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~ Rites of Passage ~



A "Rite of Passage" is a transition from one state of life to another.  Birth, marriage and death are examples. Van Gennep, a Flemish anthropologist, was the first to so label such rituals, in 1909. The main Rite of Passage that you will be concerned with is that of Initiation. It is important that you be aware, and have some understanding, of the different parts of the initiation ritual and its symbolism.


In its most general sense, initiation denotes a body of rites and oral teachings arranged to bring about a very definite change in both the religious and the social status of the person undergoing the ritual. There is a catharsis: a spiritual cleansing. The person becomes, in effect, another person. The central theme of an initiation (any initiation, whether it be Witchcraft, primitive tribal or even Christian, in form) is what is termed a Palingenesis: a rebirth. You are ending life as you have known it to this point and are being "born again" ... and reborn with new knowledge.

All initiation rituals follow the same basic pattern. And this is worldwide: Australian aboriginals, Africans, Amerindians, Eskimos, Pacific Islanders, Witches, ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans, to name but a few. All include the same basic elements in their rites.


First comes a SEPARATION. With many peoples this is a literal separation from friends and especially from family; from all they have known so far. Oftimes there is a special hut, cave or building of some sort, where the novices are taken. There they begin their training.

A CLEANSING, externally and internally, is the next important part. With some primitives this might include complete removal of all body hair. It would certainly include a period, or periods, of fasting and of sexual abstinence. In certain areas there are also various dietary taboos prior to fasting.


A SYMBOLIC DEATH is one of the major parts of initiation, though some primitives do not realize that it will be only symbolic and fully expect to actually be put to death. With some tribes it does include actual dismemberment; perhaps circumcision, tattooing, the amputation of a finger or the knocking out of a tooth. Ritual scourging is another, more common, symbolic form of death. Or the death could take the form of a "monster"-perhaps the tribe's totem animal--swallowing~ the initiate.

After "death" the initiand then finds himself in the womb, awaiting his new birth. In some societies he finds himself in a hut which represents the world. He is at its center; he inhabits a sacred microcosm. The initiate is in the chthonian Great Mother--Mother
Earth. There are innumerable myths of great heroes, gods and goddesses, descending into Mother Earth (remember the myth of the Seax-Wica Goddess, given in Lesson Two) and triumphantly returning. Within that earth-womb they invariably find great
knowledge, for it is often the home of the dead who, traditionally, can see into the future and therefore know all things. Therefore the initiates, by virtue of being in the womb, will learn NEW KNOWLEDGE. This is underscored in the Congo, for example,
where those who have not been initiated are called vanga ("the unenlightened") and those who have been initiated are the nganga ("the knowing ones").
After receiving this new knowledge, the initiate is REBORN. If he has been swallowed by a monster, he
may either be born from it or disgorged from its mouth (the mouth is often a substitute for the vagina). In some African tribes he will crawl out from between the legs of the women of the village, who stand in a long line. He is now given a new name and starts his new life. Interestingly enough there are several paraliels of this renaming to be found in the Roman Catholic Church: a new name is taken at confirmation; on becoming a nun a woman takes a new name; a new name is given to a newly elected Pope.

On excavating at Pompeii, there was found a villa, named the "Villa of Mysteries". This was where everyone in ancient Italy originally went to be initiated into the Orphic Mysteries. In the Initiation Room itself there are frescoes painted around the walls showing a woman going through the various stages of initiation.
In this instance the symbolic death was a scourging. Part of the revelation of knowledge came from the initiand scrying* with a Polished bowl. The final scene shows her, naked, dancing in celebration of her new birth. The scenes are typical of the Palingenesis of initiation.

The full initiation into Witchcraft contains all the above elements. There is not quite the literal separation, at the start, but you will, of course, have separated yourself from others in the sense of absorbing yourself in your studies of the Craft. You will also spend much time alone, meditating on what you are about to
undertake. You will cleanse yourself, by bathing and fasting-only bread, honey and water are allowed for twenty-four hours prior to the actual initiation--and by sexual abstinence.

At the ritual itself, rather than any rigorous symbolic death or dismemberment, you will experience a blindfolding and binding, which symbolize the darkness and restriction of the womb. As you are "born",= these restrictions will fall from you. You will gain new knowledge as certain things are revealed to you, and then receive a new name. You will be welcomed to your new life by your brothers and sisters of the Craft. The full initiation is a very moving experience--many claim it to be the most moving of
their entire lives.

The usual process is that you find a coven and, after a trial period, are accepted into it and initiated. But supposing you are starting from scratch; a group of friends who are going to form their own coven and, basically, start their own tradition? How does the first person get initiated, so that s/he can initiate the others? Similarly, if you are a Solitary, not wanting to join a
group, how do you go about it? The answer is, through Self-Initiation.

Some years ago the majority of Witches (myself included!) frowned on the very idea of a self-initiation. We didn't stop to think of (a) what might have been done in the "old times': for those living miles from any coven, or (b) how did the First Witch get initiated? Today some of us at any rate are more enlightened.

The Self-Dedication is exactly that--it is a dedicating of oneself to the service of the gods. It does not contain all the elements we have mentioned above, but is none the less a moving experience. A full coven initiation may always be taken at a later date, if you so desire of course, but note that it would not be mandatory--just a matter of personal preference. A question often asked is, "How valid is self initiation?" To some traditions it is not valid at all (though one might question the whole "validity" of those traditions themselves!). Certainly you couldn't selfinitiate yourself as a Cardnerian, for example. But the point here is, how valid is it to YOU? If you are sincere; if you wish to become a Witch and to worship the old gods; if you have no ulterior motives . . . IT IS VALID, and don't listen to anyone who says it is not.

Obviously if you want to be part of a particular tradition and that tradition has its set initiation rite (as with Gardnerian, as I just mentioned), then you must go through that particular rite to join that tradition. But no one tradition has the right to say what is correct or incorrect for another. It seems to me that far too many
people get hung-up on a "line of descent"--who initiated whom, and through whom?-rather than getting on with the business of worship. One of the oldest of the modern traditions is the Gardnerian and that (in its present form) is only about thirty-five years old, as of this writing. Not very old when we look at the
whole picture of Witchcraft. So if a Gardnerian initiation (for example) can be considered "valid", then so can yours.

 

Taken from Buckland's Complete Book of Witchcraft

 

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