Passages of Life

Today the human animal lives longer than any other species of land mammal. Our life span is so long that we try to divide it up into segments. We create helpful punctuation in our life sentence. We speak of childhood, adolescence, middle age, old age and senility. Increasingly, we see ourselves as belonging to one of these major phases of life, and we create special events to mark our passage from one stage to the next. These rites of passage frequently help us to reaffirm and reinforce our masculinity or femininity. Even when gender plays a secondary role in these ceremonies it may nevertheless make a considerable impact.
            By nature, these rites of passage are extremely localized in their significance. Although everyone can understand the general meaning of each event, the smaller details of the procedure are frequently meaningless to all but the people directly involved. Each culture has its own legends and traditions, symbols and beliefs. These are woven together to magnify the psychological ‘weight’ of an event and to make it as impressive and awe-inspiring as possible for the participants. What is somberly important for them may appear to be no more than superstitious mumbo jumbo to outsiders. It is worth remembering, through, that other cultures must also view our own most sacred ceremonies as equally preposterous when gazed upon from their distant position.

The Primeval Feast

Although today we have all kinds of ceremonies for all kinds of occasions, the earliest and most ancient of all our celebrations must have been the feast, the feast that took place following a successful hunt. Before our early ancestors became hunters, their lives will have lacked the great moment, the special event, but once we began to pursue big game our whole lifestyle changed.
            Males set off on the chase while females stayed behind near the camp site. When the men returned, there was a triumphant gathering in which the whole tribe participated. These feasts provided peak moments in the human life cycle and created the template for other, more varied ceremonies and events that were to develop at a much later date. This is why at so many of our modern events we include food and feasting, even if, as at a wedding reception, eating is not really relevant to the activities at the center of the celebration.
            At most of these ceremonies, being male or female has a special significance. The ritual actions we perform, and the costumes we wear, help to give each of us stronger gender identity. The nature of the events often serves to make males more masculine and females more feminine. At a wedding, the bride and groom appear in strongly contrasting costumes, probably as different from one another as they will ever be in their entire lives. Tomorrow they may both be wearing jeans and T-shirts, but today their gender displays are polarized.

The New Arrival

In some countries the typical wedding ceremony is followed by another, less familiar ritual. In Estonia, near the Russian border, a newly married couple, accompanied by their wedding guests, visit a sacred tree. They believe that, if the groom climbs high into this tall tree and ties a ribbon on one of its upper branches, the action will encourage the early and successful birth of child. The higher the groom goes, the better his bride’s chances of becoming pregnant quickly. And if they have a preference for a boy or a girl, they can influence this by the colour of the ribbon he uses pink for a girl or blue for a boy.
            The arrival of the newborn is a time for ceremony in almost every culture. It would seem reasonable to suppose that a successful birth would demand a ceremony that is also a celebration, but matters are more complicated than that. In the primeval forest the act of giving birth is seen as simple and perfectly natural, but once society has become more complex and is dominated by a powerful male priesthood it may lose its simple character. In pious patriarchal eyes, giving birth becomes somehow bestial and faintly disgusting.
            In parts of Greece, for instance, the mother is considered impure after she has given birth and is confined for 40 days. During this phase she must stay in her home and is not allowed to enter a church or take part in religious services. At the end of her confinement she must attend a special ceremony to mark her return to the fold. Amazingly, Greek women, even today, are prepared to accept this form of humiliation. The origins of this curious ritual can be traced to the Old Testament, where it was categorically stated that a woman shall be unclean for 40 days after giving birth and shall ‘touch no hallowed thing, nor come into the sanctuary, until the days of her purifying be fulfilled’. After the 40 days are over she has to make an animal sacrifice, after which the priest will ‘make atonement for her and she will be cleansed from the fountain of her blood’.
            The central theme here is female bleeding. This is seen by a male-dominated religion as defiling, presumably because it is a vivid reminder of humanity’s animal nature. The fact that men’s bodies are not required to perform the bloody business of giving birth places them further from the animals and therefore closer to God. This superstitious nonsense converting the act of giving birth from a wondrous natural event into a disgusting bestial necessity was just one of the many ways in which a devious male priesthood sought to reduce all women to an inferior status.
            Not long after entering the world, the newborn is given its own special gender display in the form of pink or blue clothing. This tradition of blue for a boy and pink for a girl can be traced back to ancient times when a male offspring was considered to be a much greater asset than a female addition to the family. The blue colour was thought to be protective, and the male baby needed all the protection it could be given. Blue was seen as the colour of heaven, and therefore the colour that would repel the evil forces that were inevitably attracted to the innocent newborn baby. To the superstitious, adorning the baby with blue colours was a defensive act that would keep it safe in a world full of malevolent spirits. In some countries, simply clothing the baby boy in blue was not enough. Blue ornaments had to be hung in he rooms and it was even necessary to paint the front door of the dwelling a bright blue.
            The female newborn did not receive such protective treatment. She needed a display colour that would distinguish her from the male baby. And the chosen colour was pink, symbolizing her biological colour at least in the countries where this tradition grew up.

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