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  • Cited by 6
  • Print publication year: 1993
  • Online publication date: November 2011

10 - The interactive basis of ritual effectiveness in a male initiation rite


From the participants' standpoint, ‘effectiveness’ constitutes an integral part of what ritual behaviour is about. This is particularly evident in the case of rites of passage, whose execution is explicitly held to bring about change. In as much as such transformations provide the necessary (and sometimes sufficient) grounds for legitimately undertaking certain distinctive activities, claiming certain privileged rights and responsibilities, etc., the issue of the participants' commitment to these changes is a particularly crucial one. I will be concerned here with some of the implications of this commitment, both as a constraint upon ritual form and as a competent of ritual meaning.

The material I will draw upon concerns the initiation rite So of the Beti of Southern Cameroon, the undertaking of which is a necessary requisite to assuming the rightful prerogatives of adult manhood in this society. Following their initiation, usually several years after puberty or later (a domestic-scale circumcision rite occurs around eight years of age), young men are authorised to marry, participate (albeit as junior members) in the decisions of the adult community, engage in certain ritual activities (ancestor cult groups, subsequent So initiations, etc.), eat certain foods (notably fatty meats) strictly prohibited to women, children and uninitiated men (e.g. servants, ‘slaves’), etc. Not only does this ritual mark a radical change for the individuals who undergo it, but also the distinction between those who have ‘fallen’, ‘eaten’ or ‘known’ the So and those who have not constitutes a recurrent discrimatory reference intervening in a variety of domains.