A Japanese woman, right after her ceremony, is walking towards a shrine to pray, while dressed in a kimono.

Coming-of-Age Ceremonies: Rituals Across Countries and Cultures

Different cultures have coming-of-age ceremonies that welcome adolescents into adulthood.

We’re familiar with Sweet 16, Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, and a Quinceañera. Now, we’ll explore how other cultures present and welcome a boy becoming a man and girl becoming a woman and show respect for their history.

Sateré-Mawé – Bullet Ant Initiation

A Satere-Mawe boy with the gloves of bullet ants on his hands, covered in charcoal markings, preparing for the rest of the coming-of-age ceremony.
image source: historyofyesterday.com

The Sateré-Mawé are indigenous people in Brazil and primarily located in the Amazonas State. The Bullet Ant Initiation is a coming-of-age ceremony for boys between 12 and 13 years old.

The Bullet Ant

The Satéré-Mawé gather the bullet ants, one by one, with a stick. The ants are dropped into a natural, liquid sedative and rendered unconscious. Each ant is then carefully woven into the leaf gloves, unharmed. When they wake up, they’re unhappy with their unfamiliar surroundings.

The Bullet Ant has the world’s most powerful sting. The pain is comparable to that of a gunshot.

The Initiation

The gloves are sacred objects that sprout macaw feathers while placed on two poles.

When placed on the boy’s hands, the gloves must remain on for ten minutes. To ensure the ants won’t wonder, the boys hands are painted with charcoal. The ants will stay within the dark area.

However, only when completing the ritual 20 times is the boy considered a man.

With the gloves on, the boys demonstrate courage and composure through song and dance, in addition to showing resistance and emphasizing the importance of maintaining composure.

They sing through the suffering and focus on the rhythmic steps and melody that makes the pain bearable.

A few rotations later, men approach to dance and sing with the boy. Their arms are joined and they dance in a circle around the two poles.

The Meaning

The initiation shows that what’s needed to cope with pain is found on the inside of oneself, rather than the outside. It emphasized that advertising your pain doesn’t make sense and sympathy is irrelevant.

It’s meant to show that life without suffering or without any kind of effort isn’t worth living in.

The Coming-of-Age Tradition for Girls

After their first menstruation, the girl is left alone in a hunt for one month. She can only be seen by her mother, who brings her food and water.

One month later, the girl emerges from the hut as a grown woman who’s ready for marriage.

The Amish – Rumspringa

Five Amish youths entering New York City for the first time, resdy to experience their first day of Rumspringa.
image source: pinterest.com

‘Rumspringa’ comes from a Pennsylvanian Dutch term typically meaning “running around”. The complete translation is “running around outside the bounds”, which is an apt translation given what takes place during Rumspringa.

This coming-of-age ceremony is for 16-year-old Amish youths that aren’t baptized. Therefore, they have no obligation to follow church rules about permitted and taboo behaviors.

The Amish lifestyle is strict. They come from a closed community with limitations on technology use and where individuals can and can’t go.

Their clothing is modest and they have a heavy focus on worshipping God, maintaining a family and serving the community.

The touths have the opportunity to experiment with non-traditional Amish life.

For example, they visit neighboring towns, wear everyday clothing, use modern technology, drink and even associate with non-Amish individuals.

The Amish Youths

Youths in Amish communities are excluded from traditional behaviours and rules. During Rumspringa, many continue to live in their parents’ homes while others move out.

They start to experience the “English” way of life, which refers to mainstream American culture.

Rumspring traditionally lasts for two years. The youths are expected to return to their Amish community for their baptism so they may follow the laws of Amish society.

A few Amish teenagers marry “English” partners and assimilate into modern American society. Some choose to live independently and away from Amish culture. Some even extend Rumspringa for years before returning home.

A vast majority return home to their communities.

Other than having the purpose of having youths find suitable partners, Rumspringa gives youths a chance to decide their own path to adulthood.

Inuit, North Baffin Island

An Inuit father and son, where the father is teaching his son how to skin a caribour on the icy plains of North Baffin Island as part of coming-of-age ceremony.
image source: researchgate.net

There are three important stages for Inuit boys and girls: separation, transition, and incorporation.

The Coming-of-Age Tradition for Boys

The Inuit believe the Goddess of the Sea, Sedna, controlled the hunt. If hunters fail to notice their mistakes, a disappointed Sedna sees the hunt as a failure. To rectify this, a shaman visits Sedna at the bottom of the sea and brushes her tangled hair to appease her.

The most crucial part of an Inuit boy’s life is his first hunt.

When the boys are strong enough, typically at the ages of 11 and 12, they’re taken away from civilization to learn to hunt.

This lasts for a few days, but there’s nothing caring if the days extend. It takes place in the summers, specifically, two months out of the year.

The boys watch their fathers and learn from what they do. The boys must watch their fathers and study their techniques to attempt to repeat the same actions. It’s also important to learn from one’s mistakes.

A father teaches his son about the land and knowing the territory. Knowing the snow means knowing the way of the land, even during a blizzard. They’ll always find a way home.

The boys observe the animals in the wild to gain new hunting skills.

Only when they successfully complete a hunt are the boys considered men.

Recently, hunting traditions have extended to girls.

Separation

The boys are taken from the modern world, accompanied by their fathers, to camps.

They must separate themselves from familiarity to see how life was before modernization. As a result, they learn the importance of knowing the landscape, space and skills that could save a life.

Transition

The boys must learn all the traditional skills and techniques of the Inuit people.

One main lesson is learning to handle huskies, especially when moving through the snow on a sleigh. Dogs are important to the hunt and are seen as family members and are treated as such.

Building an igloo is also essential, just like understanding the land and animal behavior.

Incorporation

After the first hunt, the boys are brought into society as men. For whatever animal they hunted, there’s a celebration with a feast.

It symbolized their acceptance of the responsibilities and wisdom they have, a sign that they will be good providers.

The Coming-of-Age Tradition for Girls

When girls reach puberty, they undergo a process of facial tattooing. It symbolizes that they are ready to assume the responsibilities of starting and taking care of a family.

Depending on the community, tattoos can be one other parts of the body, not only the face. However, until their face is marked, they aren’t marriageable. Once they’re tattooed, they’re women of the tribe.

Being tattooed means learning the essential skills of an Inuit woman, such as:

  • Chopping and melting ice for water.
  • Making and preparing family boots.
  • Providing seal fat for cooking and warmth.
  • Lighting quilliq (a lamp)

An older woman of the tribe with exceptional embroidery skills tattoo the faces and bodies. She keeps her tools in a seal-intestine bag, which include a wooden or bone needle, a knife and a string of caribou sinew.

The first lines tattooed on their chin mark that the girl is now a woman.

The older woman stitched the tattoo into the skin of the young girl, an almost unbearable process that lasts for days. The tattoos are sterilized with a urine-soot mixture, which turns the caribou sinew into a dark colour.

Over months, the stretched dye designs spread under the skin and the dots turn into thicker lines. They gradually fade, but never disappear.

The belief is that women will have a better afterlife after the pain-enduring process. They’re weak without the tattoo and would face an improper afterlife, without luxuries and pleasures.

Separation

After their first menstruation, the girl is separated from familiarity and security.

She acknowledges the feat of not knowing what lies ahead and, only then, the community accepts that she’s ready for the tattooing ritual.

Transition

The girls is in a liminal, a space for the initial part of the ritual. She’s no longer considered a girl, but isn’t an adult yet. The official ceremony begins when the tools are prepared.

Incorporation

In the final stage, the girl returns to society as a woman. There’s self-recognition of being an adult and a deep understanding of the community.

As an Inuit woman, she’s ready to marry a man who will support her and her family.

Malaysia – Khatam Al Koran

Rows of young Malaysian girls seated next to one another, holding their hands in front of them for the prayer in a mosque.
image source: suampripadnews.wordpress.com

“Khatam al Koran” means “Last of the Prophet”.

The Malaysian coming-of-age ceremony takes place after boys undergo berkhtan or bersunat (circumcision), which takes place between the ages of six and 12 years old. There are mass circumcision ceremonies during the school holidays.

For girls, the ceremony takes place when they turn 11 years old.

The ceremony must be completed so they can be considered an adult and celebrate the Khatam.

Girls spend years preparing for this by reviewing the Qur’an.

The ritual involves them reciting the final chapter in front of family and friends. They fast from dusk till dawn, where they refrain from food, drinking liquids and smoking.

After reciting prayers from the Qur’an, they say a prayer to secure their place in Heaven.

This prestigious ceremony takes place at their local mosque and demonstrates the young boys’ and girls’ maturity. Boys and girls are in separate sections of the mosque.

Japan – Seijin No Hi (成人の日)

Five young women and four young men pose for a picture before they enter the hall to commence their coming-of-age ceremony in Japan.
image source: http://blogjaponia.blogspot.com/

Also known as ‘Coming-of-Age Day’ or ‘Adult Day’, the Japanese coming-of-age ceremony takes place on the second Monday of January. This one day welcomes the country’s youth into adulthood and is a public holiday celebrated across the country.

The youths in Japan are only adults when they reach twenty years old. This is when they can legally drink alcohol, smoke, drive, and gamble.

In their registered areas, the municipality invites the new adults to its local city hall.

Women wear elaborate kimonos or furisode (a long-sleeved kimono for unmarried women). Men wear a traditional male kimono with a hakama (skirt-like pants), but many choose Western-style formal attire.

At 11:30 AM, attendees and their families are at their venues for photographs and speeches. The city’s mayor and/or other major figures give their speeches and conduct lectures. Larger gatherings have live music and performances after the formalities.

In the end, the new adults receive small gifts and ouvenirs from the event.

Additionally, this is an important spiritual event. New adults, with their families, go to local shrines to pray for health and success.

After the ceremony, photographs, prayers and family well-wishing, many of the new adults go to a casual gathering with friends. They celebrate their drinking age and either go to an izakaya (an informal Japanese restaurant that serves alcoholic drinks and snacks), a restaurant, or home.

Confucian – Ji Li and Guan Li

A Chinese girl and boy in the middle of their coming-of-age ceremonies, ready to proceed into adulthood.
image source: newton.com.tw / chinadaily.com.cn

In China, coming-of-age ceremonies mark adulthood, sexual maturity, legal empowerment, social responsibility, and marriage. The boys and girls sacrifice certain feelings and emotions to signify they are ready to take on responsibilities.

Ji Li (笄禮 – Li Ji)

The ‘hair pinning’ coming-of-age ceremony is for girls that reach 15 years old.

After washing their hair, it’s combed into a bun and kept in place with a hairpin. The hairpin is made out of wood, jade, or gold, depending on the girl’s status.

For the ceremony, the tradition clothing is a red robe.

A highly respected woman and relative of the girl is the master of the ceremony.

The ceremony signifies womanhood. Women led go of their past and focus on being presentable for marriage.

After the ceremony, they learn to be wives through lessons, such as learning to speak and dress properly and needlework.

Guan Li (冠禮 – Li Guan)

Boys between the ages of 18 and 0 go through a ‘capping’ coming-of-age ceremony.

Three days before the ceremony, they each choose a guest of honour to perform the ceremony and serve as capping assistant.

Their washed hair that’s pulled into a bun signifies masculinity and that the boy should no longer act like a child. Their traditional clothing is a blue robe.

The father gives a speech and the boy comes to meet the guests. The master of the ceremony washes his hands and placed the fu you (head cap worn by ancient Chinese men) on the boy’s head. Then, the boy goes into a room and changes into another robe that matches the fu you. 

When he comes out for the second time, he received a hat from the master. He then goes back into the room and changes into a dark colored robe.

The guest of honor gives a speech and the attendees a courtesy name, zi. It’s an adult name signifying respect.

After, the attendee bows to his mother and accepts a cup of wine from his father.

The boy salutes the guests and finally becomes a man.

Apache Sunrise Ceremony

An apache girl on her second day of the sunrise ceremony, surrounded by dancers and a medicine men, all dressed in traditional attire.
image source: allthatsinteresting.com

After the girl has her first menstruation, the Apache holds a four-day coming-of-age ceremony in the summer.

The ceremony requires months of preparation and teaching. It takes time and effort to make the symbolic attire and build the lodge.

The girl undergoes a physical and demanding regime to strengthen her physical endurance. The medicine man and her godmother, a spiritually strong model of wisdom, guides her.

On the first day, they enter the sbymbollic tipi to house the rituals. The medicine man blesses the ceremonial dress, cane, and other sacred items.

On the second day, the girl and her godmother perform the sunrise dance. From the dance, she obtains the power of the Changing Woman, who gave birth to the first Apache people, to bless the sick.

In the evening of the second day, four or more Crown dancers perform a dramatic set of fances that represent the Gaan mountains for good fortune.

For the remaining two days, the girl observes the guidelines of her sacred powers. It will rain if she touches water directly, so she must drink from a straw. Scratching herself results in scarring, so she is given a scratching stick. She must remain serious. If she laughs profusely, her face will have premature wrinkles.

The girl completes the running ritual, where she runs in four directions to symbolize the four stages of life, starting in the east.

By the end of the ceremony, she no longer has her powers and is now a woman.

Cultural Significance in Anthropology

A tribe performs a fire dance in the black of night.
image source: onnit.com

Among cultures, there are different ways to present their beliefs, honor their ancestors and Gods, and how they take on each day.

Coming-of-age ceremonies depict the long-standing beliefs of a culture. They are a way for a community to support and honor adolescent members as they take on adulthood. However, different they are from one another, their purpose is the same.

“In childhood, be modest, in youth, temperate, in adulthood, just, and in old age, prudent.”

-Socrates.

Leave a Reply