Rituals of initiation have been with the human race for what anthropologists and historiographers might justifiably refer to as bloomin’ ages. Wherever we have gathered, bred and pondered the nature of our lives, initiation rites have been integral to our cultures.
Broadly speaking, they can be divided into two classes: general rites of passage, especially of maturation; and more specialized inductions into professions and vocations. The two can coincide (for example, in some cultures, a teenage boy might be simultaneously transformed by initiation into both an adult and a hunter or warrior), but more often the ritual’s purpose is more single-minded.
Initiation is essentially a ritual of death and rebirth. The death of the old self is sometimes downplayed and sometimes so amplified that it involves genuine grief (as in cultures where families noisily mourn the loss of the boy who has symbolically died to be reborn as a man) and physical ordeals (such as scarification, circumcision or the whacking out of perfectly good teeth). Some initiations go further and introduce the very real possibility of death.
To qualify as a shaman in certain societies, you might need to subject yourself to potentially lethal snakebites or whacking great doses of hallucinogens. If you survive, you’d be in. Fortunately, initiation into modern Witchcraft isn’t as big on the maiming and dying business, despite some colourful myths on the subject.
For instance, many will recall the sharp stab to the boy bits featured in Alex Sanders’s dippy claims of childhood initiation by his grandmother, who, he insisted, followed it up years later with a further initiation involving sexual intercourse:
Sanders was an enthusiastic promoter of Wicca, so we can only speculate about why he felt sex with an elderly relative and a slight pruning of the family jewels might be considered incentives to give Wicca a whirl. He may as well have gone totally medieval and printed posters reading: “Join the Craft and you too can kiss a goat’s bottom!”
Despite the lack of physical danger in a Wiccan initiation, it remains a ritual of challenge, transformation and commitment, to many a Witch’s Craft. It is the moment at which the broomstick becomes airborne and the flight begins.