by Estelle Daniels
Most people in esoteric and magickal traditions have some sort of rite of passage, sometimes several, which mark a point in a person's life and acknowledge their learning and experiences that they have accumulated. It can also mark a turning point in their life when they made a commitment or change that will affect the course of their life from then onward.
In Wicca these life passages are called initiations, but the process and practices are by no means unique. Gerald Gardner (1884 -1964) who was the first modern 'public witch' borrowed much of the initiation practices and forms from Masonry, and tacked them onto an older religious system.
In most any esoteric or mystical tradition, initiation is designed to do the same things, so I will talk generically, but realizing that this applies to Wicca and Masonry and other traditions.
Initiation is a rite of passage; that is a life marker. It has similarities to puberty, marriage, birth and death, the other common rites of passage in human societies. However, initiation is not a life passage that occurs at a certain time. It is the one which is most under the control of the person experiencing it. And initiation is not for everyone, many people go through their lives quite nicely without any mystical initiation of any kind.
Now there are generally acknowledged to be two different types of initiation, one that is given by one's teachers and one that is given by one's Gods. The second type is less under personal control, being in the "that which does not kill you makes you stronger" category. Sudden illness, of self or those close; a natural catastrophe; an intense personal crisis; a very intense life crisis; extraordinary circumstances which make extraordinary demands upon one's time, energy, physical stamina and emotional equilibrium. All these can be viewed as initiations. The event must impact upon all levels, physical, spiritual, emotional. One is pushed to the brink, and beyond. Sometimes it can involve a near-death experience. What generally happens is that after the experience the person and those around them all know some change has occurred in that person. The person may get a new outlook on life, things which were important before fall by the wayside, new interests and activities become important. Priorities change. For many who were in Vietnam, the experiences there constituted this sort of initiatory experience. They returned changed, and their lives have not been the same since. For some a life-threatening illness can be the catalyst for the change, either voluntary or otherwise.
For those who have not had the initiation from the Gods, there is always the one a person seeks on their own. When a teacher performs an initiation, they have generally worked with the person, and have determined that the person is ready for the initiation. This may involve a set course of study or level of knowledge, a certain level of maturity and possibly a certain amount of life experience. What the initiation is to do is to hopefully either catalyze a change which will allow the person to take all this stuff and propel themself to a new level of awareness and possibly enlightenment, or to acknowledge that such a change has already happened. This illustrates the two schools of thought about initiations, 1) they are merely an acknowledgment of the inner work and change it has accomplished and 2) they are a catalyst for growth and change. Personally I hold both opinions as the situation warrants, because both occur and are equally valid.
Why would a person want to undergo an initiation? If you are of the initiation by the Gods type, you may feel no need. You've been through hell and back and know what you've accomplished and how you've changed. For these people I would say, yes but have you the credentials to prove it? For that an initiation might be nice, to help validate your experiences and provide a handle for the world to latch onto. For those whose lives have been less eventful (and that is not bad at all, those God initiations can be real hell--just ask a cancer survivor or Vietnam combat vet), there is the teacher provided initiation. For these people I would recommend it for the learning and controlled change it can bring, and the initiatory experience is powerful and energizing. You can effect change in yourself, and if sincere and diligent you can make great personal progress in what might seem to be a short time.
There is also the commonality of experience that all initiates have, no matter what tradition. Initiation is supposedly a controlled near-death experience, at least emotionally. Few traditions are like the ancient Celts where two out of five actually died trying to become Druids. But most initiations involve some sort of facing one's mortality, symbolically and emotionally. For those who have literally faced death and lived, that can be a heady, freeing and life changing experience. That in a nutshell is what initiation is all about. Different traditions may cloak it in different trappings and have different requirements, but the facing one's own death and living through it is the basic fundamental change that is sought.
And there is the commonality of learning and terminology. Esoteric traditions have their own jargon, and studying with a teacher and going through the initiation can be a way of absorbing the patois and mindset peculiar to that tradition. It can then mark one as an insider, one of those in the know.
There are books that advocate solitary initiation (Cunningham's Wicca for the Solitary Practitioner). There is also a solo dedication and initiation in Essential Wicca. This can be useful or not, depending upon how the person approaches it. The trick is that there must be some fundamental discernible change in the person for the initiation to have taken. The change may be before, during or after the actual rite, but it must be there eventually. And the change is not usually all at once, it is something that is a process over some time, but not at the normal rate of life, some change that was accelerated by the initiation, however it comes about.
If this sounds like some sort of spiritual or psychic shortcut, it can be viewed that way. But just because it comes more quickly, doesn't mean it comes more cheaply or for free, quite the opposite. Usually you pay a physical, psychic and/ or emotional toll for the acceleration, and that's what helps bring the initiatory experience about.
People have been striving for spiritual enlightenment ever since they supposedly came down from the trees. Initiation is just one method, but one which has proved effective over the millennia, so it continues in various guises and forms. It doesn't invalidate the other paths to enlightenment, it can be used in concert with them or alone. And it's not for everyone. A good initiation demands a deep self-examination and assessment of one's life up to that point; strengths, weaknesses, choices made and not made, and all done honestly and without blame, recrimination or self-congratulation. Ego is the enemy, and in a way an initiation is a way to get a perspective on one's ego, where it's good, where it's bad and how it can help and hurt. One can become self-absorbed, but that is part of the process, and hopefully just a phase that is worked through.
Some people are ritual junkies, they groove on the emotional rush and intensity of focus an initiation can bring. But that can become a trap. Initiation is a process, and to get stuck in one place is not helpful. You only get part of the benefits, and can actually be in a limbo, stuck at one stage with your spiritual life on hold until something propels you to the next step and through.
There are those who question the need or validity of initiation. For them I would say, don't knock it until you've tried it. There is the possibility of a bad initiation, one not handled properly or which the candidate is not ready for and which causes emotional distress or crisis. But those are few and far between, the more common problem is the initiation which doesn't take, either because it wasn't done properly either by preparation or execution (the more common), or because the candidate didn't participate fully and open themself up to the possibilities for change and growth. There are no guarantees, about anything. If we are here to better ourselves, we have to have a few dud experiences along the way. Sometimes you learn better that way, and appreciate it more when the experiences do work.
Initiation is only one method for spiritual development, but one that has been proven for millennia. Try it, you just might get something out of it.
© 1998, 2003 Estelle Daniels, all rights reserved.