What Is Initiation?
There is a familiar tenet throughout shamanism and the spiritual traditions of aboriginal cultures: that an altered state of consciousness facilitates a mystical experience capable of imparting special knowledge. In fact it is one of the oldest shared beliefs among esoteric sects such as the Druids of Gaul, the Chaldeans of Syria, the Samaneans of Cactria, the Magi of Persia, and the Gymnosophists of India, all of whom devoted themselves to out-of-body exploration with the aim of achieving personal illumination through spiritual resurrection. And the way neophytes experienced it was via a rigorous art called initiation.
Initiation into the Mysteries was a privilege open to a select few but not necessarily restricted to a social elite. Only a handful made it past the gates of the temple because few applicants were up to the task. To quote Pythagoras when turning enthusiasts away from his own academy at Croton, “not every kind of wood is fit to be carved into the likeness of Mercury”--Mercury being the Roman regeneration of Djehuti, the Egyptian god who guides souls to the Otherworld.
Those who did make the grade first underwent a period of observation; the early Christian author Tertullian describes a period of probation lasting up to four years, essentially to gauge the candidates’ level of trustworthiness and responsibility. During this period they were given
general instructions and taught great truths hidden within obscure parables. Upon successfully completing the trial period, candidates were admitted into an inner group, and initiation into the fuller Mysteries ensued.
Initiation means “to become conscious.” It is a technique that serves to guide higher, more penetrating frequencies into the body, which is believed to operate at one of the densest vibrations in nature. Because out-of-body experiences can be dangerous, only those with a firm grasp of the body’s electrical field were admitted into the process. Instruction was often conducted from temple to temple and performed in stages to prevent the body’s nerve centers and electrical circuits from burning out, each step slowly raising the vibration of the individual. Seekers learned to still their habits, condition the minds, and practice directing the body’s life energy consciously; they were also required to develop greater resistance to physical impulses, particularly the control of emotion.
Increasing degrees of initiation tested the candidates’ mettle in the face of fear, revealing the weaker participants’ desire to continue and thus thinning out their number once more. Mechanical means were employed to simulate experiences that mimicked the candidates’ eventual out-of-body experience. Those who passed such ordeals congratulated themselves on advancing toward the higher degrees of the Mysteries, only to be faced yet again with new forms of psychological preparation.
Once the candidate mastered these prerequisites--along with a number of unspecified procedures--the final stage in the process entailed a lengthy stay inside a sensory-deprived environment. According to classical historians such as Plutarch and Strabo, these places came in many forms: pyramids, pagodas, labyrinths, temples, caves, subterranean passages and chambers, vaulted rooms, spacious galleries, and secret rooms.
Sometimes initiation took place inside a structure atop a type of mound surrounded by water, such as the island-temple of Philae, where the sacred marriage between Osiris--the resurrected god-man of Egypt--and his bride Isis was ritually performed by initiates in public,
followed by a secret segment conducted privately in subterranean chambers that covered much of the original island. The event typically took place on the last night of the waning moon, beginning at sunset, continuing all night until sunrise.
At this stage of initiation, candidates were temporarily guided step-by- step into a trance state, asleep yet paradoxically awake, as the soul temporarily disengaged from the body and became aware of itself in the Otherworld. Most ancient writers agree that the final act of initiation--the shamanic journey--began with an initial descent into a kind of hell or underworld before finally reaching paradise. Under guided supervision from a hierophant or wisdom keeper, the soul encountered supernatural creatures yet learned to overcome its natural impulse of revulsion or fear in order to arrive at that ultimate, sublime stage. The Macedonian compiler Stobaeus left us a record of his own experience.
The mind is affected and agitated in death just as it is in initiation into the Grand Mysteries. The first stage is nothing but uncertainties, labourings, wanderings and darkness. And now, arrived on the verge of death and initiation, everything wears a dreadful aspect; it is all horrors, trembling and affrightement. But this scene once over, a miraculous and divine light displays itself . . . perfect and initiated they are free, crowned, triumphant, they walk in the regions of the blessed.(1)
The fourth-century Greek philosopher Themistius depicts the candidate encountering trepidation and uncertainty at first, but upon being conducted by a priest, proceeds in tranquillity.
Entering now into the mystic dome, he is filled with horror and amazement. He is seized with solicitude and total perplexity. He is unable to move a step forward: and he is at a loss to find the entrance to that void, which is to lead him to the place he aspires to. But now, in the midst of his perplexity, the prophet or conducting hierophant suddenly lays open to him the space before the portals of the temple.(2)
No wonder the Mysteries secrets were known to only a handful of custodians, few have the nerve to undergo such an ordeal. And given their responsibilities in a situation that could go disastrously wrong, with the potential for madness, even the possibility of death, it is not surprising the techniques were zealously protected from the ignorant.
And yet the benefits of penetrating the veil into the Otherworld were beyond belief. Proclus himself describes how, having overcome the fear of the unknown, the prize that awaits is magnificent.