Honoring the Beauty of Becoming:
Women’s Rites and Rituals of Passage
by Kiva Rose
From under the rich sun-heated soil a seed breaks open, her first sprouting leaves push insistently to the surface seeking life-giving light. She stretches her leaves and stem, growing up and out, pulling with every cell, every bit of energy in her being. Buds begin to form, first barely noticeable then swelling to fat round bodies almost bursting in the summer heat. She flowers, brilliant with color; bees and other insects crowding into her center, all attracted by her rich scent and beautiful hue. She fades, her scent becoming the bittersweet scent of new decay. She pushes another huge spurt of energy into the birth of her fruit. The fruit is born plump with her life juices. The fruit grows dry, splits open and gives her seeds to the autumn winds. The plant fades and withers, her dry body trembling in the breeze. She is taken by the first hard frost. Dry and brown, she gives herself back to the breast of her mother the Earth.
We are each that seed. We are each born, pushing forward into light and life. Our bodies growing -- stretching skin and self with each new phase of life. For every life event there are certain things that mark the passage of time. We are born, we grow hair and teeth, we learn to laugh, we take our first steps into the wide world. Later, we bleed at our first moon time, that beautiful beginning of our uniquely female cycles. We conceive, give birth to our own children, we age as our children grow and find their own lives and ways of being. Our bleeding ceases, we pass into the crone time, the time of the wise woman tending herself and her fire. In these miraculous and constant ways we change, both inside and out.
Instinctually, we know that we must honor the beauty that is the changing, this infinite bliss of becoming. Yet our culture teaches us to resist change, to freeze in time. We grow up in America believing in eternal youth: liposuction, face lifts, age defying eye creams, clothing that keeps our bellies pulled in and our breasts pushed up. We grow up believing that it is a sorrow and a travesty to grow old. This attitude does inestimable damage to girls and women, creating eating disorders, shame and every imaginable form of self and body hatred. Western Culture would have us stay the same person our entire lives, usually a stereotypically Barbie doll character without wrinkles, sagging breasts or scars. But no matter what we are taught we cannot fully deny that we are living beings and that our nature is to move, to grow, to change at varying speeds and paces. Every natural change is beautiful and unique, and with every change comes an abundance of pain and joy: physically, emotionally and spiritually.
In indigenous societies worldwide there have always been events, rituals and ways of celebrating a woman’s movements through the long path of her life. Yet in our own culture we have very little in the way of rites of passage. There are traditional religious rituals (baptism, first communion, confirmation) yet these are rarely life affirming or truly celebratory in a way that encourages the participant to fully inhabit her body or love herself completely. Not only that, but these rituals were formed by men and do not and can not celebrate the unique and wild nature of the feminine. What better gift can we give to ourselves and our daughters if not a powerful recognition of a woman’s body and self through every step and stage of life? In order to best recognize and celebrate these transitional times we need to create new forms of rites of passage, rituals that draw on an ancient knowledge of women’s cycles but also adapt to our modern and diverse lives. What follows are suggestions on a basic structure of rituals and practices for women’s rites of passage. Not all rites of passage in a woman’s life are purely body based events but even in seeming unrelated events such as graduation from high school or college our bodies are sure to feel and react to the imminent change. It seems then that we should include a sense of body consciousness in all of our rites of passage in the same way that every ritual we perform is a uniting of body, heart, spirit and mind.
As women we are natural empaths and intuitive thinkers. We are daughters of the Goddess, our bodies the perfect expression and extension of the natural world. It is exactly this inherent connection and embodiment of supposedly chaotic nature that has often frightened men into the need to control and tame women. Authors such as D. H. Lawrence are infamous for their obsession with the parallel between the uncontrollable forces of the natural world and the female psyche. This parallel is real –and beautiful-! Our rhythms and tides are eternally connected to the shift and flow of the Earth. Our gifts of empathy and strong intuition make us unique. We are able to intimately feel the world around us, both the beauty and the tragedy. This special gift of feeling gives us access to enormous amounts of both joy and pain. We are often taught to keep a tight leash on our emotions, to control ourselves and indeed to diffuse an emotional situation whenever possible. Yet it is well known that emotional repression causes eventual imbalance and eventually a cut off from the female creative and inner life. Through the creation of ritual and celebration of womanhood we learn to be more accepting of our own emotional processes, recognizing them for the powerful forces they are, creating a refuge for release and understanding of what actions must result from these powerful feelings..
During times of transition our emotions will be even more sensitive and opened up than usual. We must take care that we do not allow our capability for incredible sensitivity to lead to emotional imbalance. It is for just this reason that many traditional rites of passage begin with a time of isolation. This descent into the self is a necessary period of rapid growth. Being alone during this sensitive and turbulent time will allow us to truly –be- with our emotions, to experience the shifting current of our emotional moods without feeling like we need to tone them down or tune them out for the comfort of others. This is a time for complete vulnerability and truth with ourselves.
This is the time to rethink who we are and who we want to become. A time of coming to know ourselves more intimately than ever before. This is also the perfect time to correct imbalances in our lives or to add new responsibilities and challenges. In indigenous societies this is a natural and expected step for many rites of passage. Many Native girls enter into isolation for a period of time at the beginning of puberty. They fast and bathe in cold water at dawn. This rigorous cleansing is a preparation for the vision quests they will undertake later in adolescence
This period of ceremonial isolation is symbolized in the descent of the goddess in many cultures’ myths, This is most clearly illustrated in the descent of Inanna. She is the Sumerian Queen of Heaven, who descended into the underworld, shedding clothing, jewelry, every vanity and every external pretense. In the same way we strip ourselves of our image of ourselves, of other’s images of who we are, of dogma, preconceptions and illusions until all that is left is ourselves: flesh, spirit, heart and mind. And like Inanna, we will ascend from the underworld more completely ourselves, more vibrant, alive and beautiful. We will emerge more ready to experience the challenges and joys of our lives. We will also be better prepared to know and help others when we first know and nurture ourselves.
Fasting and isolation should be done for at least some period of time even if it only for a day or half a day. Ideally, we would be able to participate in a vision quest or secluded retreat in nature for about four days, but should never deny ourselves this invaluable time simply because longer term options aren’t available. Whatever focused time, no matter how small, can be given to this time of intense insight will be of great benefit. We should try to make a majority of this time occur outdoors in order to connect with the Earth and to better take in her support, guidance and love.
Sometime toward the end of your isolation period we should envision how our lives would ideally appear. Do we have new dreams and visions of our lives or are there some very important old dreams that you haven’t found the time to get around to pursuing yet? Imagine all the ways in which we can grow closer to that ideal. First, we think about what changes we want to manifest in ourselves and our life. What aspects of our lives are no longer benefiting us or that we have grown beyond.This may mean leaving a relationship that isno longer nurturing our needs, quitting a job that is not meaningful to us or it may mean ceasing small but negative habits such as routinely indulging in guilt or victimhood.
Next, we imagine what qualities, habits or activities we wish to manifest in ourselves and our lives. These could be dreams of going to herb school, starting a business, beginning a community garden or buying land in the country. Whatever the dreams and visions, now is the time to follow them, even if we can only begin the preliminary planning stages.
On separate pieces of paper we write down what we want to remove from our lives and what we want to add to our lives. These lists are commitments to ourselves, they are gifts and promises that will enhance our inner lives, help us to better follow our dreams and remove obstacles from our paths.
The making of commitments should provide us with a sense of direction, and will serve as guideposts for our immediate future. Now we are ready to ascend, to resurface into our lives and families. This is the moment of rebirth, we have been in the womb recreating life and self, now we ascend into a celebration of the beauty of change and the beauty of ourselves.
If we have been fasting, we will prepare ourselves some simple and nourishing food (soup, fresh fruit, raw vegetables and herbal tea are all good foods when returning to eating after fasting for any period of time) to provide energy for the coming celebration and community recognition of the reborn self.
It’s very important to feel beautiful and special during this celebration, try wearing clothes bought or made specifically for this occasion that somehow accentuate the new period of life that is being entered (for example, a girl entering womanhood might wear a flowing red dress to celebrate her blood). If appropriate, we will have our sister, mother or closest female friend paint our body, hands or face with henna or a similar natural body pain in a way that accentuates our beauty and provides symbolism of our passage Spirals are a pan-cultural symbol that intimates the endlessness of our cycles and lives. Flowers and leaves show our connection to the Earth and the beauty of life. Hearts show the immensity of our love for ourselves, each other and the divine essence of life.
This is a time to spend with our families, closest friends and spiritual partners. Quiet celebration is in order, a time to celebrate the furtherance of ourselves and a time to share your dreams and visions as well as some or all of the commitment made to self and Spirit during the isolation.
Depending on the particular life passage, different forms of celebration and recognition will be appropriate. For a girl entering her first moon time could be blessed by her female elders and a time of woman’s storytelling could follow. A woman who has just conceived might have other mothers paint her belly with symbols of fertility and life before a time of dancing and feasting to celebrate the new life that is waiting to emerge. Whatever the event, the particulars should be decided by intuition and the indications of the natural world. Whenever possible, celebrate outside and eat wild foods to provide a tangible connection to our mother the Earth.
Every flower births, blossoms, fruits and fades. Every life is insistent and willful in its longing for passion and meaning. We become our most beautiful and powerful selves through the cycles of our body and our innate connection to the Earth we were born from and will one day return to. Let us always remember to celebrate and make sacred every moment of our beautiful lives. Let us give ourselves and our daughters the great gift of the knowledge that they are sacred, that every step along their life paths is sacred and blessed. Let us honor the beauty we are becoming in every way.
read another article by Kiva Rose Plants as Allies & Teachers