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Initiation is a ritual practice that transcends historical and cultural boundaries. Initiation rituals often rely on sex and sexual imagery to serve as tools for negotiating the assignment of gender identity. One of the primary goals or functions of initiation is to instill normative ideas about sex and gender.

Initiation rituals are also known as rites of passage. The identification as rites of passage derives from the fact that initiation symbolizes the movement from one stage of life to another. Initiation marks this transition and indicates an official change in the initiand's status within the community. Diverse events or activities can be considered initiations. Baptism, bris, confirmation, bar/bat mitzvah, débuting, rushing a fraternity or sorority, marriage, and taking religious vows all qualify as rites of initiation.

From examples such as these, as well as those drawn from ancient and tribal cultures, historian of religion Mircea Eliade (1907–1986) concluded there are three categories of initiation rituals. The most specialized category of initiation is composed of the rites that mark entry in to a mystical vocation, such as a medicine person or shaman. The next category of initiation is comprised of rites of induction into secret or closed societies. In antiquity these groups included mystery religions or military societies, such as Mithraism. In the modern world, fraternities, sororities, or certain private clubs serve as the locale for this category of initiation. The final type of initiation is the puberty rite or the ritual that indicates the transition from childhood to adulthood. This form of initiation is considered nearly universal in its application and obligatory to all members of society. Puberty rites are therefore the most common experience of initiation.


Initiation, especially in the form of puberty rites, has strong connections to sex and gender. The influence of these two factors permeates initiation rituals. The organization, content, and purpose of initiation rites all owe something to issues related to either sex or gender. All initiation rituals are strictly segregated by sex. In many tribal cultures there is a special set of initiation rituals for men and another set especially for women. The sexes do not share a common initiation experience. Nor is it permissible for members of one sex to be exposed to the initiation of the opposite sex. Initiation rituals must take place in a single sex environment.

Another way in which sex factors into initiation is through a ritual emphasis on the sex organs. One of the standard features of initiation is the creation of a physical sign of the initiand's changed status through scarring, piercing, branding, or tattooing. The genitals are frequently selected as the location for displaying these signs. Circumcision is a common mark of initiation for males. A bris, the Jewish ceremony of circumcision for newborn males, is an example of an initiation ritual which includes a physical manifestation of the initiands new status. According to Jewish belief, male circumcision symbolizes membership in the Jewish community. A similar ceremony exists among Muslim men. In addition to circumcision, some cultures, including those in sub-Saharan Africa, practice a more extreme form of genital mutilation known as subincision. Subincision involves the cutting of the underside of the penis. This wound is sometimes interpreted as the temporary creation of a male vulva and blood drawn from this incision is equated with menstrual blood.

Female initiation rites also can include genital mutilation. Clitoridectomy, or female genital mutilation, is an element of the initiation ceremonies that take place in some indigenous African societies. Clitoridectomy involves the cutting, reshaping, or even removal of the clitoris. Its practice is widespread among certain African communities, especially in the south and southeastern part of the continent. Among certain communities the labia may also be sewn almost shut, leaving only a small opening for the passage of urine and menstrual blood. Those who support clitoridectomy claim that the procedure curbs women's sexual appetite and/or helps maintain her virginity until marriage.

The involvement of the sex organs in initiation rites can also appear on a symbolic level. Among the Nkang people of Zambia, girls undergoing initiation are secluded in a hut that is constructed with an arch that is made to look like the legs of a woman spread for sex. During her stay in the hut the female initiand is instructed not to look at the arch. In other cultures both male and female initiands spend time in huts, caves, or other enclosures suggestive of a womb.

Finally the onset of a girl's first menstrual cycle often prompts her initiation. The maturation of the female sex organs dictates the timeline of women's rituals of initiation.


The primary function of puberty initiations is to transition the initiand into his or her proper place in society. Identifying and assigning normative gender roles is a major part of how initiation prepares one for this new status. Initiation rituals are designed to teach boys and girls the behaviors, knowledge, and jobs they must adopt or perform in order to become men and women.

Familiarizing boys with the sociopolitical positions that men are expected to assume is a central feature of male initiation. Male initiation rituals are designed to promote group identity and solidarity among fellow members of the community. Since boys do not have a fixed biological sign like menstruation, male initiation tends to take place in a group setting. All the boys who have reached a certain age—usually the age at which they are presumed ready to be contributing members of society—take part in the initiation ceremony together. The shared experience of initiation is the first step in creating an atmosphere of male bonding that underlies the governance or leadership of the community. Initiation introduces boys to the inner-workings of the power structure of a male dominated society. Fraternity rush, in which a class of initiands called pledges are made to endure ordeals together in order to form a sense of connection, or brotherhood, both with their fraternity and especially with their fellow initiands, is an example of an initiation rite that follows this model of socialization. One of the goals of fraternity initiation is to create a network of connections that provides positions of influence, authority, and leadership to its members.

For girls, initiation is a time to learn the gender behaviors and expectations associated with women. Female initiation rituals are especially focused on encoding the roles of motherhood and wifehood. The instruction given to girls during their initiation includes knowledge about fertility, birthing, and caregiving. The Nkang use initiation to familiarize girls with sexual intercourse and techniques to be used during sex. These lessons serve the dual purpose of promoting reproduction and educating the initiand about her wifely duties. The sexual education of a Nkang girl is the second phase of the three step process of initiation that culminates in her marriage, suggesting that the change of status experienced by the female initiand is that of the transition from child to mother and wife. In European and North American society a similar notion of female initiation as a marker of a young woman's new marital availability can be found in debutante ceremonies or the quinceanera parties held in Latino cultures. Both of these events are meant to signal a young woman's official arrival on the social scene. They also showcase her mastery of the skills, such as dancing, that are indicative of her new status as a lady.

Finally as part of its task of codifying gender distinctions, initiation, both male and female, sometimes highlights gender ambiguity. Initiation is described as a period of liminality, which refers to the condition of being in transition from one thing to another, not fully one or the other (i.e., childhood to adulthood). Moments of bisexuality or androgyny transpire in the liminality of initiation, for example the cutting of the penis to create a male vulva or cross-dressing. While these can be potentially dangerous subversions of normative notions of gender, they actually have the paradoxical effect of more clearly inscribing a fixed gender identity. Once the initiand emerges from the liminality of the initiation with the newly acquired knowledge of proper gender expectations, he or she leaves any questions or tendencies toward cross-gender behavior behind. Playing with the notion of gender during initiation solidifies the understanding of what it is to be a man or a woman.

see also Circumcision, Male; Female Genital Mutilation.


Bell, Catherine. 1997. Ritual: Perspectives and Dimension. New York: Oxford University Press.

Bettelheim, Bruno. 1962. Symbolic Wounds: Puberty Rites and the Envious Male. New York: Collier Books.

Eliade, Mircea. 1994. Rites and Symbols of Initiation: The Mysteries of Birth and Rebirth, trans. Willard R. Trask. Dallas, TX: Spring Publications.

Gennep, Arnold van. 1960. The Rites of Passage, trans. Monika B. Vizedom and Gabrielle L. Caffee. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Lincoln, Bruce. 1991. Emerging from the Chrysalis: Rituals of Women's Initiation. New York: Oxford University Press.

                                          Jennifer Hart


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Initiation (or "consecration" in tantric Buddhism) brought a candidate into the maṆḌala of buddha families and, most frequently, authorized the individual to visualize himself or herself as some form of a buddha or bodhisattva. Only partly similar to initiation rituals in the Mediterranean mystery religions, Buddhist initiation was initially patterned on political rites of coronation that had been developed in the early medieval period of India (ca. 500–1200 c.e.). As such, the individual was consecrated or anointed with water at a specific moment in the ceremony; the ritual derived its name, abhiṣeka, from this process of anointing (Öabhiṣic means "to asperse"). The term abhiṣeka also denotes rituals employed in the bathing of images, such as pouring fragrant water on a Buddha statue during the Buddha's birthday celebrations, and the cleansing aspect of the consecration ritual was never entirely lost.

Buddhists had consistently relied on formal rites of passage, whether those of taking refuge (śaraṇagamana) for the laity, or lower and higher ordination (pravrajyā and upasampadā) for monks and nuns. Mahāyānist authors had developed a new ceremony for the assumption of the bodhisattva vow and had eventually termed it "bodhisattva ordination" (bodhisattva-upasampadā). The idea of royal consecration, however, was first applied to the bodhisattva Maitreya, who was said to be the crown prince (yuvarāja) of the dharma, as the successor to Śākyamuni Buddha, who was denoted the king of the dharma. Thus, consecration indicated a political metaphor, which assumed a position of increasing importance during the fifth-and sixth-century transition between the classical Gupta and the early medieval period of India. As MahĀyĀna developed this metaphor, a mythic rite of consecration became applied to all bodhisattvas who reached the tenth stage of the Mahāyāna path, so that the bodhisattva at the tenth stage became consecrated (abhiṣikta) in the heavenly realm of Akaniṣtḥa by all the buddhas.

With tantric Buddhism, the initiation rite went from a narrative applied to exalted bodhisattvas to a new rite of passage indicating the entrance into a new vehicle, the vehicle of mantras, or the adamantine vehicle (VajrayĀna). Initiation into this vehicle, employing the imperial metaphor, meant that the candidate was consecrated as the head of a ritual family (kula) through a Buddhist form of the medieval Indian coronation ritual. While details vary between texts and lineages, by the eighth century the normative initiation ritual involved a day of preparation and a day of consecration. The preparatory day was devoted to the consecration of the site, which included a request for permission from the snake spirits and autochthonous gods to hold the ceremony. The preparatory day also included the performance of a fire ritual (homa) for the sake of purity and auspiciousness. After the maṇḍala was constructed and consecrated by the master, the candidate would be prepared by some teaching. After being presented with a piece of kusha or other variety of grass, the candidate would be told to place the consecrated grass under the pillow and to remember whatever dreams might occur in the night. Auspicious dreams (e.g., a sunrise or a view from the pinnacle of a high mountain) would mean that the candidate was appropriate; conversely, inauspicious dreams (e.g., imprisonment or losing one's way in a unknown place) might convince the master than the candidate was inadequate to the task, and cause the consecration to be canceled or postponed.

On the day of the consecration, the candidate would be brought in, sometimes blindfolded, to relate the dreams. The blindfold or screen would then be removed and the mandala revealed. The master would then have the candidate throw a flower into the mandala to determine which of the five families (buddha, vajra, ratna, padma, or karma) the person belonged to, so that the appropriate mantra and form of the buddha could be conferred. The candidate was then consecrated by anointing from a pot of water, by conferring a vajra-scepter, by bestowing a ritual bell, by placing a crown on the candidate's head, by entrusting a buddha's mantra to the candidate, and by granting the candidate a new name. Other subsidiary consecrations could be added as well, but the above were standard, although the order in which they were granted would vary with the event or lineage. The candidate was instructed especially in the proper use of the mantra and in the ritual of contemplation on the buddha, and was further granted the authority (in some traditions) to become a teacher. Vows of secrecy were essential to this process, even though the content of the secrets continued to change as the understanding of the ritual and its literature progressed. Other vows would include nonrepudiation of mantras, acquiescence to the authority of the buddhas, and acquiescence to the authority of the candidate's master (who was the buddhas' representative), all allied with the general commitment to cultivate the attitudes associated with the Mahāyāna. Increasingly, the candidate was instructed to visualize himself as the buddha or bodhisattva on whom the flower fell during the maṇḍala rite. Finally, the candidate was granted the authority to perform rituals (especially fire rites) associated with pacification, accumulation, subjugation, and destruction; these were traditionally exercised on behalf of patrons and so represented the newly consecrated master's potential source of income.

By the late eighth century, the development and institutionalization of the new "perfected" (siddha) figures in Indian Buddhism led to a change in some of the initiatory rituals. In siddha-inspired literature, the above rites all came to be subsumed into the category of the "jug" or "ewer" consecration, since the candidate's aspersion from a pot was its hallmark. Added to this were three new forms of consecration, derived from siddha rituals, for ascension to kingship over celestial sorcerers (vidyĀdhara): the secret consecration, the insight/gnosis consecration, and the fourth consecration. The first was secret, for the master was to copulate with a woman (often a prostitute), and the candidate was instructed to consume the ejaculate. In the insight/gnosis consecration, the candidate himself copulated with the consort, experiencing great bliss as a symbol of liberation. The fourth consecration was the revelation of a symbol to the candidate, who was expected to understand its significance.

These new rituals were not introduced without comment, for they represented a dramatic reorientation toward the fundamental values of Buddhist clerical celibacy. Although multiple opinions on their desirability or necessity were voiced throughout the ninth to twelfth centuries, they were eventually enacted almost exclusively in a visualized form, rather than the literal enactment seen earlier. Over time, the new consecrations were combined with new forms of yoga developed from non-Buddhist analogs and a new set of vows and sacraments (samaya) were added to provide a framework for the yogin's subsequent behavior.

See also:Mahāsiddha; Tantra


Davidson, Ronald M. Indian Esoteric Buddhism: A Social History of the Tantric Movement. New York: Columbia University Press, 2002.

Lessing, Ferdinand D., and Wayman, Alex, trans. Mkhas Grub Rje's Fundamentals of the Buddhist Trantras. The Hague, Netherlands, and Paris: Mouton, 1968.

Snellgrove, David L. "The Notion of Divine Kingship in Tantric Buddhism." In La Regalità Sacra: Contributi al Tema dell' VIII Congresso Internazionale di Storia delle Religioni. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 1959.

Snellgrove, David L. Indo-Tibetan Buddhism: Indian Buddhists and Their Tibetan Successors, 2 vols. Boston: Shambhala, 1987.

Strickmann, Michel. "The Consecration Sūtra: A Buddhist Book of Spells." In Chinese Buddhist Apocrypha, ed. Robert E. Buswell. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1990.

Strickmann, Michel. Mantras et mandarins: Le bouddhisme tantrique en Chine. Paris: Gallimard, 1996.

Ronald M. Davidson


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The process of entry into a secret society, an occult group, or a mystical stage of religion. The idea of initiation was inherited by the Egyptians and Assyrians from Neolithic peoples who possessed secret organizations or "mysteries" analogous to those of the Medwiwin of the North American Indians or those of the Australian Blackfellows. Initiation was a stage in the various grades of the Egyptian priesthood and the mysteries of Eleusis and Bacchus. These processes probably consisted of tests of courage and fidelity (as with the ordeals of primitive peoples) and included such acts as sustaining a severe beating, drinking blood, real and imaginary; and so forth.

In the Popol Vuh, the saga of the Kiche Indians of Guatemala, there is a description of the initiation tests of two hero-gods on entrance to the native equivalent of Hades. Indeed, many of the religious mysteries typified the descent of man into hell and his return to earth, based on the corn mother legend of the resurrection of the wheat plant.

Initiation into the higher branches of mysticism, magic, and Theosophy is largely symbolic and is to be taken as implying a preparation for the higher life and the regeneration of the soul. Typical of such rites are the ceremonies for initiation and advancement of Freemasons.

The great religions instituted initiation rituals, such as the baptism and laying on of hands in Christianity, and the circumcision and bar mitzvah in Judaism.

The ordeal rituals of initiation into Freemasonry echo older ceremonies symbolizing the mysteries of birth, pain, death, and the life of the soul. Many trades also have traditional ordeal ceremonies for the initiation of young apprentices, similar to those instituted by college fraternities.

In esoteric traditions, both Eastern and Western, initiation refers to the entrance into various levels of purification of the individual through development at all levels of experience body, mind, emotions, and soulas discussed in various forms of magical and mystical traditions. Initiation can be used in a somewhat watered-down sense, and is adaptable to any new insight brought about by the ups and downs of living. However, it more properly is used to refer to those insights created by a planned system of inner development while the individual is involved in mastering a particular system of esoteric teachings.


Allen, M. R. Male Cults and Secret Initiation in Melanesia. Melbourne, Australia: Melbourne University Press, 1967.

Alli, Antero, et al. All Rites Reversed: Ritual Technology for Self-Initiation. Boulder, Colo.: Vigilantero Press, 1987.

Danielou, Alain. Yoga: The Method of Re-Integration. London: Christopher, 1969. Reprint, New Hyde Park, N.Y.: University Books, 1956.

Duncan, Malcolm C. Duncan's Masonic Ritual and Monitor. New York: McKay, 1976.

Eliade, Mircea. Rites and Symbols of Initiation: The Mysteries of Birth & Rebirth. New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1968.

Fortune, Dion. The Training and Work of an Initiate. 1930. Reprint, New York: Samuel Weiser, 1972.

Hall, Manly P. Secret Teachings of All Ages. Hollywood, Calif.: Philosophical Research Society, 1962. Rev. ed. 1977.

Heard, Gerald. Training for the Life of the Spirit. Hankins, N.Y.: Strength Books, 1975. Distributed by Steiner Books.

Huxley, Francis. The Way of the Sacred. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1974. Reprint, New York: Dell, 1976.

MacKenzie, Norman, ed. Secret Societies. London: Aldus Books, 1967.

Oliver, Rev. George. The History of Initiation, in Twelve Lectures; comprising a Detailed Account of the Rites & Ceremonies, Doctrines and Discipline, of all the Secret and Mysterious Institutions of the Ancient World. London: Richard Spencer, 1829. Rev. ed. 1841.

Sédir, Paul. Initiations. London: Regency Press, 1967.

Stewart, R. J. UnderWorld Initiation: A Journey Towards Psychic Transformation. Wellingborough, England: Aquarian Press, 1985.

Underhill, Evelyn. Mysticism. London: Methuen, 1911.

Young, Frank W. Initiation Ceremonies: A Cross-Cultural Study of Status Dramatization. Bobbs-Merrill, 1965.


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Initiation. The (usually ritual) transfer of a person into a new state, and thus common in religions—either to bring a person into a new religious community, or to make transfers of status within such communities. Examples are circumcision in Judaism, baptism and confirmation in Christianity, bayʿat (‘pact’) when a Sūfī novice joins an order, upanayana among twice-born Hindus, abhiṣeka in Buddhism, dbang.bskur in Tibet (see ABHIṢEKA), dīkṣa in all Indian religions, but of especial importance among Jains, khaṇḍe-dī-pāhul among Sikhs.


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initiation, initiation rites Rituals associated with the passage from childhood to adulthood, from one age-set to another, or the entry into membership of secret societies. Aspects of initiation influenced van Gennep's study of rites of passage. Rituals for the change of status from childhood to adulthood often involve physical change such as circumcision. In other ways the initiate has to undergo pain and humiliation. Rites associated with girls and women often affirm male control of reproductive powers.


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This entry consists of the following articles:

an overview
men's initiation
women's initiation