Liminality

Arnold van Gennep was a Dutch anthropologist who wrote an important study in the early twentieth century on patterns he had detected across cultures in the rituals that marked life transitions. He began his book, The Rites of Passage, describing what he took to be the more obvious phenomenon of territorial passage, noting the way human beings in archaic societies divide land into a patchwork of domains with boundaries that they mark with sacred stones, trees, or rivers. Passage across these boundaries is always risky and requires observing various formalities. Those who pass from one domain to another, he claims, find themselves in a precarious situation for a certain length of time, wavering between two worlds. Compiling field research from Africa, Australia, China and Europe, he extended this observation by noting that it is common in ritual observances that conduct human beings between precarious stages of life to make a ceremonial use of doors - symbols of territorial passage borrowed for the purpose of illuminating the cycle of a human life. As a central part of ceremonies surrounding coming of age, marriage, entrance into secret societies, royal enthronements, and death, doors are solemnly sprinkled with blood, water and perfume, and festooned with sacred objects, often bearing images of fantastic creatures like dragons, griffins, and monsters. Crossing a threshold as part of these initiation rituals signifies the gravity of one's passing from one world to another.52 Van Gennep argues that a common progression can be discerned in the rites of initiation he has examined, a sequence consisting of three stages:53

• separation from a previous world;

• ordeals of liminality;

• ceremonies of incorporation.

First, those undergoing the initiation are separated out from everyone else for a determined span of time - either alone or in the company of others undergoing the same transition. Second, they are subjected to great physical and mental ordeals designed to make them forget the phase of life they are exiting, and then exposed to totem ceremonies, recitations of sacred myths, instruction in tribal law, etc., which they had never witnessed before. Finally, a processional is held in which the neophyte is elevated to a new status in life, and ceremonially marked in some way that is typical of members of that station. Actual marking of the body is quite common here: circumcision, tattoos, scarifying, perforating the ear lobe or nasal septum, cutting the hair, pulling a tooth.54

Drawing on the work of van Gennep when he set out to do his own fieldwork among the Ndembu people of Zambia in the 1960s, anthropologist Victor Turner observed the same sequence in Ndembu rites of passage.55 But Turner has gone further than van Gennep in two respects: in reflecting on what larger social purpose is served by this pattern, a dialectic he describes as an interplay between structure and anti-structure that is essential to the ongoing vitality of a culture, and in identifying its survival in contemporary Western culture.

Turner found the middle phase of liminality to be fascinating for the remarkably statusless condition into which it thrusts the persons undergoing the rite. The root of the term "liminality" was seen earlier in the etymology given for the term "sublime": limen means "threshold." People who are crossing through a ritual threshold slip between their society's normal categories of classification. They shed the structure in which their identities, social class, and community responsibilities have been embedded and linger in a "betwixt and between" condition, for the duration of which they are "neither-this-nor-that, neither here-nor-there," and during which any new assignment of structure is suspended until the ritual has been concluded and they are reincorporated into the society.56 In Ndembu ritual this threshold state is expressed in a rich variety of symbols: darkness, wilderness, womb, grave, and bisexual-ity. The initiands are cast into what Turner describes as "the limbo of statuslessness."57

Rituals undergone during this phase emphasize dissolution. Initiands are commonly buried, stained black, or forced to lie motionless, as if dead. They strip off their clothing to signify their loss of identity. They may be chased into the wilderness where they become caked with dirt and, as it were, blend into the earth, disintegrating into the wild and primal matter from whence they came. Turner describes it as a "grinding down process" that is accomplished by ordeals:

circumcision, subincision, clitoridectomy, hazing, endurance of heat and cold, impossible physical tests in which failure is greeted by ridicule, unanswerable riddles which make even clever candidates look stupid, followed by physical punishment, and the like.58

All of these symbolic actions contribute to their awareness of starting over from scratch, in preparation for their pending re-entry into their society with a new status and identity. During the threshold phase they are introduced to the sacra of their people. They are shown icons and diagrams, told sacred myths and the names of their deities. Turner suggests that the information communicated to the initiands during this display of the sacra is the most fundamental stuff of their culture, the elemental symbols out of which the culture is built; it is the most prized wisdom of the tribe.59 In this liminal time they are relieved of their everyday labors and given the opportunity to reflect on the symbols that signify their culture's ultimate concerns and references, and to assume a position with respect to these things. And as they reflect, they deepen their loyalty to their culture's grasp of reality, appropriating it as their own, and perhaps begin to improvise on it now that the symbols are entrusted to their hands. Knowing what they have undergone, knowing of their fresh exposure to the cherished symbols of the tribe, the society that has sent them into this ritual process prepares itself to receive them back in a transformed status.

Something occurs during the phase of liminality that Turner calls communitas. Communitas is the deep bonding that develops between initiands. The experience of dissolution, of being stripped of status and structural roles, allows them to relate to one another with a spontaneity and rawness that endures long after the ritual has concluded, often connecting them for life. They discover each other without the trappings of rank, property or kinship positions.60 Communitas is a quality of profound interpersonal communion that Turner believes human beings instinctively long for. Through the contrivance of the shared ordeal, initiands glimpse new ways for structural relations to be arranged among themselves, and then re-enter their societies prepared to implement what they have glimpsed, experienced, and so deeply enjoyed. If the visions that were generated while they were held in thrall by communitas have sufficient power and durability, they can actually carry over into permanent changes in the way their society classifies reality and the social relations within it.61 In this way cultures are reoxygenated by these rituals.

The central rite of initiation in Christianity is baptism. In the early church, before the practice of infant baptism became the standard, baptisms were generally done once a year at Easter, following daily instruction on the creeds and the mysteries of the faith in the preceding weeks of Lent. Baptismal fonts in settled Christian communities were ornately decorated, with paintings or mosaics of key biblical scenes: Adam and Eve with the serpent in the garden, David and Goliath, the good shepherd and his sheep, the Samaritan woman at the well, Peter walking on water, the women mourning at the tomb of Jesus. Baptism was a solemn affair in which a priest invoked the Holy Spirit to come upon the water and then, one by one, the catechumens disrobed, publicly renounced Satan, were anointed with oil, then descended into the water. Confessing their faith, they were immersed and the prayer of baptism recited. Emerging from the waters, reborn, the new Christian was robed and then proceeded to the Eucharist to be joined by the whole local community of believers.

All of the components of liminality were present here. The naked descent into the water (a symbol of dissolution into the primal matter), the death and rebirth of the initiand, exposure to the sacra of the biblical stories and liturgical prayers, and the first participation in the Eucharist.

While baptisms today are more streamlined than this, much lighter affairs, vestiges of all of these elements persist. But it is worth wondering whether the fundamental components of the rite of passage captured by van Gennep and Turner may have wandered elsewhere in our culture. This will be explored more fully in chapters below, but for now, three lessons can be drawn for where this concept of liminality suggests we might look.

First, thresholds are important. Passageways that are delineated by strange markers like sculpted figures from myths and legends, gargoyles, and inscriptions in ancient languages, or well-tended natural barriers like lagoons and gardens, or dazzling signage, particularly neon - may well be there to regulate traffic between two worlds, one profane and the other sacred.

Second, the spaces and times in our culture that are "betwixt and between" our more routine obligations are important. Where do we go to suspend our normal identities and responsibilities? What occasions do we anticipate will allow us that peculiar kind of anti-structure that rejuvenates us ostensibly for the sake of rejuvenating our society? Where and when do people in our culture experience liminality and communitas?

And third, activities that combine the elements of ordeal with exposure to icons, totems, myths, densely compressed symbols, and communal values are significant. Where are our ritualized ordeals, and what secret knowledge is associated with them?

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