COMING OF AGE
THE BRAZILIAN STATE of Amazonas is one of the largest territories in any country in the world, close in size to the US state of Alaska or Australia's Queensland. It is also mostly tropical jungle. The combination of rainforest and immensity makes Amazonas fascinating in another way; it plays home to peoples relatively untouched by the modern world.
And the Mawé, my friends, are getting off easy.
Across the Atlantic Ocean, among the Bukusu people of western Kenya, 14-year-old boys undergo the sikhebo. Jangling chinyimba bells he goes from house to house, getting gifts--and insults--from friends and relations. He is called a child, a "sissy," and told he is not ready to become a man.
That evening, while everyone gets drunk on busaa, a cow is slaughtered and the boy is smeared with the contents of its bowels. Like the Mawé boy he is not to cry out of show fear. He will be forced to remain awake all night while alternately taunted and instructed in what it means to be a man.
Then, at dawn, without anesthetics, he will be circumcised with a knife.
RITES OF PASSAGE
Glorantha is not the "real world," but it is among those fantasy settings out there that hews closely to it, especially in terms of myth, ritual, and traditional cultures. I suspect this has everything to do with who Greg Stafford, its primary creator, was. Greg was not just a lifelong scholar of mythology, he was a self-described shaman. He left us, and this world, in his sweat lodge. So Greg knew a thing or two about how traditional societies work, and he knew a great deal about initiation.
We don't really do initiations any longer in the quote-unquote "civilized" world. Our post-modernism safely assures us initiations are all mumbo jumbo, and we know so much better than that. I expect that several readers out there would regard the practices discussed in the passage above as child abuse. In writing Rites of Passage, the male adulthood initiation ritual for Heortling boys as practiced by the Haraborn, I had the boys seized in the dead of night and thrown roughly into pits. I expect some in the Gloranthan community would call that child abuse as well.
But as long-term readers of this blog have already surmised, I know a thing or two about initiations myself. For nearly twenty years I have been a member of the O.T.O., which describes itself as an initiatory organization, and though I have taken oaths not to speak of them, I have been through a number of initiations as a result. They were all ordeals.
That word has an interesting story. We throw it around today to mean something difficult, but of course the original definition--going all the way bay to its Proto-Germanic roots--is a trial that divides. The "deal" portion of the word is actually from the same root as "dual" or "duo." So an ordeal is a ritual that divides you, it separates you. From what? On one hand it separates you from others; after the ordeal you don't belong to the same group you did before. In case of manhood rites we are literally separating the men from the boys. But I opened with a quote from Aleister Crowley for a reason; the point it is making is that every initiation is also a death.
In an esoteric sense, death is synonymous with "transformation." When the caterpillar becomes a butterfly, the caterpillar is "dead." What the Bukusu or the Mawé are doing therefore is not some simple fraternity hazing, they are transforming the boys from one thing into something else. While our post-modern initiations are essentially window-dressing (being handed a diploma at graduation, for example), traditional societies regard them very, very seriously. Make no mistake, those boys are being killed. The men who take their place are transformed.
There is a temptation--a very real one--to impose our modern sensibilities on the peoples of Glorantha. The Heortlings could simply have a party for their boys to welcome them into manhood. They could gloss over issues of gender and have everyone simply go through the same rituals together. YGWV and there is no wrong approach, but I suppose what is at issue here is what Glorantha means to you; is it a fantasy world in the sense that you can use it to redress the disparities and inequalities you perceive in this world, or is it an attempt to recreate and engage with traditional worldviews? Greg firmly saw it as the latter. So do I.
Thus it was important for me for both Rites of Passage and The Riddle to be ordeals. The boys tossed into the pits and the girls walking into the Riddle never come out again. Instead, brand new men and women do. Death and transformation have to be part of the formula. These are births, and births are accompanied by difficulty and pain. In preparing both I paid a great deal of attention to what Greg had to say on the matter, as well as traditional initiations like those described above. To remove the pain is to misunderstand what initiation is about.