|The Initiation Chamber|
Villa of the Mysteries, Pompeii
So, what is initiation? In its simplest form, it is the recognition of entry into a new role or subculture in a larger society, using a system of ritual, performed exclusively by those who have previously been initiated.
Let's look at some examples to clarify what that means: When a man is going to be married, most Western cultures have some sort of ceremonial celebration at which the man is prepared for his new role in society as a husband. In the US we usually call these "bachelor parties." Similarly, when one joins the military, there are many distinct rituals of bonding and acceptance performed as a part of "basic training."
Within the societies which perform stand-alone initiations such as Freemasonry, Rotary and so on, the role of the initiation is not merely a demarcation which one experiences and then moves on. It is an entry into a fellowship, but the process is still very much the same.
We now have a sense (if only by example) of what initiation is, so why is it almost always secret?
Certainly, there are elements of many initiations that are considered private matters (bachelor parties might involve watching a "stag film" or, more commonly in the modern day, hiring an exotic dancer; military initiations might be considered violent by outsiders; etc.) but this is not the primary reason for secrecy.
Rather, secrecy is a part of the reason for initiation. Forming a hidden "token" of belonging between the initiate and the existing members of the group makes the act of initiation meaningful. We see this in every trivial act of initiation from the proverbial "keys to the executive washroom" to the programming communities where contributors who have been accepted into project are given permission to submit new source code.
This gives us a reference point from which to begin to talk about how initiation benefits the individual, the group and society at large.
For the individual, initiation is a signpost. Before and after initiation one leads different lives: the exoteric and the esoteric. By creating and valuing an esoteric context, we promote the notion that there is meaning and value in belonging and contributing to something which is more than just the sum of its individual members. This idea, in turn, is the hallmark of functioning societies.
To quote Yeats' poem, The Second Coming, "The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity." It is this lack of conviction on the part of those who have the most to contribute which initiation is meant to address and resolve; not simply by bonding the initiate to the existing members, but by bonding them to the initiatic body itself and teaching them that they can add value to their cultural context by seeking the acceptance of their peers.
In a future update, I will address specific historical examples of societies with and without strong initiatic traditions....