Initiation is one of the most ancient of rites, initiation marks the psychological crossing of a threshold into new territories, knowledge and abilities. The central themes of initiation are suffering, death and rebirth. The initiate undergoes an ordeal, symbolically dies and is symbolically reborn as a new person, possessing new wisdom.
In contemporary Witchcraft and Paganism, initiation marks entry into a closed and traditionally secret society; opens the door to the learning of Ritual secrets, Magic and the development and use of psychic powers; marks a spiritual transformation, in which the initiate begins a journey into Self and toward the Divine Force; and marks the beginning of a new religious faith. While traditional initiation rites exist, Witches and Pagans feel the spiritual threshold may be crossed in many alternate ways. Initiation may be experienced in a group or alone. It may be formal or informal. It may be performed with an old ritual or a new one; it may come as a spontaneous spiritual awakening, in meditation or in dreams. It may occur at a festival.
Historical Beliefs about Witch Initiations
Historically, a witch’s initiation was believed to be dark and diabolic, marked by obscene rituals. During the witch-hunts, stories of offensive initiation rituals were widely believed. many of them came from confessions made by accused witches who were tortured by inquisitors. The stories varied, but there were common threads to all of them. Some witches were initiated at birth or puberty, claiming their mothers had taken them to Sabbats, presented them to the Devil and pledged them to his service. Adult candidates were scouted and recruited by the local officers of covens (see Coven). After consenting of their own free will to join, they were formally presented to the coven and initiated. much of the rite was a parody of Christian rites, which fit the prevailing beliefs of the time.
The ceremony, at which the Devil himself was present, took place in a remote location at night. The initiates sometimes brought a copy of the Gospels, which they gave to the Devil. They renounced the Christian faith and baptism by reciting, “I renounce and deny God, the blessed Virgin, the Saints, baptism, father, mother, relations, heaven, earth and all that is the world,” according to Pierre de Lancre, 17th-century French witch-hunter. The initiates then pledged a vow of fealty. Scottish witches said they placed one hand upon their crown and the other upon the sole of one foot, dedicating all between the two hands to the service of the Devil. Scandinavian witches reportedly put metal clock shavings and stones in little bags and tossed them in the water, saying “As these shavings of the clock do never return to the clock from which they are taken, so may my soul never return to heaven.”
The Devil baptized the initiates, gave them new, secret names, to be used only in the coven, and marked them permanently either by scratching them with his claw or biting them (see Devil's Mark). The new witches were required to kiss the Devil’s anus (see Kiss of Shame), a parody of the kissing of the pope’s foot. Sometimes they were made to trample and spit upon the cross. The Devil cut them or pricked their fingers and had them sign pacts (see Devil's Pact.) Finally, he stripped them of their clothing and assigned them one or more familiars. The coven officer or the Devil recorded their name in a “black book,” a membership and attendance record for all coven meetings. Sometimes black fowl or animals were sacrificed to the Devil. After the ceremony, all the witches participated in wild dancing, copulating with the Devil or his Demons and feasting upon vile things such as the flesh of roasted, unbaptized babies.
The fantastical, horrible elements of these tales may be ascribed to torture or, in some cases, delusions. Some accounts may have been the result of hallucinatory drug experiences (see ointments). Witch-hunting manuals such as the Malleus Maleficarum (1486) provided ample material for leading questions to be posed by inquisitors. However, some family traditions of folk magic and paganism probably existed and may have featured initiatory rites, though nothing resembling the witch-hunter’s lurid ideas.
Initiations in Contemporary Witchcraft and Paganism
Contemporary Witchcraft is a mystery religion, providing a context for the initiate to “know Thyself.” Initiatory rites bear no resemblance to the descriptions offered by those early witch-hunters and Demonologists. rites vary according to tradition but generally keep to the universal theme of suffering-death-rebirth in a new spiritual awakening. The following are not part of initiation into the Craft or Paganism:
1. There is no renunciation of the Christian faith or any faith.
2. There is no homage to the Devil, including kisses, oaths or pacts. Satan is not recognized by Witches or Pagans.
3. There is no blood sacrifice.
Traditionally, a Witch is not considered a true member of the Craft without formal initiation into a coven, after an apprenticeship period of a year and a day. Women must be initiated by a high priest, men by a high priestess. Among some hereditary Witches, mothers may initiate daughters and fathers, sons as an “adoption into the clan.”
In the Gardnerian and Alexandrian traditions, the largest traditions in modern Witchcraft, the initiation is a ceremony conducted within a Magic circle. Both traditions have a system of three degrees of advancement, the entry to each level of which is marked by initiation. There are some differences between the two traditions, but the major aspects are similar. Advancement through the degrees is, like masonry, advancement through the mysteries of Western occultism; progressively, more secret teachings are revealed.
In a first-degree initiation, the candidate is blindfolded and bound with cords and challenged outside the magic circle as to the courage to continue. The initiate responds that he or she is ready with “perfect love and perfect trust” to suffer to be purified and learn. Once inside the circle, the candidate maybe ritually scourged (whipped lightly with cords); measured with a cord, which is tied in knots to mark the measures; and administered an oath. In the presence of the Goddess(es), God(s), Guardians, mighty Dead and Sisters and Brothers of the Craft, the initiate vows to guard and protect the Craft, the Secrets of the Craft, and the brothers and sisters of the Craft, and, in some traditions, to render aid to said brothers and sisters.
The candidate is ritually anointed and kissed; proclaimed a Witch; and presented with a set of magical tools (see wItches’ tools). The initiate adopts a Craft name. Secret names of the Goddess and God are revealed.
In the Alexandrian tradition, the measure is given back to the Witch. In the Gardnerian tradition, it is customary for the initiator to keep the measure. According to Gerald B. Gardner, the English Witch for whom the Gardnerian tradition is named, the measure serves as a sort of insurance policy that the oath will be kept.
In the second-degree initiation, the Witch is blindfolded and bound, and renews the oath that it is necessary to suffer to learn and be purified. A ritual scourging may follow. The Witch assumes a new Craft name and is willed the magical power of the initiator. The third-degree initiation, the consummation of the mysteries, involves the Great Rite, a sexual ritual that may be done in actuality or symbolically, with magical tools. All initiations end with a celebration of food and drink (see Cakes and Wine).
Not all Witches follow these same procedures. many Witches practice as solitaries and do not feel they have to join covens in order to be Witches. They initiate themselves in self-designed rituals. rites may include ritual baths (a form of baptism), anointing and pledges to serve the Goddess and use the powers of Witchcraft for the good of others. Other Witches, as well as many Pagans, have a vigil that involves fasting and an all-night experience outdoors, during which the initiate comes into direct contact with the gods, discovers his or her own power and connects with tutelary, totemic or guardian spirits. Still other Witches and Pagans undertake a shamanic initiation, an ecstatic journey to other realms of consciousness (see Shamanism). See Laurie Cabot; Patricia C. Crowther; Paddy Slade.
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- Farrar, Janet, and Stewart Farrar. A Witches Bible Compleat. New York: magickal Childe, 1984.
- Harvey, Graham. Contemporary Paganism: Listening People, Speaking Earth. New York: New York University Press, 1997.
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- Valiente, Doreen. An ABC of Witchcraft Past and Present. 1973. reprint, Custer, Wash.: Phoenix Publishing, 1986.