The following information is written from a pagan perspective. It is excerpted from the book, Wicca: The Old Religion in the New Millennium
This post is part of an upcoming update of our entry on Wicca/Witchcraft
Most traditions of Wicca are entered via a rite of initiation. In some hereditary and traditional groups, this is termed adoption into the family or adoption into the clan.
The purpose of the initiation rite is to cause a spiritual awakening in the initiate that will link him or her to the group mind of the coven and also to the coven’s greater family, the tradition. Each coven has its own group mind which is separate from any other. For this reason, if Witches who have already been initiated are joining a new coven, perhaps because they have moved to a different area, they may be asked to undergo a coven initiation ceremony.
Initiation is a word of many meanings. There are four main types of initiation.
The first is initiation as a rite of passage into adulthood. This marks the transition from adolescence and helps up to understand and take on our responsibilities as adults. In tribal societies this is usually carried out by older men for men and by older women for women.
The second type of initiation is inner initiation. This occurs as the result of interaction between te Self and the personality, and later between the Self and the Divine spark within.
This inner process may happen without any ceremony, with the Self and later the Divine spark as the only initiators. The initiation ceremonies and teachings of religious, spiritual and magical groups may precipitate or speed up this initiatory process, but they are not essential to it.
In this sense, initiation is that process which awakens within us the Divinity hidden at our innermost core. This type of initiation is performed within the Self and by the God.
The third type of initiation in initiation into a spiritual, magical or religious tradition; for example, initiation into Gardnerian Wicca, the catholic priesthood, the Freemasons, Druidry or initiation into a particular occupational craft, each of which held its own lore and secrets.
Most of these occupational crafts have been lost to us, through there are some remnants in Freemasonry and also amongst Gypsy horse traders. The initiatory processes of the priesthood are practised by some Pagan paths including Wicca.
The fourth type of initiation – initiation into a particular order, lodge or coven – is closely related to the third, but may be separate from it. Some Wiccan covens will be membes of a particular tradition such as the Gardnerian or Alexandrian traditions. In these groups, the initiation into the coven will be an initiation into that coven’s group mind.
It will also be an initiation into the group mind of the greater family, that of the tradition of which that coven is a part. This creates an inner kindship with what is in effect a widespread family or tribe.
Other covens may be stand-alone groups. The group may be a closed family tradition. Other stand-alone groups are established as the result of a particular leader or leaders drawing students to them, or because a group of friends decided to form their own coven.
The quality of stand-alone groups will vary according to the spiritual and magical development of those who establish them.
In Wicca and the Western Mystery Tradition generally, we speak of properly contacted groups. These are groups whose group minds have strong inner contacts to the Gods and whose leaders are advanced in their own initiatory processes. In Wicca, groups in properly contacted traditions will have the accumulated initiatory power of many generations of initiates. Coming into contact with such groups can speed up our inner development; not only because of the amount and level of teaching they can offer, but also because they contain a power house of spiritual energy.
Initiation into a properly-contacted tradition can precipitate or speed up the second type of initiation – the inner growth process which returns us to the Godhead.
In recent years, some Wiccan writers have suggested that people who are unable to contact a Wiccan group should practice self-initiation.
There are many types of self-initiation. One is a ceremony that we devise and perform ourselves in order to tell the Gods that we are theirs and are willing to serve them. This type of rite can best be called self-dedication.
Many followers of Wicca perform self-dedication ceremonies, sometimes many years before they think of seeking to join a coven. Some are content to practice the Craft alone and do not seek to join a group, but this is not easy. The Craft has been written about in many books, including this one, but most writers see their texts as introductions only. Wicca is essentially an oral tradition, taught by practice and example rather than by words. It cannot be learned solely from books.
Working alone does not mean solely learning from books. Spiritual growth and the ability to perform magic are gained through hard work and persistence. There is much that we can learn from our own inspiration. Revelation comes to us from opening ourselves to the true Self in that second aspect of initiation which I have described – the inner process of growth.
However, in opening ourselves to that process of growth, we enter upon a difficult path. Practising Wicca causes spiritual and psychological changes in the practitioner. Self-initiation can be rather like removing one’s own appendix. a last resort that may be necessary if stranded alone in the wilderness hundreds of miles from the nearest doctor, but somewhat fraught with complications. The analogy is appropriate in that it is difficult to operate on ourselves because we cannot see properly what we are doing. Similarly, it is difficult to guide ourselves through the initial stages of spiritual and magical development without anyone who is more advanced on that path to turn to for objective advice and encouragement.
Rites of initiation open us to an expansion of consciousness, but they do not automatically bestow powers and great spiritual insights. What is provided is a gateway to a path up a mountain which we must climb; a door into other levels of consciousness, the levels from which psychic and magical powers spring. Initiation is the means of opening the gateway.
In some traditions, Witches wear the symbol of the Egyptian ankh
, the crux ansata, which to the Egyptians was a symbol of eternal life. However, the ankh was also a key; in this case the key of initiation that opens the gateway into everlasting life.
Most Wiccan traditions have three levels of initiation. In Gardnerian and Alexandrian Craft, the first degree initiate is known as a Witch and Priest or Witch and Priestess, and the second and third degree initiate as High Priest or High Priestess. The first degree confers initiation into the Craft. The second initiation, which confers the rank of High Priest or High Priestess, is given when someone is competent to conduct rituals and to instruct first degree Witches.
In many traditions, at second degree, people may hive off to form their own covens and to initiate at first degree. The third degree is usually given to couples who have attained a level of seniority in the Craft. In some traditions, the third degree is only given to those who have successfully initiated and trained Witches at first degree level. In other traditions, the third degree initiation is given prior to a couple hiving off to form their own coven. Third degree Witches can initiate others to the first, second and third degree.
Some traditions do not have a system of three degrees. Instead, there are two senior people, usually an older couple, who run the coven, the Master and the Lady. They are assistend by the Maiden, a younger woman who is deputy to the Lady, and a Summoner, a mal Witch who does much of the administrative work of the coven. These positions are gained by election either on the part of the coven or by the individuals themselves who decide they are ready to run a coven. Some Gardnerian and Alexandrian covens will also have a Summoner and a Maiden. In these covens, the positions are usually held by second degree initiates.
Wicca is an esoteric religion with an initiatory religious and magical system. In this, Wicca differs from forms of Paganism that have open rituals and meetings and do not involve a formal ceremony of commitment. Followers of Wicca are also different from Witches who practise sympathetic magic purely as a magical art and may also pracise a religion such as Christianity or no religion at all.
Just as not all Egyptians were initiates of Isis, so all Wiccans are Pagans, but not all Pagans are Wiccans. Some Pagans belong to other initiatory traditions such as Druidry. Many people wish to worship the Pagan Gods without the more formal commitment to a tradition which initiatory paths demand. Both types of Paganism have an important role to play.
In addition to the usual three degree system some covens have an outer court whose members can attend some coven ceremonies and possibly seasonal celebrations. Some covens also have a preliminary neophyte initiation before the first degree. This allows the neophyte to learn more and to explore before making a full commitment. After a year and a day, neophytes will either proceed further or decide that this is not their path.
The neophyte stage is akin to the postulant in religious orders. A postulant is a Latin-based word for who who knocks upon the door. In the Book of Shadows, the candidate for initiation is referred to as a postulant. Most covens, however, do not operate a neophyting system, believing that the willingness to take a step into the unknown is an essential feature of initiation. These groups follow the practice of not allowing anyone into their circles until they undergo the first degree initiation.
– Source: Vivianne Crowley, Wicca: The Old Religion in the New Millennium
. Thorsons, London. 1996. Pages 90-96