The subject of myth has created a vocabulary of words with resonant meanings. Each month, we mean to add to our glossary of mythic vocabulary, starting with:
by Brenda Sutton
[Image: "Miyelo" (Ghost Dancers) by Viggo Mortensen]
According to the theories of Victor Turner, Arnold van Gennep, and others, liminality (from the Latin word limen, meaning "a threshold") is the quality of the second stage of a ritual. The liminal stage occurs midway through the ceremony when the neophyte stands on the threshold of a doorway, "betwixt and between", neither one status nor the other. There are many liminal states, the most common being that period when one is neither fully asleep nor fully awake, in transition between the etheric and material worlds. The ears never stop working, so the sounds of the waking world play with the dreamer, integrating into the dream in strange and confusing ways. The dream metaphors and symbols, so clear and important in REM sleep, collide with waking rituals. The brain has to make sense out of two worlds. Upon waking, the mind shakes the body. "What was that? What did that mean? I had it, right there, on the tip of my ... and now it's gone." This is the frustrating transition from sleep, crossing the liminal doorstep to waking consciousness.
Rituals, and especially rites of passage like initiation, graduation, induction, or marriage, encourage some kind of change — spiritual change, emotional change, intellectual change, and even change in social status. The first stage of the ritual usually requires that the participant be separated from the rest of their social group. They are set apart, sequestered, often with the assistance of a mentor, but sometimes alone. The candidate is led or must find the way to the ritual space. Finally, the participant crosses the threshold, is confirmed by and reincorporated into society.
The ritual participant, standing under the lintel and upon the limen, turns to look behind at the chamber that he or she is leaving. That setting, where the tools and lessons have been learned, offers familiarity. The candidate could stay, but hungers for more — knowledge, experience, insight. The Student wants to take those lessons and practice them outside of the boundaries of the classroom's walls. The Bride is ready to leave her parent's home become Wife and perhaps Mother. The Recruit's personal focus it torn away to function as part of a larger team. What awaits just one small step outside of that room? Vast unknown, undetermined, open possibilities. Liminal ambiguity.
The rituals that take place in the liminal stage purposefully dissolve the candidate's identity through trial and ordeal, symbolic costumes and tools, often causing confusion and disorientation. In that alien state of transition boundaries vanish. For however long that the candidate pauses on the threshold (and some may pause indefinitely), he or she is no longer the Neophyte, yet not quite the Teacher, and certainly not the Master — a completely different entity. In this liminal state, several paths lead away from that door. Which to follow?
The Mythic Journeys conferences incubate liminal experiences. The social structure of communitas emerges, encouraged and bidden, based on the combined life experiences of all of the attendees. Hierarchy and class structure dissolves. You may find yourself sitting in the audience listening intently to words of great weight in the morning, and dancing with the speaker in the evening. Threshold after threshold appears, and the choice of which doorway to enter creates a panorama of limens. People are constantly looking back for just a moment. They spend the rest of the time dancing under this temple arch, skipping off to try that cave entrance. The final postliminal stage begins on the morning of the last day, and then continues as people transition into taxis and airplanes, moving into the rest of their new lives.
Brenda Sutton is the publisher of Mythic Passages, Operations Director, Corporate Secretary, and Office Administrator for Mythic Imagination Institute. She is an award-winning singer/songwriter with the internationally reknown band Three Weird Sisters. She works in a support and consultant capacity for the non-profit music organization Interfilk, and maintains their website. She is freelance writer whose work has appeared in newspapers and magazines. She is also the mother of five, grandmother of two.
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