The most memorable ritual I’ve ever been involved with is my Gardnerian initiation. Thinking back on it over six years later still gives me goosebumps in the best way possible. It was the perfect combination of awe, fear, majesty, beauty, and the unexpected. Though the ritual was far from an “all day affair” in many ways it was exactly that.
My wife and I were the first initiates of our High Priestess and High Priest, and because of that a lot of extra set-up was involved on their end. I remember my HP telling me “we’ve been working on things for your initiation the last 24 hours, and I think we’ll have it all done by the time you and Ari come over.” To his credit, he and his wife did have everything ready, and the ritual was truly magickal.
The first strains of Modern Witchcraft were initiatory traditions. That sounds a bit foreign and even way too exclusionary today, but it was that way in the Craft until well into the 1970’s. Even today there are some folks who won’t accept as a non-initiate as a legitimate Wiccan-Witch. If you read this space with any frequency you know that I disagree with that idea, but I still feel that initiations are important.
While I began this article with the idea that my initiation ritual was full of awe, fear, majesty, and beauty, there’s another truth about it that I’m sometimes embarrassed to admit: I don’t remember all of it. I remember a lot of it of course, but much of it, even at the time, felt a bit like a dream. Even today there are things I remember about it that just weren’t a part of the ritual, and I know this because my wife watched my initiation and has told me that my memories are false, and also because I have the script used that particular evening.
The one thing that made my original initiation so memorable was not necessarily the ritual its self, but what came afterwards. Two weeks after our initiation my wife and I were out for a late winter stroll in Michigan (it was April, so late winter) and she stopped for a second and looked me straight in the face and said, “Does everything look different to you now after our initiation?” I replied in the affirmative and was relived that she had given voice to something that had been on my mind for awhile.
Before we moved on she said something extremely beautiful and telling and it’s one of those little memories I’ll treasure forever. She said to me “It was like before I viewed the world in black and white, I now I finally see it in color.” For the two of us our initiations opened up new worlds and new ways of seeing things.
My initiation did not make me a better Witch immediately or bring me any closer to the deities we honor, but it changed my perspective. For most of my time as a Gardnerian Witch I’ve been a shitty Gardnerian Witch, but as I was gradually elevated to second and then third degree I found a greater understanding when it comes to my own path, and Witchcraft in general. My initiations and elevations changed my perception of reality, and they eventually brought me closer to the things that matter.
AN INITIATION RITUAL
The following ritual comes from my book The Witch’s Athame, it’s about more than athames, and the rituals in it are pretty great if I do say so myself. Help a guy out and pick up a copy today!
As an instrument of one’s true will the athame fits nicely into the initiation rituals of a Witch. Initiations are typically done in covens to signify full acceptance to the rites and mysteries of a particular group. Initiations rituals figure prominently in many specific Witchcraft traditions, though any coven should feel free to start their own. Many initiated Witches can trace their lineage back seventy years or more, though age does not necessarily mean one tradition is better or greater than another.
The coven that meets at my house has only been together for a little over three years, and we have an initiation ritual. We have one because it draws the entire coven closer together, and a well-done initiation rite can be a life-changing event. There’s something powerful about publicly proclaiming your love of the Craft and feeling the love of one’s coven members. I think it’s an important rite and wish more covens made it an important part of their work.
Since this ritual was written with my coven in mind the major players in it are the High Priestess, High Priest, and initiate. I work almost exclusively with my wife, which means we utilize the High Priestess/High Priest dynamic.
For a ritual such as this any combination of clergy is acceptable. Two High Priestesses (or Priests) works just fine.
I’m also not a fan of “group” initiations. Every initiate should get their own ritual, though running through three or four of them in one evening is fine. Just make sure the focus of the High Priestess rests exclusively on one initiate at a time.
For this ritual you will need some easy to cut cords. Cords are readily available at most fabric and hobby stores. Thick ropes of yarn will also work here, and are probably even easier to cut. My wife and I prefer the color red for cords, though the color used is completely a matter of personal taste.
Initiation rituals generally require the use of two rooms or spaces. There should be a “sitting room” for initiates along with the regular working space. I begin my coven’s initiation rituals by leading them to the sitting room. Once they are comfortable I take their athames and put them on the altar where the ritual will occur.
While the initiate waits to be summoned you should have them write a letter about what they hope to gain from the Craft over the following year. When they are done they should seal it and place it in a secure space. Upon the anniversary of their initiation give the letter back to them so they can see how far they’ve come over the last year.
The initiation rite begins like any other ritual. The altar is prepared, the circle is cast, quarters are called, and the Lord and Lady are invoked. To make the initiation circle a little more special it’s nice to lay it out both physically and spiritually. Before the ritual begins create an actual circle in your working space. Even something as simple as white flour looks impressive here (and is easily swept up or vacuumed). Leaves, sand, flowers, and rocks are other options. A physical circle boundary is not necessary, but it will add tremendously to the ambiance.
Once the opening parts of the ritual are finished the Priestess or Priest should go and collect the initiate taking two cords with them. Upon reaching the initiate the High Priestess should ask them:
“Tonight you seek the Craft of the Wise and the Way of the Witch, how do you approach the circle and those that would share with you the mysteries?”
The initiate should respond with:
“In perfect love and perfect trust.”
Between initiate and initiators there should always be “perfect love and perfect trust.” Its more than just a phrase it’s the way of doing within a solid coven. The “password” said by the initiate, the High Priestess should then instruct the initiate on what lies ahead:
“The path of the Witch is not for the faint of heart, it’s one full of peril,and yet its rewards are sweeter than honey. You come to me with perfect love and perfect trust, and I do to you, yet now I would bound you before presenting you to the gods. Do you accept this development.”
The initiate should respond with “yes” or some other affirmative comment.
The Priestess should instruct the initiate to hold out their hands, dominant hand outward. When the hands have been presented she takes the first cord and bounds them loosely at the wrists saying:
“We are often bound to the world of the mundane, unable to see the true beauty and magic of this world. This cord represents that tether to the unmagickal, all that often holds us back from walking the path of the Witch.”
After the wrists are bound the Priestess loosely binds the initiates feet together at the ankles. Special care should be taken here to make sure the initiate can still walk comfortably. The “binding” here is more symbolic than physical. While tying the ankles together the Priestess should say to the initiate:
“Only in free will can one truly live as a Witch. I can initiate you into our coven’s mysteries but the choice to walk our path lies within you. This obstacleI tie to you is one that only the individual Witch can overcome. I may guide your steps this night, but the journey that lies before you is truly your own.”
The initiate is led slowly into the working space, the Priestess making sure that the initiate does not trip on their cords. When the pair reaches the perimeter of the working space the circle should be cut and opened to all them entrance, the High Priest providing one final warning:
“You are now preparing to enter a temple between the worlds, a circle where both mortals and gods dwell. Before you stands the path of the Witch, behind you a normal existence free from the responsibilities that come as a member of the Craft. Do you wish to proceed?”
If the initiate replies in the affirmative the ritual continues and all three participants move to stand before the altar.
The initiate should be instructed to kneel. Standing before the initiate the High Priestess should take the initiates hands into her own and raise them into the air. She examines their hands while saying:
“So much of this world seeks to blind us from the the gods. The Witch knows that the divine exists everywhere upon this world. It exists in the forests, the oceans, the rivers, and in our imaginations. It exists wherever one feels love for this Earth and our sisters and brothers who walk upon it with us. By removing this cord I remove the blinders that keep us from experiencing the true power of this world.”
The Priest should look down upon the hands being held by the High Priestess and touch them briefly before continuing:
“To experience that power and escape that which blinds us every Witch should know the greatest mystery. It is the foundation of all magick and illustrates the divinity of this world. ‘As above so below’ is the secret of the Witch, the power to see and do all things resides both within and without us. Now that you know the mystery, do you wish to continue, knowing that how you see the world will be forever changed.”
Initiate should reply in the affirmative.
Grabbing her athame off of the altar the Priestess should cut the cord freeing the hands of the initiate while saying:
“I now remove all that separates you from the gods. The Lord and Lady exist in this place and they exist within you and me. As above so below, indeed.”
The High Priest now stands before the initiate and says:
“While we have removed the first obstacle keeping you from the mysteries, the second obstacle is one that you must remove yourself. You must truly want to walk the path of the Witch, you must set your feet upon that path.”
The High Priestess picks up the initiates athame from the altar and holds it out to them saying:
“This is the athame, the true Witch’s weapon. It lies at the heart of our mysteries for our mysteries are those of the self. Those who wield the athame wield their true will in the circle. Is it your will to walk the path of the Witch with this coven?”
After the candidate replies with “yes” the Priestess continues:
“Then take this blade and free yourself from what still separates you from this coven. For you are the only one who can set your own feet onto the path of the Craft.”
The initiate should feel free to sit on the ground to cut the cord around their feet. It’s important that this last step is done safely. No one wants to end their initiation ceremony doubled over the floor or falling onto the coven’s altar. When both cords have been cut they may be given to the initiate or placed in a jar with the cut-cords of other coven members. The cords can also be burned if one wishes as they symbolize obstacles.
Once the initiate is free of their restraints they should stand before the Priestess and Priest with one of them declaring the initiate a new member of the coven. If your coven uses magickal names while in the circle this is an excellent opportunity to ask the new initiate for their magickal name. The High Priestess or Priest should then say:
“Let it now be known to the Four Watchtowers, Spirit, The Great Goddess, and the Horned One that (initiate’s name or magickal name) is now a member of (insert coven name here). We welcome them to our mysteries. So mote it be!” (every one in the circle repeats “so mote it be.”)
Still holding the their athame the new initiate is instructed to visit each of the four cardinal points and draw an invoking pentagram while announcing themselves to all four Watchtowers:
“Hail the element of Air/Fire/Water/Earth! Let it be known to all the Watchtowers that I, (Witch’s name), am a Witch of the (coven’s name). So mote it be!”
After hailing all the Watchtowers the candidate should then approach the altar and speak to the Lady and Lord and/or the specific deities of the coven. There they should hail the Goddess and God and announce their name and that they are a Witch.
“Hail the great Lady! Great Goddess I have received your mysteries and been initiated into the (coven’s name). Tonight, I, (Witch’s name), have been accepted by my brothers and sisters in the Craft as a true Witch! So mote it be!”
After the Goddess has been addressed the initiate addresses the Horned God:
“Hail the true Lord! Horned One I have received your mysteries and been initiated into the (coven’s name). Tonight, I, (Witch’s name) have been accepted by my brothers and sisters in the Craft as a true Witch! So mote it be!”
The candidate now stands as a full member of the coven. In many traditions it’s customary to celebrate with gifts and feasting after an initiation.
If the coven is initiating several different individuals over the course of one night the new member of the coven is allowed to stay in the circle and assist the High Priestess and Priest in any way they desire, or sit quietly and observe the next initiation.
(Use of the terms High Priest and High Priestess is not meant to imply that such combinations are required. I just tend to work with my wife so I write my rituals that way!)
Shortly after attaining the Gardnerian Third Degree my wife and I held our first round of initiations. We had been preparing for that moment for several years, and as a result the amount of time we had to spend preparing day of wasn’t crazy-long (it also helped that our initiating High Priestess and High Priest brought a big bag of tools with them that we were able to use), but it was still time consuming and nerve wracking.
Performing an initiation is nerve-wracking because you want your initiates to have the same life-transforming experience that you had. I think that I’m a decent High Priest (no doubts about my wife, she’s amazing) but who knows? Maybe the archaic language won’t resonate with the initiate or they’ll find the whole thing silly and trite. Or perhaps even worse, they’ll find something that takes the mystery out of the initiation and will silently compare the experience to what they read in Lady Sheba’s Grimoire (for the record, not the initiation we use).
I remember the hours leading up to my own initiation and the whole day was a bundle of nerves and anticipation, and I still get that feeling when I initiate someone. It’s hard not to get excited about brining in a new family member, and creating a new brother or sister in the Craft I love so much. When it’s over I’m going to be able to share the words of Gardner and Valiente with them and the decades of wisdom our tradition has accumulated. I get excited thinking about it.
Initiations are powerful life-transforming experiences, and aren’t necessarily just reserved for established Craft traditions. My eclectic coven has its own initiation ritual (it’s basically the one in the box above) and the individuals who went through it told me that it changed them. Perhaps that change was a little less profound than my wife and I’s Gardnerian initiations, but the reactions when it was over where similar.
Those initiations were spread over two nights and on the first night Angus (of Ask Angus fame and infamy) served as our messenger, bringing prospective initiates in and out of the circle. His job required him to “cut” the circle as he came and went and at one point he looked at me and said “You know, it gets harder to cut a doorway into this circle each time we initiate someone.” The energies an initiation ritual brings are strong and real and change us for the better. No matter the flavor of Witchcraft, I hope it’s something that everyone who is looking for it has a chance to partake in.