Cultural Anthropology

Male Initiation Ceremonies

Alicia Alligood's image for:
"Male Initiation Ceremonies"
Image by: 

This document examines male initiation patterns among the Sambia of Papua New Guinea and uses a psychological orientation when interpreting behaviors associated with these rituals. Research was conducted using various sources, including peer reviewed articles and texts used in class discussion of such events. The following text offers numerous theories applicable in interpreting Sambian male initiation.

Within cultures all over the world there exists intriguing patterns regarding behaviors associated with male initiation and the ritual ceremonies often attached to such practices. These behaviors can be interpreted in a number of ways via theoretical orientations, which offer insight by utilizing theories to explain a given condition or event. In addition to anthropology, psychology has been an extremely useful tool in forming the foundation on which we can begin to understand human behavior. When the two are fused one has access to a great tool for this purpose. The psychological orientation, with its many subcomponents and even opposing theorists, has offered insight to the many anthropologists who have been particularly concerned with recognizing cultural factors which structure the development of traits that bring about sex role behaviors. .
Recent work in anthropology has been towards comprehending ways in which an individual develops a sense of them self, rather than the once greater focus on gender differences in personality. The methods used in the initiation of males within the Sambia culture of Papua New Guinea is a great subject to analyze using a psychologically oriented approach, as it deals directly with the males within this culture developing a sense of both themselves, and their social environment.
Although an outsider cannot fully grasp the true nature of the initiation process, there is a basic idea about what occurs. Before beginning to analyze this practice, it is essential to first understand how this culture lives. Gender has been the organizing principle among those of the Sambia (C. Loveland, lecture notes, February 27, 2007).

This group, like other cultures of patrilineal descent such as the Mundurucu of the Amazon, has lived in villages structured with the men's house in the center of the community, and smaller mother-centered huts scattered around the men's central unit where wives, daughters, and small children live. Of course it can be argued that within this subculture comprised of women, children and their huts there exists matrilineal descent, as each hut is headed by the mother, and the father is usually absent. Females are forbidden to enter the men's house, as the material culture inside and events that take place within hold some highly secretive information. This is a physical symbol of the sexual segregation system that exists within the Sambia.
Among the strongest symbols within their material culture are their flutes. The mythology behind the flutes and their use involves a story of how women once had power and could use these flutes until they messed up, and men had to assume power and prevent the women from acquiring such privileges ever again. They used a combination of their mythology and physical force to justifiably explain things. This mythic past has also justified present separateness between genders. A suitable consequence facing a woman who conducts herself inappropriatelyperhaps by sneaking into the men's house, for exampleconsists of punishment via rape or gang rape (C. Loveland, lecture notes, February 27, 2007).
What motives exist to explain the behaviors displayed by Sambian men? Key factors in further understanding why the Sambia live they way they live can be found in the male initiation rituals. This process of socialization occurs in about six phases. Between the ages of five and seven-years-old, young boys are forcibly taken away from their mothers to begin the process which will last until the young men are in their twenties (Ward & Edelstein, 2006).
In the first stage, the young boys are taken from their mothers and introduced to the men's house and their first of many painful experiences, as illustrated by Gilbert Herdt. "A crowd of men hem the boys in beside a pool in the brook. A war leader picks out a sharp stick of cane and sticks it deep inside the boys nostrils until he bleeds profusely into the stream of a pool, an act greeted by loud war cries" (Youmins, 2002). A war chant is repeated for each initiate. Bleeding oneself occurs throughout the initiation process, and can be translated into various interpretations. The men believe that they are bleeding the boys of the women's contaminated blood and fluids from childbirth, a necessary step in making a man. This ritual supports Freud's Oedipal complex, a psychological development process which explains that, in order for boys to properly mature into men, they must learn to relinquish their attachment to their mothers and begin to identify more with their fathers (Mascia-Lees & Black, 2000). The men had strong beliefs about the pollution caused by women, and were even scared of their menstrual blood. Freud's psychoanalytic approach flows well with Sambian ideas regarding the inferiority of women.
Freud's ideas have also been criticized for their androcentric bias: he took males as the norm and saw anyone who deviated from this norm as pathological or inferior. He characterized men by what they possess and held them in high regard because of it. Women were defined by what they lack, not by what they have (2000).

The boys are also introduced to the practice of receiving the semen that their elders believe is the essential ingredient in the transition from boy to man. This necessary ingestion of semen takes place through fellatio performed by the newest initiates on their male elders, or even by anal intercourse (Ward & Edelstein, 2006). This ritualized homosexuality is an essential part of making of boys into men through the agency of other males (2006).
Throughout the second stage, the boys continue to ingest as much semen, or male milk, as possible. This is one of the first steps towards building the strong and fierce warriors the Sambia have strived to create. The boys might enjoy a feast with their elders as a reward for having made all necessary efforts towards becoming men. They continue to learn how even being around women is emasculating in several ways. They are beginning to understand what their future will be like.
The third stage is marked by a very significant change in the youth's status, as well as activities. The shift from being inseminated to becoming inseminators, accompanied by severe beatings and bleedings, marks the transition. The young boys might be asked to capture a woman and kill a warrior, both from enemy hamlets. Semen begins to be understood as a symbol of one's essence and masculine spirit. Anthropologists may explain the continued bleedingswhich, in this stage, become known as male menstruation techniques (2006)by depicting the events as imitations of female processes. Remember that this is a society where men have complete control; they can freely approach any lone woman and demand intercourse. However, the one area in which the men lack a position of full control is in the natural, regular intervals of bleeding and in the reproductive abilities of women. It is significant to note here that perhaps Freud's penis envy can be matched by cases of womb envy (2006). The men desire the powers of reproduction available only to women. Other reactions to this masculine desire to reproduce include notions that "females may make babies, but only
males can make men (2006)," an idea which provides further support for the limited and under appreciated role of women of the Sambia and other such societies.
Marriage marks the fourth stage of initiation. The young men begin living with their brides around the time of the menarche. He goes into this stage of initiation and of life having been warned of the many ways a woman can contaminate a man. Female genital odor is among the most disgusting and dirty things, as perceived by Sambian males. Sex between a husband and his wife or wives typically occurs rarely, and is not enjoyed by either party.
Even though the men acquire wives, their residence remains with other males in the men's house, but they are free to go to their wives' homes for food or for sex. As sex will be readily available, the young men learn in greater detail about protecting oneself from the dangers of women. Upon the bride's menarche, he can celebrate having reached the fifth stage of initiation by bleeding himself from his nose. He learns to do things like placing mint beneath his nostrils and chewing on a specific branch during intercourse so as to reduce smelling his wife's genital odors. The man will then bathe in mud, and continuously bleed his nose each time his wife menstruates, as she may pollute and danger his life (Youmins, 2002).

Another component of the fifth stage is beginning to receive fellatio from the bride. It is believed that the wife ingesting semen before the couple begins to have sex is essential in being able to produce breast milk, which is transformed semen. Thus, men are the ones who indirectly nourish the baby (2002). This yet again provides support for the under appreciated role of women in the society.
The final stage of initiation is marked by the birth of a child, a symbol of having achieved true masculinity. He is instructed to refrain from intercourse, and even stays away from the child for up to a couple years. Should the child be male, then upon his entrance into the men's house and the initiation process, the father reenters the Oedipal conflict. This time, however, he is an elder socializing a boy into masculinity. In addition to the Oedipal complex, Freud also proposed the Electra complex, the process by which a girl recognizes her lack of a penis, blames her mother for her "inadequacies," and then comes to forgive her mother after a period of penis envy (Mascia-Lees & Black, 2000). This theory is not quite as supportive as the Oedipal conflict in explaining Sambian behavior, but parallels exist here in the females' perceptions of themselves. In the same way that Freud explains how girls recognize their "short comings" in this process of psychological development, Sambian girls recognize and accept their role in society as the inferior sex, and carry out many behaviors that exhibit their acceptance of this. This acceptance aided in the Sambia's ability to maintain this unequal and segregated lifestyle for so long.
Nancy Chodorow elaborated on Freud's theory. Her psychoanalytic model does not recognize women's inevitable inferiority to men. Instead she argued that gender
Interpreting Male Initiation 9
specific personality traits depend upon a given society's interpretation of them (2000). Chodorow has completed work which outlines both cultural and social factors which play a part in psychological development and gender identity. Her psychoanalytic model also outlines potential reasons for the segregation of genders, but offers a different path girls take in identification with an elder, in which gender identification is achieved through close identification with the person who has had a genuine and consistent relationship
with her since birth: her mother. Due to the socialization process that allows for the gender segregation and the violence towards women, the only figure a young Sambian girl has whom she can identify with is her mother or female siblings. Thus, Chodorow's alternative explanation might suit Sambian women well. However, this also means problems would arise in societies like the Sambia, where women are not valued.
In societies in which women have low status, the process of gender formation will require girls to identify with a devalued figurea girl's rejection of her mother also involves the rejection and devaluation of herself, because of her pre-Oedipal identification and boundary confusion with her mother' (2000)."
A final notion to consider within the psychological orientation is the social learning theory. With this theory, there is a focus on how cultural learning shapes male and female personality types. Eleanor Maccoby questioned the idea that socialization efforts of parents are responsible for making boys masculine and girls feminine (2000). She outlined that the tendency for a member of a given gender to interact with those of the same sex gives rise to distinct styles of interaction. These interactive repertoires (2000) are learned in same-sex groups rather than merely from parents, and are used to guide one's interaction styles throughout life. The gender segregation that occurs among

the Sambia is a great example of socialization through same sex groups, a system that is absolutely designed around lifelong lessons of conduct and social interaction.
This psychological approach can be elaborated upon to further interpret other aspects of Sambian life, and other such processes occurring in cultures all over the world. Considering the fact that male initiation rituals vary from culture to culture, it is important to remember that each given culture and their behaviors must be examined individually and without bias. Regardless of what behavior or culture one wishes to examine, one must keep in mind the viewpoint of cultural relativism, as each culture is unique, yet equal.

More about this author: Alicia Alligood

From Around the Web