The process of entry into a secret society, an occult group,
or a mystical stage of religion. The idea of initiation was inherited
by the Egyptians and Assyrians from Neolithic peoples who
possessed secret organizations or ‘‘mysteries’’ analogous to
those of the Medwiwin of the North American Indians or those
of the Australian Blackfellows. Initiation was a stage in the various
grades of the Egyptian priesthood and the mysteries of
Eleusis and Bacchus. These processes probably consisted of
tests of courage and fidelity (as with the ordeals of primitive
peoples) and included such acts as sustaining a severe beating,
drinking blood, real and imaginary; and so forth.
In the Popol Vuh, the saga of the Kiche Indians of Guatemala,
there is a description of the initiation tests of two hero-gods
on entrance to the native equivalent of Hades. Indeed, many
of the religious mysteries typified the descent of man into hell
and his return to earth, based on the corn mother legend of the
resurrection of the wheat plant.
Initiation into the higher branches of mysticism, magic, and
Theosophy is largely symbolic and is to be taken as implying
a preparation for the higher life and the regeneration of the
soul. Typical of such rites are the ceremonies for initiation and
advancement of Freemasons.
The great religions instituted initiation rituals, such as the
baptism and laying on of hands in Christianity, and the circumcision
and bar mitzvah in Judaism.
The ordeal rituals of initiation into Freemasonry echo older
ceremonies symbolizing the mysteries of birth, pain, death, and
the life of the soul. Many trades also have traditional ordeal
ceremonies for the initiation of young apprentices, similar to
those instituted by college fraternities.
In esoteric traditions, both Eastern and Western, initiation
refers to the entrance into various levels of purification of the
individual through development at all levels of experience—
body, mind, emotions, and soul—as discussed in various forms
of magical and mystical traditions. Initiation can be used in a
somewhat watered-down sense, and is adaptable to any new insight
brought about by the ups and downs of living. However,
it more properly is used to refer to those insights created by a
planned system of inner development while the individual is
involved in mastering a particular system of esoteric teachings.
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Danielou, Alain. Yoga The Method of Re-Integration. London
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Eliade, Mircea. Rites and Symbols of Initiation The Mysteries of
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the Ancient World. London Richard Spencer, 1829. Rev. ed.
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Underhill, Evelyn. Mysticism. London Methuen, 1911.
Young, Frank W. Initiation Ceremonies A Cross-Cultural Study
of Status Dramatization. Bobbs-Merrill, 1965.