Thursday, January 13, 2011

Modern Fraternities, Ancient Origins

by Charles S. Finch III

They are the remnants of ancient and traditional institutions for initiation and rites of passage, archetypal portals erected by ancient cultures. The passwords, secret knowledge, symbols, peer group bonds, and lifelong relationships of mutual support all reflect sociocultural institutions whose origins are discernible in the dim mists of antiquity. Fraternities, moreover, are distantly related to Masonic organizations, which consciously stress their role as the inheritors and keepers of ancient and secret knowledge. The archetypal drives that Western society has so diligently endeavored to de-energize and delete from modern 'culture are as strong as ever and still impel men to find an outlet for them in venues of reenacted initiation, ritual, symbol, and myth. The persistence of organizations like fraternities responds to our deepest and most ineradicable imperatives.

The hazing that is so characteristic of modern fraternities—and so tenaciously persistent—is but a simulacrum of the manhood trials emblematic of the rites of passage among traditional peoples in Africa, America, Asia, and the South Pacific. The physical trials in these tribal manhood rites involved, among other things, ritualized pain, deprivation, and suffering, often severe enough to lead to death. These initiation rites were designed to test and train young males for the rigors and responsibilities of manhood; indeed, the initiate was, in effect, undergoing a metaphorical and mythical "death" of his old child-self so that, through these trials, he could be "reborn" as a true man. Modern hazing—whether in fraternities, the military, or sports teams—is impelled by the same deep-seated, if unacknowledged, motives. However, fraternity hazing lacks the serious purpose of tribal manhood initiation; the life and sustainability of the tribe depended on producing strong, capable, resourceful men ready to give their lives to the service of family, clan, and community. In the tribal setting, boys became men without passing through adolescence. Put another way, adolescence was compressed into the two- to three-month period of the rite of passage. The extended teenage angst so characteristic of modern society—with its often destructive self-indulgence and rebellion—simply did not exist. There was no place for it; ancient and traditional societies did not have the luxury or the inclination to support it.

It can therefore be said that the roots of the modern fraternity can be traced to two related processes: the initiation into special occult or spiritual knowledge, and the rite of passage of manhood training. In traditional society, one could not be a full and participating member without initiation. In effect, everyone was initiated at some basic level. One could hardly consider oneself a real person without knowing where one belonged and what one's place in life was. Perhaps that is the reason that even today, there is a mild, detectable, but usually unexpressed disdain among fraternity members for those not in fraternities or those not "properly" initiated.

Excerpt from Black Greek-Letter Organizations in the 21st Century
Edited by Gregory S. Parks. University Press of Kentucky, 2008. p.367

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