I’ve read a number of great posts for Pagan Blog Project on this topic. Kylara at Kylara’s Musings provides her thoughts on initiation as a marker of accomplishment or progress and Lee, the Chaos Witch, discusses The 5 Steps of Initiation. But, I want to approach the topic from a bit of a different perspective.
Allow me to start off a bit contentiously: I do not believe in ‘self-initiation'; I think it is a contradiction in terms. There are, yes, two meanings of the verb word “initiate”. The first, relating to sundry matters, simply means “to cause to begin” and this is the definition used by many to justify the cacophonous pairing of the word with the prefix “self-“. The second, which is specific to group dynamics and of particular relevance to spiritual traditions, refers to a process by which one is brought into a group by another. With respect to spiritual traditions, I exclusively use the latter. There are a number of reasons for this and perhaps I’ll discuss the issue in more detail in a subsequent post (maybe “O” for “oxymoron”), but, in brief, one cannot induct oneself into an exclusive group. One can certainly “cause to begin” a new, solitary spiritual journey but the use of the word “initiate” in this context seems to intentionally attempt to obfuscate and equate this use with the one that applied to group dynamics. Else, other more appropriately colloquial terms would be used to describe something that’s really rather common, i.e., the start of a new endeavor. For example, we don’t say “I have self-initiated myself into nursing studies.” No, we say, “I started to study nursing.” But, like I said, a topic for another week.
We often read great insights about the process of initiation, the types of initiation (e.g., spiritual, fraternal, vocational, etc), and the practical purposes or meanings of initiation (e.g., the ritualistic commemoration of a new phase). But we don’t read too much about the spiritual purposes or significance of it, of which there are a number and which I believe to be the primary motivations in many initiatory traditions before all other considerations like commemoration or recognition of progress and standing. So what are these primary spiritual purposes of initiation?
To Bond. Initiation connects and bonds (and binds) the initiate to their peers, their community, and their spirits and gods. The ritual act of initiation not only inducts the neophyte into the group as discussed above but forges and solidifies a very real spiritual bond between him-/her-self and his/her peers, community, and spirits/gods.
To Change. The initiation not only binds the newly-made initiate with the other parties but it then therefore must also change him/her. Oftentimes, the change is not only spiritual but mental, emotional, and even physical (as in a change in the physical universe [e.g., job change, marriage, divorce, etc.] not like growing a literal third eye)!
To Reveal. In many initiatory traditions, the non-initiate is kept at an appropriate distance. It might be to protect the mystery of the tradition or to protect the non-initiate, him-/her-self. Secrets are passed and knowledge is given, both of which are a form of power in their own right, which brings me to my final purpose of initiation.
To Empower. In addition to being bound together, the initiate is also empowered by the tradition, peers, and spirits/gods. Whether one is empowered as a priest(ess), a non-clerical initiate, a witch, etc., the ritual will have granted the new member powers or abilities not previously retained.
To bond, change, reveal, and empower: these are, in my opinion, the primary and most important purposes or functions of initiation and ones that I also personally find to be the most meaningful.