When you talk about initiation in Pagan circles it is often understood to be a ceremony that takes place within a particular path and changes your status within that path in some way. Initiation can also be about beginnings and some initiations are not formal or even planned but situations or events that change you. I have experienced both types of initiation.
“1. formal admission or acceptance into an organization or club, adult status in one’s community or society, etc.
2. the ceremonies or rites of admission. Compare rite of passage.
3. the act of initiating.
4. the fact of being initiated.”
“1. to begin, set going, or originate: to initiate major social reforms.
2. to introduce into the knowledge of some art or subject.
3. to admit or accept with formal rites into an organization or group, secret knowledge, adult society, etc.
4. to propose (a measure) by initiative procedure:
to initiate a constitutional amendment.”
In March 1997, after hovering on the edges of Paganism for about seven years, I took the decision to dedicate myself to a Pagan path. In many ways that decision was my first initiation as it is a decision that changed my life. Inspired by a particular book and also using some materials I found online I wrote a solitary ritual for the Spring Equinox that year that included my self dedication. A year later, having joined the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids (OBOD), I carried out my first initiation rite as a Bard with OBOD. The initiation rites provided by OBOD allow for solitary initiation although those within active groves or able to attend OBOD events may well choose to have their initiations with others of the Order. That initiation too was one that changed my life because it was the start of my ongoing journey within the forest of Druidry but I didn’t feel any dramatic changes at the time. These two events and choices I made in later years have linked the Spring Equinox with initiations in my heart and mind even though I have also had initiations at other times of the year since then.
I continued to walk those first few years of my Pagan life with the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids and although I work in different ways now I will always hold a special place in my heart for OBOD. The structure of the materials I used in those years provided me with a good grounding in which to grow and change.
In November 2000 I became pregnant with my first child. My pregnancy went pretty well and in due course I had life’s initiation into parenthood. I still feel that no matter how much you think you are prepared for the changes your first child will bring you are wrong. It is an initiation of a very different type and comes with its own ordeals and rites of passage. Nothing can truly prepare you for the changes having a child brings. The change is not as dramatic the second time around but there is still a rite of passage involved for parents. We celebrate the birth of a child, we give gifts for the child, hold naming days but I don’t think we acknowledge the effect on the parents very well.
Rite of Passage:
“1. Anthropology. a ceremony performed to facilitate or mark a person’s change of status upon any of several highly important occasions, as at the onset of puberty or upon entry into marriage or into a clan.
2. any important act or event that serves to mark a passage from one stage of life to another.”
During my first pregnancy I had another form of initiation. By that time I had been a joint facilitator of a local Druid group and had been writing and facilitating group rituals for that group for about a year. Two members of that group died during the period of my pregnancy. Both had Pagan funerals and one of those, Insa’s, was my first experience of acting as celebrant for a rite of passage.
Being a celebrant for a rite of passage is an honour and a privilege. It’s also incredibly hard work and emotionally exhausting even for the lighter rites of passage like namings and weddings or handfastings. The hardest rites for me, and many others, are the funerals. Holding space for people to remember and grieve for a loved one requires walking along the knife edge between compassion and distance. You have to somehow maintain enough distance to allow you to lead that all important last service for the departed while also helping those grieving to feel the connection to the person they knew. If you didn’t know that person yourself then you have to draw a sense of them out from the stories you are told by family and close friends. If you did know them you have to put your relationship to one side to allow the person that others knew to come though. I still don’t know whether I find it harder to prepare a rite of passing for someone I knew or someone I didn’t know. I have done both more than once and the service for Insa was the first.
For a few years I carried out a range of Celebrant work including legal Pagan weddings and handfastings here in Scotland. I no longer hold the registration to do legal Pagan weddings as I chose to mostly give up my role as a Celebrant. I gave the work up because it requires a level of commitment and energy that owing to family needs I found increasingly difficult to maintain. I have been involved in a baby naming and carried out at least one funeral since I gave that work up but these are rare events now although as my children grow older maybe I will choose to return to this work.
I consider myself to be a Priest and I still use the term Druid. It is not formal initiations within a Druid Order that leads me to use the word Druid to describe myself and I’ve never had a formal rite of initiation as a Priest. I use these words because of personal experiences with deities and spirits. I am not the sort of Priest and Druid that leads a lot of ritual for others although I do some of that. I am not the sort of Priest and Druid that supports others in times of stress although I do some of that too. I am a Druid and a Priest because I serve my deities. I serve them in bringing up my children to be responsible and caring members of society. I serve them when I kneel in quiet contemplation at my altar. I serve them when I go about my daily life, doing my best to walk my truth. My service is not demanded of me but offered freely and with love. It is in fleeting moments of ecstasy, fear and awe that I have been initiated by the gods themselves into my role as Priest.
This type of initiation is one that is highly personal to each individual. It comes of personal experiences and personal relationships. It isn’t something that can be easily expressed or something that can be given to anyone else in a ritual. You can lead a ritual that can facilitate these types of experiences but you can’t promise them or give them to others yourself. If you have these types of experience you might choose to mark them in a rite of passage of some kind if you have a community you can do that with but you don’t need to do anything other than accept or reject the experience. Even rejection begins a new path.
Many initiations and rites of passage have some form of ordeal experience that takes place before the rite itself. I challenge anyone who has arranged a wedding to say there aren’t any aspects of preparation that are an ordeal in some way. Likewise however smoothly a birthing experience goes some aspect of it is almost certain to be an ordeal. Ordeals before rites of passage or initiations do not have to be formal structured ones. Sometimes life just puts you into situations that are ordeals to get through and when you come out the other side you want to mark it with something. I am wondering how many of us will want to mark the experience of this COVID-19 lockdown with a rite of passage of some form when we are able to gather with others again.
One thought on “Initiations and rites of passage”
Thanks for sharing this. I was slightly surprised that all the initiations and rites of passage you listed are bound up with Thisworld and human community although I imagine that your gods had a role in all of them. I’ve never been initiated into a human group or into a role in human community. My main initiations have been taking the first step of journeying with Gwyn to Annwn, and making my initial and lifelong vows to him. Although I guess performing poetry and speaking about my gods in public and running workshops may be seen as initiations of sorts. I’d be interested to hear about the role of your gods in these initiations.