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Initiation and the Rites of Freemasonry

by Thomas D. Worrel
A talk (revised) given to the Northern California Research Lodge March 19, 1998

We must never lose sight of the high destiny of our Fraternity lest we cut ourselves off from the very roots of our life-blood. And our roots are dug deep in the Mystery Schools of Antiquity whose purpose was to initiate candidates. What is initiation and how is it, in all sincerity, the business in which we are engaged?

What do we mean by initiation? The word comes from the Latin initium meaning "a new beginning". The Greek word used is telein which means "to accomplish" or "to make perfect". There are many senses for which we may use the term. We sometimes say such things as "I am being initiated into the intricacies of the tax code". The proper definition from the Encyclopedia of Religions is: "The term initiation in the most general sense denotes a body of rites and oral teachings whose purpose is to produce a radical modification of the religious and social status of the person to be initiated. In philosophical terms, initiation is equivalent to an ontological mutation of the existential condition. The novice emerges from his ordeal a totally different being: he has become "another"."

Religious scholars have basically discerned three basic categories of initiation. The first being such social rituals as puberty rites which mark the transition of childhood to adulthood. The second category includes those rites which admit one into a secret society. The major characteristics of these societies are that they are usually limited to one sex and purport to impart secrets usually of a spiritual nature. The third category of initiatory rites encompasses what we could call mystical vocations such as shamans, medicine men, or witchdoctors. These rites are very common to the second category (very confidential) but are more intensely personal in the sense that they culminate in ecstasies and visions. These experiences seal the vocation of the shaman and provide him with further instructions to help him in his craft.

Although these categories are helpful they are only convenient. For example, the Mystery Schools could be said to bridge the latter two categories in some ways. Many of them were definitely secret fraternities but their rites were reported to impart such profound spiritual insights that sometimes the initiates would be impelled into visionary and sometimes unitive mystical states and come away shaken and awestruck. The most common reports included first hand knowledge of the reality of the Spirit and the certitude of the immortality of the soul; which are, of course, the two distinguishing marks of our Fraternity.

I have found it helpful in dealing with the subject of initiation to look at it in two ways: first, the phenomenon of initiation itself; and second, the rites and practices that cause or at least encourage its internal action.

We can look at human nature in a static sense and speak of our "being-ness" but we can also look upon it in a dynamic way and speak of our "becoming". Being and becoming. An observation of nature shows us the many growth patterns at work. Sometimes we see very marked changes from one stage to another. For example, the worm's transformation into the butterfly or the snake's shedding it's old skin periodically. The powers of transformation displayed within nature are present all around us. It is the contention of initiatory schools that there is a similar power within human nature but it concerns the higher faculties rather than the body. The intent of initiatory rites and symbols is to somehow stimulate or activate these energies. One changes from one nature and achieves another "higher" nature. Or using traditional language, this change is equivalent to dying to the old and being reborn. Death therefore is the metaphorical door and thus many of the initiatory myths concern themselves with a death scenario.

In the Mystery tradition of the Western world we have indeed found this type of mythology prevalent. But there is a process leading up to the central theme. Most of the time this process is divided into steps, grades, halls, or degrees. The beginning degrees prepare one for the later ones which usually add on, fill in, or enhance what came before. It seems that, generally, we can distinguish three main stages: there is a rite of induction, a rite or rites of incorporation and instruction, and a rite where the central mystery of the Mystery School is communicated. (I am indebted to the outer Order papers of the Order Aurum Solis for this aspect of the discussion. See Denning & Phillips: The Magical Philosophy Series, Volume 1, pp. 95 - 114) The Entered Apprentice degree of Freemasonry is obviously a rite of induction. It is the rite where the candidate is first exposed and admitted to the Fraternity.

This is the first point of initiation into the Mysteries of Masonry. This is where one takes his first step, given a definite orientation, and provided with enough instruction and protection to commence the journey. This is the point where initiation begins; the first "swirlings" are activated and like cultivating a sprout and giving it support, there are further instructions imparted in later degrees. Finally the ultimate paradigm or ideal model is presented.

Some may consider our rites no more meaningful than that of a type of mild and civilized hazing or consider them nice and symbolic rituals much like saluting the flag or swearing someone into a public office. These views are valid and the individual mason may content himself with this approach but the wisdom, strength and beauty of Masonry is that it responds to each candidate upon the level that each wishes, in his heart, to receive it. While the social and fraternal aspects of Freemasonry are well known, there are esoteric and hidden levels as well.

We can consider that there are two types of esoteric initiations: those that are transmissible and those that are non-transmissible. (Again, I am indebted to the Order Aurum Solis here.) The transmissible rites are those that "may be received by the aspirant at the hands of duly initiated persons". The non-transmissible initiations can "only be attained by individual effort and realization." In many Mystery Schools there is a degree or grade which no rite confers but is included to recognize the personal attainment of completing the initiatory process.

To elaborate further: "It is undeniably true that no process of initiation can impart to a person any power or faculty which he or she does not, at least in potential, already possess. The purpose of the transmissible initiation is then to assist the candidate to realize by experience, in stages which reflect the natural evolution of the function and faculties of the psyche …" (Denning & Phillips, p. 97) Initiation quickens the spiritual development of the soul but can only do so in a natural way. It: " …encourages the growth of the various faculties which are evolved thereby. This is an art and a high responsibility on the part of those who would confer initiation by ritual means…"(Denning & Phillips, p. 98) This speaks to the officers of a lodge in no uncertain terms. To be an officer is not only a privilege but also a major responsibility. The ritual, if done correctly and seriously, impacts the deeper levels of the mind. In Jungian psychological terms, it constellates the archetypes and sets in motion initiatory forces.

Let us not forget the role of the candidate either. As we are told, the first preparation of the candidate is in his heart. And as the Sun needs something to reflect its light to stimulate growth, if our heart does not reflect the Light emanating from the true Master of the Lodge then we will not grow either. As W. Wilmshurst wrote: "Light is granted in proportion to the desire of our hearts, …". And he also wrote: "Initiation, … meant a process whereby natural man became transformed into spiritual or ultra-natural man and to effect this it was necessary to change his consciousness, to gear it to a new and higher principal, and so, as it were, make of him a new man in the sense of attaining a new method of life and a new outlook upon the universe." (Meaning of Masonry, Wilmshurst, p. 185)

Although the Imperial decrees of 391 AD prohibited all pagan cults and subsequently the sanctuaries were destroyed causing the great Mystery Schools to disappear, the tradition, at least in part, has survived. Some feel that Freemasonry is the re-emergence of this tradition of initiation. Be that as it may, it definitely could be. Too much attention is being brought to bear on our past in looking for historical links. The proof is in the pudding. And there is every reason to look to the future and develop Freemasonry to be an ever more efficient and effective initiatory society.


Denning & Phillips. The Foundations of High Magick, volume 1 of "The Magical Philosophy Series", Llewellyn Publications, St. Paul, 1991.

William L. Wilmshurst. The Meaning of Masonry, Bell Publishing, New York, 1980 (originally published in 1927).

Mircea Eliade, editor. The Encyclopedia of Religions.

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