One of the most ancient of rites, initiation
marks the psychological crossing of a threshold into
new territories, knowledge and abilities. The central
themes of initiation are suffering, death and rebirth.
The initiate undergoes an ordeal, symbolically dies and
is symbolically reborn as a new person, possessing new

In contemporary Witchcraft and Paganism, initiation
marks entry into a closed and traditionally secret society;
opens the door to the learning of ritual secrets, magic
and the development and use of psychic powers; marks
a spiritual transformation, in which the initiate begins a
journey into Self and toward the Divine Force; and marks
the beginning of a new religious faith. While traditional
initiation rites exist, Witches and Pagans feel the spiritual
threshold may be crossed in many alternate ways.
Initiation may be experienced in a group or alone. It may
be formal or informal. It may be performed with an old
ritual or a new one; it may come as a spontaneous spiritual
awakening, in meditation or in dreams. It may occur
at a festival.

Historical Beliefs about Witch Initiations
Historically, a witch’s initiation was believed to be dark
and diabolic, marked by obscene rituals. During the
witch-hunts, stories of offensive initiation rituals were
widely believed. Many of them came from confessions
made by accused witches who were tortured by inquisitors.
The stories varied, but there were common threads
to all of them. Some witches were initiated at birth or
puberty, claiming their mothers had taken them to sabbats,
presented them to the Devil and pledged them to
his service. Adult candidates were scouted and recruited
by the local officers of covens (see coven). After consenting
of their own free will to join, they were formally presented
to the coven and initiated. Much of the rite was a
parody of Christian rites, which fit the prevailing beliefs
of the time.

The ceremony, at which the Devil himself was present,
took place in a remote location at night. The initiates
sometimes brought a copy of the Gospels, which they
gave to the Devil. They renounced the Christian faith
and baptism by reciting, “I renounce and deny God, the
Newly initiated witches attending Satan at court (Gerard
d’Euphrates, Livre de l’Histoire & Ancienne ­Chronique,
blessed Virgin, the Saints, baptism, father, mother, relations,
heaven, earth and all that is the world,” according
to Pierre de Lancre, 17th-century French witch-hunter.
The initiates then pledged a vow of fealty. Scottish witches
said they placed one hand upon their crown and the
other upon the sole of one foot, dedicating all between
the two hands to the service of the Devil. Scandinavian
witches reportedly put metal clock shavings and stones
in little bags and tossed them in the water, saying “As
these shavings of the clock do never return to the clock
from which they are taken, so may my soul never return
to heaven.”

The Devil baptized the initiates, gave them new, secret
names, to be used only in the coven, and marked them
permanently either by scratching them with his claw or
biting them (see Devil’s mark). The new witches were
required to kiss the Devil’s anus (see kiss of shame), a
parody of the kissing of the pope’s foot. Sometimes they
were made to trample and spit upon the cross. The Devil
cut them or pricked their fingers and had them sign pacts
(see Devil’s pact.) Finally, he stripped them of their clothing
and assigned them one or more familiars. The coven
officer or the Devil recorded their name in a “black book,”
a membership and attendance record for all coven meetings.
Sometimes black fowl or animals were sacrificed to
the Devil. After the ceremony, all the witches participated
in wild dancing, copulating with the Devil or his demons
and feasting upon vile things such as the flesh of roasted,
unbaptized babies.

The fantastical, horrible elements of these tales may
be ascribed to torture or, in some cases, delusions. Some
accounts may have been the result of hallucinatory drug
experiences (see ointments). Witch-hunting manuals
such as the Malleus Maleficarum (1486) provided ample
material for leading questions to be posed by inquisitors.
However, some family traditions of folk magic and paganism
probably existed and may have featured initiatory
rites, though nothing resembling the witch-hunter’s lurid

Initiations in Contemporary Witchcraft and Paganism
Contemporary Witchcraft is a mystery religion, providing
a context for the initiate to “Know Thyself.” Initiatory
rites bear no resemblance to the descriptions offered by
those early witch-hunters and demonologists. Rites vary
according to tradition but generally keep to the universal
theme of suffering-death-rebirth in a new spiritual awakening.

The following are not part of initiation into the
Craft or Paganism:
1. There is no renunciation of the Christian faith or
any faith.
2. There is no homage to the Devil, including kisses,
oaths or pacts. Satan is not recognized by Witches
or Pagans.
3. There is no blood sacrifice.
Traditionally, a Witch is not considered a true member
of the Craft without formal initiation into a coven,
after an apprenticeship period of a year and a day. Women
must be initiated by a high priest, men by a high priestess.
Among some hereditary Witches, mothers may initiate
daughters and fathers, sons as an “adoption into the

In the Gardnerian and Alexandrian traditions, the
largest traditions in modern Witchcraft, the initiation is
a ceremony conducted within a magic circle. Both traditions
have a system of three degrees of advancement,
the entry to each level of which is marked by initiation.
There are some differences between the two traditions,
but the major aspects are similar. Advancement through
the degrees is, like Masonry, advancement through the
Mysteries of Western occultism; progressively, more secret
teachings are revealed.

In a first-degree initiation, the candidate is blindfolded
and bound with cords and challenged outside the magic
circle as to the courage to continue. The initiate responds
that he or she is ready with “perfect love and perfect
trust” to suffer to be purified and learn. Once inside the
circle, the candidate maybe ritually scourged (whipped
lightly with cords); measured with a cord, which is tied
in knots to mark the measures; and administered an oath.
In the presence of the Goddess(es), God(s), Guardians,
Mighty Dead and Sisters and Brothers of the Craft, the
initiate vows to guard and protect the Craft, the Secrets
of the Craft, and the brothers and sisters of the Craft,
and, in some traditions, to render aid to said brothers and

The candidate is ritually anointed and kissed; proclaimed
a Witch; and presented with a set of magical tools
(see witches’ tools). The initiate adopts a Craft name.
Secret names of the Goddess and God are revealed.
Satan baptizing a disciple (R. P. Guaccius, Compendium
Maleficarum, 1626)

In the Alexandrian tradition, the measure is given
back to the Witch. In the Gardnerian tradition, it is customary
for the initiator to keep the measure. According
to Gerald B. Gardner, the English Witch for whom the
Gardnerian tradition is named, the measure serves as a
sort of insurance policy that the oath will be kept.
In the second-degree initiation, the Witch is blindfolded
and bound, and renews the oath that it is necessary
to suffer to learn and be purified. A ritual scourging
may follow. The Witch assumes a new Craft name and
is willed the magical power of the initiator. The thirddegree
initiation, the consummation of the Mysteries,
involves the Great Rite, a sexual ritual that may be
done in actuality or symbolically, with magical tools. All
initiations end with a celebration of food and drink (see

Not all Witches follow these same procedures. Many
Witches practice as solitaries and do not feel they have to
join covens in order to be Witches. They initiate themselves
in self-designed rituals. Rites may include ritual
baths (a form of baptism), anointing and pledges to serve
the Goddess and use the powers of Witchcraft for the
good of others. Other Witches, as well as many Pagans,
have a vigil that involves fasting and an all-night experience
outdoors, during which the initiate comes into
direct contact with the gods, discovers his or her own
power and connects with tutelary, totemic or guardian
spirits. Still other Witches and Pagans undertake a shamanic
initiation, an ecstatic journey to other realms of


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