The Sacred Initiation of a Young Woman

In most modern societies there is no celebration, not even acknowledgment, of a girl moving into womanhood. For the most part, young girls are given little help understanding the changes they experience as they go through this transition. Each girl’s unique, individual qualities as a beautiful young woman are certainly not publicly lauded.

The matriarchal Kuna people (or Tule as they call themselves, meaning “people”), however, who have long lived in regions of Panama and Columbia and are one of the largest indigenous groups in Central America to have retained their indigenous culture, show us a wonderful example of a much different experience.

The passage below, from Heide Goettner-Abendroth’s book “Matriarchal Societies”, describes their initiation ceremony for young women. I invite you to contrast this account with your own cultural experience. If you are a woman, put yourself in the place of the young girl in the initiation ceremony, and imagine how it would have made you feel as a young woman. Notice that the celebration is not just for family or close friends; it is enthusiastically participated in by all the men, women and children in the village.

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The most sacred Kuna Festival is “Diwe Inna,” the girls’ initiation into womanhood. For boys, there is no ceremony for the passage into adulthood, and no other Kuna ceremony has as much meaning as this one does. The Diwe Inna festival takes place one year after the puberty ceremony celebrating menarche (which used to be a purely female rite), and constitutes the girl’s initiation into adult womanhood. This is not the wedding ceremony; in fact, that ceremony—quite a simple one—comes later, and includes, among other things, the group game known as “Catch the Groom.” In contrast, the Diwe Inna ceremony is much more significant, and the entire village participates. The girl receives her woman’s name, becomes a full member of the mother clan and of the nation, and learns the matriarchal mythology that undergirds the cosmology of the Kuna.

The symbolism of the Diwe Inna ceremony is directly based on religious belief in the Great Mother Earth. The goddess is the mystery at the beginning of all of life, and the girl in the process of maturating into a young woman corresponds to her. The young woman is now physically, as well as socially, in a position to participate in the continuing creation of life, just like the goddess does; this gives her a share in the renewal of life of the clan, the community, and the world.

In a special closed room, in the presence of twelve other women including her mother, she will be initiated into the most sacred songs, sung by a “kandule,” or song healer. Here she learns that it is not the stag from the rainforest or the dolphin from the sea who brings children; rather, they come from the fusion of female and male eroticism, which is modeled on the example of Mother Earth and her Son-Lover, the sun. The song healer symbolically embodies Ibelele, the sun god, playing on his long, phallic flute. The twelve women accompany him with gourd rattles, the quintessential women’s instrument, because the gourd shape suggests a pregnant belly with its navel, or the female breast with its nipple.

Next, the life story of the young woman is recounted, beginning with her conception, in elaborate song, dance and pantomime. Her “new birth” from the goddess is celebrated, and at the high point of the days-long feast, she receives a newly woven marriage-hammock. It should be noted that at this point in her life her long, maiden’s hair has already been cut by an “iyedule”—a highly respected ceremonial priestess—at the “Disle Inna” festival held when the child is 5 or 6 years old. In this process, locks of her hair fly away like “soul birds” into the Otherworld, perhaps to let the dead know that here is a little girl who will one day grow up into woman, giving them another opportunity for rebirth through her. And even when the hair-cut does not take place until she is older, short hair and the nose ring are the signs of a married woman. Now, at the Diwe Inna, her face and hands are painted with the juice of the sabdur fruit, which is colorless at first but quickly turns black when it dries at the air. She receives her sacred, secret woman-name and is initiated into the secret knowledge of women: menstruation, fertility cycles, pregnancy and childbirth. The male song healer, at this point, is already absent, because the secret knowledge of women is taboo for men. It is connected with knowledge of women’s medicine, and is handed down exclusively from woman to woman; from mother to daughter, or from female healer to her apprentice. There is no comparable secret knowledge for men. Therefore, as the ceremony develops, it is an all women’s ceremony, of which the main role is performed by the iyedule, the priestess, in a dance symbolic of midwifery. After the completion of the spiritual “new birth” the young woman is brought out into the public festivities, and greeted by the crowd with joyful dancing.

In the meantime, the public has not been idle. Each clan is obliged, on the occasion of one of its daughters’ Diwe Inna ceremony, to feed the entire village and to get them drunk on chicha, a type of maize beer. Everything must be available in abundance, to be handed out in the large ceremonial house. Vessels for serving food and drink embody the uterus of the goddess, from whom all abundance comes; the alcoholic beverage is equivalent to her amniotic fluid, from which the spiritually newborn initiate has emerged. It is therefore considered a sacred duty for everyone to drink as much of the “water of life” as possible, in order to take part in the initiate’s rebirth out of the goddess. At the start of the festivities, the initiate will have distributed the first beverage cups, and everyone will have taken their first sip directly from her hand.

In Kuna belief, at the time of the creation of the world, the oceans were made from the amniotic fluid of Mother Earth. So at this celebration, after the first sip from the hand of the initiate, and after much subsequent drinking, dancing and tobacco-smoking to make the sacred ceremonies invisible to evil spirits, there is a great deal of bathing in the sea, in direct contact with the amniotic oceanic fluid of the earth goddess. Afterwards, the participants, dressed in new clothes, continue to dance and drink until the “longed-for child,” the initiate herself, is finally brought into the circle of the celebrating villagers at the end of her ceremony. The feast ends as it began, with dancing, exhilaration and intoxication.

In matriarchal societies, as exemplified by the Kuna, the girl’s initiation is the most important celebration, because by renewing the fertility through the young woman, hopes are fostered for the continuation of life on earth. Every female youth embodies the renewed, life-giving goddess herself. Additionally, the initiate is the embodiment of one of her female clan ancestors, reborn in her, who will now be able to carry forth the life of the clan. Matriarchal societies honor women’s fertility not only because it makes giving birth possible, but primarily because it can give rebirth; that is, it is the ability to transform death into life. It is this spiritual context that gives women their sacredness.

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How did that make you feel? What thoughts arose? Our civilization, characterized by separation, ownership and a rush to modernization and profit, has suffered many losses. It is, however, good to read passages like this with our intuition engaged, feeling into the intrinsic value of honoring the feminine. We CAN reclaim what has been lost.

Above all, this is also an honoring of sexuality, not a hiding or shaming of it. And it celebrates the essence of feminine beauty, rather than reducing beauty to body image. Interestingly, the Kuna only began wearing the bright, ornate molas through missionary influence. Originally, the beautiful designs were worn directly on their skin, sometimes covered with a simple cloth wrap.

The traditional Kuna matriarchal culture, practiced for millennia, continues today in the bush villages of mainland Panama and Columbia and on many islands. The women own the land, handle the economy and the social order is matrilineal and matrilocal.