Monday, December 10, 2007

The Role of Initiation

The first version of this article was published on 6/19/2006 on the previous version of this blog.

A hundred years ago most men belonged to fraternal orders of one sort or another, many of which had initiatory rites largely copied from those of Freemasonry. These days many books on magick and witchcraft support the concept of "self-initiation" and the popularity of secret and semi-secret fraternal orders has waned. Does that mean that formal initiation has become a quaint anachronism, or is it still an effective spiritual technology?

What the concept of self-initiation gets right is that regardless of the rituals and ceremonies you go through and the degree titles you hold, you have to do the corresponding spiritual work yourself. There is no real way around this basic truth. Spiritual realization is experiential - it cannot be taught or even directly explained. Because of this a degree title does not guarantee spiritual wisdom or power. In many organizations, advancement to higher degrees is contingent upon service to the organization rather than actual spiritual attainment, and the fact that someone is a hard worker in the mundane realm says nothing about their capacity for magick or mysticism, or the quality of their realization.

Nonetheless, formal initiation is a powerful method for imprinting the mind with concepts and ideas that will facilitate the spiritual evolution of a dedicated spiritual practitioner who takes those lessons to heart. The secrecy that surrounds initiatory traditions is related to a powerful psychological techique - the mind becomes more sensitive and attuned to information when it is placed in a situation of uncertainty, so an initiatory ritual will create a much more powerful imprint if the candidate does not know what is going to happen. Enough has been published that it is possible with some diligence to locate the degree work of most initiatory orders, but if you ever plan on taking the degrees all you are doing is cheating yourself.

I am convinced that this is the sole practical reason for secrecy surrounding initiation rituals. For much of human history it was believed that secret knowledge was somehow more powerful, but I suspect this belief was due to a misunderstanding of the mechanics of mind. When a candidate knows what is going to happen it is not that current of magical energy is weaker but that the mind expects the form of the ritual and is less moved by it. As a result, the magical effect of the initiation is reduced and a reasonable person might conclude that the power of the rite somehow grows if few know its details. What really happened is that the mind anticipated the actions of the rite, conceptualized them, and processed them ahead of time so no effective imprint was formed.

So does this imprint hypothesis mean that initiations are merely psychological? In a sense the answer is yes, but there is no "merely" about it. All magical rituals raise energy if performed by skilled practitioners. The difference with an initiation is that the psychological imprint allows the psyche of the candidate to be more open to that energy than they might otherwise be, and gives that energy a framework in which to work toward creating change in the candidate's life.

One of the wonders that the Internet has brought us is the concept of "astral initiations" that is, a group of magical practitioners will ask candidates to send them photographs or some other sort of magical link and then perform the initiation rite on the magical link, presumably to transmit a current of energy to the candidate corresponding to the energy summoned by the initiation rite. While the people doing this work may be sincere, I have trouble believing that it is all that effective. Without the imprint, the initiation will not work nearly as well. A magical force may be set in motion, but the effect will be reduced if it has to travel over a magical link and there will be no imprint created since the candidate has not gone through the physical experience of the initiation.

A couple of people have reported to me that they took astral initiations and felt some sort of tangible energy effect, and I believe them - I just think that the effect is unlikely to be any greater than that of performing a self-initiation rite and perhaps that would have been a better route to take. For one thing, it's free. Second of all, I think that any magician will learn a lot more writing and conducting his or her own initiation ritual than he or she will possibly pick up going through any sort of "astral ritual" conducted by others, regardless of how talented those others might be. Better still, though, would be to find a friend who is also a talented magician who can write a ritual that will be completely unfamiliar to the candidate so that an imprint will be properly formed.

Because this can be a difficult situation to set up, existing fraternal bodies still have an important role in initiation. In general, the rituals they perform were originally developed by talented ritualists and improved over the years based on changes that were found to work better for initiating candidates. Such improvements are based on empirical observation that a single individual could never undertake on short notice, and as a result the rituals themselves are cleaner and generally work better. While groups like Ordo Templi Orientis are more explicitly magical, the Masonic fraternity also puts on good initiation rites that have been tested for centuries on millions of candidates, a very impressive track record. Also, Masonic initiations are not only available to men - American Co-Masonry ( offers initiation to both men and women and has lodges in many areas of the country.

If Masonry is any indication, today more and more people are becoming interested in initiation and fraternal orders and seeing the value in joining such organizations. After losing members for a long time, it seems like Masonic lodges are finally starting to find more qualified individuals seeking initiation. The Internet helps make these groups easier to find, and it is clear that this is where many of the inquiries are now originating. My Masonic lodge has a very nice website at that has a lot of information, and I am also an initiate of Ordo Templi Orientis ( and a member of the local OTO lodge ( here in Minneapolis. Feel free to check out the links for more information.
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