EMERGING FROM THE CHRYSALIS: Studies in Rituals of Women's Initiation by Bruce Lincoln

EMERGING FROM THE CHRYSALIS: Studies in Rituals of Women's Initiation

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Professor Lincoln (Humanities, Minnesota), influenced by women's liberation, seeks to distinguish the rites of women's initiation from those of men, but merely--if pleasurably--flips the same coin over. In the tradition of the comparativists he focuses on a number of cultures, diverse in time and location--the Tiyyar (India), Tiv (Africa), Navajos, Tukuna (Amazon), and Greeks--and concludes that there are four types of initiation: bodily mutilation, identification with a mythic heroine, cosmic journey, and play of opposites. While these forms may be practiced in varying combinations, their basic structure or stages remain fixed. It is at this point in his argument that three assumptions undermine his conclusions. Because Lincoln tends to view each culture as a single, virtually unchanging unit, a rite, to him, carries the same meaning throughout its existence. But in the case of the Tiv, Lincoln cites contradictory evidence--""The Tiv insist the purpose of the scars is to make them more attractive""--but ignores its implications. While the scars may have originally been part of and symbolize an initiation rite, today that purpose is no longer served. Secondly, his wholesale application of ""Freudian"" analysis produces mis- and over-interpretations. Not only is the existence of mythological representations in the Minoan period questionable, but the reading of a simple, geometrically rendered scene as Persephone ""disappear[ing] into a vagina-shaped chasm"" (the rim of the round plate) tells us more about Lincoln's visual training than the Minoans'. Thirdly, Lincoln believes the differing roles men and women play in society lead to a dissimilar structure in their initiation rites; yet the number of stages and his description of them surprisingly reflect those of men (after van Gennep). While youths are separated from their previous environment by being sent into the wilds, maidens are enclosed within their current environment--surely a form of separation. In the second phase youths are in a kind of limbo, a transition between their old and new lives; while maidens undergo metamorphosis or amplification, both of which are temporary in time and effect the passage between stages. Finally, youths are reincorporated into society ready to assume their new station; while maidens emerge caterpillarlike from the chrysalis (as the Tukuna would put it)--in other words, they return to society, ready to fulfill their function as women. Although Lincoln merely views old ground from a new vantage, the grace and clarity of his writing make the book worth reading for its primary material--the descriptions of the rites themselves.

Pub Date: June 1st, 1981
Publisher: Harvard Univ. Press