An online discussion on a popular Wiccan message board the other day inspired me to sit down and contemplate further the idea of Initiation and what it means. This is a subject that I believe many folks who are initiates in covens and other esoteric initiatory orders most likely contemplate from time to time and sometimes questions from seekers teach us back by forcing us to contemplate these subjects. This contemplation helps us to understand further what initiation truly means on a personal level as a Wiccan or an Occultist of many forms in the constantly evolving and progressive search to “Know Thyself.”
What is initiation and why is important?
A very good definition of what an Initiation could be described as comes from W.E. Butler’s fantastic book titled, “Magic: Its Ritual, Power and Purpose,” published in 1952:
“The word “initiation” is derived from a root signifying “a first step or beginning,” and this, of course, is just what initiation is. It is a first step in a new life…….”
-W.E. Butler, “Magic: Its Ritual, Power and Purpose”
I will return to discuss a few other brief passages in Butler’s excellent book further in this blog post.
Modern, clan and tribal society alike all have their version of setting forth a “first step” on to a new path. It is almost like we as humans have a desire within us, when setting out on a new path of whatever it may be, to do a symbolic act or say particular symbolic words (or both) to say that, “I am free of my old life. I embrace and accept this next step.”
This particular step may also involve other people that you may or may not have been acquainted with previously who have already taken this similar step and they are now present to introduce you into this new found life and show you the ropes.
This introduction into a new path within a group setting might even include gestures such as laying on of hands, instruction of what certain shared traditions may be, demonstrations of your new found ability and power and shared mystical experiences on an intimate level. This introduction is different for each group, path, step or level that you find yourself taking.
Returning back to Butler’s work in his book “Magic,” he says,
“It is obvious that all initiations will not have the same power – that some will affect the candidate at entirely different levels to others – but, and this is a point to be stressed, even the most innocuous and naive of initiatory ceremonies may, if it is built upon true foundations and worked by men of knowledge, be the means whereby radical and far-reaching changes of consciousness in the postulant may be brought about.”
-W.E. Butler, “Magic: Its Ritual, Power and Purpose”
In terms of our own path as witches, what does initiation mean to us?
On its most exoteric definition, in our particular coven, when you are initiated as a 1* you are now a witch and a brother or sister of the Wicca. Then if you choose to take on a more active leadership role of the High Priesthood, a 2* initiation occurs. A further degree may be taken at a later time should transcendence with another of the High Priesthood be sought.
There is also much esoteric meaning behind the degrees, but that is too complex to go into here on a blog and the actual activity is an experiential thing that can only be arrived at through firsthand experience.
Other covens, groups, orders and traditions (and even individual witches) may have their own inner and outer definitions that describe the experience from their own coven’s point of view which may be similar in nature and experience with other covens and traditions of like mind, or may explore totally different kinds of mysteries of the Ancient Wisdom Religion as a multitude of traditions and varieties exist today.
Once again returning to W.E. Butler’s writings, the following brief quote is on a very similar wavelength of thought for Probationers/Seekers in our own Wolfa Coven:
“It will be seen therefore, that there are two essential components of a true initiatory rite. First the severance from the old life dramatized in certain symbolic forms, and secondly the transmission of power to the neophyte. The former is built upon the idea of departure from blind wanderings in the chaotic and darkened conditions of ignorance into the realms of light and order.”
-W.E. Butler, “Magic: Its Ritual, Power and Purpose.”
A discussion came up on an online form recently about the possibility of accepting a valid initiation conducted solely on the astral plane and if it is possible. I think before we can first explore if this could be possible, I should first give my own individual interpretation on what the Astral Plane is: (other witches may define the Astral Plane differently depending on their own experiences)
The astral plane permeates within and without this world: the world of experience and learning. Some Qabalistic teachings tell us that Malkuth (the world of form) is the physical plane. Yesod (the Moon) is a representation of the astral plane.
The astral plane (or the astral light) is the place of dreams. It is the realm where many spiritual intelligences such as the elemental, which is the nervous system of the astral plane, exist. Divine fire is filtered by the angels that rule over the elemental beings behind the four elements of nature (nature spirits) and they dance and play to stir the “astral light” and nurture its growth.
Thought-forms of man that leave the mental body and the astral body through emotion, thought and individual or group expression can be combined with base elementals to transmit messages to other people, places and things. These thought-forms that have left the emotional body of man go off to reach their intended target(s) and attempt to enter the astral and mental bodies of man if they are in sympathy with the particular thought or they may disintegrate if there is no way in, or even flow back to its source to roost.
Some Theosophists also say that the consciousness of the recently departed also reside within the astral light until the two halves of the soul separate and the higher self then advances to the next plane on its process of reincarnation and the discarded astral shell or lower self begins its process of disintegration and recycling.
The Astral Plane is also the realm that people with clairvoyant abilities may be able to perceive with the mind and other senses and communicate with beings that reside in the astral light or pick up on subtle vibrations such as spirit communications.
Initiation, or “new beginnings” of some sort, do not occur on the astral realm. The astral realm is filled with thought-forms (intentional and not) and spiritual intelligences of various sorts, and even though it is around and within all things here on this plane, no extra knowledge beside that which is sent here or there can be gained. The world of experience and learning is the earthly plane. Sometimes we use the term “As Above, So Below” as a possible way when describing this process. The thought-forms that can combine with the nervous system of the astral plane are conceived of on another realm – such as the physical realm, and messages may travel through this realm, but the first process of learning and advancement of our spiritual consciousness occurs here on the physical-earthly realm. It is the reason for reincarnation in the school of learning which we call “physical, earthly life.”
Initiatory steps that occur on the physical plane, such as initiation into your chosen coven, does not guarantee instant “adept-hood,” nor does it alone mean you will necessarily elevate your consciousness. There will typically be no major rounds of applause, nor typically thunderous claps of lightning (unless you arrange this by manipulation of the weather) to mark the occasion itself. What does tend to happen at each new step of an initiation into witchcraft is that certain “powers” may begin to build or connect within the individual as part of the ceremony. (or re-awakened abilities) It may be described as putting batteries, which I might describe as the power behind a coven’s particular initiatory rite, into a flashlight – which might be described as the seeker. What this means is that we must choose to “turn the switch on” through choosing to do the work that follows the initiation proper after we are taught our first set of new knowledge.
So the initiation would be carried out in the world of form, the place that we learn and advance as beings of intellectual thought and freewill, and our work within the tradition on the higher planes would make spiritual adept-ship *possible* but not guaranteed, which we might perform within a place that is not a place and at a time that is not a time – between the worlds. Initiation itself promises no grand-high status and supernatural powers as it is the seeker that must attempt this work for it to become a reality for them.
How do you know that seeking initiation into a particular coven or group is the right thing to do?
That decision must be yours and yours alone. Some might recommend finding an existing group of people that you can get on with. The reason for this is because when you find a group that may be described as your spiritual “kin” or companions, you will tend to have a similar focus, similar mindset and pursue similar aims and truths – both in the mundane, everyday aims and also in the higher spiritual aims too. If you find yourself a social conservative and you decide to join a coven that consists of progressive folks of a liberal mindset, you will find it more difficult to sync-up and build a proper “group mind” and the magic you perform as a group will suffer the consequences of that decision because it is difficult for you to be of one mind when raising and send the magical and mystical “Cone of Power” out to accomplish the aim and desire of concentrated group thought. In that case, you may be able to bolster each other in your chosen path, but not effectively sync your minds to one concise and direct personal goal.
Group-minds themselves can have a very long and well-established life or they can last for a very short time. Each established coven has its own established group mind that is unique to that particular coven and may be slightly different than that of other covens even within the same tradition of witchcraft.
With a tradition, there will be many concepts and shared ritual practices that lay a base foundation of the group mind – certain actions, gestures, ritual passes and words will evoke certain emotions, imagery and feelings that will be shared among covens and traditions of like minds, although, each coven will have its own flavor that makes it unique. This is shaped by the likes, dislikes, practices and such of each individual coven, although, important workings such as initiations may have a similar feel if multiple covens and traditions share similar ritual mysteries: such as those that are of the Wicca/Wica.
Many groups have different ways to identify membership within a coven or tradition after initiation. Some groups might have specific insignia, jewelry or marks worn upon the body to identify membership and degrees and remind them of their connection back to their coven or tradition. Some groups may also provide written documentation such as certificates that have signatory markings that show provable membership following a certain line of initiatory decent, and other groups may rely on esoteric markers that can be seen by the psychic-eye through use of magical clairvoyance.
One marking in our coven that is taught is that a witch will know another witch by their eyes. This isn’t necessarily a physical color or shape of their eyes, but a clairvoyant perception of being drawn to their eyes – which goes back to various saying and jingles that say a witch will always be able to feel, see and perceive another witch and is a possible true test of witchdom. An old saying that used to be quite common among witches was:
“Witches and warlocks, without any bother – like gypsies on meeting will know one another.”
I’m not sure who first said the above little jingle to properly give credit to this statement as it seems a common and widespread one. Though we typically do not use the word “warlock” to describe male witches, but I think you catch the gist of its meaning. As the Biblical quote says, “By their works, ye shall know them.”
It is the hope that through an initiation ceremony itself, regardless if we are talking various initiation rites of witchcraft, or even when it comes to Baptismal and confirmation rites of Christianity, that the neophyte will be linked into the group mind of the particular organization/church/temple/coven. Given the proper amount of time and practice within said organization that what has been first planted will hopefully sprout into manifestation in the initiate; through the process of becoming, will awaken into the knowledge of said power they have been tapped into.
In the practice of Wicca, a proven line of succession is usually traced back to one of the early well-known witches involved in individual coven/tradition lines. For us, this is typically traced back to one of the early initiated witches of the New Forest of England. Initiates are then able to trace their lineage of succession back to one of these folks.
Witchcraft in its broader sense also has various other lines of succession that may stem from different places than the New Forest and can be found all over the world. Even today in America, new traditions of witchcraft have been established that mark initiatory decent back to other founders of lines that may not be of the Wicca, but of another form of witchcraft practice and shared traditions.
There seems to be various markers to indicate what may constitute initiations into various lines of witchcraft. The first step seems to be a preparatory step, meaning that the postulant must do some form of preparation before the Rite of Initiation is performed. The next step may take the form of one or more Ordeals that the potential initiate may need to complete to prove they have sufficient knowledge, trust for the folks they are working with, and that love is present. A vow of some kind may be marked as the third step in the process, which leads to the fourth step: the initiator(s) declaring the ordeals have been passed and the vows made by the initiate are accepted. Lastly, new knowledge is typically given to the initiate to begin their first steps on to the path.
As we finish this particular blog post, we hope that we have given some insight and potential exoteric knowledge to help clear up misconceptions that seekers may have about the initiation process. I know I am grateful to read posts made by seekers and initiates alike that constantly make me stop, contemplate and think various topics more in depth in the search for meaning and truth in particular rites and shared traditions. Please note that this is by no means a complete description and it may be vastly different depending on the coven or organization. Your own mentor may be able to give you a much clearer run-down of the exoteric meaning of initiation into a chosen tradition or coven before the ritual occurs.
Blessed Be to all who seek in the Ancient Wisdom Traditions!