Initiation: An Overview

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The term initiation in the most general sense denotes a body of rites and oral teachings whose purpose is to produce a radical modification of the religious and social status of the person to be initiated. In philosophical terms, initiation is equivalent to an ontological mutation of the existential condition. The novice emerges from his ordeal a totally different being: he has become "another." Generally speaking, there are three categories, or types, of initiation.

The first category comprises the collective rituals whose function is to effect the transition from childhood or adolescence to adulthood, and which are obligatory for all members of a particular society. Ethnological literature terms these rituals "puberty rites," "tribal initiation," or "initiation into an age group."

The other two categories of initiation differ from puberty initiations in that they are not obligatory for all members of the community; indeed, most of them are performed individually or for comparatively small groups. The second category includes all types of rites of entering a secret society, a Bund, or a confraternity. These closed societies are limited to one sex and are extremely jealous of their secrets. Most of them are male, constituting secret fraternities (Männerbünde ), but there are also some female societies. However, in the ancient Mediterranean and Near Eastern world, such sites, or "mysteries," were open to both sexes. Although they differ somewhat in type, we can still classify the Greco-Oriental mysteries as secret confraternities.

Finally, there is a third category of initiation, the type that occurs in connection with a mystical vocation. On the level of archaic religions, the vocation would be that of the medicine man or shaman. A specific characteristic of this third category is the importance of personal experience. Initiation in secret societies and those of the shamanic type have a good deal in common. What distinguishes them in principle is the ecstatic element, which is of greatest importance in shamanic initiation. Despite their specialized uses, there is a sort of common denominator among all these categories of initiation, with the result that, from a certain point of view, all initations are much alike.

Puberty Rites

The tribal initiation introduces the novice into the world of spiritual and cultural values and makes him a responsible member of society. The young man learns not only the behavior patterns, techniques, and institutions of adults but also the myths and the sacred traditions of the tribe, the names of the gods, and the history of their works; above all, he learns the mystical relations between the tribe and supernatural beings as those relations were established at the beginning of time. In a great many cases, puberty rites, in one way or another, imply the revelation of sexuality. In short, through initiation, the candidate passes beyond the "natural" mode of beingthat of the childand gains access to the cultural mode; that is, he is introduced to spiritual values. Often, on the occasion of the puberty rites the entire community is religiously regenerated, for the rites are the repetitions of operations and actions performed by supernatural beings in mythical time.

Any age-grading initiation requires a certain number of more or less dramatic tests and trials: separation from the mother, isolation in the bush under the supervision of an instructor, interdiction against eating certain vegetable or animal foods, knocking out of an incisor, circumcision (followed in some cases by subincision), scarification, and so forth. The sudden revelation of sacred objects (bull-roarers, images of supernatural beings, etc.) also constitutes an initiatory test. In many cases, the puberty initiation implies a ritual "death," followed by a "resurrection" or a "rebirth." Among certain Australian tribes the extraction of the incisor is interpreted as the neophyte's "death," and the same significance is even more evident in the case of circumcision. The novices isolated in the bush are likened to ghosts: they cannot use their fingers and must take food directly with their mouths, as the dead are supposed to do. Sometimes they are painted white, a sign that they have become ghosts. The huts in which they are isolated represent the body of a monster or a water animal: the neophytes are considered to have been swallowed by the monster, and they remain in its belly until they are "reborn" or "resuscitated." The initiatory death is interpreted either as a descensus ad inferos or as a regressus ad uterum, and the "resurrection" is sometimes understood as a "rebirth." In a number of cases, the novices are symbolically buried, or they pretend to have forgotten their past lives, their family relations, their names, and their language, and must learn everything again. Sometimes the intiatory trials reach a high degree of cruelty.

Secret Cults

Even on the archaic levels of culture (for example, in Aboriginal Australia), a puberty initiation may entail a series of stages. In such cases sacred history can be revealed only gradually. The deepening of the religious experience and knowledge demands a special vocation or an outstanding intelligence and willpower. This fact explains the emergence both of the secret cults and of the confraternities of shamans and medicine men. The rites of entrance into a secret society correspond in every respect to those of tribal initiations: seclusion, initiatory tests and tortures, "death" and "resurrection," bestowal or imposition of a new name, revelation of a secret doctrine, learning of a new language. A few innovations are, however, characteristic of the secret societies: among these are the great importance attached to secrecy, the particular cruelty of initiatory trials, the predominance of the ancestors' cult (the ancestors being personified by masks), and the absence of a supreme being in the ceremonial life of the group. In the Weiberbünde, or women's societies, the initiation consists of a series of specific tests, followed by revelations concerning fertility, conception, and birth.

Initiatory "death" signifies both the end of the "natural," acultural man and the passage to a new mode of existence, that of a being "born to the spirit," that is, one who does not live exclusively in an immediate reality. Thus the initiatory "death" and "resurrection" represent a religious process through which the initiate becomes "another," patterned on the model revealed by gods or mythical ancestors. In other words, one becomes a real man to the extent that one resembles a superhuman being. The importance of initiation for the understanding of the archaic mind centers essentially in the fact that it shows that the real manthe spiritual oneis not automatic, is not the result of a natural process. He is "made" by the old masters, in accordance with the models revealed by divine beings in mythical times. These old masters form the spiritual elite of archaic societies. Their main role is to transmit to the new generations the deep meaning of existence and to help them assume the responsibility of real men, and hence to participate actively in the cultural life of the community. But because culture means, for archaic and traditional societies, the sum of the values received from supernatural beings, the function of initiation may thus be summarized: it reveals to every new generation a world open to the transhuman; a world, one may say, that is transcendental.

Shamans and Medicine Men

As for shamanic initiations, they consist in ecstatic experiences (e.g., dreams, visions, trances) and in an instruction imparted by the spirits or the old master shamans (e.g., shamanic techniques, names and functions of the spirits, mythology and genealogy of the clan, secret language). Sometimes initiation is public and includes a rich and varied ritual; this is the case, for example, among the Buriats of Siberia. But the lack of a ritual of this sort in no way implies the absence of an initiation; it is perfectly possible for the initiation to be performed in the candidate's dreams or ecstatic experiences. In Siberia and Central Asia the youth who is called to be a shaman goes through a psychopathic crisis during which he is considered to be tortured by demons and ghosts who play the role of the masters of intiation. These "initiatory sicknesses" generally contain the following symbolic elements: (1) torture and dismemberment of the body, (2) scraping of the flesh and reduction to a skeleton, (3) replacement of organs and renewal of blood, (4) a sojourn in the underworld and instruction by demons and the souls of dead shamans, (5) an ascent to heaven, and (6) "resurrection," that is, access to a new mode of being, that of a consecrated individual capable of communicating personally and directly with gods, demons, and souls of the dead. A somewhat analagous pattern is to be found in the initiations of Australian medicine men.

The little we know about Eleusis and the initiations in the Hellenistic mysteries there indicates that the central experience of the initiand (mustēs ) depended on a revelation concerning the death and resurrection of the divine founder of the cult. Thanks to this revelation, the mustēs acceded to another, superior mode of being, and concurrently secured for himself a better fate after death.

The Meaning of Initiatory Ordeals

In many puberty intiations, the novices must not go to bed until late in the night (see some examples in Eliade, 1958, pp. 1415). This initiatory ordeal is documented not only among nonliterate cultures (e.g., Australia, coastal California, Tierra del Fuego) but even in highly developed religions. Thus, the Mesopotamian hero Gilgamesh crosses the waters of death to find out from Utanapishtim how he can gain immortality. "Try not to sleep for six days and seven nights!" is the answer. But Gilgamesh at once falls asleep, and Utnapishtim wakes him on the seventh day. Indeed, not to sleep is not only a victory over physical fatigue but is above all a demonstration of will and spiritual strength; to remain awake is equivalent to being conscious, present in the world, responsible.

Another puberty initiation ordeal is the interdiction against eating for a few days, or against drinking water except by "sucking it through a reed" (Australia, Tierra del Fuego). Among some Australian tribes, the dietary prohibitions are successively removed as myths, dances, and pantomimes teach the novices the religious origin of each kind of food. But most puberty ordeals are cruel and terrifying. In Africa, as in Australia, circumcision is equivalent to death; the operators, dressed in lion and leopard skins, attack the novices' genital organs, indicating that the intention is to kill them. In the Kongo or the Loango coast, boys between ten and twelve years old drink a potion that makes them unconscious. They are then carried into the jungle and circumcised. Among the Pangwe, the novices are taken to a house full of ants' nests and are badly bitten; meanwhile, their guardians cry, "You will be killed; now you must die!" (See examples in Eliade, 1958, pp. 23ff., 30ff.) Excesses of this kind sometimes result in the death of the boy. In such cases the mother is not informed until after the period of segregation in the bush; she is then told that her son was killed by the spirit, or that, swallowed by a monster with the other novices, he did not succeed in escaping from its belly.

The assimilation of initiatory tortures to the sufferings of the novices in being swallowed and digested by the monster is confirmed by the symbolism of the cabin in which the boys are isolated. Often the cabin represents the body or the open maw of a water monster, a crocodile, for example, or of a snake. In some regions of Ceram the opening through which the novices pass is called the snake's mouth. Being shut up in the cabin is equivalent to being imprisoned in the monster's body. On Rooke Island (Umboi), when the novices are isolated in a cabin in the jungle, a number of masked men tell the women that their sons are being devoured by a terrifying, demonic being. In New Guinea, the house built for the circumcision of the boys has the form of the monster Barlun, who is believed to swallow the novices; that is, the building has a "belly" and a "tail." The novice's entrance into the cabin is equivalent to entering the monster's belly. Among the Nor-Papua the novices are swallowed and later disgorged by a spirit whose voice sounds like a flute. The initiatory cabin represents not only the belly of the devouring monster but also the womb. The novice's "death" signifies a return to the embryonic state.

It is in the interval between initiatory "death" and "resurrection" that the Australian novice is gradually introduced to the sacred history of the tribe and is permitted to witness, at least in part, its pantomimes and ceremonial dances. Learning the myths of origins, that is, learning how things came into existence, the novice discovers that he is the creation of supernatural beings, the result of a specific primordial event, the consequence of a series of mythological occurrences, in short, of a sacred history. Such revelations, received through the ordeals of a ritual "death," characterize most of the age-grading initiations. The "resurrection," or "rebirth," proclaims the coming into being of a new person: an adult aware of his religious condition and of his responsibilities in the world.

From Tribal Intiation to Secret Cult

Female puberty initiations are less widespread than boys' initiations, although they are documented in the ancient stages of culture (Australia, Tierra del Fuego, and elsewhere). The rites are less developed than those for boys' initiations. Furthermore, girls' initiations are individual; that is, they begin with the first menstruation. This physical symptom, the sign of sexual maturity, compels a breakthe young girl's separation from the community. The length of the girl's segregation varies from culture to culture: from three days (in Australia and India) to twenty months (New Zealand), or even several years (Cambodia). Consequently, in many parts of the world, the girls do in the end form a group, and then their initiations are performed collectively, under the direction of their older female relatives (as in India) or of other old women (Africa). These tutors instruct them in the secrets of sexuality and fertility and teach them the customs of the tribe and at least some of its religious traditionsthose accessible to women. The instruction is general, but its essence is religious: it consists in a revelation of the sacrality of women. The girl is ritually prepared to assume her specific mode of being, that is, to become a "creator of life," and at the same time is taught her responsibilities in society and in the worldresponsibilities that are always religious in nature.

Among some peoples, there are several degrees of female initiation. Thus, among the Yao of Thailand initiation begins with the first menstruation, is repeated and elaborated during the first pregnancy, and is only concluded with the birth of the first child. There are also a number of women's cult associations, most probably created under the influence of the male secret societies. Some African female secret associations include masculine elements (for instance, the directress, symbolizing a leopard, attacks and "kills" the novices; finally they "kill" the leopard, and free the novices from its belly). Among the Mordvins of Russia there existed a secret women's society whose emblem was a hobbyhorse and whose members were called "horses." But such masculine influences have been exercised chiefly on the external organization of female societies. (On female intiations, see Eliade, 1958, pp. 44ff., 78ff., and especially Lincoln, 1981.)

The morphology of men's secret societies is extremely complex, and their origin and history are still obscure. But there is a continuity between puberty rites and rites of initiation into men's secret societies. Throughout Oceania, for example, both initiations of boys and those requisite for membership in the men's secret societies involve the same ritual of symbolic death through being swallowed by a sea monster, followed by resurrectionwhich indicates that all the ceremonies derive historically from a single center. In West Africa, we find a similar phenomenon: the secret societies derive from the puberty initiations. (For other examples, see Eliade, 1958, pp. 73ff., 153.)

The socioreligious phenomenon of secret male cults and masked confraternities is especially widespread in Melanesia and Africa. As in the tribal initiations, the rites for entrance into men's secret cult societies present the well-known pattern: seclusion, initiatory ordeals and tortures, revelation of a secret doctrine, bestowal of a new name, instruction in a special language.

In the two American continents, the climbing of a tree or a sacred pole plays an important role not only in puberty initiations (as, for example, in the north of the Gran Chaco, and among the Mandan, the Kwakiutl, and the Pomo) but also in public festivals (the Festival of the Sun held by the Ge; various festivals among the Tupi, the Plains Indians, the Salish, the Delaware, the Maidu), or in the ceremonies and healing séances of shamans (Yaruro, Araucanian, Maidu). The climbing of the tree or of the sacred pole has the same goal: to meet with the gods or heavenly powers in order to obtain a blessing, whether a personal consecration, a favor for the community, or the cure of a sick person.

Martial and Heroic Initiations

In ancient Greece, some heroic scenarios can be identified in the saga of Theseus; for example, his ritual descent into the sea (an ordeal equivalent to a journey into the beyond) or his entering the labyrinth and fighting the monster. Other initiatory ordeals survived in the famous Spartan discipline of Lykurgos, under which an adolescent was sent away to the mountains, naked, to live for a full year on what he could steal, being careful to let no one see him. In other words, Lacedaemonian youths led the life of a wolf for a whole year.

Among the ancient Germans, a young man had to confront certain ordeals typical of the initiations of warriors. Tacitus tells us that among the Chatti the candidate cut neither his hair nor his beard until he had killed an enemy. A Taifali youth had to bring down a boar or a wolf; among the Heruli, he had to fight unarmed. Through these ordeals, the young man took to himself a wild animal's mode of being; he became a dreaded warrior in the measure in which he behaved like a beast of prey. Such warriors were known as berserkers, literally, "in shirts (serkr ) of bear," or as úlfheðnar, "men with the skin of a wolf." They thought that they could metamorphose themselves into wolves by the ritual donning of a wolfskin. By putting on the skin, the initiand assimilated the behavior of a wolf; in other words, he became a wild-beast warrior, irresistible and invulnerable. "Wolf" was the appellation of the members of the Indo-European military societies.

The martial initiatory ordeal par excellence was the single combat, conducted in such a way that it finally roused the candidate to the "fury of the berserkers." The ancient Germans called this sacred force wut, a term that Adam of Bremen translated as furor ; it was a sort of demonic frenzy, which filled the adversary with terror and finally paralyzed him. The Irish ferg (lit., "anger") is an almost exact equivalent of this same terrifying sacred experience, specific to heroic combat.

The initiation of the youthful hero Cú Chulainn admirably illustrates such tumultuous and burning "fury." While still a little boy, Cú Chulainn asked his uncle, the king of Ulster, for arms and a chariot, and set off for the castle of his uncle's three famous adversaries. Although those heroes were supposed to be invincible, the little boy conquered them and cut off their heads. But the exploit heated him to such a degree that a witch warned the king that if precautions were not taken, the boy would kill all the warriors in Ulster. The king sent a troop of naked women to meet Cú Chulainn, and the lad hid his face, that he might not see their nakedness. Thus they were able to lift him from the chariot and place him in successive vats of cold water to extinguish his wrath (ferg ). The first vat burst its staves and its hoops; the next boiled with big bubbles; "the third vat into which he went, some men might endure it and others not. Then the boy's ferg went down, and his garments were put on him" (Táin Bó Cuailnge, trans. Joseph Dunn, London, 1914, pp. 6078).

Initiation in the Christian and Western World

Initiatory scenarios can be recognized in many medieval and postmedieval religious, mystical, and esoteric groups, some, but not all of them, considered heretical by the ecclesiastical authorities. The matter is too complex, and as yet insufficiently researched, to permit a brief summary. Still, throughout almost all of rural Europe, and down to the end of the nineteenth century, the ceremonies marking the passage from one age class to the next still reproduced certain themes characteristic of traditional puberty initiations. Furthermore, the symbols and rituals of a secret society can be recognized in the military organizations of youth: the ordeals of their entrance, their peculiar dances (for example, the Scottish sword dance), and even their costumes. Also, the ceremonial of the artisans' guilds has an initiatory pattern, especially among the blacksmiths and masons. Finally, the closed milieus of the alchemists contained many recognizable elements; indeed, the opus alchymicum implies the well-known pattern of initiation: tortures, "death," and "resurrection" (Eliade, 1978, pp. 142ff.).

It is significant that in medieval and postmedieval times, some initiatory patterns were conserved in the oral as well as written literatures, for instance, in folk tales, in the Arthurian cycle, in the neo-Greek epic Digenis Akritas, in the ecstatic poems of Fedeli d'amore, and even in certain children's games (see some examples in Eliade, 1958, pp. 124ff.; Eliade, 1969, pp. 120ff.). No less significant is the survival of initiatory scenarios in many pre-Romantic and Romantic novels, from Goethe's Wilhelm Meister to Balzac's Séraphita. With regard to the initiatory rituals practiced by the various secret associations of the same period, only that of Freemasonry seems to prolong an authentic tradition. Most other secret groups are recent creations, and their initiation rites were either constructed by their founders or inspired by certain esoteric literature. The same phenomenon of improvising secret associations with more or less complicated initiatory ordeals continued into the twentieth century (see Eliade, 1976, pp. 58ff.).

But such pseudo-initiatory improvisations have a religious significance. In recent times, literary critics have recognized initiation themes in much modern European and American literature; Nerval (Aurélia ), Jules Verne (Voyage au centre de la terre, L'ïle mystérieuse ), T. S. Eliot (The Waste Land), and many other contemporary writers, such as Sherwood Anderson, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Thomas Wolfe, and William Faulkner, have made use of this notation (see Eliade, 1969, pp. 123ff.). Other authors have deciphered initiatory scenarios in contemporary plastic arts and especially in cinema. Thus, in the modern Western world, initiatory symbols have survived on the unconscious level (i.e., in dreams and imaginary universes). It is significant that these survivals are studied today with an interest difficult to imagine sixty or seventy years ago. In the desacralized Western world, the sacred is present and active chiefly in the realms of the imaginary. But imaginary experiences are part of the total human being, no less important than his diurnal experiences. This means that the nostalgia for initiatory scenarios, a nostalgia deciphered in so many literary and artistic creations, reveals modern man's longing for a total and definitive renewal, for a renovatio capable of radically changing his existence.

See Also

Berserkers; Frenzy; Mystery Religions; Ordeal; Shamanism.


The important critical literature published through the late 1950s is noted in my Birth and Rebirth: The Religious Meanings of Initiation in Human Culture (London, 1958), pp. 137ff., reprinted under the title Rites and Symbols of Initiation (New York, 1965). See also the more recent critical bibliographies cited in "Initiation and the Modern World" in my The Quest: History and Meaning in Religion (Chicago, 1969), pp. 112126.

Angelo Brelich's Paides e parthenoi (Rome, 1969) is invaluable for its rich documentation and insightful analyses. Frank W. Young presents a sociological interpretation in his Initiation Ceremonies: A Cross-Cultural Study of Status Dramatization (Indianapolis, 1965). The best monograph on female initiation is Bruce Lincoln's Emerging from the Chrysalis: Studies in Rituals of Women's Initiation (Cambridge, Mass., 1981).

On secret cults, see M. R. Allen's Male Cults and Secret Initiations in Melanesia (London, 1967), an exemplary analysis of initiation ceremonies in New Guinea; Secret Societies, edited by Norman MacKenzie (New York, 1967); Classes et associations d'âge en Afrique de l'Ouest, edited by Denise Paulme (Paris, 1971); and Robert S. Ellwood Jr.'s Religious and Spiritual Groups in Modern America (Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1973). On the initiation pattern among alchemists, see my The Forge and the Crucible, 2d ed. (Chicago, 1978). For a discussion of initiatiory ordeals among secret societies improvised in this century, see my Occultism, Witchcraft, and Cultural Fashions: Essays in Comparative Religions (Chicago, 1976).

Mircea Eliade (1987)