On Initiation Rites and Wiccans and Witches
“Wandering astray in the beginning, tiresome walkings in circles, some frightening paths in darkness that lead nowhere; then immediately before the end all the terrible, panic and shivering and sweat and amazement. And then some wonderful light comes to meet you, pure regions and meadows are there to greet you, with sounds and dances and solemn, sacred words and holy views.”
Plutarch, fragment 168 [an analogy on the initiation experience]
Early modern-era accounts (circa 15th century) of witch initiation rites take the form of perverse parodies of Christian rites. By and large these accounts, although consistent and although later adopted in part by anecdotal diabolic witchcraft or occult groups,1 cannot be regarded as valid because 1) they were extracted from people under threat and torture, 2) they generally were reported in anecdotes authored by witch hunters and propagandists and reflect cultural views about the mythological witch, 3) some accounts may be details of hallucinogenic, shamanic trance, or fantastical experiences of the accused [but this is thought to comprise less than 20% of the accused], and 4) a number of witch confession accounts are now regarded as wholly fictional. 2-5
Although witchcraft covens may have sprung up in the aftermath of the witch craze—and more in relation to the 19th century occult revival2—and although diabolist enclaves may have existed, in part in relation to goetia and in part in relation to backlash against Christian imposition on culture, 1,2 witchcraft, generally speaking, was not an organized or fraternal system or demimonde.2-7 Folk healers and magic practitioners may have congregated by night and may have participated in shamanic rituals or rituals related to women’s mysteries related to a Diana cult and shamanic trance magic, but these persons did not identify themselves as “witches.” 7 They often performed “magic” to protect themselves and others against “witches,” diabolism, and goetia.2,6,7 Folk pagan and Christian elements were merged in their practices.2,6
“Initiation” more likely took the form of passing down information within a family. More formal initiation rites in the context of circles, groves, cults, or covens may have included trial by ordeal, death/rebirth enactments, renaming, vision quests, purification or cathartic ordeals, vows regarding aspiration and dedication, and oaths of fealty and secrecy. “Witchcraft,” however, was something that was ubiquitously practiced as part of folk culture in Europe, it was not an organized movement, and its practitioners generally did not call themselves “witches” or claim to be practicing “withcraft” (in fact, much folk magic and European shamanism had to do with averting the influences of “witches” and other bogeymen). Formal initiation rites bore the template of ceremonial magic. Modern ceremonial magic evolved from rites of Freemasonry and Rosicrucianism, which evolved from the mysticism of the Templars and Troubadours, which was based in medieval Cabala (Christianized Kabala), Gnosticism, magical Christianity, and Hermeticism, which evolved from earlier forms of pagan and Christian Gnosticism, Hermeticism, mystical Judaism, and mystery cults.2,8
Gerald Gardner is known to have derived Wiccan beliefs and rites from what he knew of Freemasonry, Co-Masonry, Thelema, folk culture, and Charles Leland’s The Gospel of Aradia.1,2,4 The last contains elements characteristic of Italian folklore and occultism but, overall, is probably not an accurate picture of Italian stregonaria practice or belief and probably is not a remnant of Estruscan religion, as claimed.6,7
In the traditional Wiccan initiation rite, the candidate is bound with a red or white cord and blindfolded, made to pass an ordeal to face fear in crossing the threshold into the sphere of initiation (specifically, an athame is place against her chest). She is presented to the quarters [these gestures are derived from Freemasonry and/or Rosicrucian rites]. She is ritually welcomed through a kind of nysasa (consecration of the body with Thelemic sexual overtones. Ritual nudity is derived from content from the Gospel of Aradia and possibly other anecdotes about the practices of Italian witches). The cord measurement is taken and fastened to the altar [derived from Freemasonry], scourging as a purification rite/ordeal [presumably derived from ancient pagan and mystery cult practices and also from more public rites of purification and ordeal.1,9 The symbolism of the cord and references to scourging also are central to Catholicism. The cord—or cincture—is thus worn as magical garb in some systems, including Catholicism, and represents the practitioner’s discipline], vows of fealty are taken (as in Freemasonry, etc.) The initiate is anointed and presented with magical tools and their significance (as in Freemasonry, etc.).
Compare with examples:
1. The Secret Societies of All Ages and Countries by Charles William Heckethorn G. Redway, 1897
[On the Rosicrucian initiation ceremony]
The candidate for initiation is introduced by a brother, who takes him into a room where a light, pen, ink, and paper, sealing-wax, two red cords, and a bare sword are laid on a table. The candidate is asked whether he firmly intends to become a pupil of true wisdom. Having answered affirmatively, he gives up his hat and sword, and pays the fees. His hands having been bound, and his eyes bandaged and a red cord put round his neck, he is led to the door of the lodge, on which the introducer gently knocks nine times. The doorkeeper opens it and asks "Who is there ? " The hierophant answers, " An earthly body holding the spiritual man imprisoned in ignorance." The doorkeeper, " What is to be done to him ? " The introducer, " Kill his body and purify his spirit." The doorkeeper, " Then bring him into the place of justice." They enter, place themselves in front of the circle, the candidate kneeling on one knee. The master stands at his right hand, with a white wand, the introducer at his left, holding a sword ; both wear their aprons. The master says, " Child of man, I conjure you through all degrees of profane Freemasonry, and by the endless circle, which comprises all creatures and the highest wisdom, to tell me for what purpose you have come here?" The candidate, "To acquire wisdom, art, and virtue." The master, " Then live! But your spirit must again rule over your body ; you have found grace, arise and be free." He is then unbound, steps into the circle, the master and the introducer hold the wand and sword crosswise, the candidate lays three fingers thereon, and as soon as the master says "Now listen," the candidate repeats the oath propounded to him, which is simply a declaration that he will have no secrets from his brethren, and will lead a virtuous life. Then he is invested with the title of the order, the seal, password and sign, hat and sword, and has the mystical table interpreted to him, after which, like the Masons, he and the other brethren go from " labour " to " refreshment."
[The Freemasonry rite is similar but more elaborate, with a much longer script.]
2. Victor & Victoria Trimondi. The Shadow of the Dalai Lama – Part I – 6. Kalachakra: The public and the secret initiations
All together the Kalachakra Tantra talks of fifteen initiatory stages. The first seven are considered lower solemnities and are publicly performed by the Dalai Lama and open to the broad masses. The other eight are only intended for a tiny, select minority. The Tibetologist Alexander Wayman has drawn a comparison to the Eleusian mysteries of antiquity, the first part of which was also conducted in front of a large public, whilst only a few participated in the second, secret part in the temple at night (Wayman, 1983, 628).
The seven lower initiations ought to be succinctly described here. They are as follows: the (1) the water initiation;(2) the crown initiation; (3) the silk ribbon initiation; (4) the vajra and bell initiation; (5) the conduct initiation; (6) the name initiation; and (7) the permission initiation. All seven are compared to the developmental stages of a child from birth to adulthood. In particular they serve to purify the pupils.
Before beginning the initiatory path the neophyte swears a vow with which he makes a commitment to strive for Buddhahood incessantly, to regret and avoid all misdeeds, to lead other beings along the path to enlightenment, and to follow absolutely the directions of the Kalachakra master. But above all he must visualize his androgyne guru as the divine couple, Kalachakra in union with his consort Vishvamata. With blindfolded eyes he must imagine that he is wandering through a three-dimensional mandala (an imaginary palace) which is occupied by the four meditation Buddhas (Amitabha, Ratnasambhava, Amoghasiddhi, Vairochana) and their partners.
After his blindfold has been removed, he tosses a blossom onto a sacred image (mandala) spread out before him, which has been prepared from colored sand. The place where the flower comes to rest indicates the particular Buddha figure with which the pupil must identify during his initiation journey. In the following phase he receives two reeds of kusha grass, since the historical Buddha once experienced enlightenment as he meditated while seated on this type of grass. Further, the Lama gives him a toothpick for cleansing, as well as a red cord, which he must tie around the upper arm with three knots [The cord is for protection. The 3 knots presumably represent the 3 jewels: Buddha mind, body, and speech]. Then he receives instructions for sleeping. Before he goes to bed he has to recite certain mantras as often as possible, and then to lay himself on his right side with his face in the direction of the sand mandala. Dreams are sent to him in the night which the guru analyzes another day.
1. Doreen Valiente. The Rebirth of Witchcraft. London: Robert Hale, 1989.
2. Michael D. Bailey. Magic and Superstition in Europe A Concise History From Antiquity to the Present. New York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. 2007
3. Jenny Gibbons. Recent Developments in the Study of the Great European Witch Hunt
4. Tau Allen Greenfield. The Secret History of Modern Witchcraft in: Richard Metzger ed. Book of Lies The Disinformation Guide to Magick and the Occult. St. Paul: The Disinformation Company. 2003
5. Catherine Noble Beyer. The Burning Times or the More Persecuted than Thou Syndrome
6. Sabina Magliocco. Spells, Saints, and Streghe: Witchcraft, Folk Magic, and Healing in Italy. The Pomegranate: The Journal of Pagan Studies. 2000.
7. Sabina Magliocco Who Was Aradia? The History and Development of a Legend.
The Pomegranate: The Journal of Pagan Studies. Issue 18, Feb. 2002.
8. Tobia Churton. Gnostic Philosophy From Ancient Persia to Modern Times. Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions. 2005
9. James Hastings. Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics Part 3. Kessinger Publishing, 2003 228-229