Initiation in Today’s Pagan World

Initiation in Today’s Pagan World January 13, 2011

This week I learned that a friend has been passed over for a teaching position with a Wiccan seminary because he doesn’t have a “proper” initiatory lineage. His many years of Wiccan practice and coven-based teaching experience count for nothing without documented First, Second, and Third Degree initiations.

Long-time Gardnerian and Alexandrian Wiccans and those with experience in groups such as Freemasonry and the Golden Dawn will not be surprised by this. But those who have come to Paganism within the past 10-15 years and those whose work has been either solitary or with eclectic groups such as CUUPS will likely find it odd, if not flat-out wrong.

I have no desire to debate the value of lineage. British Traditional Wicca groups find it useful for preserving their traditions and heritage – that is their prerogative. But I do want to explore the value of initiation and its place in our diverse and still-evolving Pagan world.

Mystery religions teach their mysteries primarily through initiations – there are some things that cannot be explained but can only be experienced. Thus if you want to be a member of a mystery religion, you must be initiated. But while Wicca originated as a mystery religion, Paganism as it is widely practiced today is much more of a nature religion, focusing on our relationships with the natural world, the ancestors, and the gods and goddesses. In a nature religion, initiation is much less critical and frequently much less formal.

The late Isaac Bonewits wrote an excellent essay on initiation – it’s still on his website and is well worth a few minutes to go read. He says there are three types of initiation: recognition of a status already gained, an ordeal of transformation, and a method for transferring spiritual knowledge and power. I have had all three types, both in ritual and in ordinary life. They all have been meaningful and helpful, although in very different ways.

It is possible to live a deeply spiritual life and to serve the Divine, humanity and the rest of Nature without ever experiencing initiation. For some people, the concept of initiation conflicts with their sense of egalitarianism. Others prefer to keep their practice as simple as possible and see no value in initiation. I respect those opinions, but the initiations I have experienced have been very helpful to my spiritual growth.

I see four reasons why initiations are helpful.

Initiations serve as a metaphysical line in the sand. So many people come to Paganism through “dabbling” – they need a spell to help with this or that, or they attend a seasonal celebration out of curiosity, or they feel a call to Nature. And they do these things while still maintaining an identity as a Christian, or a Humanist, or an agnostic. That sort of split loyalty can only take you so far – at some point further growth requires a commitment to a specific path. The act of initiation makes it clear – to yourself if to no one else – that you’ve explicitly crossed a line and made that commitment.

Initiatory ordeals build confidence. I’ve been through the 2nd Degree three times: once in ritual (sorry, the details are oath-bound) and twice in ordinary life. When life gets hectic and bad things happen, I can look back to those experiences and say “I got through that, I can get through this too.” The ritual 2nd degree was perhaps the most valuable of these, because it happened when I was 19 – before I had much of the “life experience” I have now.

Formal recognition of a status achieved reinforces that achievement. For all the work I had done with my OBOD studies, I thought of myself as a Druid-in-training and not a Druid. But when John Michael Greer laid his hands on my head and proclaimed that I was a Druid, all doubts went away.

Sometimes the magic just works. Tarot artist and author Robin Wood says “The Gods initiate. We just officiate.” Sometimes when you prepare yourself through study and practice, declare your desire for initiation, and take the action to begin the initiatory process, a goddess or god decides to give you exactly what you asked for. Sometimes a door opens that you didn’t even know was there. Sometimes you find yourself in a serious ordeal in the ordinary world. And sometimes in the middle of a ritual, a leader is transformed into a High Priest or High Priestess and serves as a conduit to fill the candidate with a divine energy that neither of them had experienced before.

So, while I don’t see initiations as a necessity, I do think they can be very helpful. And some people feel like they have to have them. Those of us who are leaders in non-initiatory traditions like CUUPS need to be prepared to perform initiations, just as we perform sainings, handfastings, and other rites of passage.

In a future post I’ll describe what I’ve found to be the keys to a successful initiation ritual.

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