Paganism for Beginners: Rites of Passage

A rite of passage is a ritual or ceremony to celebrate and mark the passage from one phase of life to the next. Rites of passage ease us over the threshold into the next phase, and help us to understand and embrace our new status.

Baby Naming

Most cultures have some kind of naming ceremony for babies, and Pagans do too. Pagans generally believe that children should be able to choose whether and which religion to follow when they are old enough, so Pagan naming ceremonies do not include a pledge to bring the child up Pagan – though they may include a desire to instil Pagan values into the child.

Coming of Age

Western culture generally lacks a single unified coming of age ritual. Judaism has one in the form of the Bat Mitzvah and Bar Mitzvah. Many Pagans celebrate the first menstruation of their daughters (as long as the daughters want to celebrate it). Many indigenous cultures have rites of passage into adulthood, in the form of a vision quest in the wilderness.

Coming Out

Coming out as LGBT is definitely a rite of passage, and usually a very liberating and empowering experience as the person who comes out feels more authentic as a result. I have written a Pagan coming-out ritual exploring some of the themes around coming out.


Several Pagan and other religious traditions have initiation ceremonies, in which the initiate becomes more fully part of the tradition into which they are being initiated, is given a new and sacred name, and has some of the tenets of the tradition imparted to them, usually in the form of ritual drama and ordeal.

There is sometimes controversy among Pagans as to the value of initiation, and whether self-initiation is the same thing as initiation into a coven or other group.

There are several different aspects of initiation, some of which are conferred by either form of initiation (encounter with the gods, inner transformation, encountering the Mysteries), and some of which can only be conferred as part of a group initiation (being given the secrets of the initiating group, joining the group mind of the initiating group; and the joining of the lineage or tradition of which the coven is part).


A Handfasting

Handfasting by Gordon” by Original uploader was Lizzievee at en.wikipedia – Transferred from en.wikipedia; Transfer was stated to be made by User:Undead_warrior.. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

A Pagan wedding is called a handfasting, and can be contracted for a year and a day, for a lifetime, or for all lifetimes to come (the last of these seems a bit reckless to me). Pagans recognise both same-sex and opposite-sex weddings. Quite a few Pagans are polyamorous.

Pagan weddings have legal validity in the USA and Canada if the celebrant is registered with a recognised religious body, in Scotland if you are a registered celebrant, but not in England and Wales.

A handfasting is a wedding ceremony which involves wrapping cords around the couple’s clasped hands and tying a knot, symbolically binding them together in their declaration of unity. The contemporary handfasting ceremony is a revival of the handfastings of the past. The act of handfasting was originally part of a formal betrothal ceremony (the forerunner of today’s engagement) perhaps going as far back as ancient Celtic Scotland, and surviving up to the 16th century. During the betrothal ceremony, in which a couple agreed to marry each other in the future, there was a formal handshake to seal the deal. This was called the handfæstung, meaning, a pledge by the giving of the hand. To illustrate the imagery and importance of the handshake, the knotting of cords around the hands was eventually incorporated, possibly by contemporary Pagans.


Pagans have always been liberal about divorce, and the fact that a handfasting allows a trial marriage shows that Pagans are aware of the possibility that a relationship may change for the worse, and therefore divorce may become necessary. Of course, marriage should provide security and be a commitment to work at the relationship and treat one’s partner with integrity – but that does not preclude divorce, as that is sometimes the only way of dealing with a marriage that’s not working any more. Paganism lacks a ritual for divorce, but individual Pagans may have crafted divorce rituals.


Croning is a ritual for recognising the menopause, when a woman ceases to menstruate and becomes a “crone”. Pagans have reclaimed the word crone to signify a wise older woman.

Patti Wiginton writes:

In early cultures, the female elder was considered a wise woman. She was the healer, the teacher, the imparter of knowledge. She mediated disputes, she had influence over tribal leaders, and she cared for the dying as they took their final breaths. For many women in Wicca and other Pagan religions, reaching the status of Crone is a major milestone. These women are reclaiming the name of Crone in a positive way, and see it as a time to joyfully welcome one’s position as an elder within the community.


Pagan funerals generally focus on celebrating the life of the person who has died. There are some beautiful pieces of liturgy for Pagan funerals, and many of them can be found in the excellent book,  A Pagan Book of Living and Dying, by the Reclaiming Collective.

Gela Painter - Black Figure Pinax (Plaque) -Walters 48225

The lying in state of a body (prothesis) attended by family members, with the women ritually tearing their hair, depicted on a terracotta pinax by the Gela Painter, latter 6th century BC (Walters Art Museum [Public domain, CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons)

This post is part of a series, Paganism for Beginners. All the posts in this series will appear in the category ‘A Beginner’s Guide‘. You can find them by clicking on the ‘FILED UNDER’  link at the foot of the blogpost. 

The Pagan Channel has a page dedicated to posts about Rites of Passage. You can find out more information about handfastings, baby namings, Pagan funerals, and other rites of passage.


Today in Boston

I’d intended to write more about academic (specifically Pagan studies) publishing today, but since I, like everyone else in Boston, am wholly distracted by the manhunt for the Boston Marathon bombing suspect going on in my city, continuing with business as usual seems entirely inappropriate.

Image by the Boston University School of TheologyMy prayers have been with those who were killed or seriously wounded in the bombing. Traumatic events like these can change the lives of individuals and their families forever, and I can only hope that for most, this tragedy will motivate acts of peace and justice. I was touched to see the Boston University School of Theology (BU being my alma mater) asking people to join them in wearing running shoes this week as a symbol of commitment to peace and reconciliation. I’ve heard a number of similar statements around the city declaring that acts of violence and mayhem will not make us afraid. Boston is, after all, a city that has historically valued independence and freedom over a restricted safety–and I do think that there is a necessary tradeoff.

My prayers are also with the innocent bystanders who were made front-page news as potential suspects based on their perceived nationality or the color of their skin. Some of those profiled were runners participating in the marathon to raise money for charity. Listening to the xenophobic overtones of the news coverage today was disturbing: the desperate attempts to paint the bombers as “other,” despite the fact that the younger, at least, came to this country as a child well over a decade ago and seemed to his schoolmates to be a normal American student–an athlete and scholarship winner with friends and a social life. We’d like to think that people wouldn’t hurt their own–their own families, communities, or cities–but statistically, one’s own home, family, or school is where most acts of violence are committed. We are the ones who are a danger to ourselves; no supposedly foreign influence, no suspicious other, is necessary.

My prayers are with the bombers’ family as well. I can only imagine the horror and grief that they must be experiencing, as the interviews I heard this morning suggested that they had no reason to believe their loved ones were capable of such violence.

As saddened as I am by the events of this week, though, they have not changed my perception of the world around me. The world is a dangerous place where people die every day: from car accidents, from starvation, from wars, from diseases. Some of these traumatic events generally only happen far away from me, but the possibility of sudden death is nevertheless real. In just my immediate social network, for example, I know two different people with a young spouse or lover who died suddenly and inexplicably in his sleep. The potential for devastating loss, for the total and unwilling transformation of one’s life, is ever-present.

To me, one of the functions of religion is to help us deal with the difficult realities of the human condition. My practice puts me in touch with the living, sensuous world; even as I write this, I can feel the life-beat of the land and all the creatures that live on and in it, including the noisy humans honking their horns outside my window. I am a part of and connected to something much greater than myself, and I do not believe that death will remove me completely from that web.

My friends, I hope you will be safe today, but more than that, I hope you will remain open and connected to those around you, that you will be motivated by love rather than fear. May justice be done, and afterward, may our grieving knit together the frayed threads of our society and bring us peace.