Having spent the last decade and a half bumming around fraternal orders, convivial societies and esoteric groups, I have seen my fair share of initiations, and have run my fair share of degree teams. I’ve worked on ritual committees for fraternal orders to create and revise initiations. Because I have seen initiations that were both mystical and non-mystical, I think a bit differently about initiation than your average Pagan or Polytheist.
The first thing you need to know about initiatory traditions is that, at one point in the past, it was simply a part of the genre that traditions would lie about their origins. Some of these claims are modest and almost believable, and others wade into the absurd. Perhaps my favorite illustration of this is that the Odd Fellows used to claim that they were founded by Adam when he left Eden. The fact that traditions claim to be older than they are, claim that they were revealed rather than written, and claim that they come from some place other than where they come from lends a mystique, perhaps. But it obscures the process, and makes people who really ought to be writing initiations less likely to succeed in doing so.
It’s a shame. Initiatory ritual is a rich and wonderful art form, as pithy as a poem, but often as long as a television drama. Initiations can create a sense of belonging, give a group an opportunity to acculturate new members, and forge spiritual connections between members and deities or powers. They can also be a powerful way of viscerally illustrating a truth, or consecrating people to a particular effort. Most importantly, they can help us, as communities, process and respond to changes in society, and problems which are swiftly becoming pervasive.
Want to help your friend with privilege understand what it’s like to not have it? Initiation. Need more communal gnosis? Initiation. Think you should be better at connecting with a planetary force, deity, or even the spiritual aspects of a profession? Initiation, initiation, initiation.
If you want to create one, but feel daunted by the task at hand, I have written this article as a quick and dirty guide to creating one. It’s important to note that not all initiations need to be “high woo” initiations, but I’ve taken the liberty of assuming that most people who read this will be interested in that sort of thing, and have included examples, tips and side-notes with that in mind.
1. Define Your Aim
What do you want your initiation to do?
An initiation is a tool, and it is designed to have a specific effect. Every initiation has goals. If you don’t have goals for initiation, you probably don’t actually need one. Goals might sound like:
- Change someone’s status within a community (the anthropological definition)
- Stress some particular value
- Build empathy with a figure, archetype, or group of people
- Provide a framework for a person to understand their duty as an initiate
- Provide a mythic catechism so that everyone knows the same secret myth (or group gnosis)
- Forge a connection to a deity, force of the universe, or to a shared source of energy
- Obligate the candidate to particular duties
- Give someone access to certain other mysteries by providing them with keys (usually in a multi-degree system).
- Help people to emotionally process an ugly truth about reality
Or you might have any number of your own aims. If you are interested in initiation, but don’t know why, lean into that feeling. What are you seeking? Is it solidarity? Belonging? Connection? Understanding? Obligation? Recognition? Empowerment? Attunement?
Furthermore, you should answer this question in particular:
If this initiation does exactly what I want and need it to, what will the end result be? IE, how will this change things? How will it change the initiates?
For the sake of argument, let’s say that my aim for initiation is to particularly help people connect to Hermes in his aspect as Cattle Thief, and to expound upon the theological notion that sometimes unsavory methods can lead to long-term benefit. My ideal initiate is someone who can come to generalize this lesson, who can easily reason about the consequences of actions (whether perceived as good or bad) and knows when unsavory actions lead to greater good, and when they do not.
2. Inner Planes Contacts, Please and Thank You
So, I have my aim. Since my aim specifically relates to one specific aspect of one specific deity, I will want to talk to him.
Let’s say, just for the sake of argument, that I have already received full-blown visions of Hermes telling me to make initiations for him. I still need to talk to him once I have wrapped my head around a purpose. Negotiations still need to happen. I’ll call him, present my idea, my non-starters (no violation of consent, for example, or exclusion of the marginalized). He will tell me his non-starters (rejecting people because you are ashamed to associate with them, all-vegan buffets, shaming people for breaking the law, excessive drunkenness).
If you are working with a deity, you might find that, once goals have been clearly articulated, they’ll have quite a few fascinating suggestions. You might perceive these astrally, or if you are not psychically sensitive in that way, you may receive omens or strange coincidences that seen weirdly applicable to the work at hand. If this doesn’t happen, don’t sweat it.
What if your initiation has nothing to do with a deity or other sentient entity, but rather a force, or an idea? Find a way to viscerally connect to that force. Let’s say the force is water. Go swimming, preferably for an hour or more. Sit down and stare at a glass of water for a while. Visit the ocean, a river, a lake. Spend enough time concentrating on anything, and it will reveal its mysteries to you. By this, I do not mean that a booming voice in the sky will declare mysteries. Rather, by fully attending to something, you will often attain realizations about it.
Last night, for example, I led a meditation on the element of water. In staring at the glass, those assembled thought about how water can kill us, and also how we need it to live. We reflected on the fact that life originated in oceans, but also the fact that water eventually dissolves and washes away even the most permanent of things. In short, in water, we saw beginning and end, the ever-changing nature of all manifest things, life and death. We saw a power that can destroy cities, but which itself required support in the form of a container.
That insight, in tandem with an aim, such as connecting the initiate to the force of water, or helping them to embrace the fluidity and adaptability which water represents, might be enough to get started on an initiation, depending on what the group’s goals are.
Whatever it is that you are hoping to connect your candidate to, immerse yourself in it, and when you are done, show gratitude. Tried, true, and ancient is the idea of sacrificing food and drink, but there are many ways to show gratitude, including community service, creating art, or raising awareness.
3. Create a Narrative
We often talk about how “powerful” an initiation felt, but we less frequently talk about how effective it was. Consecration fades. If you don’t understand how that can be so, I invite you to consecrate a magical tool and then just leave it for a few days in a pile of kitchen trash. Energy disperses. Entropy: It’s a thing.
Lasting influence is only achieved if you somehow make enough of an impact on a person that you manage to change the way they think about the world and themselves. The way we think about ourselves and the world changes everything. It changes how we see, how we feel, how we act and how energy consequently flows around us. The consecration or the passing of energy might be the visceral experiences that effects this change. However, it is not the only thing which can, and depending on the circumstances, it might not even be the most effective.
Fraternal initiations which I wrote off as having no power (because I am sensitive in that way, and I felt nothing) have changed me profoundly, and I have watched them change candidates I have, in turn, initiated. It was because the imagery and the message were so sharp, so timeless, so applicable, that they forever changed my focus. While getting one’s magical rocks off is nice, it is this longer-term effect of initiation which is the ultimate goal.
We are narrative driven creatures. Therefore, if you wish to change the way a person thinks, narrative is a powerful way to do this. This doesn’t necessarily mean telling the candidates a story (although it can). Initiation narratives are more often lived, and the initiation ceremony itself might simply be the turning point in one’s narrative journey.
A common narrative is “Ordeal and Admonition.” In other words, something really intense happens. Then, the initiator comes to explain it, and give warning about how seriously it should be taken. An example that we frequently find in the Polytheist wilds is that someone has as particularly intense dream or journey with a deity, and then an experienced practitioner explains that, because of the experience, the person must now do, or think, or feel this way or that way about it, and warns about the very serious consequences of not doing so. Just the intense experience by itself is not initiation. It is simply that, according to the beliefs of the community, the dream or journey experience, in tandem with being taught its meaning, is generally understood to entitle someone to a change in status. This precise formula is used in one of my favorite fraternal initiations, wherein the crisis is manufactured through clever theatrical means, and then the rest of the initiation is processing the experience, followed by an obligation.
Another common narrative is “Introduction by Parts.” One example of this is Wiccan first degree, where the initiate is presented to the four quarters, and then introduced to the tools of the witch (For the record, I’m not an initiate of Wicca, but there is a script available online). The person is, in a sense, encountering and acquiring an understanding of the facets of whatever new role or state they are coming to occupy. If the purpose is to forge a connection with a deity, this narrative could be used by having the candidate encounter people representing (or carrying) various important aspects of the deity in question, and then investing them with the tools of the priestly craft. This might be employed in our water initiation by having the Ocean, the River, the Lake, and the Rain each give their perspective, and then presenting the candidate with a bowl, cup and aspergillum, explaining the role and purpose of each.
One more example is “Problem and Solution.” In this narrative, a societal problem is illustrated in some way. The roots of the societal problem are explored, and solutions suggested. The obligations associated with this narrative are often crafted specifically to address the problem in question.
Sometimes, especially in ancient Greek initiations, but frequently enough in fraternal degrees as well, the narrative is one particular myth, which is expanded through theatrics, shocking revelations, and the use of sacred objects which serve as physical touchstones.
The narrative you choose is always, at the end of the day, about the candidate’s transformation. It must be engaging and meaningful to the community, and have, as their logical conclusion, the elevation of the candidate to their new status. The narrative of your initiation should cover every aspect of this transformation.
4. Write The Lessons
What does a person need to know, in terms of theology, philosophy, or just practical advice, in order to flourish in this new status which the initiation conveys upon them? Answer this question comprehensively. Answer it in great detail.
Write these lessons and pieces of advice into the initiation. It may seem like more than a candidate can absorb, at least consciously. However, if you are concise, and sprinkle this wisdom throughout the initiation, you will find that people will go back to the degree and find meaning in it over and over again.
5. Write The Obligation
Oaths are about more than secrecy. To be clear, secrecy is a major feature of initiation. Some degrees I have taken and given traditionally ask people to swear to secrecy not once, but twice.
In my opinion, however, secrecy isn’t strictly speaking required. In fact, a casual Google search will easily reveal how futile these oaths of secrecy are. An oath, however, or an obligation, is an opportunity for you to change the relationship of the candidate to the community and the world.
When you write the obligation, you would do well to ask yourself what kind of community you want to have. An obligation can stipulate how members must treat one another, can entail certain promises in terms of service to the community or a deity, or it can stipulate a “this for that” kind of relationship with the community or a deity.
In the example of our initiation for Hermes the Cattle Thief, we might consider an obligation not to shame a thief or reprimand a meat-eater. In the example of an initiation into water magic, we perhaps might include an oath to conserve water, or to engage for a period of time in beach clean-up.
Even if nothing else in the initiation is meaningful or impactful to the candidate, sometimes a solemn obligation to engage in certain work can change how people think about their spiritual work, themselves, and their place in the community.
6. Choose Your Tech… And Disclose It
Here is a non-exhaustive list of some technologies which might be useful in creating spiritually transformative initiations.
It is important to disclose what you will be doing to an initiate’s energy body in advance.
Violating people’s consent does them emotional and spiritual harm. In conjunction with practices which essentially non-consensually, in a setting of mystical intimacy, make changes to a person’s spiritual body, it is much, much worse. When making decisions about what parts of your new initiation to keep secret, keep this in mind.
Anointing: Anointing is highly associated with consecration. Monarchs are anointed to symbolize their consecration to the role of Monarch. Talismans are often consecrated with oil, too. An appropriately scented oil adds a sensory connection, and the scent will linger after the initiation ritual is over.
Chant and Dance: This is a very uncommon thing to find in even esoteric fraternal orders, but it bears mentioning that chant and dance can help a candidate enter an altered state. Being in an altered state makes a person more receptive to whatever work may come next. If it can be woven into your initiatory narrative, make use of it.
Charges: Initiatory “charges” (wherein an officer or clergy person gives a speech) are a staple of fraternal initiation. They can be superlatively boring. If they are written, however, to engage the imagination, to evoke emotion, and to give people a vision of where their path might ideally lead, they can become very powerful. By inspiring the imagination, you impact a person. By causing them to re-imagine themselves, you are facilitating their transformation. Do consider your audience. While some people like charges, many people find them torturous, or mentally fall asleep during them. I happen to love charges, but if a speech goes on for longer than ninety seconds, you’ve lost me.
Drama and Acting: An alternative to long-winded speeches is short, snappy dialogue between officers. These skits can bring life to a scene from mythology, or sharply illustrate a teaching. The drawback is that these are easy to do badly, and they absolutely have to be memorized, or they look hokey and unprofessional.
Energy Work: Laying on of hands and passing an energy to the candidate can help familiarize them, consciously and unconsciously, with the “feel” or a particular source of energy (like a pre-prepared magical cabinet), a deity, a force of nature, or any other power. It can provide them with a calling card, so to speak, for whomever or whatever the initiation is trying to connect them to.
Some groups have the practice of putting energetic constructs they painted or sculpted into the energy body of the initiate, or they may have a large number of such thought forms arrayed in the space, and may spend the entire initiation linking the candidate up to them. This can be ok for the duration of the ceremony, but I don’t recommend leaving these things in the aura of the candidate permanently.
The body reflects the soul, and the soul reflects the body. The two are linked and in sympathy so long as a person is alive — some may argue that this continues after death as well. Placing something foreign in the body can cause an immune reaction. Placing something foreign in the soul can do likewise. If you are noticing that initiates are developing immune disorders, or allergies, you may have left something in their aura that shouldn’t be there. Remove it. If you don’t know how to remove it, don’t put it in there.
Please also start with the assumption that no person was born with extraneous parts. Mystical initiations of the past might have the notion that some parts of the soul are better stuck on a shelf in a jar, but just as we no longer routinely remove adenoids and tonsils without good reason, we should likewise reconsider these practices. If some astral entity the exact shape of the soul part you removed seems to be hounding the initiate, put that part back into said initiate. If you don’t know how to put it back, don’t take it out.
If a candidate becomes physically ill, begins to suffer from mental or emotional distress, or experiences an unintended sequence of unpleasant effects, the fault is not the gods or powers involved. Rather, it was something in the energy work that blew up, and it is the initiatory team who caused it. Initiation is a powerful tool and it is possible to hurt people with it.
I can’t tell you how many people I know who were harmed by an initiation because the initiator just figured that the gods would somehow make up for a lack of thoughtfulness and effort. This is why you should never do anything to another person’s spiritual body with energy work that you don’t know how to undo, and why informed consent is so very important.
Also, yes, you can undo the energetic piece without undoing the initiation, just as you can take off a wedding ring and still be married. It’s the teachings, experiences, narrative, change in perception, and intimate knowledge gained through the process which are the desired effect.
Eucharist: Eating is something a candidate must actively engage in. Consuming symbolic food or drink can create a visceral connection to the subject matter.
Floor work: European initiations, especially of the Fraternal variety, are very big on dramatizing the spiritual journey of the candidate through walking in circles. Really, there is quite a stupendous amount of walking in circles, far more than is necessary to get from one station to the next. This extra walking, or circumambulation, is often considered important enough that there is an officer whose main job is leading the candidates from place to place. Floor work is a place where one can add gravitas, and symbolism, or simply be sure that the candidate encounters the energies in the right order.
Invocation and Propitiation: There is something to be said for the active participation and presence of a deity or power.
Physical Reagents: Things that are alive, or that were once alive, carry specific energies. Herbs, bones, woods, feathers, flowers and even resins change the energy around them. Many traditions have lore about specific herbs, in particular. If your tradition has ten sacred herbs, think about having them in the room during the initiation.
Sacra: Sacra, or Holy Relics, are physical touchstones that connect a person to a mythic figure or a sacred story. When I think of Sacra, I usually think about the mysterious objects which were marched in parades from Eleusis to Athens and back, but there are actually more modern examples, including the Catholic custom of preserving the body parts of saints. Any sacred object which has a story behind it can serve the purpose.
Sensory Deprivation, Bondage: Most commonly, this is done in a first degree. A candidate is bound and blindfolded during an initiation. This usually happens at the beginning, and there is almost invariably some explanation about the invisible bonds that hold us in our ordinary lives, and our blindness to whatever truth the initiation is about to reveal. Sensory deprivation is useful in creating an altered state. Not all initiations include this, however, and you can feel free to include it or not, and to ascribe any meaning to it that you like.
Telesmatics: This is the practice of painting or sculpting thought forms in the etheric space where the rite is taking place, or on top of props, tools and/or objects in the space. Sigils or geometric shapes (such as pentagrams) that are drawn in and remain in etheric space, godforms, stationary images of mythic objects, artificial spirits and energy constructs are all, broadly speaking, stuff you painted or sculpted ethereally in physical space, so although they are often thought of differently, I’m lumping them together, here. All such thought forms are an extension of the will of the person who created them, regardless of where the “energy” was drawn from. Try to not jam an extension of your will into another person’s soul.
7. Assemble Your Script
Ask yourself the following questions.
- How will the ceremony open?
- What celebrations will take place before or after?
- How will it close?
- What’s my narrative?
- Which tech am I using?
- How am I weaving the tech into the narrative?
- What lessons am I imparting?
- How will I weave those lessons into my initiation?
- How many people do I need to do a credible job?
- What will each of those people do to support and facilitate for the candidate?
- What invocations am I using, and when should they happen?
- When is the candidate obligated?
Once you have answered these questions, you are ready to write your script. Such scripts tend to be very symbolically dense and heavy on stage direction. A single page of initiation may take several times longer to write than, for example, a page of a play written for stage. During a time in my life when I could have written a ten page article on a scholarly topic in an evening, it took me six months to write a sixteen page initiation. For this reason, it’s easy to lose energy on the project. Whenever you do, return to step 2. Immerse yourself imaginatively and viscerally in the subject matter. Re-connect to your vision. Maybe even write a shorter ritual based on the same idea as your initiation, and put it on for friends.
In general, you want to start out by establishing the presence of all the powers which need to be there, then bring in the candidate. The meat of the initiation then occurs, wherein your lessons are revealed, the mysteries encountered, and any energy work completed. The candidate is restored to themselves, awarded their new status, and then you thank the powers which were called. If there are non-sentient forces involved, dismiss them.
Fraternal initiations generally run 45 minutes to an hour, on average. An initiation need not be that long, however. It needs only to do its job. Simply make your initiation exactly as long as it needs to be in order to meet your goals. If there seems to be a natural break in the middle, and the ceremony is running long, consider breaking it into two separate ceremonies. You don’t need to have exactly three degrees. You could have four. Or thirteen.
8. Consecrate The Ceremony
Initiation is a tool, and just like any tool, it works better when consecrated.
If it wasn’t obvious already, initiations work better when they are put on by a team. The ceremony is for the candidate, and it is about the candidate, but it is also about the community. The more people you have participating in your initiatory team, the better your production values will be. To a point, anyway.
An initiation might be built for the purpose of consecrating a candidate, but before it can be fully energetically effective, the initiation itself, or any ritual, for that matter, must be consecrated.
Get together your team, and print out your scripts. Then present the degree to the powers involved.
If you are working with deities, you’ll want to call and propitiate them. Then, explain what the degree you created is for, the process you went through to create it, and what you hope it will do for your community and your new initiates. Ask them for whatever metaphysical help you might need on their part in order to make all of that work. Then, put on the degree for them.
Fair warning: this process will be awkward. It will be your team’s first attempt at putting on the degree. It will be the first time the powers have seen the ceremony. There will be a lot of humans shuffling papers and powers making faces.
When you get done, you are going to want to revise. You’ll discover that certain things don’t work the way they worked in your head. You’ll realize that certain stage directions are confusing to anyone who isn’t you. If you are working with deities, expect them to request edits.
Make your edits, and then do this again. Do it until you, your team, and your deities are all satisfied with the product. Be open to continuing to do this, even after you have initiated people.
Best results are attained when you go paperless by having a team who has memorized their parts. I also recommend doing a run through before each initiation.
By being mindful of your goals, taking stock of the techniques and narratives available, and working closely with inner planes contacts (whether deities or other powers), you can create an initiation for any purpose you like.