Initiation Rites: From Ancient Pagan to Modern Neo-Pagan


Held to be one of the most ancient of rites, an initiation marks the psychological crossing of a threshold into new territories, knowledge and abilities. The major themes of the initiation are suffering, death and rebirth. The initiate undergoes an ordeal that is symbolic of physically dying, and is symbolically reborn as a new person possessing new knowledge.

In neo-Pagan Witchcraft, the initiation marks the entrance of the initiate into a closed and traditionally secret society; opens the door to the learning of ritual secrets, magic and the development and use of psychic powers; marks a spiritual transformation, in which the initiate begins a journey into Self and toward the Divine Force; and marks the beginning of a new religious faith.

While many traditional initiations exists, many neo-Pagans and Witches believe that the spiritual threshold may be crossed in many alternate ways; and, all are valid. The ritual may be formal or informal; may be old or new; may occur as a spontaneous spiritual awakening, or may even happen at a festival.

Historical Beliefs:

Traditionally the conception of a Witches’ initiation is that it was a diabolical and sinister affair. Such conceptions originated mostly from the stories coming out of the Middle Ages and Renaissance.

These were the periods of the witch-hunt. Many of the tales fashioned themselves from confessions of witches after being tortured by the Inquisitors. Although, the confessions or stories vary, they do share some common elements. Some witches claimed to have been initiated at birth or puberty, saying their mothers took them to sabbats where they presented them to the Devil and pledged them into his service. Some stories were that adults candidates were looked for by officers of covens.

After they agreed to joining a coven of their own free will they were presented to the covens and initiated. It should be observed that such rites were probably parodies of Christian rites, since Christianity was the common belief of that time.

The initiation, at which the Devil presided, usually was held in a remote place at night. The initiates, it was said , occasionally brought copies of the Gospels that were given to the Devil. They renounced the Christian faith and baptism by reciting, «I renounce and deny God, the blessed Virgin, the Saints, baptism, father, mother, relations, heaven, earth and all that is the world,» according to Pierre de Lancre, a witch hunter of the 17th century.

Initiates often said they pledged a vow of fidelity. Scottish witches told of putting one hand on their crown and the other upon the sole of one foot and dedicating all between their two hands to the service of the Devil. Scandinavian witches said they put metal clock shavings into small bags tossing them into water while saying, «As these shavings of the clock do never return to the clock from which they are taken, so may my soul never return to heaven.»

It was said that the Devil baptized the initiates, giving them new, secret names only to be used in the covens. Then the Devil would mark them by either scratching them with his claw or biting them. The new witches were then required to kiss the Devil’s anus, a parody of kissing the Pope’s foot. Sometimes they trampled and spit on the cross. The Devil would cut them or prick their finger, and them make them sign a pact with him with their own blood.

In a final act, he stripped them of their clothing and assigned to them one or more familiars. The coven officer or the Devil would record their name in the «black book,» a membership and attendance record for all coven meetings. Occasionally a black fowl or animal was sacrificed and offered to the Devil. It was said there were sinister festivities after the ritual which included dancing, copulating with the Devil and his demons, and feasting on vile things such as the flesh of roasted, unbaptized babies.

It is speculated that many of these tales of horrible incidents were the result of torture or disillusions occurring from frenzy or hallucinatory drug experiences derived from certain ointments which may have been used.

The British anthropologist Margaret A. Murrary theorized that the witch covens were remnants of organized pagan religions. The covens’ leaders were not the Devil, but men chosen to represent the Horned God, which were identified by witch-hunters as the Devil.

Murray also says, such pagan groups did recruit followers and conduct initiations, which may have included blood oaths of fealty to the god, the marking with tattoos, the dedication of children to the god and dancing. Drugs may have been taken as they are in some religious ceremonies around the world today. In some initiation ceremonies sexual practices may have been involved to emphasize the importance of fertility in paganism. The bizarre descriptions of the sabbats may have distorted the pagan rites. However most historians refute Murrary’s theories.

A more appropriate theory might be that such rites were probably parodies of Christian rites, since Christianity was the common belief of that time. It should be recognized that both the assumed witches and their hunters came from the same faith giving common ground for the origination of these bizarre tales.

Most acquainted with the history of Christianity of that time would readily recognize some of the parodies. The description of the witches pledging fidelity to the Devil by denouncing their God, religion, family and world could be seen as a parody to the Catholic priests’ and nuns’ vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.

The baptism of the Devil could be seen as parody to the sacraments of baptism and confirmation. It was mentioned that kissing the Devil’s anus was a parody to kissing the Pope’s foot. The Devil’s stripping them of their clothing might have been a parody to the habits which priests and nuns wear after they discard their ordinary clothing.

The keeping of the «black book,» a membership and attendance record for all coven meetings by the officer of the coven or the Devil was a parody to the church’s registry. Stories of copulating with the Devil and his demons was almost certainty a parody to Christian virtue and the vow of chastity. The feasting upon unbaptized babies could be a parody to the sacrament of holy communion.

It might seem incredible that such parodies existed, if they ever did. However, the descriptions of their existence are found in many references by different authors. Therefore, only three major conclusions can be drawn, either these hideous incidents did occur, or they were imagined and confessed to, or the authors are all liars. Any objective person will almost immediately disregard the third conclusion, especially after reading a Christian writer description of similar events (see Source: 48). The first two conclusions are not eliminated so easily. They raise the questions of whether the incidents did occur or were imagined and confessed to.

Throughout history these questions seem to persist unanswered. There is evidence to give credence to both, if one accepts the existence of a Devil that can physically manifest himself. If, however, one does not accept such a devilish existence then the second conclusion seems the most reasonable.

And, there are reasonable arguments for this. First, as previously stated it should be observed that such rites were probably parodies of Christian rites, which were commonly practiced at that time. Secondly, therefore, Christianity was shared both by the assumed witches and their prosecutors; thus making Christianity the mind set from which all these hideous incidents were formed.

It is a conceded fact that many witches were tortured, and after so long being tortured they confessed to anything. Since, as with many, Christianity was all they knew they naturally confessed to sins against God and the religion. On the other hand, their persecutors were equally stooped in the religion, if not more so; also, they were over zealous in defending their church.

To most of them the assumed witches had to be eliminated to prevent them from inflicting their heresies, whatever they may be, upon others. So, the more hideous the prosecutors could make the acts of the assumed witches appear, the more it suited their purpose. Therefore, the Medieval witches initiation and sabbat took on hideous dimensions.

Modern Initiations:

The modern initiations rituals conducted within the neo-Pagan Witchcraft traditions bear no resemblance to the descriptions of initiations put forth by many Medieval witch-hunters and demonologists. The rite vary according to traditions but keep closely to the universal theme of suffering-death-rebirth. Despite the variations, several things definitely are not included in any initiation into the Craft:

1. There is no renunciation of the Christian faith or any faith.
2. There is no homage to the Devil, including kisses, oaths or pacts. Satan is not recognized by neo-Pagan Witches or neo-Pagans.
3. There is no blood sacrifice.

A Witch, traditionally, is not considered a true Witch unless initiated into coven, after serving an apprenticeship of one year and a day. Women are required to be initiated by the high priest, and men by the high priestess. Among some hereditary Witches, mothers can initiate daughters and fathers, sons.

Initiations in the Gardnerian and Alexandrian traditions, the two largest traditions in modern Witchcraft, are formal affairs being conducted within the magic circle. Both tradition have three degrees of advancement, and the entry into each level is marked by an initiation. Each of the two traditions has its differences, but the major aspects are similar. With the advancement through the degrees, as in Masonry and Western occultism, the initiate is introduced to more secret teachings.

During the first-degree initiation the candidate is blindfolded, bound with cords and challenged outside of the magic circle as to test the person’s courage to continue. The initiate responds the she or he is ready with «perfect love and perfect trust» to suffer to be purified and learn.

Once inside the circle, the candidate is ritually scourged (whipped lightly with cords); measured with a cord, which is tied in knots to mark the measures; and administered an oath. In the presence of the Goddess(es), God(s), Guardians, Mighty Dead, and Sisters and Brothers of the Craft, the initiate vows to guard and protect the Craft, the Secrets of the Craft, and the brothers and sisters of the Craft, and, in some tradition, to render aid to said brothers and sisters.

The candidate is ritually anointed and kissed; proclaimed a Witch; and presented with a set of magical tools. The initiate adopts a Craft name. In the Alexandrian tradition the measure is returned to the Witch. In the Gardnerian tradition the measure is kept by the initiator. Gerald B.Gardner thought that the measure served as an insurance policy that the oath would be kept. According to Gardner this custom related back to the «old days» when if the oath was broken by a Witch, his or her cord was buried with curses, so that as it rotted the traitor would too.

In the second-degree initiation, the Witch again is blindfolded and bound, and renews the oath that is necessary to suffer, to learn and be purified. This is followed by a ritual scourging. The Witch takes a new Craft name and is willed the magical power of the initiator.

The third-degree initiation is consummation of the Mysteries, involves the Great Rite, a sexual ritual which may be performed in actuality or symbolically, with magical tools. All initiations conclude with a celebration of food and drink, that mostly includes cakes and wine.

There are other initiations which take on various forms and rituals according to beliefs. The solitary Witches not belonging to a tradition or coven have various forms of self-designed initiations that include ritual baths (a form of baptism),anointing and pledging to serve the Goddess and to use the powers of Witchcraft in the service of others. Other Witches, and neo-Pagans alike, have vision quests as initiations.

Other initiations are held in the Native American Indian tribal traditions and the shamanic traditions. A.G.H.

Source: 4.