Modern rituals of manhood

An indigenous boy of the Anishinaabe peoples is sent out into the wild of his home in pre-Columbian Canada. Winter approaches and he must survive alone to prove his manhood and ability to assume leadership of his clan.

The boy survives extreme cold, hunger, isolation and a confrontation with wolves. In the end, he finds his way back home, guided by the spirits of his ancestors and the strength of his will.

Masculinity. Across time and cultures, boys learned the rituals and expectations of being a man. From circumcision to the Kenyan ritual of killing a lion with simply a spear or having cow dung thrown in a boy’s face, many ancient cultures developed clear paths to manhood and the expectations once achieved.

On Tuesday coming, global attention will be focused on men and their roles in society for International Men’s Day, revived by Jerome Teelucksingh of TT on November 19, 1999.

In the aftermath of feminist movements that demanded equal treatment for women, protests for the rights of women to vote and emphasis on the education of girls, how are the needs of men and boys being addressed in our modern context? How do we define masculinity today and what mechanisms are in place to train boys to become men? Critically, in the 21st century, what qualities do we value in a man? Have their traditional roles of hunter/protector changed radically or not very much?

In Sparta, the ancient Greek city, “a boy would be given nothing but a spear and a blanket and sent out into the wilderness. The aim was to survive for a whole month...Boys who survived a whole month were welcomed back as men.”

Learning to trust other male members of the community was an important rite of passage for aboriginal youth in Australia.

In the tossing ceremony, a boy aged 12 would be “tossed into the air and then caught by various male relatives. Once that ritual had been negotiated, the boy needed to overcome tougher obstacles before being deemed a man.”

Amongst the Samurai of Japan, 12 was also the age for rites of passage for boys. Samurai were ancient warriors guided by the philosophy of bushido; this stressed “honour, reckless bravery and selflessness, as well as duty to the warrior's master ... There was no place for fear in the way of the warrior...”

Our own unique self-realisation rituals have been captured in iconic works of literature. Shel in Michael Anthony’s Green Days by the River experiences girls, alcohol and the pressures of responsibility at a young age. Aldrick, a grown man, in Earl Lovelace’s Dragon can’t Dance, puts on his dragon costume every Carnival. Living in relative poverty on Calvary Hill in Port of Spain, the dragon ritual is his method of escape, but also of empowerment.

Significantly, some themes emerge in these male coming-of-age practices – isolation, physical strength, mental power, bravery, aggression. As we interrogate what qualities are required of men today, it is important to approach the discussion from the perspective that the male and female of the species are very different.

Steven Pinker, Harvard psychology professor puts it succinctly – “women and men do not have interchangeable minds.” Further, Joe Herbert emeritus professor of neuroscience at the University of Cambridge, has pointed out that “boys will play with dolls, but chances are the dolls will be getting into a fight.”

Hence solutions for boys and men must address their specific world view, characteristics and biological make-up. For instance, it has been shown that higher levels of testosterone are connected with aggression and risk-taking. Understanding these differences, how may we assist boys to deal with bullying, stress or sexuality?

What will we teach them about parenting in a post-colonial, indentureship and enslaved reality? Should we not ensure that mentorship and a higher male presence of teachers for boys form part of our education policy? Similarly how can we reform our court system to move past gender biases that make it difficult for men to be responsible?

“This is a man’s world,” James Brown declared more than 50 years ago. In many ways, the song still resonates.

However, the ancients understood that manhood must be earned; survival of their communities depended on it. Today, our men and boys signal in many ways that they need another type of intervention. The ancient rituals may hold the key; think about it.

Dara E Healy is a performance artist, communications specialist and founder of the NGO, the Indigenous Creative Arts Network – ICAN.


"Modern rituals of manhood"

More in this section