Towards a Definition of Initiation:

Emic and Etic Views of Initiation in the Western Mystery Tradition

Jeffrey S. Kupperman



            In the literature of the numerous modern western esoteric movements, from the time of the magical revival in the 1700s but especially from the late 19th century to today, one of the most fundamental concepts has been that of“initiation.” Magicians are initiated into their lodges or temples, Wiccans are initiated into their covens, Druids into their groves. In contrast to initiation by a group there is also “self-initiation,” a growing trend that is surrounded by some controversy. But what is initiation? What is its purpose and function within the Western Mysteries as they exist today? Further, how can initiation be studied from the view of academia? Is it possible to do so using the emic terminology of the people being observed or must etic language be used? Or, is it possible that there is some middle ground where emic and etic definitions meet?

            The discussion itself poses some problems. Surveying the literature of modern occultism and of magical religions such as Wicca or Druidry is often unhelpful. Initiation is mentioned, but the meaning of initiation is often not stated; the reader is assumed to know.[1] In other sources only vague or basic definitions are given. In neo-hermetic literature the word is usually given its literal definition and nothing else.[2] In the majority of cases it appears that initiation is spoken of but not spoken about.

            Fortunately, not all the available sources are like this. However complications arise with works attempting to define initiation, as they often couch those definitions in emic terminology that is not readily accessible to the lay reader or outside observer.[3] A library of knowledge must already be possessed in order to make sense of what is being told. Even then, unless reading to understand what initiation is, it is possible to read such literature and discover only the methods of initiation without coming to a definite conclusion as to its meaning. Nevertheless it is through works containing such definitions and other sources that may describe the initiatory process without actually referring to it directly that an understanding of initiation in the Western Mysteries may be gained.[4]

Historical Definitions of Initiation

The discussion of initiations within academic circles is itself relatively new, with serious inquiry into the subject beginning as late as 1902 with Schurtz’s Altersklassen und Männerbünd and again in 1908 with Webester’s Primitive Secret Societies.[5] Since that time numerous works on the subject of initiation have been written, including many important volumes such Van Gennap’s Les Rites de Passage, upon which almost all others seem to have based their own definitions of initiation.

Van Gennap’s “rites de passage” describes a three-part process of ritual transformation. The first part or phase involves the separation of the subject from his or her current social group. Phase two is equated with a stage of no identity; the subject belongs neither to the old group but does not yet belong to the new. The final phase admits the subject into the new group.[6] However, as pointed out by Schroeder and Snoek, rites de passage can account for rituals of transformation other than initiatory rituals, such as those marking the passage of time as in the case of a new years ritual[7] or the eight fold seasonal rituals found in certain contemporary pagan practices.


            However, Van Gennap’s rites de passage is too broad a basis for a definition of initiation in some ways and too narrow in others; it describes a general process but it does not discuss specific events or concepts that seem to appear in most if not all initiation rituals. [8] The problem of a definition being either too large in scope, too narrow or both becomes a common occurrence. Snoek combats these tendencies by approaching the problem from two different perspectives; definition-by-identification and definition-by-description. In this way Snoek is able to include that which is needed in his definition but at the same time exclude those concepts that do not specifically fall within the realm of initiations.

The Western Mysteries

            There are many different types of initiation from various cultures, traditions, religions, etc. This paper shall look specifically at the sub-category of initiation that falls under the heading of the Western Mysteries or the Western Mystery Tradition. “Western Mysteries” a term for a wide variety of magical, mystical, spiritual and religious traditions that have their roots in antiquity but have come to be practiced as we now know them within the last 700 years. This paper will look at those major traditions and religions within the scope of the Western Mysteries that could be considered living or modern. These will include, but may not be limited to, Freemasonry, the Societas Rosicruciana in Anglia (S.R.I.A.), the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn (G.D.) and the Rosea Rubea et Aurea Crucis (R.R. et A.C.), the Ordo Templi Orientis (O.T.O.) and Gardnarian and Alexandrian Wicca. These sources are chosen because of their influence on modern occultism as well as the availability of their initiation rituals to the public.

Emic and Etic Language

            Emic language; those terms used by the believers or the observed group, and etic language; distinctions and descriptions made by outside observers, have a close relationship in research done within the Humanities. Wouter Hanegraaff states:

An accurate presentation of the religion under study as expressed by the believers themselves must be the basis of research. On the part of the researcher, the reconstruction of this emic perspective requires an attitude of empathy which excludes personal biases as far as possible. Scholarly discourse about religion, on the other hand, is not emic but etic. [9]

Taking this further, J.A.M. Snoek states that “. . . an emic scholarly approach is a contradiction in terms. . .” [10] It is only etic terminology that is qualified to be used amongst observers. For Snoek, the emic language of the participant may only be researched or described by the observers, and not used by them.

Etic descriptions are therefore dependant upon the observer’s understanding of the observed’s beliefs. Snoek states that one of the three types of discourses that occur within the Humanities is that between participant and observer. [11] The implication is that before one can discuss anything in etic language the emic language must first be understood by the observer. However, I believe that the emphasis on etic language is misplaced as using such language, without reference to the original participant’s understanding, can potentially divorce the subject from its original context. By removing the act from its natural contextm theoretical analysis overlooks the actual dynamics of the practice. [12] Instead, I suggest that any etic definition is the starting point for any academic inquiry. From this generalized definition the scholar is then able to look more deeply into the subject with an academic framework behind them.

Hanegraaff notes that the presentation of the emic and etic matieral alongside one another is a possibility, so long as a distinction is made between the two. [13] As we will see such a presentation will not only help the explanation of the etic descriptions by providing a clear reference to the original emic language, it will save it from completely loosing its contextual reference.



            Perhaps the most difficult task is to define what initiations are from the view of the participant. In this case that means forming a definition of initiation with which a practitioner within the Western Mysteries would agree. Aside from discussing the subject directly with those practitioners, which itself may be difficult, the best way to accomplish this is to read the actual initiatory literature of these groups and any commentary on them.

            No simple or singular definition can be definitive as initiation represents a complex set of concepts. Instead, as seen in Snoek’s writings on the subject, any encompassing definition must include a monothetic, non-fuzzy descriptor refined enough to exclude those rituals that are clearly not initiations but at the same time include a polythetic and fuzzy descriptor that is broad enough to embrace ritual characteristics found in some instances of initiations. [14]

In creating his definition-by-identification, Snoek aimed to create a technical classification of rituals based on characteristics that are generally accepted and easily observable. These descriptions are ideally monothetic and non-fuzzy. [15] His definition-by-description includes characteristics that have to be included in order for the definition to encompass those rituals that are commonly called initiations. These may be polythetic and fuzzy in nature.

            By distinguishing those characteristics of initiations that are found in all instances it is possible to form a general definition of initiation. All initiations within the context of the Western Mysteries must encompass this general definition to in order to qualify as an initiation. Importantly, characteristics that may be monothetic in this context may become polythetic in instances of initiations when moved to a wider context including all forms of initiation.

Due to its both monothetic/non-fuzzy and polytheitc/fuzzy nature, Snoek’s definition encompasses many other definitions of initiation. The main difference is the specific divisions in Snoek’s definition. With his separation of characteristics Snoek is able to give a general definition of initiation and then narrow that definition to include many different aspects of initiation that may occur in one instance of initiation, for example the initiation of a priest into the priesthood, but not in another, such as the initiation of a child into adulthood. [16] Snoek’s approach forms the general model for our creation of definitions of initiation within the Western Mysteries.

Initiation: Monothetic and Non-Fuzzy Characteristics

            All initiations must have at least three phases, though these phases can be repeated within the same ritual. The first, or pre-liminal phase prepares the candidate for initiation. This is done in many ways but the goal of all of them is to develop in the candidate a sense of separation from his or her former life.

            Those first phase preparations that are directed towards the candidate, as opposed to those that are directed towards the ritual conductors or ritual space, generally fall into two groups, physical/psychological and magical, though many groups do not always show a clear delimitation between physical, psychosocial and magical levels of awareness. Almost all groups use forms of sensory deprivation in their initiatory rites. The most common forms of this are the blindfold or hoodwink and the binding of the body in one or more places with cord or rope. See Figure 1 for different methods of blindfolding and binding within different traditions.

Figure 1. – Blindfolding and Binding




Free Masonry

Called a hoodwink, this can take many different forms, from a simple blindfold to a hood that covers the entire head.

Called a tow rope or cable. The candidate’s hands are bound and the cable is placed around his neck.


This uses different colored veils placed over the candidate’s head and face, the color depending on which grade the candidate is to be initiated into.

Does not use binding

Golden Dawn

Similar to Masonry, from which the technique was derived.

In the Neophyte grade the candidate has a red cord tightly wound around their waste three times, which is said to represent the three fold bondage of mortality.

R.R. et A.C. [17]

No use of blindfolding.

No use of binding in beginning pre-liminal rites.


Similar to that of Masonry, from which the technique was derived.

Similar to that of Masonry, from which the technique was derived.

Traditional Wicca

No use of blindfolding.

Candidate is bound for portions of the 1st and 2nd degree initiation. The binding in the 1st degree has similarities to what is done in Masonry.



While obviously physical in nature blindfolding and binding can also have a psychological effect upon the candidate. These effects are often augmented through visualization, which is believed to have a magical effect upon the candidate. In the Golden Dawn’s Neophyte ritual the Hierophant or ritual conductor visualizes “. . . the astral appearance of the Candidate [as] that of a form wrapped in darkness, as if extinguished thereby . . ..” [18] This is also thought to have a certain psychological effect upon the candidate, as it is noted that this will cause the candidate to often act in an automatic and vague manner. [19]

            Other common techniques used in this phase are those involving the use of special clothing or one’s regular clothing worn in an unusual manner. Many orders, such as the Golden Dawn or Aleister Crowley’s A.A., as well as the S.R.I.A. and the Aurum Solis have the candidate wear special robes. A candidate for the first Masonic degree will have breast and knees revealed while wearing clothing with no metal in it at all. Traditional Wiccan initiations are often performed nude or “sky clad”. Again these are physical preparations they will many times have psychological effects upon the candidate. Also used in this phase are ritual baths, meditations and/or visualizations performed by the candidate him or herself.

            The second phase is that which might be called the “initiation proper.” In this phase the candidate goes through a process that will eventually bring him or her into the group or tradition. In magical orders or religions this phase is often magical in nature and is said to have specific effects on the candidate that he or she may not be aware of but will bring about the necessary connection to that groups magical current. [20]

            There are numerous techniques and rites that may be employed in this phase. Commonly this will involve the candidate being lead around the ritual space where stories or speeches will be recited in particular places. Again visualizations may play a role here. In the Golden Dawn and Aurum Solis certain symbols are visualized around the candidate or in what is called his or her aura. In each of the G.D.’s outer order ceremonies a white triangle, or a white triangle and red cross in various formations, will be visualized in the candidate’s aura. These symbols also represent the grades of the Golden Dawn and connect the candidate to those grades and the implication is that these symbols link the candidate with the magical energies of the grade they have been initiated into. In the Aurum Solis’s 2nd degree numerous images are implanted in the candidate’s aura, including several Greek god images [21] ; in the 3rd degree the image of a green scarab is also visualized in the candidate’s aura. These images appear to connect the candidate with the magical energies of the initiation as well as the overall purpose of those initiations. The formulation of the green scarab is to have “the magical effect of vitalizing the astral body of the candidate . . . .”. [22] This correlates with the Aurum Solis’ initiatory scheme that ultimately results in the palingenesis of the candidate. Also, an oath or obligation is almost always a part of this phase.

            In magical initiations, such as those in the G.D., O.T.O. or Wicca, it is possible for this phase to fail, meaning that the necessary connection to the group’s magical current did not take place. It is said that occultist Dion Fortune was expelled from the Alpha et Omega, an offshoot of the Golden Dawn, because “certain symbols had not appeared in [her] aura. . .” [23] While it is impossible to determine whether this claim is true or not, it is an example of how the magical process of initiation may not have been successful, meaning that the person in question would not be entitled to any of the benefits of initiation within the group, including the status or rank that comes with it. [24]

            Integration into the group is the final phase. It can be difficult to pinpoint where this phase starts in the ritual. In some instances it occurs only after the candidate is declared to be a member of the group or tradition in question and the secrets pertaining to the new initiate’s grade or rank within the group are given. In some magical groups this phase begins before the magical current of that group is placed within the candidate. This phase may continue through to the end of the ritual itself or may end earlier.


            Integration techniques are often quite simple. For instance almost all initiating groups within the Western Mysteries read to the new initiate a series of instructions pertaining to the teachings of their new grade. In indoor lodge or temple settings the new initiate is often seated in a particular quarter of the ritual space reserved for members of the same grade. This is seen in the initiations of the Golden Dawn as well as in the second and third Masonic degrees.

The three phases of initiation are markedly similar to the phases of a rite de passage, consisting of preliminal, liminal, and post-liminal phases, so much so that we may, as an etic delineation, identify initiations as a form of rites de passage, as numerous others have already done. As rites de passage, initiations are a subclass of ritual. Therefore we can say that initiations are ritual processes directed towards a subject, being one or more candidates, and having some effect on those subjects. [25] All of this can be clearly seen in our emic definition above.

            At the end of a successful initiation ritual, the new initiate has a new status within the group. This change of status is expressed within the ritual and is produced by the ritual. Exactly how this occurs will vary. The effect may simply be declarative in nature; the ritual conductor, using his or her authority as such, declares the candidate a member and therefore he or she is. It may also include psychological factors, based on the identification of the candidate with all others who have undergone the ritual before. It may include magical factors.

            The declarative nature of the change is common to all traditions within the Western Mysteries. Figure 2 shows a list of declarative statements used in various traditions in the Western Mysteries.


Figure 2. – Declarative Statements of Status Change



Free Masonry

1st Degree: Rise, newly obligated Brother among Masons. [26]


Practicus Degree: As in the preceding degree of Theoricus, when you were therein admitted to complete the number seven, so in this Grade of Practicus, you have now been admitted to fill a vacancy and complete their number Six. [27]

Golden Dawn

Philosophus Degree: Honoured Hegemon, you have my commands to present the Practicus with the necessary Admission Badge and to admit him. [28]

R.R. et A.C.

Adeptus Minor Degree: Arise now as an Adeptus Minor of the Rose of Ruby and the Cross of Gold, in the sign of Osiris Slain. [29]


6th Degree: In the name of Ra-Hoor-Khuit and of The Beast of and On and by the authority of the Grand Master Baphomet and by virtue of the Powers vested in my person, I create thee, now and forever, a Knight Templar of the Order of Kadosch and a Companion of the Holy Grail. [30]

Traditional Wicca

2nd Degree: Here, Ye Might Ones, (name) hath been duly consecrated High Priest and Magus. [31]



Etically, we can say that initiations, as rites of passage, must have as their object a transforming effect upon their subjects. This transformation can be observed as a change of status for the subject. This change of status may be understood by the practitioners in a number of different ways; mundane, magical, and/or spiritual.

            From both and emic and etic perspective, initiations are always first-time rituals that cannot be repeated for the same candidate. This is especially true for non-magical rituals. The author is aware of people who have been given an initiation twice, after an extended period of time, before being given the next initiation in the initiatory process. [32] However, it is arguable that because this repeated initiation does not change the status of the candidate within the group, it is not actually an initiation but simply an act of ritual with a magical and not an initiatory purpose. This is fully in line with the literal definition of initiation as well as agreeing with the common usage of the term. It is for this reason that second marriages or the birth of a second child are excluded from a general definition of initiation even though they are considered rites de passage. [33]

            Rituals of initiation are limited in scope of time from both an emic and etic standpoint. The rituals themselves are not ongoing and must end distinctly before the death of the candidate. In addition rituals are marked by distinct beginnings and endings.

            All initiation rituals within the Western Mysteries, from both the emic and etic views, are seen as having a mythological element to them. Generally they are said to take place in a magical space outside of time and space, in the center of time and space or at some mythological location, such as the halls of Osiris from the Egyptian Book of Going Forth by Day, the construction site of King Solomon’s Temple or at the Rosicrucian’s mountain Abiegnuis.

The mythic element is acted out within the confines of the ritual with the candidate being seen as an actor within the myth. Often the mythological element is based on the theme of death and resurrection; this theme may be either explicit or implicit. [34] Mythologies will vary from tradition to tradition and a single tradition may use myths from a number of different cultures, though in all cases the practitioners will consider the myths presented to be ancient. Diagram 3 shows a list of mythic themes that can be found in the Western Mysteries.


Diagram 3. – Myths and Mythic Themes


Mythic Theme

Free Masonry

1st – 3rd Degree: The construction of King Solomon’s temple. In the third degree the symbolic death and resurrection of the candidate occurs. [35]


1st – 4th Degrees: The story of an original member of the Rosicrucian fraternity, concerning his discovery of a great secret and his death before being able to present it to his brethren. [36]

Golden Dawn

Neophyte: The presentation of Ani the Scribe before Osiris and the Scale of Ma’at from the Egyptian Book of the Dead.

Zealtor: Encountering the great angels Samael, Mettatron and Sandolphon. Travel through the Holy Place of the Temple of Solomon.

Theoricus: Egyptian and Hermetic Qabalistic themes are present.

Practicus: The mysteries of the Greek Kabiri and Hermetic Qabalistic themes.

Philosophus: Egyptian, Hermetic Qabalistic and Esoteric Christian themes. [37]

R.R. et A.C.

Portal: Hermetic Qabalistic and Rosicrucian themes, the veil before the Holy of Holies of Solomon’s Temple and before the Tomb of CRC is introduced.

Adeptus Minor: The main Rosicrucian myth is enacted and read. [38]


0-2nd Degree: The myth of Saladin and the Oasis.

3rd Degree: The Story of murder of Mansur el-Hallaj, a mythic initiate of the O.T.O. This is very similar to the story of the murder of Hiram Abiff in the Masonic 3rd degree initiation.

4th Degree: Based upon Haggai 2: 1-9.

5th: Degree: Rosicrucian and Thelemic mythology.

6th Degree: Myth of the Knights Templar [39]

Traditional Wicca

2nd Degree: The Legend of the Goddess and the Horned God, based on the death and resurrection of Inanna is enacted or read. [40]



Finally, from both the emic and etic perspectives, the subject of an initiation must always fulfill certain requirements in order to qualify for initiation. The exact requirements vary, and may depend on sex, religion, or simply having been accepted by the group for initiation. Without meeting these qualifications no initiation will take place. For example, to become a member of the SRIA the candidate must first be a Master Mason, believe in the Christian Trinity and be chosen by the SRIA to become a member. [41] Without meeting these qualifications no initiation will take place. From the emic standpoint, may be argued that if a person who did not meet these qualifications underwent the initiation ceremony anyway that person would still not be considered an initiate of that group.

            To summarize, initiations must have the following characteristics: they must separate the candidate from his or her former life, they must ritually bring the candidate into the group and they must integrate the candidate into the group. This is done through the ritual enactment of a myth or myths important to the initiating group. The candidate must also meet certain requirements to qualify for initiation. Individual initiation rituals are themselves steps within an overall process of initiation. After a successful initiation ritual the initiate has a new status within the group. From these descriptors a general, exclusive definition can be constructed. Such a definition can be rendered as follows:

Initiations are those, and only those, rites de passage, limited in time, involving at least one subject (the candidate), which are non-recurrent transformations in status for the subject(s).

Initiation: Polythetic and Fuzzy Characteristics

            The next set of characteristics are polythetic in nature and are independent from the definition formed by monothetic characteristics. Because of their existence in general perceptions of what initiations are they must be included within a definition of initiations.

            Seen from both the emic and etic views, the subject of an initiation is usually an individual person. This is true in almost all cases, though there are some instances in Freemasonry [42] and its various rites, as well as the Golden Dawn [43] and the O.T.O., where groups of people are initiated at a time. For instance, in the O.T.O. it is preferred that 12 people undergo the second part of the Minerval initiation at once. [44]

Generally, a candidate cannot have a stand-in, but must go through the ritual him or herself. This is true in both the emic and etic point of view. However, in certain circles, especially in those involving the Golden Dawn, the subject of “astral initiation” has been debated. In one such instance a person would go through the initiation in the place of the candidate when the candidate could not make it to the location of the initiation. The initiatory stand-in is said to be magically linked to the actual candidate so that the candidate experiences what the stand-in experienced magically. While not accepted in all circles it is an accepted practice with a minority of occultists. [45] In this case the observer can at the least consider the absent initiate’s change in status as occurring through the declaration of the ritual conductor. Where a candidate can have a stand in it is not necessarily the case that a stand-in is required

Usually there are at least two participants in an initiatory ritual, the subject and at least one ritual conductor. When this is the case the second participant is always the initiator. Often there will be more than one ritual participant besides the candidate and initiator.

The concept of self-initiation exists within both the Golden Dawn tradition and in some limited cases within Traditional Wicca. [46] In eclectic Wiccan practices the occurrence of self-initiation appears more often. [47] In this case the candidate and initiator are the same person. Emically it is often thought that it is not the initiator who causes the initiation to take place but some super-human or occult agency, such as a deity or some deific aspect of the candidate.


An initiation ritual usually occur in a certain place. The place is generally determined by the group and must be specially prepared. Any place that is not so prepared is not qualified to hold the ritual. There are numerous ritual space preparations and preparation rites and they often found as part of the initiatory rubric of any given group. When found in written initiatory rituals these rites are often placed under the general heading of the “Opening” of the ritual and may change from initiation to initiation within a given group. Figure 4 gives some examples of such ritual space preparations.


Diagram 4. – Ritual Space Preparations



Free Masonry

Placement of Bible or other Holy Book on the altar, recitation of the duties of the officers and the duties of a Mason.


Singing of odes

Golden Dawn

Banishing rituals, invocations of elements, magical assumption of “god forms” by the ritual officers

R.R. et A.C.

Banishing rituals, magical assumption of “god forms” by the ritual officers


Placement of the Book of the Law and other items in the lodge, the recitation of the Law of the Thelema.

Traditional Wicca

Drawing of the magic circle with the sword or athame, the conjuration of protective Watchtowers.


From the emic perspective these rites are absolutely necessary. This is especially true in the magical orders and religions where these rites are seen as adding layers of protection to the ritual space and its conductors, as well as creating the correct magical atmosphere for the ritual or a connection to the correct magical current for the initiation at hand.

A ritual of initiation, as a rite of passage, may have secondary, tertiary or more purposes beyond the bringing of a candidate into a group, tradition or magical current. These purposes are often related to the central purpose of a ritual of initiation but are not necessarily directly related. Emically, this can include adding magical protection to the candidate or aiding in spiritual awakening or balance.

Through an initiation the subject usually becomes a member of a group. If this is the case it is the only way possible to become a member of that group. In the case of self-initiation the participant may understand themselves to be connecting to the magical current of a particular tradition but not necessarily to a group of people that represents that current. [48]

Change in status is usually recognized by badges or insignia gained during the initiation. These insignia are usually removable and usually must be worn or displayed during meetings of the initiatory group. Participants within a particular tradition may consider ideas such as images in the aura, as already discussed, to be another recognition of the change of status of an initiate.


Intermediate Criterion

There is one criterion that is either monothetic and non-fuzzy or polythetic and fuzzy depending on if one approaches it from an emic or etic view. This criterion is whether initiations are seen as an overall process of “initiation” even when there is only a single initiation ritual for a given group.

Emically, initiations are seen as steps in a continuing process of “initiation.” This can be seen clearly in Albert Pike’s commentary on the degrees Scottish Rite of Freemasonry, Morals and Dogma, which discusses each grade of the Scottish rite and how the teachings of each grade build upon the last. It is implied in the more advanced initiatory rituals of Freemasonry, the Golden Dawn and Wicca where the candidate is tested on material, both intellectual and moral, from previous grades. Further, to advance from the Portal grade of the GD to the grade of Adeptus Minor the candidate is required to write a thesis describing, amongst other things, their own experiences and progression through the Outer Order grades and the effects of those grades upon them. [49] From this vantage initiations are seen as having some continuing intellectual or magical effect on the initiate outside of the venue of the ritual. For such a group this implies that even when another group or tradition has only a single initiation within their system, that the effects of the initiation ritual on the candidate continues in some fashion outside of the venue of the ritual.

From an etic perspective, however, it cannot necessarily be said that this is the case, though it must be noted when it is believed by the participants to be. Some groups, such as Starhawk’s Reclaiming Witchcraft, may have only one level of initiation, which is itself optional. Thus, any other status change becomes a function of some other process.


            Defining initiations can raise numerous problems. This matter can be complicated even further when trying to define initiations within a specific group of traditions, such as the Western Mysteries, which itself includes numerous and diverse groups, including fraternities, occult organizations and magical religions. These complications arise largely from the lack of explanatory literature on the subject, and the unwillingness, whether due to personal reasons or obligations of secrecy, of participants to describe or explain the initiations of which they have been a part. While such literature does exist it is not designed to specifically answer the question as to what initiations are. Instead this literature, for the most part, describes the ceremonies themselves and sometimes discusses the effect the various parts of the rituals are to have on the candidate.

To arrive at any sort of definition of initiations within the Western Mysteries we must, as Snoek demonstrated, be able to include certain characteristics and exclude others. These factors are monothetic in nature; those that are included must occur in every instance of initiations and those that are excluded will never occur. We must also recognize polythetic characteristics that occur in some occasions of initiations but are required in those instances that they do occur. Characteristics that are understood to be aspects of initiation in the common usage of the term must also have a place within any definition. These may be either monothetic or polythetic in nature.

            In order to arrive at such a definition, the existing literature must be examined and understood. For this to occur the observer must understand the emic language of these books. It is only through an understanding of the language of the participant that the observer is able to then create an etic language definition.

            It becomes clear that in most instances the general understanding of the aspects of initiation, and therefore what initiation is, are similar between emic and etic views. The etic view then becomes the general basis for discussion between researchers in the humanities. However it is the emic understanding that makes up the meat of the discussion, as it is through this vantage that the individual components that make up an initiation or initiations are found. Further, as noted by Catherine Bell, ritual activities, such as initiations, can only be found within the context where it occurs. When removed from this context the activity, according to Bell, is not exactly the same. [50] This means that once the subject is removed completely to the realm of etic discussion it becomes merely a reference to the original subject while ceasing to be that original subject.


We can see, therefore, the important link between emic and etic language definitions and the importance, for the researcher in the humanities, to be able to understand the emic in order to develop an etic language. We also see how the emic understanding must always take precedence over a general etic understanding of a subject so that the original context of the subject matter is not lost. An etic definition is valuable in the study of any subject, but only as a starting point for academic inquiry. From this basis the scholar is then able to approach a specific tradition’s view on the subject with a general understanding of it. However as each tradition will have a unique understanding, as well as unique practices, a general etic definition can never represent a complete or contextual view of its subject. As demonstrated a valuable bridge between the emic and etic views is the discussion of both views alongside one another, so that the one can always act as reference to the other.


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Green, Marian. 1988. The Path Through the Labyrinth : The Quest for Initiation Into the Western Mystery Tradition. Shaftesbury: Element.

Greer, John M. 1997. Circles of Power: Ritual Magic in the Western Tradition.1st ed. St. Paul, MN: Llewellyn Publications.

Greer, Mary K. 1995. Women of the Golden Dawn: Rebels and Priestesses. Rochester, VT: Park Street Press.


Grimes, Ronald L., Dr. 1990. Ritual Criticism: Case Studies in Its Practice, Essays on Its Theory. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press.

Hanegraaff, Wouter J. 1998. New Age Religion and Western Culture: Esotericism in the Mirror of Secular Thought. NY: State University of New York Press.

Hutton, Rohald. 1999. The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

King, Francis. 1973. The Secret Rituals of the O.T.O. London, UK: C.W. Daniel Company Limited.

Koenig, Peter-R. Theodor Reuss' Ordo Templi Orientis Rituals. 2003 [cited 4 January, 2004 2004]. Available from

La Fontaine, Jean Sybil. 1985. Initiation. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press.

May, Robin B (editor). 2001. Gardner Tradition: Spells, Rituals and Sabbats. San Jose, NM: Writers Club Press.

Philips, Osborne. 2001. Aurum Solis: Initiation Ceremonies and Inner Magical Techniques. St. Paul, MN: Llewellyn Publications.

Regardie, Israel. 1994. The Complete Golden Dawn System of Magic. Temppe, AZ: New Falcon Publications.

Regardie, Israel. 1993. The Golden Dawn.6th ed. St. Paul, MN: Llewellyn Publications.

Schroeder, Roger, Fr. 1992. Initiation and Religion: A Case Study from the Wosera of Papua New Guniea. Vol. 46. Fribourg, Switzerland: University Press.

Snoek, Joannes Augustinus Maria. 1987. Initiations: A Aethodological Approach to the Application of Classification and Definition Theory in the Study of Rituals. Pijnacker: Dutch Efficiency Bureau.

Wilmshurst, W.L. 1996. The Masonic Initiation. Santa Fe, NM: Sun Pub. Co.

Zalewski, Patrick J. 2000. Golden Dawn Rituals and Commentaries. Vol. 1-3. Cairns, Australia: Self-published.

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[1] Farrar and Farrar, Witches’ Goddess. Initiation is mentioned several times throughout the book, a ritual of initiation is even given, however no definition for what initiation is is mentioned.

[2] Greer 55-6.

[3]Hutton 69. One excellent example of this is Pat Zalewski’s Golden Dawn Rituals and Commentaries. In the three volumes of this work the initiation rituals of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn are discussed in depth. However one must already be familiar with many of the concepts presented to take full advantage of the work.

[4] It is also possible to join many different occult orders, magical religions and the various fraternities that exist today to gain some or all of this information. However this can pose certain ethical dilemmas, as oaths of secrecy are almost always part of the initiatory process. See Pearson, “Going Native in Reverse”: The Insider as Researcher in British Wicca for an account of these problems.

[5] Snoek 13, 20.

[6] Bell 95.

[7] Schroeder 46.

[8] For instance La Fontaine specifically points out the inclusion of the transmission of knowledge and the administration of oaths, a concept important to initiations but not necessarily to rites de passage in general.  La Fontaine 15.

[9] Hanegraaff 6.

[10] Snoek 7

[11] Ibid. 6

[12] Bell 83

[13] 7

[14] Ibid. 44

[15] Snoek 28-31, 166

[16] Hanegraaff 44

[17] These come from a variety of sources. 5=6 or Adeptus Minor commentary comes from Pat Zalewski’s Golden Dawn and Ritual Commentaries, which use rituals common to many GD groups after the Order’s schism in 1904. There are two sets of 6=5 or Adpetus Major rituals in print today, one written by Dr. Felkin for his Golden Dawn order in New Zealand. The other was written by A.E. Waite for his version of the Golden Dawn in England, which developed after the schism, this is found in Israel Regardie’s Complete Golden Dawn System of Magic. The 7=4 or Adeptus Exemptus ritual also comes from Dr. Felkin and is the only one to be publicly published.

[18] Zalewski, Golden Dawn Rituals and Commentaries, Vol 2, 226.


[19] Regardie 365

[20] Magical current must be added here, for in some views of initiation, such as those held by the Golden Dawn, it is the connection to this magical current, i.e. the mystical or magical energies that connect the Order to the spiritual world, that constitutes whether the subject of the initiation has been successfully initiated or not. If this connection is not there the initiation has not taken place.

[21] See for example Philips 97-100

[22] Philips 138

[23] Greer 357

[24] Interestingly the failure of a candidate to be successfully initiated into a magical tradition may have nothing to do with the candidate. Instead it is possible that something is done improperly by the ritual conductors that fails to bring about the desired magical result. For instance, in Golden Dawn ritual everything within the temple plays a specific magical as well as symbolic or practical role. If a certain ritual prop is misplaced or missing the effect of the initiation can be nullified.

[25] Snoek 173.

[26] The Perfect Ceremonies of Craft Masonry for Emulation Workers 48.

[27] Rituals of the Societas Rosicricanis in Anglia 28.

[28] Regardie, 193

[29]Ibid 239

[30] King 119

[31] May 88

[32] This came about through a discussion with a member of a Golden Dawn offshoot in the United States. In this instance the initiate was re-imbued with the energies of his current degree due to several years having passed before his being qualified to take the next initiation. In essence it was believed that the energies of the initiation had worn off and needed to be reinstated before proceeding. Golden Dawn author and adept Pat Zalewksi also discusses the idea that initiatory energies can fade over time, Secret Inner Order Rituals of the Golden Dawn, p. 138-9.

[33] Snoek 157

[34] The mythic themes of death and resurrection found in the initiations of the G.D. and R.R. et A.C. are extremely complex. They occur both implicitly and explicitly, in individual rituals and repeated twice as an over all theme throughout both the Inner and Outer Orders.

[35] The Perfect Ceremonies of Craft Masonry for Emulation Workers 36-137

[36] Rituals of the Societas Rosicricanis in Anglia 4

[37] Regardie 177-196

[38] Ibid 198-247


[39] King 44, 66-70, 103-113, 115-126

[40] May 85-88

[41] Rituals of the Societas Rosicricanis in Anglia 4

[42] Bessel

[43] I have personally heard this discussed by members of one American Golden Dawn order.

[44] King 28

[45] This practice is especially espoused by the Hermetic Order of the Morning Star, a somewhat controversial Golden Dawn styled organization in the United States.

[46] c.f. Cicero and Cicero, Self-Initiation into the Golden Dawn Tradition. Self-initiation is also discussed in Farrar and Farrar, A Witches Bible, section two, pp. 244-50.

[47]Snoek’s definition of initiation, however, discounts the idea of self-initiation, insisting that at least one initiator take parts in the ritual. Following his own rules of inclusion of polythetic characteristics, and his own admittance of forms of self-initiation taking place in some traditional forms of shamanism, it seems clear that self-initiation must be included in any general definition of initiations. It may be due to the emic nature of self-initiatory experiences, which often involve an observable spirit world that presents him from doing so. Because of this the definition-by-identification must be revised.

[48] In their Self-Initiation Into the Golden Dawn Tradition the Cicero’s place at its beginning the following notice: “This book is recommened by the G.H. Chiefs of our Order. However readers of this book are not considered official members of the hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. The book was written primarily to give solitary students and unaffiliated groups of magicians the ability to tap into the Golden Dawn’s current of magic without having to become a member of any organization.” xvi.

[49] This is required in one American Golden Dawn order, but necessarily in all GD orders.

[50] 81