Edith Sullwold 
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"Preparing the Elders" by Edith Sullwold, Ph.D.

Reprinted by permission of Open Court Publishing Company, a division of Carus Publishing Company, Peru, IL,
from Crossroads by Louise C. Mahdi, Nancy G. Christopher, and Michael Meade, eds.,
copyright © 1996 by Carus Publishing Company.

 Dr. Edith Sullwold presents a new approach to training for mentors and others wanting to work with youth now. This approach also helps adults in their relationship to their own passages in both the past and the present, and could enable such persons to be better mentors.

Initiation rituals of adolescence reflect a process already occurring in the psyche. Adolescence calls for a movement out of the intimate family into the larger community. Although the psyche desires this movement and will energize the child toward it, the process needs the support and understanding of an adult collective, providing a container for this transition. Without this guidance and left to the adolescents themselves, the ritual forms that develop at this time often take on a distorted form, sometimes resulting, in the extreme, in suicide and violence.

The elders in traditional societies provided the ritual form as well as assistance in the incorporation of the newly emerging adult into this community. The adolescents of our time do not find such collective rituals. In the first place, our cultures are becoming more complex and full of choices. The teenager does not cross the threshold into a clearly defined form of adulthood with its prescribed beliefs, values, and required skills. But in addition, the older generation itself, not having gone through their own initiatory experi­ences at a conscious level, rarely thinks to assume its role in shaping rituals for the young.

For this reason, I decided some years ago to introduce the issues surrounding the loss of adolescent ritual to groups of adults, both in the theoretical and experiential way. I first ask the group members to share with each other their own adolescent experience in separate groups of men and women. Rarely in these groups has there been a sense of satisfactory preparation, instruction, and support for this passage from adolescence into the adult community.

In one such gathering the extreme contrasts of adolescent experience was shared. One woman described her first menstrual period as overwhelmingly frightening, and absolutely out of context with her life. She had been given no instruction by her mother or any other elders. One day, in the girls' bathroom in school, she began to hemorrhage. She screamed for her girlfriend who ran to her, but slipped on the blood and hit her head on the concrete floor. The girl not only thought she was dying but also that she had killed her friend. Outside, the boys and girls began calling out, wondering what was happening. The school nurse was called and administered help to the girl on he floor. The newly emerging woman had retreated into a toilet stall, shaking in silent fear.

In contrast, another woman told how her mother had sewn for her a special case with her name stitched on it containing what equipment she needed or her first period. Then she told her all she could about what it was to be a woman, physically, socially, and spiritually. The girl, who was nine years old at the time, would often take out the case, looking at it with anticipation and pride. The day the first blood appeared she ran to her mother in great excitement. They were both naked, having just come out of the shower. Her mother took her to the long mirror in the bedroom, and, looking at their bodies together, she told her how the girl's body would continue to grow and flower with a new life. At breakfast, the mother announced the happening to the father. He suggested a celebration that evening. They went to a restaurant she ad not been to before, which had a dance floor. After a special meal, he danced with her for the first time, acknowledging her passage into the adult community. This simple, but sensitive preparation and ritual gave the girl confidence in herself as a woman.

Out of a longing to have had such a satisfactory experience themselves and with a sense of responsibility for the next generation, the group is then ready to begin to consider what ritual could be created that would be appropriate for our time.

I then share my belief that ritual form is shaped by a deep, natural understanding of the elements of initiation that are common to all cultures. It is what I call the backbone of rites of passage, seeing that each culture fleshes out this backbone and costumes it in the shape and form relevant to the context of the particular culture.

Briefly, there are a number of steps in ritual which make up this backbone: (1) At first the sacred space is prepared by the community, who purify and invoke the larger energies of group and spirit. (2) Then the initiate is taken out of the old, the ordinary space, and (3) put into the care of the elders for a preliminary preparation and instruction. (4) The initiate enters a period disorientation and isolation from the old orientation, going into a symbolic death state. (5) The initiates face severe tests and ordeals to prove their capacity to become adult men and women. (6) The deeper instruction is given by elders into the mysteries of sexuality and spirituality and into the expected responsibilities to the social life of the community. (7) There is a reconstruction of the new being by a symbolic action, often reclothing. (8) All that has been accomplished is celebrated by a festive community event. (9) Thanksgiving is offered to the greater powers invoked, both of the group and of spirit. (10) The newly constructed initiate is returned to ordinary life and into the larger community as a responsible adult.

After these steps have been described and discussed, the group is asked to create a ritual of passage which uses this essential form. Usually, one person volunteers or is selected by the group as the initiate. The rest of the group provides the structure as initiatory elders or members of the larger community of supporters. I always remind them that this is not just an exercise, but an event which has the potential of satisfying the earlier loss of their own rites of passage. I have been amazed over the years by the incredible inventiveness that has emerged from these groups. Not only do they gain an understanding of ritual work, but they often are satisfied that they have had a true initiatory experience. Even though the focus is on one person as initiate, others seem to experience the event as though they too were being initiated. From the understanding and experience which is in contrast to their own adolescent experience, many participants in the groups have become involved in creating such rituals for adolescents, both privately and collectively.

I will share the experience of one young man in such a group. He had almost drowned in the ocean when he was eleven, trying to surf with older friends who taunted him by saying he couldn't take a "big wave." The experience had taken away his confidence in most physical activities.

The group prepared a space around a deep pool of water, created a sacred circle, and asked that he be given the courage he desired to pass the test successfully. He came forward in his swim trunks and entered the circle where a heavy terry‑cloth robe was placed on him. The men took him to a private place in some woods where they instructed him about water, the pressures, the currents, how to relax into the water, allowing it to hold him, and how to emerge. When they felt he was prepared, he was thrown into the deep end of the pool. His task was to work his way out of the robe and emerge from the water at the other end of the pool. He came out successfully, enthusiastically. The oldest man in the group had brought a young palm tree for him to plant, signifying the new growth in his life. He dug a deep hole and planted it. Then he let out an amazing, spontaneous sound, akin to a baying coyote and said, "Now I have my body back."

He quietly dressed himself in fresh, new clothing and received gifts of fruit and flowers. Then, thanking the group and acknowledging his new strength, he made a public commitment to begin to work with the young boys at a nearby school. His intention was to begin creating meaningful rituals in the community and he asked the other men present to help him.

The ritual, although suited to the needs of this particular individual, touched a place universally alive but latent in everyone. The process was simple, powerful, and complete.

The reflection of this process is seen in many dreams. Recently I was given a dream by a man which was also initiatory, and had similar elements to the created water ritual. In the dream the man was asked by a group of men to go into a deep underwater cave to recover a treasure. He was given careful instruction about breathing underwater, then he courageously dove in and brought back the treasure of confidence in his body.

Relating the created ritual and the dream confirms my belief that the ritual process begins in the psyche and the body, which carries ancient knowledge that wants to be passed on to new generations, the generations now so desperately in need of this wisdom and collective concern.

The awareness of a true initiatory experience, necessary for the preparation of an elder, is reflected in the powerful poem that follows, "Almost Grown‑Up," written by a participant in one of these groups.


ALMOST GROWN‑UP by Christine Mulvey

Christine Mulvey, from Dublin, participated in a workshop on adolescence by Edith Sullwold. In reexamining her process of becoming an adult, Christine Mulvey reexperienced some of the dynamics of her own private enactment of her passage.  She is now training to be a Jungian analyst at the Jung Institute in Zurich, Switzerland. 

She knew the horses better than anyone, their little ways, their secret


Yet they never let her drive the plough with them

“You're too small” they said “to handle them” and “besides you're just a



It was the morning after the ploughing championships

All the previous day she'd watched the men and boys compete

Then later celebrate the prizes won, commiserate the others lost.


She decided she was going to plough the bottom field

It took her ages to get the horses ready, everything seemed stiff and


But at least no one disturbed her, they were sleeping late after the party.


It was still cool and morning fresh as she walked the horses down the


Their harness jangled, they were two well‑matched Irish Draughts,

gentle powerful giants.

She felt tiny and suddenly afraid of what she planned to do.


The plough handles, not intended for children anyway, were big and

hard to grasp

There was little space left within the span of her fingers and thumb for the reins as well.

The ground was rough, the horses stepped out and she had to haul them back just to keep up.


It was the longest day of her life; she could smell the newly upturned earth,

Beneath her stumbling feet, weary soon in the summer heat and most of all she could feel

The blood on her hands when the reins first broke the flesh and then cut deeper and deeper.


It took her ‘till dark to cut the last furrow, those who had come looking

for her said nothing

As if they knew this is what she had to do, they brought strong tea and

bread cut thick

Like they usually took to the men when they worked in the fields and

they left her alone.


She was grateful for that, she didn't know herself if she could finish

what she'd started

Time seemed endless and the shuddering in her body from the gyrating


Made her long to stop, give up, but something in her knew she couldn’t,

knew she wouldn’t.


She finished, waiting for jokes about the crooked lines, the messy corners, they didn't come.

She tended the torn and bloody hands that looked like hers yet somehow didn't,

Now wounded, they seemed different, changed in a day to almost

grown‑up hands for she had put them to the plough and not turned back.
                                                                                                                                                                —  Christine Mulvey, 1993



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