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To: alt.magick.tyagi,alt.magick,alt.thelema,talk.religion.misc,talk.religion.newage,alt.pagan.magick,alt.wicca,alt.religion.wicca,alt.witchcraft
From: V.H. Maroney 
Subject: Initiation
Date: 24 Jul 1999 02:19:17 -0700

Initiation is primordially a ritualized way of marking transitions. In
tribal socities initiations serve to define a person's social role,
including such biological issues as gender (it is normal to have separate
male and female rites at adolesence), birth, mating, and death. Initiation
has been studied by anthropologists and they see a three-step pattern known
as the van Gennep formula, consisting of separation from the former role, a
state of liminal suspension, and acceptance into the new social role by
those already within it. In essence an initiation marks a boundary between
those who are in a group and those who are not; it is a way of
distinguishing self from other, tribe from non-tribe, colleague from

Secret society rituals are a form of professional secrecy. Secret
initiations were used to pass down legends about the foundation of trades
and crafts and to keep their trade secrets restricted to an in-group.
Masonry began as such a trade secret society, but due to the ritual drought
in Scotland caused by the rise of Protestantism, wound up providing
spiritual sustenance which the permitted mainstream churches could not. The
focus shifted to the rituals themselves and the feelings of community and
contact with the spiritual world that they engendered. The operative craft
itself fell by the wayside.

Golden Dawn, Thelemic and modern Witchcraft initiations are direct
descendants of Freemasonic ritual. As such they do not necessarily know
what they are all about; the initiatic tradition was created by an organic
and evolutionary progress, not a scientific attempt to create particular
effects. The actual functions of rituals are often quite different from
their ostensible content. For instance, both the Hindu mantrist and the
Christian rosarist may believe the meaning and efficacy of their practice
relies on the meanings of their chants or prayers, while in fact the
trances may be largely content-neutral and rely more on the psychological
effects of repetition and aspiration.

Modern secrect society initiations often appeal to people who lack a sense
of membership in an in-group. In this century of alienation, we hardly
could start to list all the reasons people feel this lack of community. I
submit that this extended family function is the main effect of secret
society initiations today, and that all the religious trappings in which
they dress themselves are largely arbitrary and irrelevant, even though the
initiates necessarily tend to view these trappings, the content of the
rituals, as all-important.

The usual goal stated in insider descriptions of secret society rituals,
from ancient times to the present, is psychological transformation. I
believe this to be something of a red herring. Psychological transformation
does happen and can sometimes be facilitated by liminal ritual practices,
but the main psychological transformation of a group initiation ritual is
in understanding of one's own social role. In the new role one may behave
differently, dress differently, speak differently, but this does not
require any deep change in personality or perspective. The issue is further
confused in modern practice in that the psychological transformation is
often brought in post facto; that is, one has an initiation, then decides
that all psychological changes in the next few months are the continuation
of the initiation. In fact these changes might have happened regardless of
ritual context.

Initiation in its own legend, then, is a devotional exercise honoring the
principle of transformation, which is certainly a worthy goal. But to view
it as the actual vehicle of genuine psychological transformation confuses
its spiritual legend with its social reality.
V.H. Maroney

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