|Rumi the Sufi poet said, “The core of masculinity does not reside in being male.” He suggests that its true nature lives in spiritual clarity. It seems to me that spirit, soul, creativity and the profound sense of community with all life they engender, are deeply connected to mature masculinity. Conversely, pettiness, destructiveness and dependency are hallmarks of immature masculinity which has a poverty of spirit at its core.
The “man-making ceremony” of the Ngarnyin and Worora people of the Kimberley in Western Australia make obvious where they think the core of masculinity resides, through a day long series of rituals of extraordinary beauty and profound insight. Their ceremonies of early puberty that many people confuse with initiations into manhood are the beginnings of a process not the end. Here, the cuts of circumcision or scarification are symbols of a “cut” on the inside that marks a transition from being outside to inside the Wunnan, the sharing system law, that governs all life in the culture.
The Elder Mowaljarali says that, “When I spilt my blood on the ground I committed myself to take on the responsibilities of the Wunnan, and be of service to my community”. This first initiation is into the Wunnan law rather than into manhood. It follows the world wide pattern of slightly changing the natural body to “re-member” or join it to a larger, more enduring cultural body.
The proper man-making ceremony takes place later; around the time the first beard is showing. Candidates for red ochre, the sign of a “man of full standing”, were taught, guided and observed to see if they knew how to be a responsible man who has mastered enough of the external roles and skills that a man in that country needs to survive. The ceremony contains no violent elements. It's about spirit and nourishment and nurture. It is both a graduation ceremony or conformation that certain things have been learned and acted upon, and a marking out of the next stage of development. The Elders call the lifelong series of initiations “our university”.
In brief, this is how it used to happen. Before the ceremony on the secret men's ground, the mother and her tribal sisters would gather about a gallon of honey from the small hives of tiny “sugarbag” bees, a task involving much walking to find enough. This honey symbolises the essence of the country, the sweetness of life. As the sun raises the youth's father and his brothers, all kinship “fathers” to the youth, start to sing a great chorus that is then taken up by everyone in the camp of the mother's people. The men of both camps then meet on the community meeting ground rattling hunting spears in a percussion chorus as they come. A great shout goes up and the men all leave in single file for the initiated men's ground where the honey plays an integral part in the men's ceremony.
The ceremony speaks of a new source of nourishment that is about to open up and it will be embodied through a nurturing by men. The women have nourished through their breasts; the men's nourishment comes from the belly, it is a spiritual fire.
The wonderfully evocative ritual is both an anointing with the sweetness of life and a communion with it. At the conclusion of the day the young man's face is painted with red ochre; he is now a man. Coming back to the community the men raise up great shouts of celebration. Near the camp is a big smoke fire that the women have made. Breaking into a run the men approach the fire to dance, putting their bodies and hunting weapons in the dense smoke that purifies, blesses and also marks a boundary to the sacred space and time they have been in. Crossing this boundary in red ochre the new one enters his community a man.
Many cultures link life-affirming and spiritual concerns to their notions of mature manhood while others go in for a great deal of violence and martial pomp, and link these to masculinity. At the end of the twentieth century, with the possibility of a creative global mythos around us, let's look for inspiration from the most life affirming images of manhood that we can find. Let's choose carefully.
The metaphor of the Sweetness of Life invites attention to the deep mysteries of communion with life, and the nurturing of community that flow from it. These fires encourage us to “stand up alive” in the face of ecological crises, economic rationalism, social injustice and fundamentalism of every kind on the outside and inside. This standing embraces boldness, beauty and a power that has nothing to do with brutality. We do not have to be living in other times and places for this to happen. Spiritual clarity is timeless. Our survival requires looking at these things in our own lives, now.
This is the path of creative mythology, which is, in the words of Joseph Campbell, a mirror to truly see our selves, that “springs not, like theology, from the dicta of authority, but from the insights, sentiments, thought, and vision of a adequate individual, loyal to his own experience of value. Thus it corrects the authority holding to the shells of forms produced and left behind by lives once lived. Renewing the act of experience itself, it restores to existence the quality of adventure, at once shattering and reintegrating the fixed, already known, in the sacrificial creative fire, not as it will be or as it should be, as it was or as it never will be, but as it is, in depth, in process, here and now, inside and out”.
Sources, conversations with Aboriginal Elders including Mowaljarali, Ngarnyin elder, activist and statesman, co-author of Yorro Yorro - the spirit of the Kimberley; the writings of Rev. Love, lay anthropologist and compassionate protector of the people at Kulumburu mission in the 1920s and 30s. Joseph Campbell in Creative Mythology, vol 4, The Masks of God.
To find out more about John Allan, visit his Special Adviser's area on Men and Spirit.