Coming to the Edge of the Circle

Coming to the Edge of the Circle February 2, 2011

Back in December, Chad Clifton had a blog post on Coming to the Edge of the Circle where he used it as an example of a Pagan scholar doing academic work in a Pagan setting. This is not a normal occurrence in academia: there is an unstated assumption that Wicca and other “new religions” aren’t worthy of serious study, and there is an assumption that anyone who practices them will be unable to separate the study of her religion from advocacy for her religion. In this book, Nikki Bado-Fralick attempts to disprove both of those ideas while proposing a new model for understanding initiation rituals.

The book begins with Bado’s explanation of her precarious position as a “scholar-practitioner.” This is the only place where the book bogs down a bit in academic concerns and jargon. Mostly, Bado does a good job of taking her editor/husband’s advice to “translate the original from academese into something more resembling English.” Coming to the Edge of the Circle is far more readable than most books I’ve read by professional scholars (books by anthropologists seem to be the worst, or at least the most foreign to me).

From there she uses her own experiences to give an explanation of Wicca for academic readers who aren’t familiar with it. For the rest of us, it’s an interesting look back at what Paganism was like before the Internet and Barnes & Noble made it available across the country.

Throughout the book Bado uses the metaphor of learning to drive a car for learning to become a Witch. The Abrahamic religions are primarily concerned with intellectual concepts and their application in life – it is no wonder they are “the people of the book.” In contrast, the Pagan religions engage the senses. A Pagan ritual isn’t something you only observe and think about, it’s something you do – you use both body and mind. As Bado says “you don’t believe in cars, you drive them.” You don’t believe in Witchcraft, you practice Witchcraft.

Bado’s tradition of Wicca conducts three initiation ceremonies, two of which she describes in detail. The first is a Rite of Dedication, where a newcomer is accepted as a student and promises to study diligently under an experienced teacher. The second is the actual initiation, where the dedicant is accepted into full membership and confirmed as “Priest/ess and Witch.” The third (which is not described in the book) is an elevation to High Priest/ess.

I’ve yet to write that initiation outline I’ve been talking about. I’m inclined to simply recommend you read Chapter 6 of Coming to the Edge of the Circle. While Bado gives very few actual lines from her coven’s initiation, each step is clearly explained, both what to do and why to do it.

My one caveat for those attempting to create an initiation is to remember that this ritual – like many initiations – is designed to bring an outsider into full membership. If you’re a leader of a CUUPS or similar group where membership is rather loosely defined this won’t make a lot of sense. This is yet another reason why you should never simply copy someone else’s ritual without making it fit your circumstances. Still, with a little thought it is possible to include dramatic and meaningful challenges in an individual initiation.

However, this not a “how to” book. Though the ritual outline is very good, the real value of Coming to the Edge of the Circle is in its analysis of initiation. Here are a few quotes I found particularly helpful.

  • “Initiation will not bring [the candidate] into community with Nature so much as it will awaken him through the experiences of his body-in-practice to the community that is already there.” This reflects what Isaac Bonewits would call a Type 1 initiation – the recognition of a status already gained.
  • Bado recognizes that initiation is clearly not an egalitarian act. She says “power-with and power-from-within are ideals to be reached through disciplined communal praxis, not something bestowed upon us by democratic decree.” As so many have reminded us, you have to do the work of spiritual practice. There is no substitute.
  • In regards to re-creating a myth within an initiation ritual, Bado says “the performance of the myth … is not merely to impress similarity of the experience upon the new Witch, but ultimately to promote identification with the Goddess, who has undergone a similar journey.” I’m reminded of the Egyptian Book of Going Forth by Day (better known as The Book of the Dead) where the deceased is instructed not just to pray to Osiris, but to identify with Osiris. By doing so, he shares in Osiris’ victory and is granted eternal life with the gods.
  • Most importantly – especially for those who attach great significance to a particular initiation ceremony – Bado says “upon closer inspection … what is commonly understood as an isolated ritual moment … is actually embedded in a long and multidirectional process of increasingly somatic [“of the body”] learning and practice.” Initiations can be very meaningful and helpful, but ultimately they are only one step on a long journey.

Coming to the Edge of the Circle is a fairly short book – 147 pages, plus notes and bibliography. Amazon has it priced at $47, but there are used copies available for $15. If you have any interest in initiation and the study of initiation, it’s well worth your time and money.

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