Victor Turner ‘ On betwixt and Between: The Liminal Period in the Rites de Passage’

In his introduction to the chapter, Turner notes the omnipresence of the Rite of passage in various societies. They constitute transitions between ‘states’  and the later should, according to him, be understood as an inclusive concept which not only include the condition of  a person (mental, physical, legal status….) but also a society in state of war or famine for example.

Among the three phases that characterise most rites of  transition ( separation, liminal period and aggregation) , he focuses on various aspects of the liminal period. Despite being physically visible, the novices are considered structurally invisible and their status complex and ambiguous. This is the  reason why they tend to be moved to a particular place or wear disguise costumes and masks. In addition they are considered as neither dead or living and have no particular rights or rank.  To these negative aspects, Turner notes some positive features of liminality. They include the novices’ sense of obedience to the elders as part of their duties as initiated, their sense of ‘comradeship’ which transcend age, rank or kinship position.  The fact that this particular period is placed within a process which implies a change within the novices and enable them to gain additional aptitudes linked to their new status, constitute another positive characteristic. Turner uses a good set of cases studies not only among the Ndembu of Zambia but also from other societies such as the rite of the North America Indians Omaha Boys, the Bemba girls puberty rites and the ritual of becoming a king among the Shilluk of Sudan. Turner also notes the cultural complexity of liminality when it comes to the communication of the ‘Sacra’ (the raison d’être of the liminal period) through the exhibitions shown ( masks, bones, figurines which could include animal and human features or magnify a particular part of the body), the actions undertaken and the instructions received by the novices.

My parents are from the Lokele tribe in the Congo, I remember hearing about the initiation rites of the ‘Libeli’. It carries many similarities with most rituals such as it was carried out in the forest with the guidance of the elders assisted by the spirits, the initiates are taught a number of rules  about behaviours (avoid all disputes or fights, no crying), their bodies were smeared with mixtures of various substances. At the end of the initiation, a plunge in the ‘ baliya ba lotata’ meaning river or stream symbolised the cleaning process and the beginning of a new phase in life. According to my mother who is from the ‘Yefoloma’ village, the arrival of missionaries contributed to the demise of these rituals.


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