In the 21st century people, have some odd views about what initiation is and what to expect from it. On one had you have those who have come through the masonic tradition who see initiation as something which enables them to get to the top of an organisation and have a bigger hat, or more ornate apron. Then you have those who see it as a pointless exercise which stands in the way of doing “real magic” which apparently involves going on imaginary journeys to talk to invisible friends. Others dumb down the whole process as being a psychological rite of passage, and others something which can be written off as any beginning you make in a tradition.
Initiation did exist in Ancient Egypt, long before any Masons spiked each other’s breasts with stiletto knives. It may not have been done in quite the same way, but evidence of it can be found in the Greek Magical Papyrus or what is now called “Conversations in the House of Life (CiHL).” The sorts of initiations are clearly designed to create both a magical and psychological effect on the candidate. In CiHL that effect is created in a dialogue between the God Thoth, who was clearly being played by high level priest, and a candidate entering the temple for the first time. In fact some of the Texts in the Hermetica could be easily seen as initiation rituals of some sort which have also had their original script removed. So what is initiation supposed to do? It mostly depends on the tradition. In the Hermetic system a person is divine but lost in the realm of matter. They have forgotten that they are part of the One Thing because since they became aware of themselves they have a body. There is nothing wrong with this body, but it does make it difficult to remember.
Encoded in any initiatic system then is a switching on of the body and soul so that it can actually awaken to its divine powers. This is always a gradual process with the lower elemental energy centres awakened first. When these are balanced, the candidate awakens the lunar centre and the real adventure begins. The lunar body gives an understanding of everything which is “under the moon” that is the material plane and the underworld. Once that work is complete, the person finds their lunar soul and can give it back to the powers which control it. They realise that although they are part of the moon, they are also something else. They will then go through the same process with each of the planetary spheres. Each time returning part of themselves to the divine force which rules it. At each gate or palace, or initiation, the candidate surrenders something but gets it back. Then there are also stella initiations with the same ideas. By the time you have finished, you will have remembered who you really are and what you are doing on this planet. Your personality, which started out as the car you drive in, has now become a hire car and you are more aware of your true nature. Initiation rituals are the key to helping a person unlock the doors so they can go through this process. This does not mean that anyone ever does. I might be initiated into the 7=4 grade or the 8=3 or 9=1 but that does not mean that I can actually manage those states, just that when I am ready the doors will be open to me. (BTW I am not claiming I have those grades it was just to make a point).
Initiation has rules which prevent the system being abused. A person has to be in the grade to initiate someone else into it. Normally this means that they have to have been able to reach the correct state to perform the initiation, but to have had the door opened to them. This is the truth behind the so-called lineage method of initiation. This assumes that someone who is part of a tradition has the right to initiate within it. Sometimes, in rare cases, the Universe opens those gates itself. A person who has done all the work but cannot find a human initiator at that level is lead through a range of spiritual experiences which mimic the initiation. I say that this is rare to discourage those who claim that their invisible friend initiated them into the 9=1. It does happen, but rarely at the lower grades. I should point out that someone who has been initiated into any grade for real will not talk about it. Not because of some pedantic demand for secrecy but because it is an extremely personal experience. The higher the grade the less likely a person is to talk about it, although some do drop hints. However if they sign their letters with a high grade it is almost certain that they have not got it. The Modern Golden Dawn is based on several of these grades being opened to a select number of people who were initiators and where able to help new groups develop. To complicate matters further there have also been initiators from the older Golden Dawn currents who assisted in the project. This created modern initiating lineage which actually worked.
But real initiation has nothing to do with membership to a group or tradition, although the two are often entwined. A good group (and these are rare) opens the gates in a sequence, but often other gates are opened in different groups or traditions. For example, I had my first real initiation in one order which meant that all my experiences in another order, including initiation within it, were covered under that initiation. I had my next degree in still another order and another grade in still another. I remember when I was dismissed from one Order for the crime of suggesting that the leader really should not be an insecure autocrat, the letter expelling me said that “I was free to waste my time in uncontacted schools at my current degree, but I could not go any further.” I did reply saying that when I was ready for the next grade, I would receive it and there was nothing any human could do to stop it.” In fact each of these initiations enabled me to do more things magically, but only so far. Most of the donkeywork still has to be done by me. I am also aware, like many others I have worked with, that I hold initiations to grades which I do not personally use. These are not pointless. I really hope that one day I might step into them with the level of awareness I step into the grades I use now. This explains why I do not accept lineage or initiation by post, or letter. A person has to have the gates opened in that grade by someone who knew what they were doing or there was no initiation.
It is also important to realise that the real initiation is rare and is not always found in occult groups. I remember I met a bloke once called Ernest Gordon Dashwood-Evans who was awarded an MBE by Winston Churchill for his voluntary work during the Second World War. He had been a cabin boy on board a boat that was shipwrecked during the Napier Earthquake, had been Laurence of Arabia’s flat mate, and had connections with MI5. When I met him, he was living in a miserable Slough council flat looking after his mentally ill wife, who died soon after. I wrote a feature for the local paper about his life and none of his neighbours believed it. It was all true, he had carried on having this interesting life without many people being aware of it. What was interesting about “Dashwood” was his eyes and he could do things that others could not. Somehow, “Dashwood” had managed to be initiated in a way that an occultist could recognise and do some great things for people. As a result, he lived a hard but interesting life.