If we view pre-20th century Witchcraft as a form of shamanism, it’s improbable that it didn’t involve initiation. Little evidence of a convincing nature, though, has survived in print. Professed Witch-finders did, of course, often extract from their victims accounts of initiations, packed with the sort of Goya-esque grotesquerie that made the Malleus Maleficarum the feel-good read of 1486.
However, given how readily most of us would cave in to the promptings of a psychotic sadist wielding spiky metal things and full Papal approval, these are about as reliable as historical evidence as Matthew Hopkins’s Jumbo Book of Fibs.
As for post-Witch-craze Witchcraft, historian Ronald Hutton writes in The Triumph of the Moon [OUP, 1999] that surviving documents suggest that Witchery was then more commonly inherited than conveyed by initiation. There’s no telling, though, whether this reflects more on a paucity of records or the decline of Witchcraft’s shamanic essence in the era of the Cunning Folk.
But if rituals of induction did indeed fade from surviving enclaves of Witchiness for a time, by the Craft’s mid-20th century renaissance they were back with a vengeance. Inspired by a hoard of influences (from Apostolic Succession and Classical mystery religions to the initiatory rites of secret societies such as Rosicrucianism, Illuminism, Freemasonry and the inevitable Golden Dawn) Gerald Gardner and associates brewed up a new form of initiation using a wide variety of tried and true ingredients.
Purification, challenges, minor ordeals, oaths of secrecy and degrees all made it into the final mix. As Gardner was never adept at camouflaging his sources, this has given Craft historians and assorted anoraks many diverting hours playing “Spot the Plagiarism”.
This hasn’t in the least diminished the effectiveness of the ritual, variations of which remain the most common form of Wiccan initiation. The following outline of a representative initiation retains many ingredients that would seem perfectly familiar to a typical Coven of the fifties and sixties. (Note that while it sketches an initiation into a small group, one-to-one initiations are also common).
The initiation takes place only at the end of a suitable period of training, a year and a day is typically the minimum, and at the request of the would-be Witch rather than the invitation of an initiate. Traditionally, and more often than not, men are initiated by women and vice versa, though for much of the Craft this is now more a matter of preference than doctrine. In some traditions, the postulant may also require an initiate as a sponsor.
Ritual cleansing is usually the first item on the agenda, the postulant may be sent off for a lengthy soak in a candle-lit, scented tub while the Circle is being cast. Once all is in readiness, the sponsor or another Witch (or two or three) will be sent to summon and prepare the postulant. This involves binding the hands behind the back and blindfolding, symbolising the darkness and restriction before a reawakening.
Whether it also involves robes will vary from group to group, though many Covens which usually work clothed make an exception for initiations. Other Covens have a tradition of allowing non-initiates to attend some robed Circles, but keep skyclad workings for initiates only, thus making being skyclad for initiation doubly meaningful. The central idea is that new initiates ought to be no more adorned for their first moments as Witches than for their first seconds outside the womb.
There was once one Wiccan who reached the moment in her initiation where her blindfold was removed and discovered herself to be the only naked person in a room full of robed Witches. She wasn’t used to being nude in company, but had braved it on the assumption that the whole Coven would be working skyclad.
Finding that wasn’t the case was an unwelcome jolt that both undermined her trust in the group and made her decide to work skyclad again, only once Hell was a skating rink. Initiations do need some elements of surprise, but they also need a sense of well-deserved trust. This particular form of surprise is more the stuff of tacky practical jokes than of magical camaraderie.
The postulant will then be led to a gateway cut in the Circle, where he or she will be challenged. There usually ensues a brief questioning as to name, purpose and commitment. A sword or athame will be lightly held to the postulant’s heart or throat, with the warning that to step forward into the blade would be preferable to continuing the ritual in fear or mistrust.
The soon-to-be-Witch usually manages to talk his or her way into the Circle with one of the worst-kept secret password sequences ever: “Perfect love and perfect trust.” It’s pleasing that this potent phrase is still widely used in the Craft and just as pleasing that some of Gardner’s semi-Lovecraftian bombast about “the terrible domains of the Lords of the Outer Spaces” has been turfed.
The initiatrix or initiator will now greet the postulant with a welcoming kiss (fivefold or otherwise) and present him or her to the Quarters and other assembled spiritual dignitaries. A measure (a cord tied with knots recording the postulant’s height and the breadth around the head and breast, traditionally the measures of a coffin or shroud) may be taken at this stage. It was originally kept by the Coven until that was decided to be a bit too power-over-ish. It is now usually presented to the new initiate. An oath will then be spoken by the postulant, confirming his or her determination to be remade as Witch and Priest/ess.
At this point, in old-guard Gardnerian Craft, the postulant accepted a light scourging, symbolic of a willingness to suffer to learn. This isn’t commonly performed these days, partly since most of us are perfectly well aware of how much suffering is necessary to learn and would rather our co-Coveners were part of the cure than part of the pain.
Other gentler “ordeals” are sometimes performed at this point instead, such as spinning the bound postulant about, threatening a trial but substituting a treat, or something of that sort. Disorientation and surprises are very useful here.
At last, the postulant is released from the ropes and blindfold to be anointed and proclaimed a Witch. Traditionally, his or her magical tools were presented at that point with instruction as to their usage. These days the instruction has usually been handled well in advance. Naturally, the Circle continues as a celebration of one more freshly made Witch.