In some circles (no pun intended), initiation’s a pretty big deal.
It makes sense– unlike the formal degrees of religious authority seen in something like Christianity, most modern Pagan and Neopagan religions aren’t really centralized that way. They also generally don’t grow by evangelizing, which means that any would-be adherents have to approach the religion to learn more rather than the other way around.
Unfortunately, this is where a lot of people’s competitive streaks get bent way out of shape. I have seen arguments arise over whether initiation or self-dedication are more valid, what constitutes a pagan or witchcraft tradition, or whether it’s superior to have approached a group and gone through their initiation rites or been called to your faith by spirits. I have even seen a not-insignificant number of Pagans that maintain the (rather contradictory) opinion that the only “true” way of gaining wisdom is through the spirits rather than people and books, but anyone who doesn’t follow the same practices that they, themselves, do is also somehow doing things wrong.
What is the actual difference between initiation and dedication? There are a couple of major ones:
- Initiation always involves at least one other person. You cannot initiate yourself.
Dedication, on the other hand, can be either self-performed or involve another person or group.
- Initiation entails admitting someone into something, i.e. qualifying them to begin learning their path within a group, or accepting them into a society.
Dedication involves making a commitment. Initiations are always dedications of some stripe, but dedications are not always initiations.
So, which one’s “better”? That really depends on what one expects to get out of the process. If it’s to learn and advance according to the rules of a particular tradition, initiation is more useful. If it’s to pledge oneself to a given practice or religion outside of the trappings of a particular tradition, dedication is fine. If it’s to develop an air of legitimacy, become a guru, or impress other Pagans or witches… Well, there are probably way bigger problems there that need to be sorted out way before you worry about picking between self-dedication or a formal initiation.
That raises the question of traditions. There seems to be a kind of unspoken sentiment that the more ancient a tradition is, the “better” it is. (For real, I’ve seen witches get into fights about whose tradition was older. If it’s possible to be a hipster about witchcraft, this is it.) While there’s certainly something to be said for having some form of tradition to serve as a jumping-off point so you don’t have to reinvent the wheel, there is a lot more to Paganism and witchcraft than figuring out who has the oldest grimoire.
That said, if you’re self-dedicated (or, if you prefer the term, spirit-initiated) you don’t actually have a tradition.
Let me explain: Traditions are solely concerned with passing beliefs and practices from one person (or generation) to the next. For anyone self-dedicated, solitary, eclectic, or otherwise learning as they go and piecing things together without following customs passed down to them from someone else, the word “tradition” doesn’t make much sense. It’s possible to incorporate some traditional practices into eclecticism, but one person does not a tradition make. (This isn’t to say that a tradition can’t start with just one person, but that’s probably also putting the cart before the horse a bit.) Like initiations, traditions require more than a single individual by definition.
Where does that leave the self-dedicated, eclectic witches and Pagans? Nowhere different than anyone else, really. Outside of a given group or coven, there’s no authoritative body handing out brownie points for achieving a higher degree of initiation than someone else. A person who has achieved the highest rank in a given coven would still most likely have to start as an initiate if they chose to join a different one, the same as a complete novice.
Does that mean that being initiated by other people is a waste of time, energy, and (often) money? No, not really– like I said, it depends on what one wants to get out of it. For people who aren’t satisfied with self-dedication, lack faith in their ability to be self-taught, or feel that they’ve reached a stumbling block that’s caused them to stagnate, it very well might be worthwhile to seek out a group that can help them refocus and provide the structure they need to grow.
As far as the virtues of being initiated by spirits versus other people go, that’s a bit more complicated. On the one hand, there’s no way to really prove that someone claiming to be initiated by spirits isn’t just trying to be the twinkliest special snowflake in the whole wide room (“I’m so special, the spirits wanted to initiate me personally!”). On the other, that’s also true of people-initiations, too– a person could walk into a pagan gathering, claim to be the High Priest/ess of a name they’ve pulled completely out of their backside, and it’s highly unlikely that anybody in the room would be able to call them on it.
I’ve made no secret of the fact that I ascribe firmly to the idea of developing personal associations with things– herbs, stones, tools, colors, what have you. Guidebooks cobbled together from traditional knowledge definitely have their place as a starting off point, but sticking to them too firmly tends to be more of a hindrance than a help. For those that forewent a formal initiation, there’s a considerably higher emphasis on exploring for oneself.
On the flip side, there will also always be those who view anyone not formally initiated into a longstanding traditional coven as being a fluffy-New-Age-woo-baby. This is pretty much just transparently biased snobbery, but it happens.
The fact is, somewhere along the line, evolution produced the first person capable of understanding. The first person did not have another person to initiate them. They did not have a tradition waiting to be passed down to them. At some point, something that was not another person had to initiate them– to appear to them, teach them stories, show them secrets in the veins of leaves and the paths of stars, tell them how to read a handful of bones. If hard-core traditionalists would look down on the spirit-initiated, what would they think of their own progenitors? How many generations of teaching does it take to become valid? Two? Forty? One hundred?
So, what can you do? When it comes down to it, the world’s your oyster. The sooner you realize that people– even other witches and Pagans– are going to judge you no matter where your knowledge comes from and no matter how you practice, the sooner you can free yourself. There will always be times when it’s good to take constructive criticism (especially regarding cultural appropriation and other problems in the witch, Pagan, and New Age communities), but learning to accept legitimate criticism and rise above petty sniping will only ever help you.