What is initiation?

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One question that people often have is about the role of initiation in initiatory traditions.

Basically, in order to join an initiatory tradition, you need to go through specific experiences that help you join with and work with others in that tradition. The experiences themselves can (and should, in this case) change you. But the preparation changes you, and the choice to become part of that larger community also changes you. In other words, while the actual initiation ritual is often a very meaningful time for people, it’s what happens before that, and especially what you do with it afterwards that count even more.

What is initiation?

Initiation in an initiatory religious witchcraft tradition is really doing several things at once.

Connecting someone to the tradition

It is connecting someone to the living human community of that tradition – a little bit like marrying into a family, or becoming a part of another tightly-knit group of people. Relationships like that are a two-way street. You can say “I wanna join you” all you like, but the community (at least in part) has to say “Yes, and we want to have you join us in this kind of connection.”

But to get that far, you need to want to have a connection to that group of people – and they have to want it with you. No one can force that (or should), but at the same time, when it happens, it’s worth celebrating.

In most initiatory traditions, there’s also some kind of ongoing commitment involved, too. And a lot of that can be very personal and intimate – letting people into our homes and our hearts, and trusting that they’re going to continue to be there when things get a little rocky.

For example, commitments might include helping out if other initiates if they’re having trouble, or to help share the work of making rituals and other practices happen. Much of that can have a lot of joy and pleasure in it – but often, there’s some harder parts too. So initiatory groups look for people who will be there for the hard stuff as well as the joyful and fun bits.

A series of shared experiences and practices

It provides a connected and structured series of practices and experiences that recognise, honor, and serve specific Gods, cycles, and goals. (Some initiatory traditions train before initiation, some after, but either way, there’s core material that an initiate is expected to learn, understand, and use in the shared community.) These certainly aren’t the *only* way to recognise, honor, and serve these Gods, cycles, and goals, but they are tested and function well together as a group of practices.

You can think of this one a little bit like professional education (becoming a medical professional, lawyer, teacher, librarian, whatever…) where you have a some variation and freedom to make choices, but where there are also some core things that everyone largely agrees on as ‘best practice’ around ethics, practices, how others are trained in the future, what makes someone part of the community of professionals. In other words, the larger community of people doing [whatever that thing is] have some core understanding of what they’re doing (and why, and how.)

Among other reasons, having these core ideas and practices saves time and energy. If we have an agreed upon way that we create ritual space, or when we have ritual, or what we focus on in ritual, we can spend more of our time focusing on other aspects, rather than having to figure out (or negotiate) those details.

In my own tradition, we have a consistent way we create and recognise sacred space for ritual, and specific times we have ritual. We also have some general agreement about what we do in the ritual (in terms of recognising cycles, seasons, and other things like that.) That means I don’t have to figure out how to cast circle for every ritual – I can spend that time focusing on creating rich and meaningful ritual experiences once we get into the ‘working’ part of the ritual. (And the repetition of long practice can help us step into a ritual mindset quickly and easily.)

And of course, having methods that a variety of other people have used successfully does improve the chances those methods will work for us. That means we don’t need to reinvent the wheel each time we want to do something: we have a community of others we can ask for help, ideas, and experiences.

Growth and challenges of a particular flavour

Initiation also is about creating experiences that test and challenge the initiate in specific ways to encourage growth in a particular way. Exactly what that means depends on the tradition, the ritual (1st degree changes are not the same as 3rd degree ones, for example) and more.

People do respond to these challenges differently. Most initiatory traditions have some amount of advance preparation in one form or another, because that tends to have better results for everyone – the initiate has an idea of what they’re committing to, the initiators can be more certain that it’s a good choice for everyone involved, and that they want that kind of intimate energetic connection to this person.

Introductions to deities and other beings

Finally, initiatory work often includes particular introductions and practices that involves Gods and other entities that are somewhere between tricky and impossible to do on one’s own. That doesn’t mean those practices are essential to being a happy and healthy human being (you can have a great life including religion and magic without them.) But it does give some specific options that might not otherwise be there.

You can think of this a little like being a musician: you can be a great musician without ever joining a chorus or orchestra or band. But there’s some music you can’t make without those other people, working together in a specific way, so if you *want* to do that, you’re going to need to find some people you’re compatible with.

Now, of course, doing all of those things is not a fit for everyone, nor is it a fit for a person at every point in their life. But that doesn’t mean that it’s not powerful, meaningful, and important for the people who do choose it any more than marriage, education, and other oaths are silly for the people who choose them in other areas of their life, or in other Pagan paths.

Who was the first initiate?

One question people sometimes ask about initiatory traditions is “Well, who was the first? They made up their own, so why can’t I?”

The answer to this goes back to the idea of joining a community. An individual can become the seed of a community in many ways: they can be the kind of person other people want to join and do (specific things) with. They can come up with some really exciting and new things to do (new practices, rituals, techniques, or combinations of all of the above.)

But once that community exists – whether it starts with one person, or a small group who develop the initial practices together – other people need a way to share the experience. And that’s part of how initiatory traditions grow: they find ways to share core moments in the shared community experience with others. Sometimes this is a specific meditation or practice. Sometimes it’s a larger ritual that presents specific kinds of challenge or choice. Sometimes it’s a longer process – getting to know people to make sure that they’re a good fit with the existing group. And often, it’s a little bit of all of these.

Think of it like starting a club: the first people who start it know perfectly well what the goals are – but also what the unwritten practices and expectations are. People who join later will need to learn those things, and the club will (if they want to add new people) need to figure out a way to teach them. If the group doesn’t, it will get messy and complicated down the road, because people will have all sorts of different ideas of what the most important ideas and practices and experiences are.

Can’t the Gods initiate?

The Gods can do many things – and they can certainly guide people into major, significant, and life-changing experiences of many kinds. (What’s sometimes called a   small-i initiatory experience: a personal experience of profound change, rather than one that involves connections to other people, such as an initiatory tradition.)

On the other hand, as you see from above, part of initiatory tradition work is very human: it’s about joining with other human people to do specific things. The Gods can guide us in that, but they can’t force  it to happen. If you want to join a particular tradition involving other human beings, those human beings are going to need to be a part of the process.

They might well be guided by the Gods in various ways – but as in all our dealings with the Gods, we all still have the chance to say “Yes” or “No” to particular choices. In other words, if you as a human behave like a jerk to people in a specific group or tradition, they might say “No, we’re not interested in connecting with someone who behaves like that.”

(There are also the practical issues: even if you’re the most wonderful person on earth, our very physical living rooms and other ritual and community spaces only fit so many people. Close intimate ritual work works best with a small number of people, so at any given time, a given group may just not be able to take in another person. And so on.)

So: the Gods can guide you to a particular experience. But if you want to be part of a community of humans, the humans have to want you there too.  Both are important.

[last edited January 8, 2011]

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