Blog: The forest of symbols, Between and betwixt

This chapter from Victor Turner’s Forest of Symbols focuses on rites of passage, but more precisely the middle part of a rite, the liminal phase. In the liminal stage a person is free from the bindings of society; having already been ‘separated’ from their previous role, but not yet completed the transition to the new role with a preordained place in society. In this void there is a rich body of knowledge in which the person in the transitional phase must acquire if they are to successfully complete the rite. The crux of the argument is that this liminal position is free from any anchorage to society but that ‘paradoxically’ it provides the ‘building blocks of culture.’ It is in this undefined state with inherent ambiguities that people learn from a distance the rules of society. Also, in this far removed position, one is able to bond with others undertaking the rite, which in turn binds community and reinforces culture.
This explanation alone is not sufficient to convey the argument in the chapter, so I shall outline some of the examples given in the piece to help elucidate. Turner explains that to see this luminal stage (which is both structurally and physically invisible) proficiently we must look at the ‘simpler societies’ that change to ‘meteorological rhythms rather than technology’ (this type of language is infrequent, but it firmly places the chapter in a bygone era.) In societies whereby the transition from a boy to a man is celebrated with ritual the liminal phase is most explicit. The male members of Ndembu of Nambia before they are initiated as men and are circumcised are physically removed and kept apart from the rest of society. In this period they are stripped of all status, this means that someone from the royal family will be treated the same as someone from a lower run of the hierarchy. They are taught sacra and knowledge which will equip them to live in society when this process has been completed. When they rejoin society they have a fixed place, much different to the one before, they have changed both physically (circumcision), and internally. The change is regarded impossible to achieve without the ritual, therefore, a fully grown man is not regarded fit for male duties if he has not undergone this process.
I found this all quite hard to grapple with, until I tried to apply the terminology and examples to rites of passage that we experience in the uk. I feel that fresher’s week may be able to help convey Turner’s argument. Before people arrive at university they are school leavers, they are not necessarily equipped for university life, or more precisely student life. The crash course in drinking and going out gives them vital lessons on how to conduct themselves whilst away from home. There is often a peer guide which could (at a stretch) be compared to the teachers of sacra. But there is an undeniable comradely that grows amongst the people one meets and a feeling of distinct change in each person. All the things that happen in fresher’s week are symbols that reinforce the culture of students.

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