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The Three Experiences of Initiation

This post was written by Donald Michael Kraig
on September 16, 2011 | Comments (11)

Initiation is one of the most valuable experiences in any person’s life. Many religions have initiatory rituals such as Confirmation, Baptism, Bar Mitzvah, and so forth. Generally, initiations are one of two types: initiation into a tradition and initiation into a group. For example, a person might be Baptized into the Christian tradition, but not align themselves with any particular church group. A person could be initiated into a fraternity or sorority which makes them a member of a group, but not of any spiritual tradition.

Occult traditions are filled with initiations. Some of the more famous initiations into groups can be found in books such as Buckland’s Complete Book of Witchcraft or The Golden Dawn. These tend to be for initiation into both a tradition and a group. Self-Initiation into the Golden Dawn Tradition includes initiation rituals into the tradition but not into any specific group.

I remember when I was sharing an apartment with Scott Cunningham that he obtained an advertisement from a teacher of Wicca who promised that when you finished his course you would get an identification card that would allow you into any Wiccan coven or ritual. We laughed at that because no coven (and we actually contacted several in order to check) had heard of this teacher or would have honored his ID card.

Initiation into a group and tradition can be a life-changing experience. It gives you no powers, it only gives you the right to begin (the word “initiation” comes from the Latin word initium meaning “entrance” or “beginning”) studying with a group. There are actually three ways to experience initiation, and I would contend that a complete occult education within a group structure requires that you experience all three at least once. Here are the three:

Experience One: As a candidate being initiated

This is what most people think of as the initiation experience. Usually, it involves some sort of hazing ranging from as simple as being blindfolded and pushed or shoved, to the threat of lethal violence (as in some Masonic initiations) or some form of minor or strident violence such as flogging. Being able to withstand this shows that you will keep the secrets of the group and are worthy of membership into the group or next level within the group.

Next, you are usually given some sort of information. This is often symbolic, as during the circumambulations in Golden Dawn groups where you stop to have metaphoric secrets given to you, or re-enactments of myths such as the Decent of the Goddess Ishtar (Inana).

One of the things this does is grant you membership into an “in” group. If someone else is a member, you may have secret words or actions that identify him or her as one of “us” as compared to those who are not part of the group. This convention was used in the Harry Potter books where those not initiated through the grades at Hogwarts were “Muggles.”

For the individual being initiated, the goal, really, is to start a change leading to what the Golden Dawn called being “more than human.” This change doesn’t occur so much on the physical plane as it does on the astral plane, what can appropriately be called an “astral initiation.” As a result, some groups offer “astral initiations.” But there is a difference between having your own astral initiation and being given an astral initiation by a group. Traditionally, the true astral initiation occurs either during a physical initiation or is triggered by the physical initiation, occurring later, perhaps during meditation or trancework (or even while observing another initiation). Groups that offer astral initiations usually do so in order to spread their group as widely as possible (which makes it available to those who might otherwise not be able to have a physical initiation), or, regrettably, simply as a way of getting money for the group. Most of the people I’ve met who talk about their astral initiations, in my opinion, received nothing of value. Those who become quality magicians and occultists do so because of their own studies, often distant from what the group offers, rather than from the group itself.

Even assuming that groups offering astral initiations are presenting something of value, there is still a difference between doing something by yourself and being part of a group rite. The physical, emotional, and psychological experience of an in-person initiation is different from astral initiations.

Experience Two: As an observer of an initiation

Sitting as an observer of an initiation ritual is not only a unique experience, it is also vital to the success of the rite. Not only will you be able to see what is going on from a different angle, you’ll also be able to see what is happening outside the vision of the person being initiated. This brings new insights and appreciations for what is going on, experiences that cannot be had by the initiate. It also allows you to send your energy to enhance the ritual. Depending upon the quality of the initiating team and their ability to use the energy, the more initiated observers the better.

I suggest observing initiations from different parts of a circle or temple or lodge. The experience, for me, is always different. I also find that there is a different experience for the observers depending upon the experience, background, personality and energy of each person being initiated .

Experience Three: As part of the team performing the initiation

Finally, performing a rite as an officer of the team doing the initiation is also a unique magickal experience. To do your best as part of the team means you are taking on the power, energy, and persona of what you are representing as one of the team. If you are a guardian of the circle, guard! In a Golden Dawn initiation you might take on the powers and energies of (“assuming the God form” of) Osiris. In a Wiccan initiation you might take on the being of The God or The Goddess through the rites of Drawing Down the Sun or Drawing Down the Moon.

Just as you’ll get a different experience as an observer from different positions around the circle or temple, you’ll also get different experiences depending upon the role you play as part of the initiation team.  I suggest that people try to experience each of the positions in the initiation crew so you get the full impact of every aspect of the initiation.

Even during the same ritual, the three experiences are different…and valuable. In psychological terms, the experience is either associated (experienced through your own eyes) or dissociated (experienced observing the person being initiated). Both psychological experiences are powerful. Their value is more than just to the candidate for initiation. It is also of value to the initiation team, the observers, and the organization into which the candidate is being initiated.

What do you think?
Have you participated in initiations as initiate, initiator, or observer?
What is your experience of these different aspects of initiation?

Reader Comments

Written By Samuel
on September 16th, 2011 @ 1:32 pm

Initiation is one of the most written about topics and often is very misunderstood. You have given a great way to look at the Initiation process from varying stand points. These three processes of Candidate, Observer, Officer are very important, at in my opinion.

Really like how you have condensed these three areas into easy to grasp ideas.


Written By Merle Moss (Random)
on September 16th, 2011 @ 5:37 pm

Well, in addition to the social initiations you speak of, there is what my friends insist on calling the ‘shamanic’ initiation, and what I consider the ‘real’ initiation. This is not about joining a group or promising not to reveal secrets, this is a ritual that changes the recipient to become able to learn and do magick more effectively. The ritual parts exist to both simulate death and to stimulate the recipient’s adrenalyn-flow, because that’s really the only way to ‘kill’ the ‘old self’ in order to make way for the ‘new self’. For some, that comes from real fear,, for others, pain is a requirement. The various parts of a social initiation are memories of these practices, IMHO. Why would you write about the social initiations so much and not even bring this up?

Written By Yvonne Mckee
on September 16th, 2011 @ 11:44 pm

As a child , I have worked with Grandmother Moon . I make her rings flow towards me and connect her strings to my belly ,there too many to count . The Full Moon is the strongest .

Written By Blackbird "BB"
on September 17th, 2011 @ 7:48 pm

I would only add one, but I think its the most important.
Initation of the God(dess)
In the end any amount of esoteric training only gains real meaning when one has had a Gnostic experiance; it need not be a very great thing. My own first such experiance was a brief vision/memory of some Votive statues, but it told me clearly how my guide wished for me to hold myself in prayer.
But once you’ve had such an experiance you simply know the world is larger, stranger, richer than the materialist vision allows; as large, wierd, and beautifal as that can be in its own right; and that is IMHO ones untimate initiation.
Blessings, BB.

Written By Kevin Scarborough
on September 18th, 2011 @ 9:21 pm

I joined a particular Golden Dawn group years ago offering astral initiations, and found it to be nothing more than a waste of money. In recent times, however, after much discussion with members, I joined another Golden Dawn group through astral initiation. I can say this: astral initiation does work, if it is done properly and by the right group. I’m certain that actually being there, or even witnessing initiation in person is much more powerful and it probably has a more immediate effect.
I know that my recent astral initiations have been very effective. Within days of them changes began to occur. Changes that have had an effect on both my inner and outer worlds.
Perhaps, initiation has more to do with the readiness of the initiate. Perhaps, this is the key to astral initiation, and regular initiation, as well. That is to state that perhaps no initiation will be of any use if the candidate is not ready. I think this is why in my experience I have yet to meet a Freemason who is anything more than an average good ol’ boy. That is not to be an insult to Masons or the Craft, but in my experience the majority join because they have a buddy or family member, not because they want self-improvement. It turns out to be a social thing, and even the ancient magick of the Masons proves ineffective.
I guess it really has to do with the state of the initiate and their intentions. You get out of it what you put into it. This is probably why the mere observation of a ceremony can induce the initiation process in the observer.
But what of self-initiation? I’ve tried it myself and found it difficult. Astral initiation is similar to self-initiation in some ways because it requires much more focus and effort on the part of the initiate. Again, non of these, I’m sure, are as effective as being in-person.
I can attest to the effectiveness of astral initiation, but I, again, argue that the effectiveness of any initiation more likely has to do with the state of mind, intentions and readiness of the initiate.

Written By Donald Michael Kraig
on September 19th, 2011 @ 2:46 am

Blackbird and Merle, I would respectfully suggest that we’re not disagreeing, and that what you are narrowly identifying with specific terms I’m describing as a true astral initiation.

Likewise, Kevin, I agree with you, too. That’s why I wrote, “Most of the people I’ve met who talk about their astral initiations…” rather than “all people” or “all astral initiations made by groups.”

Written By Scot
on September 20th, 2011 @ 3:27 pm

I must say that the experience has generally been enlightening from all perspectives. I have had the great fortune of being a part of initiatory experiences in many parts of my life starting with a long list of funerals beginning with my great grandparents. From the angle of transformative experiences and being present in passages. Indigenous, Reiki, and even distance. It’s worth investigating to increase my understanding.

In the last seven years I’ve been part of holding space for spirit(s) to initiate direct transmission initiations and this has been life-changing; the differences in spirits that come through, upper world beings, ancestor spirits, spirit guides, and beings of pure energy, depending on the person who we are holding space for. A few weeks ago a friend and student sat with me and we held space and passed the transmission in tandem and shifts.

What appeared to be gesture and intention, with regards to initiation, became almost psychedelic and the fun part is the movement of energy and occasionally the visuals are synchronized!

Written By Blackbird "BB"
on September 20th, 2011 @ 5:14 pm

If I may,
the point of my post was not to disagree with you at all, I believe each step of initation you described is real and valuable; my only intent was to point to that initiation into Gnostic experiance, that IMHO at least, other initations are meant to lead up to at least in any kind of mystery tradition.
Thanks again for another thoughtful and thought provoking post. Blessings, BB.

Written By John Barbieri
on March 14th, 2015 @ 9:28 am

It would be wrong to limit the idea of an initiatory path to a process that one is always aware of. It may happen and reawaken the stunned initiate to the fact he is on a path he had no remembrance of over the course of many lifetimes. He was just sitting alone in a chair being still and a few minutes later he emerges transformed. He then scrambles to figure out what the hell happened. He had no idea something from beyond time and space could penetrate matter and remake him. A process that permanently makes firm the little effort he has made along a path he didn’t know he was on or even existed.


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