Friday, March 1, 2013

Initiation in Modern Paganism

Well, only two posts in February. Sorry you lot. I can't even claim busy-ness, particularly, though I have kept myself busy. Really, It was that hibernation thing I wrote about. In the meantime some decisions were made and directions chosen, so I know what I'll be writing about - that's an improvement. Also, a couple of fun essays in the pipe.
Later today I am off to speak at the
Pagan Fire Seminar, so I'll have a review and pics on that as well.
If we stand on tip-toes we can see spring from here...

Initiation in Modern Paganism 

I had the pleasure, last month, of being interviewed by Candelo Kimbisi on his blogtalk radio show. I enjoyed the conversation very much, but in retrospect there was one topic that rather took me by surprise. I’m unused to not having a rap prepared on most Pagan topics, so I thought I’d better sort out my thi­nking at least a little. We’ll see how that goes...
 
Candelo works in a Palo system, and in those ways initiation is central. Each dedicated worshipper is blooded to a specific lineage of initiation, and receives spirit-contacts specific to that lineage. (At least that’s my understanding, limited as it is.) I’m uncertain of the place of non-initiate ‘congregations’ in Palo Houses.
 
The topic came up because I still list my Wiccan initiation in my bio. Back in the 1980s I took initiation in a non-Gardnerian traditional coven. That was a very formal matter, and I was blooded and sworn in a traditional way. I worked in that system for about ten years, and that was when I first became a devotee of the Gaelic gods. I became a 3rd Degree, and thus entitled to initiate, and then founded a coven and initiated others.
 
For me, ‘initiation’ was a goal that I had cherished since my first days as a teen occultist. Reading alone in my industrial backwater town, the shining dream (or midnight vision) of lineages of sorcerous and wise adepts stretching back into time was a powerful one for me. I steadfastly refused to refer to myself as a Witch until I had been initiated, using terms like ‘Pagan magician’ when asked.
 
However I was also reading the real accounts of the history of initiatory orders such as the GD, and watching the various gyrations of Wiccan coven leaders and initiators. Being a skeptical sort it was apparent to me that even real attainment and occult skill didn’t relieve the masters from the dangers of being assholes. It seemed, back in the 1970s, that anyone whose opinion I respected was busy publishing material that had previously been kept secret behind the veil of initiatory oaths. So I was conflicted. I both valued initiation for the connection it gives to lineage and a battery of power and wisdom, and I disdained the notion of secrecy that allowed leaders and organizations to control access to information.
 
Do I find that contradictory? Not really. While the insistence on secrecy can help build a current in an initiatory lineage I think that it mainly serves to enforce the power and authority of the leaders of the system. There are also socio-economic issues. I have always operated in a world in which information is readily available for a few dollars, by buying a book. There’s no doubt that being taught *any* subject by a living teacher has advantages over learning from books alone. However a great deal can be learned by reading and diligently applying what one reads. I always recall the derisive words of Crowley, who described swearing awesome oaths of secrecy only to have the revealed secrets begin with the Hebrew alphabet. Thanks to the availability of modern magical publishing so very much of what was once proprietary has become public.
 
Two things about that - first, the above simply isn’t true of ATR systems like Palo or even Quimbanda. In those cases, as with some kinds of traditional witchcraft, the initiate is introduced to spirits and practices specific to that system, and even to the house’s specialized mysteries. In order to keep a current like that straight, secrecy is an important technical tool.
 
Secondly, books in no way substitute for a living teacher. I had read about trance, vision and meditation for a couple of years before I found someone who could talk me through the basic states. A live teacher moved me further in two or three sessions than I had gotten by myself in years. Likewise during my initiatory work; the magical tasks set before me by my tradition were not new to me, not great revelations of secrets previously unknown. The culture of practice, the peer observation and the goals set before me by others certainly provided motivation, feedback and guidance that I couldn’t have gotten from my library.
 
All in all I in no way regret my work in an initiatory system, and still value the focus and commitment that is required to actually complete the better initiatory training programs. I do not believe in concealing one’s participation in modern Paganism or witchcraft as a matter of policy, nor of concealing the basics of one’s system. Even most technical magical methods and ideas can be published plainly. The chances of inappropriate persons actually having the juice to use them are slim.
 
As a side note I must say that I suppose the dynamic is different in cultures where magical skills can be sold for good money. One of the advantages of the no-cash-exchange ethic with which Gardner saddled Neopaganism is that it reduces the tendency to view the mysteries as commodities. When one makes a living based on one’s magical reputation, then the ‘trade secrets’ of one’s work become a different matter indeed. The turn of the 20th century scholar Charles Leland amassed a huge collection of spells and charms. He told of poor Italians trying to break into his house for the express purpose of stealing or copying that material, knowing that they could then set themselves up as conjurors. To be clear, I stand for the creation of permanent institutional Paganism in modern western society, and that will require money. The possibility of Pagan priests and other occult practitioners making a living on the work is a step toward the kind of world I want to live in. Let us just be aware of what we may have gained by our cashless ethic, and what we might live with if we set it aside.
 
These days the world of English-speaking neopaganism and occultism is a patchwork of different kinds of teaching, different levels of group commitment. Traditional initiatory work continues in BTW covens and the various revivals of the Golden Dawn, OTO etc. Once again ATR is providing models of how such systems can work for those trying to escape the post-Masonic elements of the western tradition. However the modern reality of freedom of information in large part prevent some of the sillier efforts to restrict access to lore and method, and help to prevent unscrupulous teachers from trading in bullshit.
 
A great deal of Pagan religion is now non-initiatory. People ‘join’ conceptually, self-defining based on reading and social groupings. That’s fine with me – that’s how religions grow. However it won’t help us produce powerful spiritual effects. If we’re to bring the Old Gods back into western awareness we will need much more powerful and concentrated efforts than are commonly produced by new Pagans who have decided to ‘believe’. The question, to me, is how to encourage the new Pagan to take up the level of work that we were encouraged to do in the old coven-training days.
 
I’ve done my best to push or pull ADF toward a couple of angles for this. Every new member receives a reasonably thick book of lore and training, with guidance for a year-long introductory course in our work, which encourages basic experiments in meditation, ritual and trance. Our Groves act as reliable public temples, where even casual students can participate in effective rites and approach the spirits. From there we offer various paths of training. Many who want esoteric work and focused spirituality choose the priesthood training, but we have also defined a path toward Initiation. That path doesn’t lead to ‘ordination’ – it doesn’t require the joining of an Order. Rather it is an initiation of the magical career of a Druidic magician, propelled by the current of those gone before. This new effort is very small thus far. We don’t know what it will be or mean in the longer terms. The spirits and those who come after us will make it what it will be.
 
Our priesthood is also quietly developing a current of vision and private work that resembles an initiatory current of sorts. It is perhaps already more fixed than the newer and less populated ‘initiates’ lineage. We’ve been plowing that field a while, and I expect some new growth soon.
 
The advice I’d come to for the modern movement (my opinion, etc… like folks need my advice… doesn’t stop me though…) My advice to the old initiatory traditions would be to look at their work and see what powerful methods could actually be offered to the public. Initiatory groups can be labs of magical and religious technique, and the results of that science could be/ought to be applied as engineering, to make ‘products’ of magical tech that can be offered to the modern movement at large. My advice to eclectics, new students and casual groups is to take the business of spiritual practice seriously. There are a variety of good training outlines available. A dedicated group of new students with a good training guide can learn plenty, and gain real experience of magic. There’s little difference between that and the sort of coven-based initiation of many dedicated groups. (Continuing my exhortation…) Do not think that ‘believing in’ the Gods will gain you their attention or gratitude. It is ritual worship – real deeds, not just thoughts – that open the way and make the link. Likewise for those who prefer an energy-magic model; believing that you could manipulate the subtle energies of the world through will and vision will get you little. Exercise and application will produce much more. From this angle, the primary value of an initiatory path is the work that it leads one to do.
 
 
From another angle, we must look at those initiatory systems that do generate and preserve mysteries. A mystery is a spiritual event or current that transforms and empowers the receiver by its own power.  When one enters an existing lineage of such a system one makes pact with specific spirits, learns specific patterns of energy-flow that are unique and secret to that system. Such paths are not for everyone. Any sensible initiator will closely question applicants, and initiate only those who seem proper to the work. Such systems were the womb of neopaganism, and they continue as powerhouses within the movement. I hope that new lines of such initiation continue to form, and I hope that they can percolate inside the growing public, congregational Pagansim just as the mystery cults did inside the village religions of the ancient world.
 
Have I clarified my thinking? I suppose so. I admire and respect the work of initiatory groups, and recommend a disciplined path for anyone who wants to really learn spiritual arts. I don’t think such paths are for everyone, and there is plenty to be gained from less formal work. Magic can be learned a la cart, to some degree, and even casual spirituality is entirely better than none at all.

1 comment:

andrewbwatt said...

Dear Ian,

Based on your photograph. I think we met at Starwood in the late '90s, when Isaac Bonewits was still up and about and attending. I miss him.

This article has been on my mind for some time, and I keep opening it, looking at the contents, thinking about it, and ultimately not commenting. There is that tension you describe, between the awesome oaths sworn for some scraps of Hebrew, and the wide availability of knowledge from books, and the value one derives from work with a teacher for even a short period of time. The work is hard alone, easier with a companion, easier still with companions and mentor. And yet, historians are able to point to the late 1400s when the masters in the old guild system refused to allow journeymen to advance, because the markets were saturated and they didn't wish to narrow their client bases by promoting more... So the guilds started breaking down.

What I see around New England is that regions are getting tribalized, as a result. Around Salem and other witch towns, Wicca; Druidry in pockets, and a lot of plastic shamanism. And it's focused on a few festivals of alternate spirituality.

So the idea of broadening and opening the base of initiation is keenly interesting to me. But I also wonder if the moment has passed, and if this kind of work is already becoming more tribal, more regional, and less rooted in a traditional group of practices that are common to all the folks in a given tradition.

Anyway, wanted to write, and let you know is post kept resonating with me,even though I had little clear to say about it immediately. I guess we can call at heavy reverb. :-)