Varieties of Initiatory Experience

(Version 2.2)

Copyright © 1984, 2005 c.e., Isaac Bonewits

This essay was originally written for ADF’s journal, The Druids’ Progress,  in 1984 c.e. and was naturally focussed on that Neopagan Druid organization’s needs and evolving customs. Contrasts and comparisons were made primarily to Wiccan (Neopagan Witchcraft) patterns of belief and practice, because that was what most Neopagans might have been familiar with at the time (and this could still be the case). Nonetheless, the basic principles discussed have a much wider application than merely the Neopagan or even the wider Occult/Esoteric/New Age community.

Three 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 have created the following “typology of initiation” to make the distinctions and overlaps clear.


Type One: Initiation as a recognition of a status already gained

The ceremonies of Bar/Bas Mitzvah, Confirmation, graduation, or ordination, 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, that everyone recognizes that 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 Two: 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 that 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,” (the worldviews we develop from our tunnel visions) in his Prometheus Rising (Falcon Press, 1983), which should be in every Pagan and New Age library.

The emphasis in Type Two initiations on difficulty is both descriptive and prescriptive: 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 Three: Initiation as a method for transferring spiritual knowledge and power

Obviously, this is usually thought of as flowing from (or through) 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 Witchcraft 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 Two). 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 priest/ess to priest/ess as a Pagan version of the Christian “apostolic succession” (Type Three). 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 initiated/ordained after they had been in the religion for set lengths of time (Type One).

This motivations 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 that it was most important that the initiations be unfailable (Type One) experiences, and hoped to do their sorting out of unsuitable candidates between initiations as part of their training.

Exceptions were made, especially in the early years, for initiatees who were going to be taking the new religion elsewhere in the world (mostly the U.S. and Canada, Australia and Europe) and/or who couldn’t make multiple trips to the British Isles on a regular basis. For these individuals, Gardner followed the common Masonic pattern of giving them all three degree initiations in a weekend or week, trusting them to do their homework later.

As Gardner’s Mesopagan Witchcraft 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 60’s, 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 70’s threw these and many other questions high into the air, and they haven’t landed yet, though by and large Wiccan initiations are still darned hard to fail.

It would be interesting to see how other Neopagan traditions, such as Feraferia, the Church of All Worlds, the Church of the Eternal Source, etc., who did not receive much Wiccan influence until the 70’s and 80’s, first conceived of and performed their initiations.


Ancient and Modern Druidic Initiations

Obviously, we know very little about how the Paleopagan Druids initiated their members, but much can be guessed without too much risk of ancestral giggles. Most likely, the first initiation a Paleopagan Druid would have received would have been as a baby, and the subsequent ones would have been those common to all members of the Druid caste, for they would have been the Druidic caste variations of the standard rites-of-passage experienced by all members of their society (just as a child born into the Bramin caste in India goes through Bramanical variations of the samscaras  experienced by all Hindus).

Most of these would have been Type One initiations. Those who were raised (or recruited) to become Druidical specialists of some sort — Bards, Seers, Invokers, Sacrificers, Brehons, Healers, etc, — would probably also have received particular initiations designed around the needs of both the initiatees and the community. These would have been rooted in years of education and — like taking the SATs or GREs or the Bar Exams — would have involved Type One and Type Two experiences, leading to a Type Three investiture of spiritual blessings and knowledge from their ancestral predecessors.

The Mesopagan Druids, based on my study of initiation scripts from the turn of the century and my recent experience of being initiated as a “Bard, Ovate and Druid” (=3°) in the United Ancient Order of Druids, used rituals highly similar to those of the Masonic movements. These included elements from Type One (recognizing the initiatee as a worthy fellow), Type Two (certain mild ordeals I am not at liberty to discuss), and Type Three (psychic connection to over 200 years of accumulated “magical current” from previous Mesopagan Druids). Like all initiations into fraternal lodges, the rites are formal and are usually read from books, both because they are so seldomly performed that no one bothers to memorize them, and to ensure that exactly the same words and actions are used as have been used before. I can state firmly that I felt that current of magical and spiritual power connect to me, even though the leaders of the rites had little or no formal magical training.

The Reformed Druids of North America, overlapping the Mesopagan and Neopagan Druids historically, used less formal versions of Mesopagan-style initiations, also mixing all three types of initiation. Becoming a “First Order” Druid required little save having the courage to ask for the honor. The Second Order was given to members who had taken on some of the routine organizational and ritual work of the grove, and involved an “ordeal” of drinking an entire glass of the Waters of Life (Irish whiskey, usually cut with regular water). The Third Order (the priest/esshood) required good behavior as a Second Order and an all-night vigil in the woods. All three initiations included language passing on wisdom supposedly from the Ancient Druids, and the Third Order included secrets that could only be discussed with other Third Order Druids.

The first few initiations I performed as a Druid were the RDNA ones just described, with increasing amounts of Neopagan polytheology as time went by. When I started ADF, I assumed that most members would live too far away for me to initiate them personally, so the First Circle initiation was actually a self-dedication ritual, including the all-night vigil used by the RDNA for its clergy ordinations. Eventually, people at festivals I was attending wished to do their First Circle rites there and have me or some other senior member of ADF do a blessing at the beginning and end. Gradually group vigils and more complex rites for Second and Third Circle Druids were created and employed. Almost everyone vigiled for their 2nd and 3rd, and many fasted through the night. We were all blessed by being able, on several occasions, to do these rites at ADF’s annual festival, in the Sacred Grove created at Brushwood by our members.

The training program and initiation processes for ADF have continued to evolve beyond my tenure as Archdruid. You should visit the ADF Website for details about them.


Implications for Future Neopagan Initiatees

If you think of your initiations as recognition for your hard work (Type One), 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” (experienced Neopagan clergy you respect), and perform a private or public 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 Two) 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 that tradition who would be willing to grant you that contact, in whatever sorts of rituals are, well, traditional  for that group.

For those seeking historical authenticity as Druids, however, I should point out that there are no Neopagan Druid groups that actually go back any further than 35 years or so. The oldest of the currently existing Mesopagan Druid orders, on the other hand, seems to have a more-or-less “unbroken” line of initiations that go back two or three centuries. They might go back a bit further, as might some of the other Mesopagan 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” Druid traditions are concerned, none of the Mesopagan Druid organizations are engaging in practices or promoting beliefs that we can prove actually resemble those of the original Paleopagan Druids very much; while the Neopagan Druid groups (at least the honest ones) admit that they have reconstructed modern versions of Paleopagan Druidism. So, just as with Wicca, the odds are that anyone who tells you they can initiate you into an Authentic Ancient Tradition™ is probably lying, was lied to by their teachers, and/or perhap isn’t very bright.

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 — after all, Druidism was a social caste with membership handed down in families — 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 nearly impossible to disentangle the authentic Paleopagan survivals from the Judeo-Christian accretions.

I now insist that anyone declaring him/herself to be a “family tradition Druid” recite some “traditional” invocations in Old Irish, Old Welsh, or Gaulish — in proper poetic form, of course — in front of a trained linguist. Or that they recite the geneology of a local family of note going back thirty generations. Or that they be able to describe, in detail, the common law subtleties of boundry disputes between claimants of equal vs. unequal rank. Or that they explain the different procedures for sacrificing appropriate types of offerings to specific deities, ancestors, and nature spirits. Funny how none of them ever do…


The Role of the Clergy in an Initiation

The part to be played by a priest/ess, Heirophant, Lodge Master, etc., in an initiation depends entirely upon which approach or combination of approaches an individual or group eventually decides to take. There’s also the practical question of whether there happens to be an available clergyperson or other appropriate ceremonial leader around at the time someone wants to be initiated. But assuming that there is such a person in the area when the time is right, exactly what should she or he be doing during the ceremony?

In a Type One 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).

A Type Two ordeal, 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 initiatee and/or (b) the initiator and/or (c) impartial witnesses.

Having the initiatee decide for her/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, 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 all-too-common problems associated with “quickie initiations.”

As for the Type Three transmission of an intact tradition, this is something that will take us Neopagans many years to accumulate. However, the use of traditional 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.


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 initiatee. 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? (I know I’ve certainly been transformed by several of the initiations I have performed for others.) What’s the best way to counsel someone who has just failed an initiation? All of these are good subjects for further discussion.

Copyright © 1984, 2005 c.e., Isaac Bonewits. This text file may be freely distributed on the Net, provided that no editing is done, the version number is retained, and everything in this notice box is included. If you would like to be on one or more of Isaac Bonewits’ emailing lists, click here to get subscription information.

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