The Art and Science of Initiation

Edited by Jedidiah French and Angel Millar
Shepperton, Surrey, U.K.: Lewis Masonic, 2019. 285 pp., paper, $18.

What is initiation? Its fundamental meaning of “to begin” sounds straightforward, but its effects in magical or religious practices are often hotly contested. There is an ongoing argument, for instance, as to whether initiation simply confirms what candidates have already attained through their own efforts, or whether it ushers them into an entirely new state. Perhaps it can be both, with varying emphasis. If there is no element of shock or surprise, such as in the modern-day ordainment of a priest, where everyone knows every step of the ritual in advance, it is more of a confirmation, although the ordinand may well still experience a change of state during the service.

If it is an initiation pertaining to a magical or mystery tradition, then a shock is almost always included, which can propel the candidate into a new form of consciousness. This can take the form of extreme conditions, which will still work their effect even if known about beforehand. The budding shaman may be sealed into a “vision pit” for several days, for instance, and aspiring knights of chivalry often passed a night-long vigil in total darkness before admission into the order. Other shocks may come unexpectedly: cold-water baths, nakedness, insults, solitude, and abandonment are all the stuff of traditional initiation rituals, as well as of modern esoteric and ceremonial initiations. The ritual usually ends in a redemptive way, such as emerging into bright light and being given a warm welcome from one’s fellow initiates.

As well as shock tactics, simple tasks which must be performed perfectly under scrutiny can also trigger a new state of consciousness. Perhaps the initiation requires you to light a candle in front of your fellows—a seemingly simple act, but one that demands every atom of composure that you can muster as you walk the length of a long hall, between rows of observers, towards the altar at the far end. Then you must pick up the match, strike it without fumbling, light the wick, and hope—maybe even pray!—that it will stay alight. Perhaps the rules of your initiation even depend on the success of this act. If you can do this, you will almost certainly have achieved a state of heightened awareness, notwithstanding any pain or pleasure along the way.

Initiation is a perennially fascinating subject, with no two views on it being the same, as this book proves. The collection of essays is a kaleidoscope of different takes on initiation, mostly within Masonic and magical traditions. It opens with the excellent definition: “Initiation appears to be a set of practices, and/or processes of realization, through which certain human beings across time have endeavoured to achieve deeper knowledge and higher wisdom.”

The book is deliberately compiled as a selection of both scholarly and speculative studies, allowing the authors full rein in topic and viewpoint. This takes us from a survey of cultural initiation practices (Richard Smoley) to Aleister Crowley’s magic (Richard Kaczynski), with different forays into Swedish Freemasonry (Susannah Akerman) and the mysteries of Samothrace (Greg Kaminsky) along the way. There is value here in bringing together different areas of research, and different kinds of insight. However, it is a bumpy ride if one attempts to travel the whole terrain at once. I found the inconsistency of viewpoint awkward—some articles are addressed primarily to Masons, some to lovers of magic, some to scholars. It is a difficult book to read consecutively, and certainly I found it easier to pick out a few essays at a time.

But it gives food for thought. Smoley’s essay boldly puts forward the notion that we are missing out on initiation rites in present-day society: “Many adult men today are not men; they are boys. Many adult women are not women; they are girls. In our society it is possible to go through all the stages of life, even successfully, without maturing emotionally, much less spiritually.”

Without disputing Smoley’s main point, I would add that for many women, the process of giving birth can be a profound initiatory experience. For me, many years ago, the initiation of childbirth propelled me to accept another spiritual initiation which I was offered a few months later. I had “come of age” and was ready to step up. And the possibility of childbirth as an initiatory act might explain why societies have traditionally held more male initiation rites than female ones.

Another favorite essay for me is Herbie Brenman’s personal and engaging account of being initiated into the Society of the Inner Light, founded by the British occultist Dion Fortune. Brenman writes with both humor and solemnity. Sometimes we learn more from story-telling than from weighty sermons.

And there is C.R. Dunning’s “Contemplation and Ritual Initiation,” affirming the principle of awareness as the active transformatory ingredient in both ritual and initiation.  “Our present concern is not about bringing something new into Masonic experience but rather about intentionally and comprehensively practising contemplation to make the most of Masonic initiation.”

Quite. Dunning’s analysis points out the value of silence, of study, of reflection; in other words, not the dramatic blindfoldings and dunkings of initiation, but the consciousness that we have at our disposal to transform our inner state of being. By being present in the action, and being aware of whatever is around us, we act out our own initiation.

Cherry Gilchrist

Cherry Gilchrist’s latest book is The Circle of Nine: An Archetypal Journey to Awaken the Divine Feminine Within.