WHAT IS INITIATION?

The Craft is a mystery tradition that has formal degrees of initiation. In this, it differs from most other forms of modern Paganism.

Some Pagans condemn covens for their exclusivity, their systems of degrees and their titles of high priest and high priestess.  This criticism is understandable when we have characters like Lady Tiggywinkle, who read a book on the Craft a year ago and now she is a high priestess and has even written her own book about it. Or Darth Moloch who is magus of his own dark coven – or at least he is when his Dad lets him stay out late.  Such people have always existed of course, and are found in every branch of Paganism, but it is true to say that the Craft, with its hierarchies and titles, is a magnet for the egomaniacs and lunatic fringe.

However, the Craft degree system – and its hierarchy – provides a stable and firm foundation to assist individual spiritual progress. Candidates are enabled to develop at their own pace by a supportive group setting, under the guidance of an experienced teacher. As they progress, they become able to train and help the less knowledgeable – with each degree comes greater responsibility. Those groups that try to run as democracies where those with no know-how have as much say as those with a great deal, or those groups run by inexperienced [and all too often inflated-ego] individuals with no proper training tend to fall apart very quickly, as do those groups where people are advanced too quickly through the degrees. Over the many years I’ve spent in the Craft, I’ve learned the hard way that the traditional coven set-up is the by far the best way of organising and running a magical group. Every time I, in my ignorance or arrogance, have deviated from its rules, the consequences have been disastrous.

The Craft is a mystery religion, and a system of initiation through various degrees is implicit, and in this it follows very ancient principles. The word ‘mystery’ comes from the Greek musterion meaning a secret rite or doctrine. A follower of the mysteries in ancient Greece was a mystes  or ‘initiate’, a term originating in the word myein meaning ‘to close’ or ‘to shut’ i.e., to close or shut the eyes and mouth, since only initiates were allowed to observe the rituals and these were not to be spoken of to the uninitiated. In the ancient world, the mysteries were not open to everyone, but only to those who were properly trained and prepared, those who were mature and responsible enough to approach them with due reverence and ready for the profound inner changes it would create.

Initiations centered around the theme of death and rebirth, the candidate undergoing the same journey as the God or Goddess; thus the candidates became the ‘twice-born’. They followed the same basic pattern that most Craft initiations follow today, first with training, then the rite proper with ritual purification, warnings and challenges, an ordeal, a binding oath, revelation of the deity and secret symbols, rebirth and consecration as an initiate, followed by a proclamation of the new status of the candidate to all assembled.

Reputable covens ensure that the training for priesthood is thorough and monitored at every stage so that the priest/ess is ready for the degree conferred, is effective, competent, and works connected to the Gods. This training is difficult and requires a high level of commitment over many years. Most people are not willing to put in the time and effort, and this is the main reason why initiation is reserved for a few.

Putting aside those traditions that ‘initiate’ new members as soon as they arrive [in which ‘initiation’ is merely an acceptance into the coven and signifies nothing more] initiation confirms that the candidate has completed adequate training and achieved sufficient spiritual advancement as will enable them to function as a priest/ess.

Many beginners think that initiation is conferred by the ceremony, and that the person involved is thus promoted to a higher rank rather like an army officer. This is far from the truth. The neophyte, having undergone training and taken part of various rituals and spiritual practices, starts to experience a heightened state of consciousness and awareness. He or she is often very confused at this stage, suddenly aware of entities, archetypes, spirits, concepts and ideas that may seem contradictory and confusing. Many people take fright at this point and back away, but providing that the candidate handles this properly, accepting guidance from the elders, initiation will occur as a fundamental change of consciousness, a progression to the next stage. An experienced high priest/ess will recognise when this juncture is reached, and the candidate will be formally initiated: a ritual and magical event that triggers the next stage in the process.

At this point the initiation may fail, leaving the candidate in a spiritual limbo. This can happen for one of two reasons. Firstly, unless the candidate is set, properly prepared and ready to receive and return the power, no initiation can take place; Plato remarked ‘Many who beat the wand, but few who become Bakchoi.[i] Secondly, if the initiator is not in contact with the spiritual forces, he or she will fail to initiate the candidate.[ii] There are plenty of people out there claiming higher degrees who don’t even realise they have never had a true initiation.

Initiation is a death and rebirth not symbolically, but in a very real sense. In some tribal societies, the candidate is thought of as a ghost for the duration of the process, until the new birth takes place. He might be buried or coffined in some way, returning to the primordial earth-womb of the Goddess. Often, the initiate identifies himself with the reborn god. In Egypt, for example, in one initiation ceremony described in the Leyden Magical Papyrus, he ‘participated’ in the reconstitution of the scattered body of Osiris, and was reborn with the reincarnated god.[1] The old self can never be reclaimed, and a new self emerges from the old shell: the process is traumatic. It is said of several mountains in Wales, that if one were to spend a night there, one would either come down mad, or a poet [i.e. a bardic initiate]; true initiation is a harrowing process, and one which may lead equally to enlightenment or madness.

This threshold point was deliberately provoked in the initiation rituals of some mystery schools, when the candidates were put through terrifying ordeals involving burial or entombment for days, or being led through the darkness of a labyrinthine cave. In tribal cultures, suffering may be deliberately induced to mimic the crisis which sometimes triggers a shamanic initiation. Shamans may experience ‘death’ by being entombed for up to seven days, during which they experience being dismembered by demons before being re-assembled with new bodies that contain psychic powers. In all parts of the world the dawning of the shaman’s enlightenment begins with a ‘shamanic crisis’, often in adolescence, but sometimes much later.[2] This is a severe illness or breakdown which actually threatens his life, and he lingers for a time between on the threshold of life and death. The shaman is reduced, by the trauma of this incident, to a primal way of thinking and being, and only then can he enter the archetypal primordial state where humans can converse with gods, animals and plants. He experiences the sensation of dissolution and the separation of body from spirit, something that only usually occurs in physical death, and which cannot be compared to astral travel or out of body experiences, or even an initiation in other magical traditions.

Returning from his crisis, the shaman knows, from his own encounters, that the world is alive, that everything has spirit and that we are surrounded by spirits, a viewpoint called animism by anthropologists. When he interacts with the world of spirit, he is practising shamanism, and only then. He may work with a variety of supernatural beings and from these learn how to cure specific illnesses, divination, the mastery of fire, weather magic, hunting magic, the retrieval of lost souls or the accompanying of the souls of dead to the Otherworld, and the removal of curses. He can travel great expanses in spirit flight, hear what is going on at a remote place, send messages over a distance and even shapeshift. Furthermore, he may take on the role of the priest of a community, becoming the bridge between the world of spirits and humankind.[3]

Plutarch commented that the soul at the point of death undergoes the same experience as those who have been initiated into the great mysteries:

“…at first wandering to and fro, and journeys with suspicion through the dark as one uninitiated, and then come all the terrors before the final initiation, shuddering, trembling, sweating, amazement: then one is struck with a marvellous light and is received into pure regions…and bearing his crown joins in the divine communion… and the initiate beholds the uninitiated …huddled together in mud and fog, abiding in their miseries through fear of death and mistrust of the blessings there.[iii]

We can find many such descriptions of initiations in the ancient accounts, in stories from shamanic cultures, but also in more recent times here in Britain, deriving from the shamanic traditions of our Celtic and Anglo-Saxon ancestors [see my Path of the Shaman for a more full account of this].

Not every aspirant will gain true initiation in this lifetime. If a person encounters many difficulties in the path of initiation the Gods may be telling them they are not ready, or it may just be that they are being tested to see whether they are committed enough to overcome any obstacles. The Gods often interfere in someone’s life to point them in the right direction, or deter them from following the wrong path for them. This is why barriers are placed in the path of the would-be initiate, sometimes by the Gods, and always by the coven. Tests are made ensure the suitability of the candidate – who might not even be aware that they are being tested. In our coven, quests are given that must be pursued and resolved before initiation is even considered.

We do not recognise self-initiation at all. This is not to say that self-initiation is impossible, but successful self-initiation is rare. When people talk about self-initiation, they generally mean what we would refer to as Dedication, a promise to honour and love the Gods and learn of them. True initiation is something much more profound. I’m not even sure it is possible to be your own teacher – you are trying to teach yourself something you do not know, and this is a paradox. It is true that the real teaching comes from the Gods and spirits, but until you have learned how to contact them, how to recognise illusion and self-delusion from truth, this is fraught with danger. Furthermore, the changes the process effects are very difficult to deal with alone. An experienced high priest or priestess will be able to guide the initiate through the stormy waters.  A person can never initiate themselves into a tradition from which they have never had training or approval.

It must be remembered that initiation is not an end goal and the candidate is not perfected at the point of initiation; it is a mark post on the journey of the spirit which is a continuing succession of trials, revelations, back-sliding and progress.

© Anna Franklin, extract from Pagan Ritual, The Path of the Priest and Priestess, Lear Books, 2008

Illustration © Anna Franklin, Pagan Ways Tarot, Schiffer 2015

[1] Christian Jacq, Magic and Mystery in Ancient Egypt

[2] In some places, the role of shaman is hereditary, but only if the spirits have chosen the successor, and he has undergone the crisis.

[3] Anna Franklin, Path of the Shaman, Lear Books,

[i] Quoted in Mircea Eliade From Primitives to Zen, Collins, London, 1967, p 305

[ii] Dion Fortune, Applied Magic, The Aquarian Press, Wellingborough, 1981, p 28

[iii] Quoted in Mircea Eliade From Primitives to Zen, Collins, London, 1967, p 302

Author: annafranklinblog

Anna Franklin is the High Priestess of the Hearth of Arianrhod, which runs teaching circles, a working coven, and the annual Mercian Gathering, a Pagan camp which raises money for charity. She regularly speaks at conferences, moots and workshops around the country. She is the author of many books on witchcraft and Paganism, including the popular Pagan Ways Tarot, Sacred Circle Tarot, The Fairy Ring, Herb Craft, Magical Incenses and Oils, Personal Power, A Romantic Guide to Handfasting, Familiars, The Oracle of the Goddess, Hearth Witch, The Path of the Shaman and The Hearth Witch’s Compendium. Anna’s books have been translated into nine languages.

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