This is one of those topics that are debated and debated with absolutely no resolution in sight. And at the start it must be admitted that all the talking in the world will never resolve the central question; which is more correct?
Is self-dedication more correct than initiation, or is initiation the only way and all those who have dedicated themselves are self-deluded fools? Are any of the arguments of the proponents of each viewpoint reasonable in the least? Ultimately does it matter?
While not trying to presume to have more knowledgeable on this topic than anyone else, I am writing this article to offer my views, these are the most correct for me. If what I present here works for you, excellent.
Initiation is a passport. It is a portal. It is a secret handshake at the door for entry into an exclusive club. The club is only open to a select group of people. It is only open to those who have gone through the initiation before hand.
Bill and I sit down and come up with the “We hate gurlz” club. Since we now have a club, we have to have rules. First rule is that there are no gurlz aloud. So, being exclusionary, we only let boys join. But we can’t just let ANY boy join, we have to let only those boys that hate girls join. So, since I know Bill and I know myself, we both know each other, we say that we both definitely hate girls, and that’s acceptable. But we can’t be sure of the hate/love of other boys. We can assume, but we want to be SURE about their intention.
So, Bill and I say that any boy who wants to join must dip a girl’s pigtails in an inkwell. Cruel of us I know, but we are young and stupid. Tom wants to join, and we tell him about the club requirement of what euphemistically comes to be called “the dipping”. He goes out and dips the pigtail, watches as the back of her dress is covered with ink, and we watch him as he does it. Now, several things are happening during this, some known and some unknown.
Tom is demonstrating his desire to join us. Those who, quite simply, are unwilling to pony up the effort to be with us are unwelcome. He is also demonstrating his willingness to do something he knows is wrong and face parental wrath, or the wrath of other authorities and other figures in power, like teachers. Plus he has to live with making her cry. Because of this, he is probably in a heightened state, even though we don’t know what that is. He’s in a state of altered consciousness. He will remember this event for the rest of his life. He will remember every part of this from his perspective with crystal clarity.
He may even be able to empathize with the victim here, and be able to see what happens when there is unreasoning hatred toward you simply because of your sex. That too will stay with him for the rest of his life. This may be a test, to see if he will actually follow through with something that is morally reprehensible, and if he’s messed up in the head as a result. It may be that Bill and I are testing him to see if he will tell us to take a flying leap because he’s not going to make her cry like that.
All of the above are examples of what can happen during an initiation. Ideally, it should be something to remember for the rest of your life. This is NOT saying that any of this is actually what goes on, but if the elements of this magickal/psychological/spiritual practice were translated into this little boy’s club, these are what they would most likely translate to. Heightened awareness, the thrill of doing something different from what one knows is safe, the “grace under stress”, and so on that are common elements in an initiation are all there.
There are other things that initiation can accomplish. It can be an introduction to the Gods of the group, an introduction of the Gods to you, a symbolic birth of a new person (so that it becomes a life milestone), and it can be a way to gain secret information of the group.
In this way an initiation can be seen as a social tool. It is a group accepting a new person as one of it’s own. The initiation gives them a common set of experiences, bonding them together and creating a shared frame of reference. Each member of the created group can share a common ground that outsiders, non-initiates cannot understand.
This is also a time when the initiate may be introduced to some of the group secrets or mysteries. Many people have questioned the validity of Mysteries in religion. They wonder what the Mysteries have to offer. I have even heard that the Mysteries don’t truly exist in a religion like Wicca. But the Mysteries that are being spoken of in this context are the mystery of experience. In many cases, during an initiation, there is a shift in consciousness, a heightened awareness or a definite change in the brainwave patterns. In those cases, there is a chance that the person undergoing this initiation can touch the divine directly. They can experience first hand knowledge of what the Divine is and how they interact within as well as with it.
That is the point of the Mysteries. Other members, or initiates have gone through a similar set of experiences, and with similar training before hand, it can be a nearly identical ecstatic experience. As a result, understanding is transmitted. It is this understanding, this epiphany, that defines a Mystery.
When asked, most adepts will say that the Mysteries must be experienced. This tends to frustrate the seeker since they wonder why they can’t be told the secret the adept knows. But it is not a secret that cannot be shared, it is a transcendental experience, a defining moment of understanding. Unless you undergo the same training and experience that prompts the revelation, no amount of explanation will convey the humility and the blinding understanding that comes with touching that Mystery. But, conversely and supremely ironically, if one goes through it and touches the same Mystery, then no explanation is necessary to convey that experience.
This is the true heart and soul of initiation.
Even if the seeker or initiate does NOT have that moment of revelation, an initiation is still a passport into the group, because it is recognized that the initiate is now a member of the group, with similar experiences to draw upon, laying the groundwork for continuing participation with the group.
If Initiation is the key to membership within a group, then what is Self Dedication? Well, let’s start with something simple first.
Please note that I do NOT say that it is Self “Initiation”, because by most standard definitions an initiation is something someone else does to you, not something you can do to your self. There are those who talk about how it is Self Initiation since the Gods initiated them. But, and I say this with all care and concern, if an Initiation is a passport into a group, it is mandatory that someone in the group guides the candidate to make him/her a member of the group. I have yet to meet a person who has been accepted wholeheartedly by an exclusionary group after a self-dedication.
It is possible, in my experience, for a solitary practitioner to undergo a ritual and a ceremony that conveys ALL the same things that an initiation does, except the passport into the group.
Going back to our girl hater club members, if Phillip were to desire admission, and went and did “the dunking” to a girl (as mandated by the club rules) it would be possible for him to have exactly the same experience that Tom had, that Bill and I had, but it is missing the need for Bill and I to observe him in this action. So he may have had the experience burned into his memory as Tom did, he may understand the need to decry it and the acceptance of how evil he is due to the what he did, but Bill and I won’t be able to see him go through that, therefore no admission is possible.
It is the same scenario with Dedication. It is possible for the dedicant to go through the whole gamut of experiences that I have undergone as a member of a coven. It is possible for him to have felt the Face of the Gods during his dedication; it is even possible that the dedicant was told about the secret names of the Gods by the Gods themselves. It is entirely possible that all this happened. But it is NOT an initiation.
While it is possible for a dedicant to eventually be accepted as a member of a community, to gain that passport as it were, it would take a lot of patience and demonstration of knowledge with those who are in power to grant that passport. This takes time and discipline. It may even come to pass that the dedicant discovers that they don’t need to join the group anymore. However, with some groups, you will be a “stranger” unless you eventually become an initiate of that group.
Some have tried saying that this choice of being self-dedicated is “less valid” than being initiated into a group by someone who is already a member of the group. I’m sorry, I simply cannot understand how this makes someone less of a witch. It would be the same thing as saying that someone who calls themselves a Christian, who lives by the teachings of Christ, obeys the laws in the Bible, is charitable and kind and generous isn’t a real Christian because they haven’t been baptized into a church. And yet, come to think of it, there is no “Christian” group I know of that would say otherwise.
I can understand the argument that the person is not a Baptist, I can understand saying that s/he won’t be following core teachings of the Baptist way, and I can understand Baptists saying that someone who is not baptized into the Baptist church cannot call themselves Baptist, and won’t be allowed to take advantage of the services and fellowship available to the Baptist. But I cannot see saying that they can’t call themselves a Christian.
Self-dedication is a transcendental experience for the person who feels that they are spiritually ready to make a commitment to the Gods on their own terms. So they sit down and go through a ritual to bring home to them that they are ready. It may not be the passport into Gardnerism or Stregheria or Brujo, but it’s still valid and it is still transformative for that person.
Finally we come to one major point where the two diverge again. This is in the area of “lineage”. There have been discussions about the validity of the lineage, and how it’s a remnant of an older system designed to keep good people down. But in order to say that it’s a tool of repression, one must understand what lineage does.
It gives one continuity with the past. “I was initiated by Silver, who was initiated by Taryn initiated by Taliesin, initiated by Circe, initiated by Old Dorothy.” That is a magickal pedigree, a way of connecting oneself to the past, when, it is assumed, it did matter who initiated you. It may not matter much these days, but at the time it was a big deal. It gave the student a lineage back to Gardner and from there to Dorothy Clutterbuck. It made one feel part of something that was literally greater than self, part of a tradition.
It also gives a way of verifying that this person is a member of the order they are claiming. In other words, if Jackie comes to me and says that she is an Alexandrian, I can ask her lineage. I can then contact the person she says is the person who initiated her, and ask if she is actually a member of the Alexandrian Tradition. It gives me a way of verifying her credentials.
In some cases, knowing the lineage of a person can give one a guideline of how they view the world and magick. If I know that the lineage of Circe believes that magick energy can’t pass through a piece of cloth in the Circle, I know that I won’t have to worry about a spell being cast when I insult an initiate of that lineage to their face. If I know that members of the lineage of Karen don’t believe in the Rede or the Threefold Retribution, I have to be especially careful about how I treat them. It becomes a way for me to understand briefly how they will react if their buttons are pushed.
The purpose of this article is to simply explore initiation and self-dedication. It is not to try to laud one above the other, to say one way of doing things is more valid than the other. I think I have demonstrated that one is not better than the other. In fact, they are different in only a few ways.
Indeed, magickally and spiritually, there is absolutely no difference between them. You are not more of a witch if you are initiated than if you are self-dedicated, no matter what you read. It is personal preference. The self-dedicated are just as Wiccan to me as those that can trace their lineage back to Gardner and Dorothy.
It is only socially that there is a difference, and in that case the difference is of immense importance. To be fully accepted into a group, one should be initiated into that group, through the rites prescribed by the group, whatever that may be. It is only when the ritual has been completed that the remainder of the group will accept you without reservation.
“Without reservation” is an important phrase in this case. A powerful High Priestess may accept me as a brother in Wicca because of my knowledge of the Mysteries, my association to the Gods, and my over all wisdom, but she would not be likely to teach me the secrets of her tradition and her coven. She could tell me those things that she could share with any outsider. She could teach me the things she would be likely to write about in a newsletter or talk about at a pagan gathering. But I would be shocked if that same High Priestess took me aside and showed me their rituals, the gods they called upon and unreservedly allowed me access to her coven’s materials. I’m NOT saying that it couldn’t happen, but that it is highly unlikely.
That should be understood by anyone who walks a solitary path. They should understand that they would most likely not gain automatic acceptance of the traditional groups. These groups have a vested interest in keeping their secrets and only letting a few people into their inner circle. Their selection process is long and arduous and it should be. These are groups that have invested a lot of themselves into being secretive, and they are not going to automatically let you in simply because you ask.
However, once you have earned their respect, you will still have to ask to be let into their group. Once, I heard the story of a young lady, who had been studying for a long time on a solitary path. She gained a lot of knowledge and wisdom. She did this simply because there was no one to teach her.
Finally she met a High Priestess in the local community. She was careful and she made friends with this woman, hoping to be invited into their group. She demonstrated her knowledge and her desire to learn. The High Priestess and she became close. Finally this young lady asked if the High Priestess would ever invite her into her coven. The High Priestess looked at her and said “certainly.” And the High Priestess waited and waited.
This young lady missed the clue completely. She wanted the High Priestess to invite her in, and the High Priestess was not going to do that. The High Priestess in turn was waiting for the young lady to ask for admission to the coven, at which point (it later turned out) the High Priestess would have initiated her to the ranks of the Elders, forgoing 90% of their training program, since this young lady had amply demonstrated the requisite knowledge and wisdom. But the High Priestess was not going to do so unless the young lady first expressed her desire.
So, don’t be afraid to take your time about asking. But do take the time to ask and make your desires known.
Don’t let anyone tell you that you are not a real (Wiccan/witch/Christian/etc) if you aren’t initiated. Self-dedication is probably one of the more difficult paths to take, since there is no one to guide your steps except you. There is no one to talk to and bounce ideas off of, and no one to suggest alternate studies if you are stuck. To succeed on the path of self-dedication is an incredible achievement. You have every right to feel proud of that accomplishment.