by in the ritual. It is most important for the boy's own father to be there. If that is absolutely impossible, the father's part must be take by an adult male whom the boy respects and to whom he is close. If there is no one who fills this role, the ritual will not work. A boy needs a male role model to grow up. If he has none, growing up will last into adult life and may never be done at all.

In Celtic myth there is a tradition of youths being given their adult names and their weapons by their mothers. This reflects nicely the Pagan belief that power has its source in the Goddess.

But among the Sioux, young men took their names from something important they had done or that came to them in their vision quests. The point here is that manhood is something which must be seized; it is not something given.

The Sioux way reflects well the experience of becoming a man in America. Boys feel they must earn the right to manhood and would not accept it if offered freely. Whether this is good or bad I will not debate here. But that this is the way it is can be demonstrated in the lives of almost all men. If you wish to change this, a puberty rite is too late. (I doubt whether it can be changed at all; the pressures of society are very strong.) A puberty rite must work, and it must work with what it has. Choose your symbols carefully to create the effect you want.


It is best to perform this rite at a Pagan gathering. This provides an appropriate place, a group of interested adults, and some time before the ritual in a sacred environment. If this is not possible, perform it during some sort of vacation, a camping trip perhaps. This will serve to mark the time and place as special, as outside of the ordinary routine.

As soon as possible after arriving at the gathering hold a sweatlodge. This is intended to purify the boy and to impress on him the seriousness of the coming ritual. If it is not possible to build a sweatlodge, or if no one present is sufficiently experienced to run one, perform some other purification ritual, preferably involving water. A sauna makes a good substitute for a sweatlodge, provided it is held in a ritual manner. Part of the purification rite is a removal of his name:

Your name has been eaten.
You are in-between:
Nameless, unborn, unfinished.

From this point until the naming in the ritual he is addressed by everyone as "boy."

After the purification rite or sweatlodge, give the boy something to mark that he is a candidate for initiation. This could be a special article of clothing, or a piece of jewelry, or especially a mark such as a white streak across his face. Restrict his diet. If he is an omnivore, he might be forbidden to eat meat. If he is a vegetarian, he might be required to eat meat. Other possibilities include androgynous clothing, undyed clothing, eating only with his fingers, restrictions on speaking, and eating mainly dairy products. Each of these has its own meaning. In androgynous clothing he is marked as neither male nor female, the original state in the womb before differentiation. Undyed clothing is a sign of the untransformed person. Eating with fingers is the mark of the unacculturated. Babies and the unborn do not speak. Milk is the food of infants. In these ways he is marked as someone who is about to be reborn and is separated from those who aren't (as well as from those who are).

At some point during the gathering, without warning or the boy's knowledge of the exact time, he is kidnapped by the initiating men. This is done at sunset. If it can be contrived for the boy to be watching the sunset with his mother and younger siblings, so much the better. At the least he should be with his mother.

A blanket is thrown over his head from behind and he is brought, perhaps carried, perhaps dragged, to the initiatory cabin. This can be any structure, a cabin, tent, or house, as long as it is big enough. It must be set off in some way, in the wilds apart from other buildings.

When the initiate is inside, the blanket is removed. Around him are the men who have brought him there. They are all masked. They represent the ancestors. In front of him is a man, preferably his father. He must be a man whom the boy regards as a role model. He wears a God mask. This could be a God mask, complete with antlers, or a Kachina mask, or a Green Man mask, or any kind that fits with the tradition of the family. If the ancestors are represented in the family shrine by full size masks, the male ancestor mask is a good choice. What is important is that it completely disguise its wearer and that it be instantly recognizable by the boy as the mask of a male sacred being. This man says:

You have been brought here
into the dark
to where the ancestors wait,
all the men who have gone this way before you;
to where the God waits,
He who began this way and who is its guardian.
You have been brought to your testing place.
Do you wish the test?

He replies in the affirmative. The man continues:

You have been brought here
into the dark
where demons lurk
where the unknown lives
where dangers hide in the shadows.
You have been brought to your testing place.
Do you wish the test?

He again replies. The man continues:

You have been brought here
into the dark
the dark of the womb
which gives birth
the dark of the earth
which receives you at death
the dark of grave and cave
which hold mysteries dark and deep.
You have been brought to your testing place.
Do you wish the test?

He again replies. The man continues:

You have been brought here against your will.
No one asked you if you wanted to come to this point in your life.
But you have decided to undergo the testing.
There was no choice but to be presented with the test
To undergo it was your own choice.
Hear me, ancestors.
Hear me, men.
I give him over to you to be tested.

The ancestors strip the boy and make him white with ashes or powdered chalk. They say:

The boy has died.
He has gone into the dark.
There is no way out but through.

They may say this once or repeat it over and over as they paint him. When they are done he is led into the wild. There he spends the night alone. Before they leave the ancestors wrap him in a blanket. Although this serves the practical purpose of making the ordeal less severe, it also has the symbolic value of standing for the amniotic sac, or caul. Among some people, to be born still in this sac is a sign of special power. During this ordeal, unless you are in a very safe place, it is best if one of the men stays within earshot or in a place from which he can observe the boy, to make sure the boy will be OK. We are trying to make a man, not a corpse.

He spends the night alone in vision quest. He must stay awake all night and see what comes to him. If against all his efforts he falls asleep he must remember his dreams.

In the morning, during false dawn, he is brought to a place from which the rising sun can be seen. The men once again have their ancestor masks on. The man in the God mask is not there. The boy is brought blindfolded and in silence. It is best if the last stretch is up a hill. (It is in the high places that the God of Sky and Sun is encountered.) At the end of the walk he is faced east and the blindfold is removed so that he sees the rising sun. When the sun has risen all the way, what is left of the white is wiped off. The blanket is put back on for a second and then removed. In this way his final birth is enacted. He is then turned to face west (thereby standing in the direction of birth, facing towards his death, having been reborn like the sun). The God figure from before is there now. He says:

You have returned from the night.
What vision have you brought us?

The boy then tells what happened on his quest. From the vision(s) the man in the mask derives a name. He says:

The man has had a vision
The man has found a name
You are [name]
You are a man.

The boy then goes from man to man. Each removes his mask and hugs the initiate, saying:

Welcome, [old name].
Welcome, [new name].
Welcome to manhood.

After he has been welcomed by all the other men he is brought by them to the man in the God mask. The man in the mask calls him by his new name. When the initiate answers, the man says:

You have been called.
You have answered.
You have done what needed to be done.
You have gone through.
You have endured within.
You have come out.
And here you stand on the other side.
A man.
Welcome, [new name].

He takes off the mask and give it to the initiate, who puts it on. The new man faces each of the other men, who salute him in turn. He finally faces the sun for a second and then takes the mask off and hands it back to his father.

After the new man has been dressed in new clothes, there is a procession, with much noise -- drums, bells, bullroarers -- to where the women and children wait. The new man is greeted by the women and a party is held with presents and dancing. At the party the new man is blessed by his parents in the same way a new woman would be.

After the party, the men gather again in the cabin or tent where the ritual started. The new man is of course there. They drum and dance and talk, teaching the new man what it is to be a man. Subjects can include sex, jobs, the proper treatment of women, fatherhood, homosexuality, the nature of masculinity, and even those topics stereotypically associated with men -- sports, finance, etc. The meeting goes on for as long as is necessary, and both begins and ends in drumming.

In the days after the ritual the new man makes a mask of his own. He must take part in the next coming of age, this time as one of the initiators. In this way he begins to take on the sacred responsibilities of being a man, and acknowledges that the way a student repays his debt to his teachers is by passing the teaching on.


After the first ritual the new adult is considered an adult for all religious purposes. He may take the adult parts in family celebrations. He may serve as a guardian in a dedication. If the family has had family membership in any religious organizations he is now responsible for his own membership.

The new adult has had her power awakened and acknowledged. She has not come into her full power, however, nor does she know how to use it fully. She still has much to learn about the world. There is need for a period of transition before the final ritual.

This is a time of further training. Although the child is now spiritually an adult she still must be trained in the skills required to fully attain the status of adulthood. This includes training in practical things: finances, cooking, self-defense, home repair, driving, auto repair, work, education, etc. She may also wish to deepen her vision by going on a vision quest, a time by herself to explore who it is she is becoming.

The new woman should be trained in the mother's part in the family rituals. She might wear her mother's moon crown or have one given to her or made by her. Alternatively, she might make her own when she establishes her own household. The new man would of course be trained in the father's part in the family rituals. Don't just perform the coming of age ritual and go back to your relationship as it was. If the ritual has worked that won't be possible anyway. Your new adult will need a new relationship. She or he is not all grown up but a new phase of training and recognition has begun.

Bring the child more into family decisions. Teach her about home finances and ask her advice. If you practice shamanism, this is the time to start teaching your child how to journey. A Wiccan family might invite the new adult into circle and start preparing her for initiation.

The adult that the child is becoming is part of a society. During this period, therefore, he must involve himself in community work. This may be anything from volunteering at a shelter for the homeless to lobbying for recycling. It should be something that requires him to work with other people.

He must also get a paying job as soon as he is old enough. Part of his money he can spend, but some goes to his family as his contribution and some is saved for education. He is learning to be responsible for himself.

Rite of Completion

The second rite is an acknowledgment that the necessary learning has been accomplished and that the initiate has come into her full power. There will still be learning and growing to do, of course, right up until death, but a major point has been passed. This second rite should be performed after high school graduation, right before the child leaves home for college or her own place to live.

The ritual begins with a three day vision quest, the goal of which is to determine her goals for life, both mundane and spiritual. (These goals will change as she grows, of course.) The place and time are picked by her, and she is responsible for organizing it. During her quest she spends the time alone, preferably in a wild place. She doesn't go without support, of course. She takes the standard camping equipment, including a whistle or siren with which to signal a helper who stays separately but within hearing. This person can be her guardian or another person on vision quest, but it must not be one of her parents. She is learning to get by on her own, and that is tough to do when Mommy or Daddy are within earshot. A way of communicating, perhaps by leaving a message at a landmark, is arranged with the helper. The quester will need to leave a message each day so that the helper will know she is safe. Simply being alone and fasting is enough of a challenge.

The last day of the quest is spent fasting from food. In her poverty she cries for help, asking for vision. She waits for knowledge to come to her from the emptiness of the direction she should take after the ritual.

Before she leaves for her quest, she receives a blessing from her parents. She also gives an offering to the guardians of the household. As part of this, she explains what she is about to do, and asks for their blessings in the future, even though she must go.

On returning from her quest, she is greeted by her parents. They say to her:

You who have come from the wild,
shining with the power of the Gods:
We see your power, fully awakened in you.
Come to us, from your place of power, and give us your blessing.

She blesses them, and then is invited by them to a party in her honor. At the party, she gives them presents bought before the quest with her own money or made by her during the quest. She says to them:

You have given me much
and I wish to give you something.

They reply:

You have already given us much
but we accept this with gratitude.

When the time has come for the child to leave (and it is best if she not stay the night), the parents say to her:

What we have taught you is not yours to keep.
We ourselves did not have it to own
but only to guard until time to pass it on.
Now these teachings are yours
and the responsibility is yours as well
to keep the teaching and to pass it on.
Do it well.

She replies:

I will.

They say to her:

I am your father forever
I am your mother forever
No matter where you go
and no matter who you become
we will always be your parents.

She replies:

Though now I am an adult,
I am still your child.
No matter where I go
and no matter who I become
I will always be your child.
I will not forget what I have learned here.