Follow Kenny from the levees of New Orleans to the whirling chaos that is the Pagan festival circuit and beyond. Musings, rants, and just plain Pagan talk.
Initiation: Why? Why Not?
(Lauren DeVoe recently wrote a blog post about the purpose of secrecy and initiation in the Craft. Of course, she sleeps next to me, so when she gets talking about a subject, I end up having my own thoughts on it. So I decided to write a post about initiation...)
I am a Wiccan initiate. I am a bunch more things: a Magus or King Of The Woods (I've hived three or more covens), an Elder (I've taught the Craft for 21 years)...all of these are rites of passage denoting accomplishments in the Craft. But they all begin with initiation.
When I entered the Pagan community back in the late '70s (yes, I did ride my dinosaur to my first ritual, thanks), the pagan world of New York/Boston/Philly was, for the most part, dominated by covens, orders, groves and groups. There was really no such thing as a solitary; that didn't even become a term in the Pagan vernacular until the early 90's, just after Scott Cunningham's Guide For The Solitary Practitioner was released in '89. As a Pagan back then, you were identified by your tradition (Gardnerian and Alexandrian were the biggies, but ADF was catching up: or you were OTO or Golden Dawn), and by your coven or lodge, often naming your priestess or lodge master while identifying your standing.
You didn't just join a coven or a lodge either. There was no internet back then, so first you had to find one. That was easy in NYC; you just hung out in one of two bookstores, went to classes presented by covens and lodges, and hoped to get noticed. Then you'd be invited as a guest. If you were liked, and if you were respectful, you might be invited back. Knowing ritual etiquette was of the utmost importance. One etiquette slip and you were outta' there. Finally, if a group liked you enough, you might be invited to study toward an initiation. You worked your ass off for a good long time for that, but got one sooner or later if you did the work. Now you were a full member of the group, and ready to study their actual teachings (everything you learned up to this point was hors d'ouevres). And if you were Wiccan, most of that teaching was done by oral tradition, or through a closely guarded, mysterious Book Of Shadows.
I don't have to tell you that the Pagan landscape has changed drastically. Most Pagans now are solitaries. Most get their information about Paganism from books and the Internet. Books of shadows are available on web sites, and initiation rituals appear in print. Most Pagans choose not to follow a particular tradition, but to blend traditions that pique their interest. And my own experience is that many Pagans look at coven-based Wicca as a dinosaur (like my old ride), a tradition with little practical application in the modern Pagan world.
I know what you're thinking: “It's Kenny Klein. Here he goes, he's gonna' tell us that eclectics are full of it...” Well, I hate to be a disappointment (just ask my mother), but I'm going to talk about why initiation can be important, and why to many it can be unnecessary (“wait, what did he say?”).
First let's talk about what initiation is, and is not.
Pretty much all community based systems of magic, from the dawn of time, have initiatory traditions. In ancient hunter-gatherer cultures (like those still existent in the Amazon Rain Forest and the Arctic) communities have one, maybe two magical people who serve the needs of their community. These people (Shamans in Arctic cultures, other names in other cultures) must study for decades before passing a trial of initiation. Trials of initiation usually involve the extreme possibility of death. That which does not kill us makes us shamans. Once you pass the initiation, you are both valued and, often, reviled by the community. In every myth and folk tale about Witches, they are disgusting hermits whom no one wishes to see, except that they can make magic happen (usually in the form of curing an illness or granting a wish). Baba Yaga tales are a good example of this.
Now let's look at modern traditions. We've taken a lot of the death out of things. But magic is powerful, and as an initiate one works with very potent unseen forces. An initiation tests one for this. The fear of death should be present in a proper initiation.
A key feature to any initiation is the oaths of secrecy. Whether you're being initiated into a Wiccan coven or a Ceremonial Magical order, you vow not to tell anyone what you're up to, unless they ask to be initiated themselves. Then you bring them through the process you were brought through.
Secrecy is a huge issue in Paganism. Modern Paganism says there should be no secrets: everything should be revealed. Part of this comes from the influence of '70s Feminism in modern Paganism. Many of our defining Pagan authors were and are Feminist authors: Starhawk, Z Bhudapest, Barbara Walker. Feminism in the '70s was dealing with womens' experiences of rape, molestation and spousal abuse: abusers relied on secrecy to escape detection. So feminists looking at Wicca and CM assumed that if there was a code of secrecy, these were male-dominated orders that abused their members.
Why the secrecy? Several reasons, none having to do with abuse in a properly functioning coven (though I myself have seen the secrecy code used to abuse students and minors: I freely admit this is a danger). First, Wicca, while codified in England in the 1950s, comes to us from a lineage of traditional European Witchcraft, which could result in being burned at the stake, pressed under boulders, drowned, or various other extremely unpleasant outcomes if discovered. It was important to keep your coven quiet about what you were up to. And this may seem trivial in the U. S. today, but people right now STILL lose their children and their jobs because they are Pagan. I find it a little confusing that people who tell me they are closeted in their practice of Paganism are skeptical of coven secrecy. Is that a paradox? I think yes.
Here's the other reason for secrecy: there's a lot to learn in a coven or lodge environment, and some of it may only be learned by experience. You need to learn and experience the basics, then carefully move further and further into the deeper experiences. Let me say this, and remember that I started this post by saying I am an initiate, as well as a Magus and and Elder and all of that: what you read in the books is the tip of the iceberg. Really, I'm serious. There is so much more to a Wiccan or CM training than what's in all of the published books combined. But you have to start with the initial material: if you can handle that, then you are in a position to go deeper. But the innermost teachings, the ones you learn after you unlock the door---those are not for everyone. You need a background of knowledge and experience to understand them. You don't give a 5-year-old the keys to the car, right?
Who needs an initiation? One precept of the coven model is that when you are initiated, you will hive, form a new coven, teach others and initiate them, and so on. It's a pyramid scheme, like Tupperware. But without the cool re-sealing lids... If you just like to worship the Gods/Goddesses, or if you just like to wear a pentacle and drum, there is no reason at all why you should be initiated. None. Nada. Zip. Do your thing, and have fun. But, if you want to teach, to set yourself up as a name in the Pagan community (as many do), you should know what you're talking about. Sure, you can just read a chapter ahead of your students---high school teachers do it all the time. But I certainly would not study with someone who has no credentials. I feel that if you set yourself up as a teacher, as a leader of the Pagan community, you should have put in the work to be that: you should study, train, and have a lineage that qualifies you.
Now anyone can CLAIM to have a lineage. But these things can be checked. If you have a teacher who claims to be initiated by so-and-so, ask so-and-so. Most notable so-and-sos will take the time to answer questions about their initiates. And if they don't, do you really want to be part of this tradition? I also feel that if you want an initiation, and you're going to put in the very taxing work of earning one (which, as I've said, you don't have to do unless you want the validity or the deeper knowledge), find a tradition that's respected in the Pagan community at large. Gardnerian, Alexandrain, Blue Star (I had to include that), ADF, OTO, Golden Dawn, American Welsh, Wiccan Church of Canada; these traditions are mentioned in the books you buy at the book store; everyone knows them, everyone knows their standard of teaching, and everyone knows you can check on someone who claims to be trained in these traditions. So in my opinion, if you're seeking a valid initiation, you look here instead of looking at the Tradition Of The Orange Snail Shell which someone invented last week. Maybe it's a very beautiful snail shell, but let them gain some validity before you become a test subject.
What should you expect from a qualified teacher working you toward an initiation? First and foremost, Wiccan initiates take a vow not to charge money for their teaching. They can charge for supplies, room rental, materials...but not to teach. CM orders or lodges may often have membership dues, but once a member, the teachings are freely given.
A qualified initiate has a syllabus of materials you will need to learn and experience before initiation, and this syllabus, while perhaps altered slightly to fit a particular student's needs, should be fairly consistent for all members of the grove or coven. You should know what you are responsible to study, and what steps you must complete before your next elevation. If your teacher cannot provide you with a clear lesson plan, if they just throw things out at you, they are probably themselves not well-trained.
No one should EVER make you feel bad if you choose not to initiate. Initiation is a choice made by a person, their Gods and their initiating priest/priestess. If a person chooses not to seek initiation it's their own business. Statements like “I would tell you that but you're not an initiate” are never appropriate. My policy is that if a student asks a question they deserve an answer, even if that answer is “here's what I can tell you now: ask me more about this later on.”
Initiation is not the end goal, it's a beginning. I have had students who think that initiation is a badge of honor that one works toward, and accomplishes, like winning a trophy. No. Initiation is the key to a door, and believe me, you may not like the door once it's open. Think of the Fool card in the tarot. Really. Initiation: if you're not sure, don't! There's a reason those ancient cultures only have one shaman/witch doctor/mambo/boojoo: it's not a job for everyone. If you feel like ritual drumming, dancing, singing, going to a couple of festivals a year is enough of a bond between you and the Gods that you are fulfilled, that's fine. And don't let anyone tell you it's not. If you have a burning need to know more, to know the secrets, to take on the responsibility of truly serving a Goddess or God, then you might work toward initiation. But it's hard, it's difficult, and it's time consuming (and here again: if the person you rely on for initiation gives it easily, they are bad. Run away!). No one pays you for the work you end up doing, it's thankless, it's time consuming, people ridicule you for following the older paths, no one really cares much what you have to teach, it's very hard to find good students... have I convinced you yet not to seek initiation?
Can you be a member of a group or coven and never take initiation? Many groups allow this. There are many kinds of groups and covens: my own coven is a teaching coven. So we try to only take students interested in initiation and continued study. But there are many groups that have open circles, and most of the members are non-initiates. Will you learn a lot about their tradition? Not really. But you may learn as much as you feel you need to know, and have fun and community at the rituals. Again, that's all that many people need.
But if you feel you want to go deeper, or have a valid initiation to become a teacher or community leader, then you need to find the right tradition, teacher and coven or lodge. So here, my friend, are Kenny Klein's 5 rules of seeking initiation in a Wiccan or CM tradition:
1) Don't! Don't seek initiation because it's cool, or you feel like it might be nice, or someone you know tells you to. ONLY seek initiation of it is a burning need in you to seek a deep relationship with your Gods/Goddesses and with a coven or lodge.
2) If a teacher offers initiation too easily, or offers to initiate you after you've simply read certain books, or offers to initiate you for money, run!! Run like the wind!! You should have to WORK YOUR ASS OFF for a proper initiation, and if you are not willing to do that, do NOT be initiated.
3) When looking at a potential teacher, you should feel a connection, to the teacher(s) and to the material. Remember that this relationship is going to last a minimum of three or four years. Approach a teacher with respect, but also question. Look at the teacher's magical life---what credentials do they claim? How does the rest of their tradition feel about them? What can the tradition do for you? (In Blue Star, the tradition I follow and teach, once you are a student of any Blue Star coven you can communicate with the hundreds of students and teachers in Blue Star covens across the world. This means that if your teacher says something you don't understand, or want clarified, you can ask a hundred other Blue Star teachers for clarification).
4) Look at the teacher's life outside the Craft. Do you respect the person? Do they live the ethics of the Craft? Why do they teach? To be important, to manipulate, or because they love the Craft?
5) Does the material seem valid? I actually knew a guy who taught his students that Wicca comes from the planet Wicky. Is the teacher well trained in a verifiable tradition? (Like, one he or she did not “make up” last week. While that's fine for a solitary eclectic, a person who sets themselves up as a teacher should have something valid to teach. If they don't, RUN AWAY!!). Does the teacher know more than what is in the books available at the bookstore? Does the teacher seem to know how to teach? Do they respect you as a student?
I sought initiation. It is a choice I made that has defined me for thirty years, and I am glad I made it. But it's not a choice that has made my life any easier, or made me any money, or made me more liked or more popular. If you do not have a clear reason for seeking initiation (the best reason being “I really want it”), DON'T!! If you do decide to open that door, good luck! I hope you find what you're looking for in there. I know I did.
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