Tag Archives: Initiation

Contextualization: Branding/Stigmatizing/Scarification

As mentioned in earlier posts, the experiments including the carving from a tree, were to demonstrate a symbolic taking of the trees life-force – it’s immortality i.e. by taking the bark – the tree’s protection, the tree became vulnerable.

Furthermore, it also occurred to me, that the reason why I was not just merely taking a random piece of bark from the tree but rather, carving out a downward pointing triangle, referencing the Yoni sacred feminine symbol, that by doing so, I was branding or stigmatizing the tree.

The tradition of human branding dates back to ancient Egypt and Rome, relating to ownership of slaves and livestock.  Interestingly, in ancient Greece, slaves were branded with “a Delta for doulos or slave” (DeMello, p45, 2007) which is the shape of the triangle: Δ

I feel that the delta triangle used as a sign of slavery or ownership is a fortunate coincidence with regard to my own work and although the upward and downward pointing triangle have different meanings, the idea of branding and ownership are extremely relevant in my concept.

As mentioned above and in previous posts, by removing the bark from the tree, I was taking something that was not mine to take, but by doing so, it could be said that I was taking ownership  of the tree’s life.

Furthermore, branding in Europe “was used to mark criminals, combining physical punishment, as burns are very painful, with public humiliation (which is greatest if marked on a visible part of the body), and the permanent marking of criminal status” (DeMello, p45, 2007).

In my earlier post, I had highlighted the idea of the “retribution of Eve” – the taking back of immortality that was lost through the Original Sin.  In this respect, there is a sense of visible punishment inflicted upon the tree and the “wound” which was left on the tree, did indeed look fairly brutal:

Image of “branded” or “stigmatized” tree from experimentation

This also brings to mind the ritual of scarification, where the skin is cut or branded with a hot iron to produce raised scars:

Scarification has been widely used by many West African tribes to mark milestone stages in both men and women’s lives, such as puberty and marriage. It is also used to transmit complex messages about identity, such as social, political, and religious roles (Boundless Learning, 2013, online).

In West Africa, scarification is also used to make a women more appealing to men:

Facial scarification in West Africa is used for identification of ethnic groups, families, individuals, but also to express personal beauty. It is also performed on girls to mark stages of the life process, such as puberty, marriage etc. They can assist in making them more attractive to men, as the scars are regarded as appealing to touch as well as to look at, but also as testimony that women will be able to withstand the pain of childbirth (Coleman, 2002, online).

Again, there is this idea of a woman having to make herself “more attractive” which could link to the idea of women having to undergo some kind of suffering to be accepted – which in turn could link to the story of Eve in the garden of Eden and subsequently, the perception of women over the centuries right through to the present day.

African Woman with facial scarification. Image taken from: http://news.nationalgeographic.co.uk/news/2004/10/photogalleries/africa_faces/photo4.html
African Woman with facial scarification. Image taken from: http://news.nationalgeographic.co.uk/news/2004/10/photogalleries/africa_faces/photo4.html

These “stages” or rites of passage, remind me of my initial research of Mircea Eliade’s book Rites and Symbols of Initiationwhich discusses the initiation rituals of primitive religions.

However, scarification has also become popular in some Western societies – not only as a body adornment but, as with with indigenous tribal rituals, members of groups – such as gangs and fraternities use scarification in initiations to demonstrate they’re part of a particular group.  This again brings to mind my earlier research with regard to the lack of  rituals in the West:

Underlying the surface structures of schools, fraternities, sororities, maternity groups, military organizations, street gangs, rap bands, crack houses, meditation centers, and prisons lie the bones and sinews of initiatory rites and symbols (Eliade, p9, 2012).

To summarize, the idea of branding and scarification not only relates to my research and proposal of experimenting with ritual and ceremony in performance art, but also to ownership and modification.  Indeed, the ritual of scarification could perhaps be likened to today’s obsession with beauty and the extremes people will go to, just to be accepted within society – submitting under pressure to be part of the gang!


Boundless Learning (2013) The Rite of Passage [online] Boston: Boundless Learning Inc. Available from: https://www.boundless.com/art-history/africa-in-the-modern-period/traditional-and-contemporary-african-culture-a-comparison/the-rite-of-passage/ (accessed on 02/12/2013)

Coleman, M. (2002) Scarification [online] Durham: Artworld: WorldArt. Available from: http://artworld.uea.ac.uk/home/introduction (accessed on 02/12/2013)

DeMello, M. (2007) Encyclopedia of Body Adornment. USA: Greenwood Press

Eliade, M. (2012: Revised Printing) Rites & Symbols of Initiation – The Mysteries of Birth & Rebirth. New York: Spring Publications, Inc.

Lane-Miller, C. (2010) Faces of Africa: Photo Gallery. Washinton, DC: National Geographic Society. Available from: http://news.nationalgeographic.co.uk/news/2004/10/photogalleries/africa_faces/photo4.html (accessed on 02/12/2013)

Rites & Symbols of Initiation – The Mysteries of Birth & Rebirth

The following is a list of useful quotes for my research from Mircea Eliade’s book Rites & Symbols of Initiation – The Mysteries of Birth & Rebirth.  Eliade (1907-1986) was a Romanian philosopher, historian of religion and Professor of Chicago University.

The quotes I have specifically chosen relate to why I would be interested in the topic of  birth and rebirth – in terms of ritual, the reasons why these rituals could be important in today’s society – where in the Western world they are “practically nonexistent” (Eliade, p17, 2012) and the purpose they serve.

The edition I am using is a 2012 revised edition with foreword written by Michael Meade an author and scholar of mythology, anthropology and psychology who considers Eliade’s Haskell Lectures in 1956 at Chicago University (which the book represents) to still have relevance in modern day society and feels there is a need to learn from the past to move forward:

Mircea Eliade fervantly worked at keeping the doors of perception open to the world of sacred symbols and creative ritual…There may be no time more suited to the study of rites of passage than the threshold between the end of modernity and the uncertain future of humanity.  As an old proverb reminds us: “We can only see as far forward as we remember back.”  The future is contained in the past; and the past is carried within us like seeds of memory waiting for the waters of attention. (Eliade, p6, 2012)

In this respect Eliade’s view was that there is a need to look back to ancestral rituals of birth and death in terms of “change and renewal” (Eliade, p6, 2012) and learn how these rituals benefited the community or individual.

it is only in initiation that death is given a positive value.  More than an empty tomb, death becomes also the womb of change.  In dreams and dramas of initiation, death represents change for the entire psyche and life of a person.  It means change inside and out,not simple adaptation or switch in “life style”.  Initiation includes death and rebirth, a radical altering of a person’s “mode of being”Without conscious rituals of loss and renewal, individuals and societies lose the capacity to experience the sorrows and joy that are essential for feeling fully human(Eliade, p8, 2012)…

When rites of passage disappear from conscious presentation, they nonetheless appear in unconscious and semiconscious guises.  They surface as misguided and misinformed attempts to change one’s own life.  They become miscarriages of meaning, tragic acts, or empty forms and ghostly shapes.  Underlying the surface structures of schools, fraternities, sororities, maternity groups, military organizations, street gangs, rap bands, crack houses, meditation centers, and prisons lie the bones and sinews of initiatory rites and symbols. Whenever life gets stuck or reaches a dead end, where people are caught in rites of addiction, possessed by destructive images, compelled to violent acts, or pulled apart by grief and loss, the process of initiation presses to break through… (Eliade, p9, 2012)

Learning the language of initiation means finding in the inevitable struggles of our own lives “certain types of real ordeals…the spiritual crises, the solitude and despair through which every human being must pass in order to attain to a responsible, genuine and creative life (Eliade, p10, 2012).

In such moments of total crisis, only one hope seems to offer any issue – the hope of beginning life over again (Eliade, p14, 2012).

I am particularly interested in the differences between the male and female initiation rituals.   During puberty rites, “boys often get called to initiatory events as part of a group”, whereas girls often begin their “rite of passage individually”:

When the daughter of the tribe temporarily separates from the village, she becomes a fetus in the womb of Mother Nature. She enters a time of segregation and isolation in darkness that represents a return to the womb.  Dwelling in the dark may occur in a cave, a hut with no windows or within the hollow enclosure of a sacred tree.  Each daughter must find a mysterious and unique connection to the darkness from which all life originates.  The hollow tree stands symbolically as a tomb in which the daughter disappears and as a womb of the tree of life from which the woman will step(Eliade, p13, 2012).

So, in this instance, retreating to the symbolic womb represents the death of a one’s old self and on leaving the symbolic womb, the individual is reborn as their new self and celebrated back within the community.

Furthermore, with regard to girls’ puberty rites, “during the period of seclusion the novices learn…specifically feminine skills” (Eliade, p85, 2012).  I personally feel that this ancestral ritual of learning “feminine skills” is outdated and merely serving to the antiquated idea of the stereotypical perception of how a women should behave and what is expected of them.

However, with these quotes in mind, I feel that the idea of performing a ritual to leave one’s old self behind, is a useful form of moving forward in life and can see how they would be helpful in today’s society.


Eliade, M. (2012: Revised Printing) Rites & Symbols of Initiation – The Mysteries of Birth & Rebirth. New York: Spring Publications, Inc.