From the late 1950’s until around 1980, what is today labeled simply as modern Paganism was making its way through Britain and North America, slowly but inexorably growing and developing. During that time, those who were initiated to our beliefs were cautiously screened for certain qualities and the decision to allow them access to knowledge about us was made only after due consideration. In other words, newcomers were vetted before they were initiated.
The usual procedure went something like the following: Someone who was already an initiate took notice of your interest in something that they considered a possible indicator of how you might favorably react to their way of thinking. After some preliminary cautious probing of your beliefs and patterns of behavior, if the person thought you could be approached a little more directly, they would take their findings and information to the person in charge of their group (usually the High Priestess of their own coven) and ask how to proceed. At that time, the rule of the High Priestess was nearly absolute and the etiquette involved in these matters was fairly clear. The coven model was almost exactly like the ‘cell’ system of the WWII French underground; everything was kept separate and only the heads of the cells knew anything about the other cells. You only became part of a cell after a careful and thorough investigation and some surreptitious testing.
The reasoning behind the use of this system was complicated. It could be argued that it was a necessity because of the laws against witchcraft that existed in some places even until the ‘90’s, but that would be too superficial of an explanation. The fact is that those laws were largely unenforced and often forgotten. It wasn’t the legal atmosphere that required such clandestine measures. By far, the cultural/social atmosphere was a great deal more influential in such matters. At that time, to utter the word ‘witch’ was virtually guaranteed to raise the hackles of nearly every man, woman, and child within hearing distance. Anything that smacked of being odd or counter to what the general population considered ‘normal’ was met with immediate distrust and automatic condemnation.
In the ‘50’s, the world was beginning to recover from the ravages of WWII and the Korean War. Television was a relatively new and fascinating technology and method of communication. Its impact on the public’s psyche was (and arguably still is) huge, greater than the movies, telephone, and radio combined. ‘Normal’ was shown on The Tube from 6:30 to 10:00 and every person, every family, nearly all of society gauged all behavior against the standard set by the makers of this form of ‘entertainment’. What was shown on the TV news was important; what wasn’t shown was unimportant. What was portrayed as the modern family on TV was the way every family should be. And if you didn’t look and act like that, you didn’t measure up; you had failed. The pressure to maintain the image set by TV was enormous. And nearly everyone ‘failed’ in some way.
The Bohemian movement that had risen in Europe during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century had made its way across the Atlantic, eventually becoming the Beat Generation of the ‘40’s and then transforming into the Hippie culture of the ‘60’s in America. One of the hallmarks of this phenomenon was an in-your-face rejection of the standards set by the TV programs. If it was considered ‘normal’ by most of society, it was almost automatically opposed by members of The Hip Generation. Not surprisingly, so-called ‘organized religion’ suffered the same kind of rejection. Many people who weren’t quite brave enough to drop completely out of society in such a dedicated way still hovered around the edges of the counter-cultural Hippie movement and selectively took comfort in the no-rules-applied social and material lifestyle. The spiritual atmosphere was ripe for stunning changes and Paganism was well suited for growth in that environment.
By the mid 70’s, information about various forms of Paganism was becoming more available to the general population. More and more books and magazines were showing up with real information about ‘witchcraft’, magic(k), and several other varieties of what we now see as the rainbow of spiritualities covered by the term ‘Pagan’. The coven system, portrayed by medieval propaganda and encouraged by Gerald Gardner and others influential in the formation of modern witchcraft in the ‘50’s, was well tailored to provide insulation from the pressures of social outrage. At that time, the word, ‘Wicca’ was almost never used; ‘witchcraft’ had a much more thrilling and even naughty allure. And it appealed to the freewheeling, freethinking members of the counter culture who saw mainstream religion as part of the problem of a society they had rejected. The increasing amount of information available to anyone created an evolutionary change in the coven system and the Pagan movement as a whole.
The most obvious change was a breakdown of the stringent code of secrecy that surrounded the covens and their members. Whereas it once was seen as dangerous to proclaim one’s self as a ‘witch,’ more and more people were doing just that. At first, only the people who either did not care about or perhaps even enjoyed the scandal elicited by the publicity of their behavior became visible. The media had a field day over them. Very few people saw (or wanted to believe) the more sophisticated public witches (such as the famous British witch, Sybil Leek) as representative of our beliefs. Instead, they saw the outlandishly gowned, silver ringed, garish, and rude behaving ex-Hippie who now justified his or her juvenile behavior by claiming to belong to a millennia-old belief system that could make anyone into toads. Most of the public pointed and laughed while serious Pagans groaned and shook their heads. Moreover, some elements in the public sector, most notably intolerant and militant representatives of some mainstream religions, saw a golden opportunity to capitalize on these displays and make anyone found ‘guilty’ of such peculiar beliefs a target for their condemnation. The immediate effect of the attacks launched from the pulpits of these fire-breathers was for the covens to close ranks. Paranoia and fear spread throughout the movement and was fueled by a few very public persecutions of some who had been ‘caught’ practicing their craft. Property damage and physical harm were tolerated and sometimes even encouraged by local officials and even some national politicians. Jobs were lost, children taken away, and rights violated with no more respect for law and order than that given by a lynch mob.
But the covens didn’t just hunker down and try to weather the storm. They began to band together, thinking that strength was to be found in numbers. Small groups became larger groups with the hope that their power would be increased. This had profound effects on the entire future of Paganism. One of the first was the further breakdown of secrecy. Not only did individual members of a coven know of and were intimately associated with members of other covens, but the larger the group became, the greater the number of tongues that spoke without due caution. Combined with the feeling by many that it was time for the world to know the ‘truth’ about our spirituality and a willingness for publishers to buy the writings of these people, the public was exposed to even more information about us. Luckily, some of it was even fairly accurate. As the groups grew, rivalries became more intense. So-called ‘witch wars’ began to explode with the result that we were fighting each other more than we were making the world safer for our kind. Thinking that the larger the group the more influence it would have, it followed that each group needed to grow in numbers faster than its neighbors. The standards that once excluded some from becoming initiated by a coven began to matter less and less.
Anyone who wished could write in and get a card saying they were a first degree Witch. And a growing number of people didn’t even bother with such formalities as getting a card; they would simply declare themselves to be this or that flavor of Pagan and claim to be self-initiated. Because of the initial paranoid reaction of the covens, the concept of self-initiation began to gain favor. Some less scrupulous persons would make claims about having such great knowledge of magic and spirituality it bordered on (and even crossed over the line of) the ludicrous. And even a few who were actual initiates but poorly trained and unqualified to teach set themselves up as gurus of ‘esoteric mysteries’ (often with an outrageous price tag) and ‘masters’ of occult knowledge. Most, if not all of the traditions and standards involving initiations changed from what they meant in the latter half of the twentieth century and were considered by some to be of little value.
The system of three degrees that was maintained by most of the covens was being abandoned by many and there were some who argued that they never were anything more than meaningless ceremonies and fancy labels. In their place came various reputable (for the most part) training schools and facilities that provided well-organized lessons presented by educated and skilled teachers. The training offered to today’s Pagan is in many ways superior to what was available only a few years ago. But initiations are still important and degrees still have meaning.
Many people who now consider themselves Pagan have not been initiated. It used to be popular to say one was ‘self-initiated’ and then try to defend the claim and even the authority of the concept itself. Exactly what was meant by such claims was never well spelled out. Usually, if anything other than a way to authorize ones presence and participation, it meant that the person had made a self-dedication of some kind and marked that moment as the beginning of their search for spiritual understanding.
This was and is admirable and it could even be argued as necessary for anyone who joins a religion of any kind. But is it an initiation? And if not, what is an initiation and why is it important?
Initiations are important for some very sound emotional and psychological reasons. Initiations are quite literally a life-changing event. They should result in the initiate emerging from the ceremony as a changed person. The initiate should be able to look back to their former life and see it from a perspective that provides all of it with new meaning. And they should be able to look ahead with new understanding and meaning to every aspect of their life from that point on. To perform such a task by one’s self is possible but highly unlikely. If done consciously, it requires a dual perspective that borders on multiple personality. Most who have gone through a real self-initiation have done so accidentally; events came together that caused an epiphany. Even then, however, the event is poorly understood by the initiate and its meaning is not clearly seen until a considerable time has passed. The subject may not even know that they are different from their former self until they have it pointed out to them by others who have known them well before the event. Also, such epiphanies usually don’t have the lasting effect of a proper initiation conducted by others.
A rite of initiation is a carefully planned event that takes the initiate through something close to an epiphany and gives substance to the new perspectives that result from it. The initiate knows they have changed and has at least a partial knowledge of what that change is supposed to engender. To do this, the initiation ritual must accomplish three things: It must place the initiate in a condition of psychic excitement that concentrates that person’s mental and emotional resources into one area. Then it needs to separate the ego from that intense energy. This step puts the initiate in a mental state that allows them to see their former self in a non-judgmental way and gives them new information and perspective about that past life. Sometimes this is like a ‘psychic knockout’ and the initiators must realize that the initiate is extremely vulnerable while in this peculiar state of shock. Every measure should be taken to insure the initiate’s physical, emotional, and psychic safety while this is going on. That is why the authority to initiate was reserved to only those who had proven their sensitivity, superior knowledge, and unquestionable honor in the old three-degree coven system.
The third and last thing the initiation rite must do is to provide a meaning and focus to the new identity that will emerge in the initiate’s life thereafter. Because this will be only a ‘seed,’ it should be mysterious. That is, each initiate should be able to interpret it in a myriad of ways and will do so throughout their life. Though mysterious, that seed should have a general purpose. What that purpose may be is up to the initiators and their tradition. We might say that a person has been initiated to a particular tradition or spiritual path, but in truth, they will be initiated to this seed of purpose and meaning. The tradition or path is only there as fertilizer to help the seed grow.
The three-degree initiation system used by Gardner, et al was often seen as hierarchal. Many still refer to these degrees as ‘levels’ which unfortunately perpetuates the idea that they confer superiority of the person’s position within the tradition. This is a misrepresentation of the entire concept. All three degrees are the steps everyone keeps going through as they follow their spiritual path. To say that a person is ‘superior’ because they are at a particular position along a circular path is ridiculous. It is by far more important that they are on a pathway and in motion than to ascribe rank to where they are. All paths are circular and, ultimately, we all begin from a point beyond this world and we shall all end up there as well. To assume one person is superior to another simply because they are on a different point of that circle is not worth further comment.
The three degrees of initiation are three focal points. They represent the processes we go through as we try to understand our relationship to the world. The first initiation celebrates the act of discovery. This is characterized by wonder and excitement as well as a zeal for exploration of the object of discovery. In a way, discovery is an act of creation for us and we receive great satisfaction from diving head first into our investigations. We play (which is the highest form of discovery) with our new wonder and take great joy in all of it. This is the First Degree.
Sooner or later, however, some parts of our discovery prove to be less wonderful than others. We begin to see things that we don’t like or we think need improving. Our familiarity with our discovery has produced some dissatisfaction and we become critical. We might attempt to ‘fix’ it or we might cast about for something else, something more ‘perfect’ for us to play with. We may reject our discovery altogether and believe that we are changing pathways. During this phase, it is normal for the initiate to be highly critical, agitated, and to have feelings of being lost or adrift. This is the point at which the initiate is most creative but also the most headstrong. Second Degree is also where the initiate becomes more discerning and discovers new directions. It is a time in which they can discover an area of interest that fascinates and attracts them to the exclusion of all others. This is what is meant by The Great Work (a phrase undoubtedly borrowed from the Masonic orders) and it can simultaneously be both the most wonderful and the most terrifying of times. The initiate will usually need much comfort and moral support during this time. This is Second Degree.
Third Degree is not as easy to describe. It is where the person has become familiar enough with their discovery that it has become part of their definition of self. Their experience has allowed them to see it from many perspectives and their judgment and critical analysis has been transformed into wisdom and involvement. They understand that their discovery is not just black and white, good or bad, but actually a rainbow and matrix that is always in a state of flux and connected to everything else. As they grow more able to deal with their discovery, they make new ones and extend their involvement in the world around them. And thus the cycle travels full circle and begins again.
Initiations in the Craft focus on a person’s discovery, analysis, and understanding of their magical and spiritual path and that is as it should be. But these initiations should in no way be construed as a ranking system. They highlight the initiate’s position in their discovery of the Craft but are not a judgment of their worth or authority. Everyone operates on all three levels at all times.
True self-initiation, though possible, is rare. But even initiation through others is difficult to accomplish in the strictest sense of the word. To initiate is to begin, and it is very difficult to cause another to begin their journey unless they have already placed their feet upon a road that is a branch of our particular spirit path. Consequently, most initiations are ceremonies created to improve the initiate’s ability to understand their pathway. It is a procedure designed to help them make sense of the confusing and sometimes frightening journey ahead of them. And it is a celebration of their participation in that journey.
There is every reason to continue initiations but it is important that they are done with considerable care and be crafted to fit our traditions as well as the person being initiated. Self-initiation is unlikely to accomplish what a group can do to help the initiate understand the changes that have and will happen to them. Our growth as a faith group is accelerating and it has changed how we are able to relate to one another as well as the rest of our society. But we should not abandon one of the best methods we have to make our spirituality meaningful and beautiful for all who wish to be a part of it.
Oh Mighty Ones, I pray for understanding and compassion for the wonders of the world around me and all my relations. May my life be a celebration of the magic You have given the world and a worship of Your love. May all who seek, in whatever way they can, find You within their own hearts as I know You are in mine.
When first you feel magic’s thrall,
And everywhere you turn,
You hear its call,
You never suspect that you will fall,
Into that blissful trap:
To Be ALL!