Thursday, October 20, 2011
I am naked, blindfolded. I can't see a thing but my other senses are heightened. I hear whispering, I feel my wrists chafe against the cord that restrains them. The smell of incense invades my nostrils and my mouth is dry with anticipation. I am disoriented, but I know where I am. No, not in the midst of a bizarre sado-masochism session as it might first appear. Nor am I a prisoner of any sort, here against my will. In fact, I have come to this place voluntarily, eagerly, with an attitude of perfect love and perfect trust. Although bound, paradoxically I am free. I am in the process of being initiated into modern Witchcraft.
Initiation is somewhat of a controversial subject in Witchcraft these days, different Witches holding attitudes toward it which range from the idea that you must be initiated by a recognised lineage, to the belief that a Witch can perform their own self-initiation. Some say that the initiatory current must pass from woman to man, others say that it’s ok to be initiated by someone of the same sex. Several traditions have multiple levels of initiation, whereas others have only one, and some Witches dispense with it altogether. With the explosion in popularity of Witchcraft as a spiritual path, the manifold Wiccan traditions all using similar terminology, and the often bewildering spectrum of techniques and styles, an aspiring Witch could get more than a little confused. What goes on during initiation? Is it scary? Is it safe? And most importantly, is it necessary to be initiated to call yourself a Witch?
Wicca: a modern Mystery Religion
The aptly-named Mystery Religions had their heyday in ancient Greece and Rome and were secret religious groups composed of individuals who decided to be initiated into the profound realities of a particular deity. Probably the most famous of the ancient Mystery Religions were the Rites of Eleusis which centred around the myth of Demeter and Persephone, but there were also many other types such as the Mysteries of Isis and Serapis, Dionysus, Cybele and Attys, and Mithras, indeed even Christianity started off as a Mystery Religion. Unlike the official state religions practiced by the majority of society, the Mysteries emphasised an inwardness and privacy of worship within closed groups, they were secretive, exclusive, and entry to the rites was through initiation.
The word 'mystery' itself derives from the Greek verb 'myein' meaning 'to close' referring to the closing of the lips or the eyes. An initiate was required to keep his or her lips closed and not divulge any secrets that were revealed at the ceremony. Most ancient initiates kept so quiet about what actually occurred during the rites that today we do not have much of an idea about what really went on. As a descendant of the Ancient Mysteries, admission to Wicca's secret rites is still via initiation, however these days, amid mixed reactions amongst the initiates, the Gardnerian and Alexandrian Wiccan initiations have been published and are widely available, so to a certain extent they are no longer secrets,(although in practice there is still unpublished oral content used only within the tradition). The actual Mysteries themselves however, cannot be revealed, indeed they cannot even be described because they occur within the soul of the initiate and are only triggered by the initiation ritual, they are not the ritual itself.
What is Initiation?
Initiation does not only occur within the context of a Mystery Religion, nor does it even necessarily require the use of ritual. Significant points within a person's life-cycle such as sexual maturation, marriage, childbirth, menopause, ageing and death are also forms of initiation which may, but do not have to be, accompanied by ceremonial rites of passage. In a general sense, an initiation is a transformative event or process which results in the initiate being irrevocably changed. According to author Michael Meade, "Initiatory events are those that mark a man or woman's life forever, that pull a person deeper into life than they would normally choose to go. Initiatory events are those that define who a person is, or cause some power to erupt from them, or strip everything from them until all that is left is their essential self... there is departure from daily life, a suffering of ordeals and dramatic episodes, and a return as a marked and different person. Initiation is the dramatic way the psyche shifts ground and orientation..."
Wiccan author, Vivianne Crowley, confirms that there are indeed many types of personal initiation, but that "there is also another form of initiation - initiation into a magical or spiritual tradition whereby we are grafted onto its group mind". This type of initiation is deliberate, it is not something which just happens to you as part of life, but something you consciously strive for. It is a voluntary step into the unknown, an acceleration of the deep processes of consciousness. However, initiation is not a reward, or merely membership within a group, or a one-off achievement, or the end of something - indeed the very word 'initiation' means 'beginning' - it is a dynamic process which takes its own time to manifest. A ritual cannot 'make' you an initiate: although someone might participate in an initiation ceremony, a genuine initiation only happens because a person has a profound, inner transformation. Ultimately it is the Gods who decide who receives true initiation.
What happens during Initiation rituals?
Plutarch (late 1st century AD) noted the similarity between the Greek verbs 'teleutan' meaning 'to die', and 'teleisthai' meaning 'to be initiated', and observed that people who die and people who go through initiation ceremonies experience comparable transformations. Initiation into a religion such as Wicca involves a symbolic death and rebirth; the novice 'dies' to their previous life and is then 'reborn' into their new life. Initiation ceremonies the world over also frequently consist of a three-fold structure involving the themes of separation, transition, and integration; the novice undergoes purification which separates them from their previous life, they then transit through various dedications, consecrations and initiatory teachings, which finally results in their being integrated into the new society of, for example, Wicca. Initiates are bound not to divulge the nature of the rites to ensure the content from being profaned, and also to enhance the novice's excitement, fear and reverence for the occasion. Initiations imprint upon the susceptible mind and symbolic content is likely to make a bigger impression if it is somewhat of a suprise.
As well as having the three-fold structure in common, initiatory rites of varying kinds may also include some, or a combination, of the following components: Pre-ritual meditation in a chamber of reflection, disrobing, restraining hands and sometimes feet with a cord, blindfolding, disorientation, obstruction or difficulty entering the ritual space, a purification/baptism with water or other liquid, consecration with incense and/or oil, a wholehearted acceptance of the new path, an oath of loyalty, scourging, passwords, secret handshakes or signs, an ordeal or test, creation of a magickal link with the tradition, communication with Deity, the receiving of a new name, the infliction of a certain mark which may be a tattoo, kissing, sex - symbolic or actual, receiving a special book of rituals, accepting new tools, special jewellery or clothing, and religious and magickal instruction. - Some of these things may cause the novice fear, however initiations are designed to be entirely safe. No one is ever forced to undergo initiation, and anyone applying for initiation into a group is at liberty to later decline because such rites are always done of your own free will. Conversely, initiations can also be withheld at the discretion of the Initiator or tradition, indeed the Roman Emperor, Nero himself, was denied entry into the Eleusinian Mysteries.
In Gardnerian and Alexandrian Witchcraft, initiation must pass from female to male and vica versa, a male Witch must be initiated by a woman and a woman must be initiated by a man. In other traditions, such as Dianic Witchcraft which only admits women, the High Priestess as representative of the Goddess initiates members of the same sex, and in some mixed groups the Coven member of highest status, the leader, whether this is a male or a female, initiates the members. The initiator is the vessel or conduit of the initiatory power which comes from the Gods and ultimately can be of either gender. As the famous occultist Dion Fortune said "All the Gods are one God, and all the Goddesses are one Goddess and there is one Initiator."
Wiccan initiation may be a single ritual, however it is usually tripartite, or there may even be up to ten initiatory gateways to pass through, again, depending on the individual tradition. In some variants of Witchcraft there is only one degree, attained after a year's apprenticeship (in fact it is not even really a 'degree' as such, but a swearing of loyalty and acceptance into the Coven). This sort of initiation can be quite simple and might only involve the novice Witch kneeling on one knee, putting one hand on the crown of her head and one under the sole of her foot, and offering all in between to the Deity who is represented by the Man in Black. He then places his hand on her head and asks her to give all under his hand over to him and to say "I place myself at every point in thy power and in thy hands, recognising no other God, for thou art my God." Multiple initiations, on the other hand, are akin to a series of significant thresholds and portals through which the novice passes along a path of self-development. Gardnerian and Alexandrian Witchcraft have three degrees of advancement which High Priestess, Judy Harrow, notes are in some ways "comparable to the ranks of Apprentice,
Journeyman and Master in the old craft guilds, or Bachelor, Master and Doctor in the university system."
In a three-degree system, after the year and a day of dedicated postulancy, the Wiccan novice applies for the First Degree. In this ritual they are introduced to the magickal tools, taught how to bless salt and water, how to use the athame, cast the circle, set up the altar, call the watchtowers, and basic Craft principles. They may also choose a new magickal name at this stage. At the conclusion of the rite they are acknowledged as a Wiccan initiate, a Priest/ess and Witch. During the Second Degree the Witch is introduced to the mysteries of death and rebirth and is elevated to the rank of High Priestess and Witch Queen, or High Priest and Magus. They are expected to have a deeper understanding of the Craft and the Deities, to have a magickal partner of the opposite sex, and to have enough knowledge to be able to teach a First Degree novice. They may also 'hive off' from the parent Coven, if they so desire, and form their own group under the watchful eye of their Initiator. A Third Degree initiate is introduced to the concept of the perpetual and infinite nature of existence signified by the Great Rite - the sexual congress of the Goddess and God - and must display extensive knowledge of the principles and workings of the Craft, an understanding of the symbols, magickal tools and ritual procedure, and be able to successfully invoke the Deities. As 'thrice consecrated' High Priestess and Witch Queen (High Priest and Magus) the Third Degree initiate is quite independent, answerable only to the Gods, and may found a fully autonomous Coven.
Wiccan or Witch?
So... do you need to be initiated into the Wiccan Mysteries to be a Witch? In a word, no. Wicca is a mystery religion and the Witch's craft is a separate magickal practice which is included as part of what Wiccans do. All Wiccans are Witches, but not all Witches are necessarily Wiccans. You can become a Witch by saying "I am a Witch" three times, and thinking seriously about what that means. All who declare themselves as Witches offer their lives to the service of the Goddess and God, exactly the same as those who stepped into some tradition's initiatory circle. An 'uninitiated' Witch can be just as wise, wonderful and witchy as a Wiccan initiate, the only difference being that they will not be privy to the initiation rituals of a specific tradition - which is in no way the same as saying they will not have access to the Mysteries - quite the contrary, the Gods are fully capable of providing powerful and effective initiatory experiences directly without any human intervention. Admission to a Mystery Initiation certainly is a worthy experience, but not an not essential one, what matters is that a Witch develops reverence for Nature, contact with Deity is achieved, and the power and guidance of the Goddess and Horned God informs all one's being and doing.
A Witches' Bible. Janet & Stewart Farrar
Descent to the Goddess. Sylvia Brinton Perera
The Ancient Mysteries. Ed. Marvin W. Meyer
Witchcraft For Tomorrow. Doreen Valiente
Witchcraft: A Tradition Renewed. Doreen Valiente and Evan Jones