celticwheelInitiation and Dedication

There is an old debate within Wiccan circles about how one becomes Wiccan. Amongst most Traditionals, the consensus seems to be that Wiccans are initiated into one's path, and that there is no such thing as an uninitiated Wicca, as it is the act of initiation itself that makes one a Wiccan.

This idea is much contested amongst non-Traditional Wiccans for a variety of reasons, though the most oft quoted is usually the notion that only the Gods can make Wiccans, not other Wiccans. By this logic, a solitary practitioner could circle alone in the presence of his Gods and perform a perfectly valid initiation rite into the tradition of Wicca.

I have to admit that this was a contention of mine for a long time. If Wicca is a religion wherein its practitioners answer to the Divine and wherein the individual is generally encouraged to be self-actualized, it seems incongruent to simultaneously require that to become a Wiccan you can only do so through the venues provided by other people. The contradiction seemed huge to me.

The Traditionals, however, were not swayed by this argument, claiming that Wicca was indeed an initiatory religion, and that by definition one had to initiate into something. One could not initiate himself, for what would he be joining if he did so? The concession was made that individuals could perhaps self-dedicate to a path, but whether or not that made one truly a Wiccan is still debated.

However, the complication for me ultimately was the question of what exactly is an initiatory tradition. This seems to be a fairly central tenet among a lot of Traditionals, and yet the concept is rarely deeply explored outside of Traditional circles. If an initiatory tradition is defined as any tradition that requires some sort of initiation rite for membership, then this doesn't make Wicca particularly special. Law school graduates, foreigners seeking citizenship, couples seeking a marriage all have to go through an initiatory rite before their journey can culminate in their goal, be it a license to practice law, naturalization or marriage. If this is all that is meant by an initiatory tradition, why is there such a fuss made over it?

Initiation, however, is more than merely a rite performed to embrace an individual into a group (More on this later). An initiation is a beginning, and an initiatory path is a tradition in which the many "little beginnings" that make up life are given a spiritual context. Life is about the journey, and along the way, small (or major) things happen which forever change the course of one's life, marking the beginning of a new segment of the journey. Getting married, having a child, fulfilling a dream, choosing a Deity--all of these things can be profound initiatory experiences, and in most spiritual paths, those initiations are very important. Wicca, as a proclaimed initiatory tradition, recognizes these markings as opportune times to recognize Deity in the moment, to envision oneself in relationship to major mythologic themes, and thus better relate to God and the community.

When one is initiated into Wicca, whether by a coven, Temple, or the Gods (and ultimately, all spiritual initiations must come from the Gods. The question is really whether there will be any other attendants at the event) he/she takes on the commitment of a life of change and unfamiliarity. An initiatory tradition requires us to look at the self, see what needs changing, and to make those changes. It also means, however, that if we don't do that for ourselves, the Gods will happily do it for us. Stagnation will kill us--we have to be dynamic and evolving. The initiation rite jump starts this process, but a daily communion with God almost ensures that the changes will continue. This is true of any communion with God, not merely interaction that occurs within an initiatory construct. However, in such a construct there are usually rites of passage that coincide with the changes that we make in our lives which mark that we are indeed making a "new beginning". In a way, these rites and rituals are part of the co-creative process--they not only mark the change that we are undergoing but to contribute to it, turning our spiritual eyes toward our mundane life and vice versa. The ritual becomes yet another pact with Deity to live a certain way and to continue to grow and change.

Yet the other aspect of initiation, that aspect of being initiated into something still warrants consideration. While some people have criticized Traditional takes on initiation as a requirement as elitist, other religions require similar processes without suffering such critique. For example, both Catholicism and Judaism require converts to take specific classes and undergo a particular process before one is embraced into the community. But this is the crux of it--these traditions embrace the individual into a community and expect the individual to maintain certain standards and abide by certain rules. For example, Jewish converts are expected to raise any future children as Jews, to perform the mitzvoth, to change his or her lifestyle to fit in with proper Jewish life (ie keeping kosher, eschewing the Christmas tree, obeying halacha etc.) The conversion process, or the rite of initiation, marks the individual as part of a community with the benefits and responsibilities that entails. It's for this reason in part that a rabbi will turn a seeker down three times before committing to accepting a candidate for conversion. The process of becoming and living as a Jew is an arduous one, and the commitment should never be taken lightly.

Wiccan initiation, however, doesn't seem to carry the same kind of weight with regard to community. Outside of coven life, for example, there is hardly such a thing as a Wiccan community, and even within many covens there is nothing similar to the notion of the Jewish, Catholic, or Mormon community if for no other reason than the average coven lacks the numbers to offer the same kind of support as a church or synagogue. The familial notion within Wicca is seemingly non-existent. When an individual comes to Wicca, she pledges to give her life in service to the Gods. She is not, however, required to raise her children a specific way or to change her lifestyle according to any standards except as mandated by herself or her Gods. (I'm sure the requirements vary from coven to coven, but to become Wiccan one is generally not asked to make serious lifestyle changes, such as a change in eating habits or cultural identification) She is not, by and large, being adopted into a clan. Her initiation is a binding contract between herself and Deity--fraternal community may not be part of the deal. It certainly can be, especially where a coven is involved, but the inherently insular and highly autonomous nature of Wicca makes communal liability and responsibility very difficult.

A second difficulty that Wiccans or would-be Wiccans face, which doesn't plague Catholic, Jewish, or Mormon converts, is that Wiccan covens are not readily available, especially not if the seeker is seeking out a particular tradition. Covens may be all but invisible to those who don't know where to look, and even for those somewhat connected to the community, a secretive and oath-bound coven may hide right out in the open. Some people have made the argument that if the seeker is truly meant to walk this path, he or she will be led to the right group at the right time. While such serendipity would certainly be nice, it is doubtful that this is the case for each and every person who seeks, and even more doubtful for someone who doesn't yet know that they are seeking. Although Wicca is certainly gaining media attention and becoming more mainstream, there are still plenty of people who have never heard of our religion, and among those who have, many of those have gross misconceptions about what we do and believe. Many seekers will try several different paths if those paths are readily available and come with a built-in community with which to study, form bonds, and worship. But the Wiccan coven is not a "community", and yet we still expect them to be treated as such.

This is part of the problem that Wicca faces as it "grows up". The initiatory element of Wicca is an important one, and distinguishes it as distinctly different from both Abrahamic and Eastern faiths. Marking the phases of individual lives and noting the changes and stages of initiation closely aligns us with the changing of the Wheel, for example, or the hero in any of the numerous Hero myths. However, an initiatory tradition does require some kind of community--someone with whom to share the joy and grief inherent in leaving on phase behind and moving on to another, and a community which can prepare the individual for the changes he or she may be embarking upon. In the western world this has historically been one of the major contributions of organized religion. Each individual is placed within a context with an immediate community with which to worship, to mourn, and from which to learn. There is a common language amongst practitioners, a common symbology and a sense of security. The religious community acts as an extended family, as exemplified in the Christian phrase "brothers and sisters in Christ".

This is not to imply, however, that there cannot or should not be solitary Wiccans. Not everyone wishes to be part of community. However, those who assert that initiation is a requirement for Wicca and those who see the benefit of keeping Wicca as an intitiatory tradition would do well to encourage community and to make it possible for community to blossom. When the individual makes a commitment to initiate into Wicca and therefore to endure a series of marked initiations throughout the duration of his/her life, there should be, should he/she desire it, a community to embrace her, to encourage, teach and lead her.

Main Index / Other Voices

Reprinted with the permission of the author, Amber Laine Fisher. Please visit her website at http://www.mothersmagic.net for more essays on the topic of Wiccan beliefs.

Last updated 1 October 2004