Some Notes on Initiation

Some Notes on Initiation

© Isaac Bonewits
Originally published in Druid's Progress #2

A number of people have asked me about initiations in Ar nDraiocht Fein and of how these might tie in with our Circle system. But before getting into specifics about ADF, I'd like (as usual) to indulge in just a bit of theory.....

Types of Initiation

There seem to be three major approaches to initiation practiced by various cultures and subcultures around the world. These approaches are often combined and interwoven. I'll attempt in this essay to create a "typology of initiation" to make the distinctions and overlaps clear.

Type 1: "Initiation as recognition of a status already gained." The ceremonies of Bar/Bas Mitzvah or Confirmation are good examples of this. The basic idea is to gather the community around you, and to announce that you have achieved a particular stage of growth and therefore you now have certain responsibilities as well as privileges. These sorts of initiations are frequently "time-bound," that is to say they happen more or less automatically when you reach a certain age or have been studying a craft or discipline for a specific period of time.

Type 2: "Initiation as an ordeal of transformation." A mundane example of this would be throwing you into a pool in order to force you to learn to swim. There are a wide variety of traditional techniques for doing this in a ritualistic way, such as: Making you fast for a week, go without sleep, be flogged without crying out, be sexually tempted and/or exhausted, be buried alive or locked in a dark room, go on a vision quest, be led through a night-long guided meditation, etc.

Any or all of these techniques may be augmented by the use of mind-altering substances, depending upon local traditions, but what they all have in common is this: Regardless of the specific techniques being used, the goal is to induce an altered state of consciousness within which you are forced to confront Life, Death and your own multiple Selves. While you are in this state of reality/vulnerability, you are capable of re-imprinting yourself with a new worldview (or of having one imposed upon you). This is said to make you a "new person," and indeed the commonest theme in such initiations is that of death and rebirth.

By the way, Robert Anton Wilson has a lot of good material on imprinting and re-imprinting "tunnel realities," in his Prometheus Rising (Falcon Press, 1983), which should be available through your local metaphysical shop.

The emphasis on difficulty is both "de"scriptive and "pre"scriptive: Being born again into a new worldview and status is not easy, since it requires giving up (some people say "growing out of") your old identity, which is usually based, at least in part, on your culture's collection of approved tunnel realities. Whatever physical or psychological pain might be involved also serves as a screening mechanism -- if you are likely to buckle under pressure, the tribal elders want to find that out before you get into a position of responsibility where your weakness could endanger others. This is a harsh reality to reside in, but for most of human history it's been a necessary one. If we're unlucky, and Pagans ever have to go back underground, we'd probably have to return to such attitudes again.

As distinct from type one, this approach believes that the purpose of an initiation is to promote (or force) the achievement of a new growth stage. Although also often time-bound, with this sort of initiation it is possible to fail, with consequent devastating effects upon the body and/or mind of the would-be initiate. These negative effects are considered the unfortunate price that must be paid for safeguarding the welfare of the group.

Type 3: Initiation as a method for transferring spiritual knowledge and power from the initiator(s) to the initiatee(s). (By the way, I'm using the term "initiatee" as distinct from "initiate" to indicate the difference between someone going through the process of being initiated vs. someone who has already been initiated, whether in the near or distant past.) In the Western mainstream occult traditions, this is often called the "transmission of the Gnosis" or the "Apostolic Succession," but it has been used by quite a few different traditions and organizations throughout human history. This approach assumes that the purpose of an initiation is to open you up to a source of external power that has been used by your predecessors.

A properly done initiation of this sort should have the following results: (a) you are better connected to the deity who is the group's magical/spiritual focus, (b) you are better connected to the spirits of your predecessors, (c) your internal psychic hardware and software are rewired and reprogrammed to enable you to handle the group's flavor of energy better, and (d) you are given the ability and right to speak and act as a representative of those predecessors, and thus to fulfill certain spiritual and/or magical responsibilities.

Initiations in the Neopagan/Craft Community:

When Valiente and Gardner were inventing the modern Craft, they were unclear as to which of these three approaches they considered the most important. His Masonic background gave him the idea for the ritual "ordeals" of being bound and threatened (type 2). Their Anglican culture, combined with their desire to be in touch with those who had supposedly gone before, inspired the idea of "handing on the Craft" from priestess to priestess as a sort of Pagan apostolic succession (type 3). Masonic rules about minimal times to be spent between Degrees, folkloric references to "a year and a day" being a magical span, and the needs of their congregation for a predictable schedule of promotion, eventually led to general expectations that everyone would automatically be in intiated/ordained after they had been in the religion for set lengths of time.

This time-binding could have led to any of the three types of initiation, but Gardner and Valiente had further factors to consider. They had to keep each member of their core group happy with his or her personal progress. Simultaneously, they had to generate a sufficient number of clergy to reach the critical mass necessary for survival as a religion. So they decided upon unfailable (type 1) initiations.

As "Gardnerianism" (it really should have been called "Valientianism") spread to America, it's monarchial leaders had no trouble at first with American ideals of democracy, because most Americans secretly are in love with British royalty. But in the late 60s, several High Priestesses suffered rude collisions with the counter-culture's egalitarianism. They began to be faced with increasing differences of opinion about the proper purposes and roles of initiation and hierarchy. The Neopagan/Craft explosion of the 70s threw these questions high into the air, and they haven't landed yet.

Implications for ADF

What all this means in terms of how Ar nDraiocht Fein is going to handle initiations is yet to be settled. But, based on this three-part (well they say Druids are supposed to be fond of triads!) typology of initiations, let's explore the possibilities...

If you think of your initiations as recognition for your hard work (type 1), then you should ask yourself from whom you wish to receive this recognition. You could gather together a group of "peers" (members of your own or neighboring groups) and/or "elders" (local Neopagan/Craft clergy you respect), and perform a quasipublic rite of elevation.

If you don't feel that you're already at your desired level, but rather that you are ready to rise to that level, then you'll want an ordeal/testing (type 2) initiation, the central parts of which should be private.

If you want to have a close magical/spiritual connection with an already existing tradition, then you're going to have to find representatives of such who would be willing to grant you that contact, in whatever sorts of rituals are, well, traditional for that group.

For those seeking authenticity, however, I should point out that there are no Neopagan Druid groups that actually go back any further than 20 years or so. The oldest of the currently existing Mesopagan Druid orders, on the other hand, seems to have an "unbroken tradition" that goes back two or three centuries. (They might go back a bit further, as might some of the other Masonic Druid groups, but none of them have ever released much in the way of historical evidence.)

The bottom line here is that, as far as "authentic" traditions are concerned, none of the Neopagan or Mesopagan groups are engaging in practices or promoting beliefs that we can prove actually resemble those of the original Paleopagan Druids. So, just as with the Craft, the odds are that anyone who tells you they can initiate you into an authentic Ancient Druid Tradition is probably (whether they realize it or not) in error.

I won't deny that it's possible that some "family tradition Druids" may have survived in the wilds of Wales or the crags of Cornwall, and some of these people may have joined a Masonic Druid order or two in the last couple of centuries. But whatever authentic beliefs or practices they might have brought to these orders is by now inextricably mixed with the Rosicrucianism, Theosophy, Freemasonry, Spiritualism and "Celtic Christianity" of these groups. At this stage it would be damned near impossible to disentangle the authentic Paleopagan survivals from the Judeo-Christian accretions.

The Role of the Clergy

The part to be played by a Druid priest/ess in these initiations depends entirely upon which approach or combination of approaches we eventually decide to take. There's also the practical question of whether there happens to be an available Druid clergyperson around at the time someone wants to be initiated. But assuming that there is a priestess or priest in the area when the time is right, exactly what should she or he be doing during the ceremony?

In a recognition ceremony, for example, the initiation is essentially being done by the entire group. In this situation, the clergyperson is "simply" supervising the energy flow as he or she would do in any other group ritual they were leading (the importance of having competent leadership for group ceremonies is a whole 'nother kettle of fish -- one for a future essay).

An ordeal or testing type initiation, however, requires that a judgement be passed as to whether the candidate has successfully achieved the level of growth sought. This judgement may be passed by either (a) the candidate, and/or (b) the initiator, and/or (c) impartial witnesses.

Having the initiatee decide for her or himself whether or not they have successfully accomplished the initiation's goals, is an option that is open to a great deal of abuse, especially with younger or more inexperienced candidates. The second option requires the initiator to be able to suspend her or his own personal biases (pro or con) towards each initiatee, and can often ensnare all parties concerned in sexual, economic, magical and/or political quagmires.

The third option, using witnesses, is often best, which is why initiatees are frequently expected to be able to "publically" perform certain tasks in order to prove that they have passed their tests. These proofs may be positive and/or negative ones. For example, the candidate may be required to show that she/he is alive, sane, received a key symbol in a vision, has created a good song based on themes presented by the initiator, and so forth. Or, conversely, he or she may be expected to have not screamed all night long, or broken concentration, or orgasmed, or failed to orgasm, or fainted, or forgotten important phrases, etc.

It is absolutely critical to this option that all the participants in the ritual are willing to accept the results, regardless of whether they indicate success or failure. This is very difficult to handle when working with friends, which is why group agreement on standards and on what constitutes "a passing grade" should be arrived at long before any ceremony even begins. If that agreement is sufficiently firm, all parties involved will feel much better the next day. Especially since, if you know you are going to have to pass certain tests in front of witnesses, you are far more likely to put off your initiation until you are genuinely ready -- thus avoiding the problem of "quickie initiations."

As for the transmission of an intact tradition, this is something that will take us many years to accumulate. However, the use of Celtic languages and proper invocatory techniques will certainly help us (both as initiators and as initiatees) to make the desired spiritual and magical connections with our predecessors. I'll have more on this in the future.

Some Further Questions

It has been pointed out that this analysis of initiation is viewing the experience primarily from the point of view of the individual initiate. It might be useful to consider initiation from the point of view of the initiator, the group members, spectators, etc. What are their attitudes, expectations, experiences? What sort of spiritual or magical transformation takes place in these other people, or in the group as a whole? What's the best way to counsel someone who has just failed an initiation? All of these are good subjects for further discussion.


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"Some Notes on Initiation." submitted by IsaacBonewits on 15 May, 2019. Last modified on 19 February, 2022.
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