True Initiation Comes from Within

True Initiation Comes from Within

by Maren M. Ulberg


Walk into any pagan or progressive bookstore and count the number of books available on the subject of magick, paganism and witchcraft: more than a few. Less than 20 years ago, even 15, for the most part this would’ve been a rare occurrence, and yet magickal and pagan “textbooks” are now a hot commodity with the purported wisdom of the ages available to anyone who can crack a wallet. Myself, I love it; I remember the thirsty, lonely years. I admit I’m a little overwhelmed at times by the sheer multiplicity of it all, but I’m pleased that it’s there: so neat and tidy, so bright and shiny it’s a wonder we can call anything esoteric anymore.

Something bothers me, though: Where did this smorgasbord of expertise in the paranormal sciences come from, aside from acknowledged elders and scholars? And, is my uneasy sense valid that many seekers (of the Crafts) are going to consume instruction indiscriminate of the source, and worse, without serious self-insight? Why does it bother me? Why do I think that there is a problem?

Well, since I know that I don’t feel particularly territorial about the subject of magick, perhaps I’m concerned with the result via the methods. I’m concerned that a shallow survey of magick, instead of the complexities of formal study, could result in a belief that magick based in the empirical is necessarily more effective than magick based in the intuitive. I believe this has derived from a twofold influence, on the reliance on scientific methodology as the “right” way to approach a discussion and study of magick, and on the comfort of formula-based magick, which has come to rely on a complex of correspondences, spell-scripts and tools. Ideally, these are meant to focus the will of the magician into activity and entice the attention of the powers that be. At the worst, they certainly have effectiveness as imitative magick. They still fit a standard witch’s definition of magick: “the ability to bring about change in the world through an act of will.” Unfortunately, is there a danger of losing our ability to employ an act of will by relying on pedestrian brands of magick without any personal investigation of the self?

As witches, we most certainly will undergo some form of initiation or initiations in the course of our lives. I propose to briefly discuss initiation as it has been used in the classic sense, and then discuss a theory of the mystic, or transcendent initiate, aiming to return the power of the intuition to the realm of the magician.

Magick by its very nature is boundless and difficult to describe or define much the same as our notions of spirit, soul, love, the sacred or the mind; each culture and person acquires their own definition, while some do not desire to contemplate the concept at all. As a witch formally trained in the studies of anthropology, comparative philosophy, art and medicine, I have some skills that help me describe such weighty topics, and yet when I make the attempt to codify the concept, I feel something is lost. Something vital, something inexplicable. This is the same dilemma and result experienced by anyone, no matter what their professorialship, dedication, theory, census, fecundity of data or the quantity of profundity applied to the subject. Some things defy our logic and control. For these things, only the arts come close to conveying the subtlety and depth required of their subjects. Art, like magick, derives from the use of skill (by learning and experience) and becomes true through creative intuition.

Ed Fitch, of the Feraferia tradition, describes magick as “that which is beyond our casual knowledge,” or esoteric. His definition embraces both concepts of esoteric knowledge, received through study, training and the physical initiation into a magickal circle or society, and intuitive or mystic knowledge.

Initiation is a metaphor for rebirth after a simulation of death. It is a lesson of sacrifice: the willing participation in the holy mystery of existence, of life consuming and begetting life. At times, according to Frazier, its purpose within animistic cultures was the temporary transfer of the initiate’s soul or essence outside his or her body into an object or totem animal as a safeguard during the powerful changes occurring in coming to sexual maturity. This had the effect of introducing the totem animal to the initiate and ushering in the person as a full, adult member of society. Manly P. Hall, in his workThe Secret Teachings of All Ages, relates the achievement of initiation into the Mysteries (here he refers to those of classical Greece): that man becomes aware of and reunited with the anthropos, or overself, without physical death, “the inevitable Initiator.” The physical body was considered to be only one-third of one’s immortal self, a periodic descent of spirit into matter. Through a process known as “operative theology,” the law of birth and death was transcended momentarily to awaken and reunite all parts of the self and connect with the whole of existence.

Forms of initiation, or rites of passage, occur at the many critical phases of a person’s life and development, such as marriage, induction into age sets and societies, professional inductions such as taking the Hippocratic Oath, onset of a woman’s menses or conference of status or degree. Themes common to formal initiations include:

  • Aspects of secrecy (initiation performed only by other initiates)
  • Conveyance of knowledge, revelation of mysteries
  • Physical change (scarring, tattooing, piercing, the onset of menses, circumcision, taking sacramental drugs, loss of a tooth or clothing and so on)
  • Passing of certain tests
  • Advancement into age sets, societies, degrees, orders and so on
  • Purification (leaving off the “old” person)
  • Concept of death of the old self and the birth of a new, with a new name
  • Ritual binding, kidnapping, killing, laying in a tomb
  • Existing in a liminal phase

The “liminal” is an anthropological term devised by Van Gennep and Turner in Rites of Passage, which describes “that which is neither this nor that, and yet is both.” Those in liminal phase are statusless, sexless and outside secular space and time in a sense, they occupy the limitless existence before birth. “The liminal subject experiences ‘communitas,’ a comradeship among equals.” T.M. Luhrmann writes inPersuasions of the Witches Craft: “The techniques of the liminal [phase] can be used to make that-which-is-not persuasively more realistic,” resulting in a profound experience when the initiate has an extensive period in which to move into a state of “not-being.”

A Persian mystical writer and thinker, Azizi-Al Muhhamed Nasifi, relates a form of initiation as mystical transcendence, a form I propose can deepen and further magickal work. In his work Tanzil ur arwah, dated 1360 C.E., he describes the necessary “vita purgativa” (inner death) to move through the arenas of spiritual progress to “ghayat” (freedom):

“The essence of purification is separation while the essence of prayer is connection. A form of initiation relates as a mystical transcendence, an aspect I propose that can contribute to deeper progress in magickal arts. Where connection in a moral stage creates out of one’s self, purification in the act of escaping the fetters of the old self.”

At what point this transformation was to be recognized is unclear, but perhaps it was a state of the heart instead of a condition of the intellect. Although the light of the intellect is sharp-sighted and farsighted, he says, “the fire of love is even more sharp-sighted and farsighted.” Therein Nasifi has combined intellect and love as the question requires for spiritual transcendence. He felt the path of the mystic could reflect clearer insight by freeing the heart and mind of preconscious beliefs (dogma) and the mundane practices of the theologian. He writes, “Wherein the theologian, he who travels the path of religious dogma, learns each day something he did not know before, the mystic, he who travels the path of the initiate, forgets each day something that he knew.” Yet both strive for knowledge, for ignorance plays no part in this path of forgetfulness.

Magick in the witch’s Craft relies on the theory of immanence and the knowledge that it can be directly contacted and influenced or directed through the will of the witch, an act that requires a change of consciousness. Imman describes where there is no split between spirit and matter, magick or immanence in an ever-present quality, like a river one lives beside, draws life from and can enter at will.

If magick is a reflection of that which is possible beyond our casual knowledge, then the mystic initiate would seem to be in a position of greater strength through transcendence (intuition) as a magician than one who relies on esoteric learning alone.

When Nasifi exhorts us to polish our heart as if it were a shining mirror in order to reflect the world as it is, I can imagine that in my chest is a great crystalline globe, and rather than filling it with bits of paper inked with the interpretations of others, I leave room and shine it to allow the immanence to flow within me. To fill me so that I may dip into the pool of the sacred. The magick.