Lately I’ve been devoting a lot of time to a contemplation of initiatory ontology. (Contemplating ontology is dangerous, I know!) To wit, when a person is initiated into the Golden Dawn current, how is that initiation effected? What cause is responsible for the successful transmission of that current and its activation in the individual? And perhaps most significantly, what lessons can this teach us about initiatory strategy within the Golden Dawn tradition?

Perspectives on Initiation

Traditionally, the conservative view is that the current is only transmissible by trained and qualified initiators who possess initiatory authority. This authority derives from the Order to which they belong, which in turn derives from an unbroken line of initiatory authority stretching back to the original Isis-Urania Temple warrant.

This is effectively the “apostolic succession” model of initiation. It may or may not admit the possibility of “astral initiation” at a distance, but the more conservative view generally eschews means of transmission that don’t involve the candidate undergoing the physical initiation ceremony. In this model, authority is central. The initiatic lineage is very important, because an unbroken chain of initiation is crucial to maintaining initiatory efficacy. The validity of the authority of the Isis-Urania Warrant, which has a questionable history, also becomes a central issue. There may also be further sources of authority, such as inner plane contacts (the “Secret Chiefs”), which can serve both to relieve the Warrant of some of its load-bearing burden and to muddy the waters of authority.

It is perhaps notable that this conservative view is almost invariably held by those who have the privilege of access to and membership in a traditional Order.

I find the conservative viewpoint problematic for a number of reasons which I could go into here, but since I’m in the process of laying out the perspectives themselves I’ll defer a response to any of these viewpoints until after they’ve all been put on display.

Israel Regardie believed that self-initiation into the Golden Dawn current was possible, leveraging the Opening by Watchtower, the Middle Pillar Ritual, and other ceremonies. As far as I have been able to discern, little has been said regarding the mechanism by which this strategy supposed to operate. Regardie did place a high degree of emphasis on the individual’s own persistence and work in the process, but little more has been said regarding the details than what has been related in this short paragraph.

Pat Zalewski also discards the idea that this sort of apostolic succession is necessary: “if you want to start up a G.D. temple then simply do it, the rest will come.” Unfortunately, Zalewski also says almost nothing about how initiation is then supposed to take place within this context. It’s the “Field of Dreams” approach to magical initiation: “If you build it, they will come.”

David Griffin represents the most staunchly conservative view on initiation, but his claims to millennia of grandiose lineage amount to little more than “pay no attention to the man behind the curtain” hand-waving. I also don’t devote attention on this blog to alt-right fascist loonies with paranoid conspiracy delusions, so this is hopefully the last time Griffin’s name will come up in conversation, now or ever.

Chic and Sandra Tabatha Cicero are in a unique position. They run the largest traditional Order currently in existence (as far as I’m aware), and yet this Order itself was founded largely on the “Field of Dreams” approach. The Ciceros have also produced the first full curriculum devoted to Golden Dawn self-initiation. In the introduction to Self-Initiation into the Golden Dawn Tradition, they explicitly state that “it is possible today for the student to become his/her own initiator”, but this seems to come with a number of caveats. “The effectiveness of an initiation ceremony depends almost entirely upon the initiator,” in their view, and this “is no less true of the self-initiator”. The training of an Adept in the traditional Order structure is mentioned at this juncture, with the conclusion that “the power to confer a successful initiation comes from either having had it awakened internally by another proficient initiator or, in the case of self-initiation, by undertaking a great deal of magical and meditative work.”

They go on to speak of the goal of initiation, which is “to bring about the illumination of the human soul by the Inner and Divine Light”; but little is said about how precisely this great deal of magical and meditative work is intended to effect the initiation itself in the self-initiate. “The seed that an initiation plants within the soul of the magician is a perpetual one that will remain intact throughout many different incarnations,” we are told, but how is this seed planted in the first place when the efficacy of an initiation depends on the work of the untrained self-initiate?

We are told that the “failure to achieve an initiation on whatever level in any given spiritual path or current is usually due to the unwillingness of the individual to sacrifice the petty needs and wants of the Lower Personality for that which is Higher” (emphasis my own), but we are given little insight into what constitutes initiatory success within the context of a self-initiatory operation.

We can, however, listen to what the Ciceros say about their decision to structure their course the way they did, and proceed to make inferences from there about what this structure says about the nature of their self-initiatory strategy. We are told in the introduction to the green brick that they revised the initiation ceremonies and created the expanded role of Themis/Maat/Thmê “as the Introducer and Mediator between the candidate and the other energies present during the initiation” as a strategy to address the problem of an untrained operator attempting to stand in for “a complex ceremony performed by a team of competent initiators” that is “traditionally executed only by someone who holds the rank of Adept”. In the Ciceros’ view, this ensures that “all advanced ritual gestures and techniques are carried out by the student only under the authority and dispensation of the Higher Self, not under the lower will or ego of the student”. The role of Themis/Maat/Thmê as mediator thus becomes sufficiently important that “prior to any self-initiation, a dialogue must be established between the student and the godform of Thmê in order to set up a conscious link between the candidate (as the Lower Personality) and the goddess of Truth (as the Higher Self)”, and this is achieved through a four month long series of preliminary meditations.

The Ciceros, then, appear to split the difference a bit when it comes to their view of what exactly is taking place in the initiatory context. When performed in a traditional Order setting, we can infer that the training and competency of the Hierophant can be trusted as fulfilling the necessary conditions for effective initiation. When pursuing self-initiation, we are told that the initiate has to undertake a great deal of magical/meditative work, but this statement is frankly relatively uninteresting from a technical standpoint: it tells us who is doing the work, but it doesn’t tell us anything about what the nature of that work is or how it is achieved.

We will unpack the Ciceros’ initiatory ontology more in short order; but in their own understanding of the situation, the Ciceros appear to place a high degree of emphasis on practical competency. Even with the mediation of the godform of Themis/Maat/Thmê, the student is encouraged to perform the initiation ceremonies more than once, as “proficiency will increase with practice, and proficiency is, after all, what will determine the effectiveness of the initiation”.

Lyam Thomas Christopher is the newest kid on the self-initiation block. His book has the eminently forgettable title Kabbalah, Magic and the Great Work of Self-Transformation, but it has garnered a large number of initiates under the heading of the “LTC” curriculum, and may indeed have eclipsed the Cicero curriculum in popularity since its debut. Curiously, LTC opines that prior to his own opus “a workable curriculum of the preliminary work of transformation has not yet been published in any adequate form” (p. 13), which raises some questions about his perspective on initiation in general. LTC chooses in his curriculum to dispense entirely with the initiation ceremonies as vehicles of initiation, instead replacing it with “a solitary daily formula of initiation” consisting of meditative exercises.

Unfortunately, LTC reveals little of the thought process that led him to structure his curriculum as he did–a tendency which especially plagues the curriculum at those points where it most sharply diverges from traditional Golden Dawn teaching and precedent. Here more so than with the Ciceros, we must examine and reverse engineer the practice to see what it says about the underlying ontological assumptions made therein. LTC does explicitly reject the idea that magical techniques “derive spiritual power from their lineage” (p. 35), however, and argues that his Kabbalistic technique “does a much better job” of facilitating the elemental initiations than the traditional initiation ceremonies do (p. 52).

Ballsy claims aside, LTC appears to advocate primarily for a “the proof of the pudding is in the eating” view of initiation, and for a holistic approach thereto. Because LTC substitutes a process for the usual ceremony-based method that supplies a discrete event of initiation, we have some difficulty placing his methods in dialogue with the other views and strategies outlined above. But in his view, “the secrets of transformation are limitation and perseverance” (p. 56, emphasis in original). Limitation comes in the form of making the Work one’s exclusive focus; and perseverance in the form of following that pursuit assiduously. LTC is therefore perhaps the greatest advocate of “salvation by works” among the voices here represented.

Evaluating the Perspectives

We have a range of viewpoints on initiation represented above, but these are relatively unhelpful to us without further unpacking. We’re trying to get at the truth of what initiation is and how it functions, and as we’ve seen most of the significant commentators have given us very little in the way of actual comment on this front. So we’re left in the rather unfortunate position of having to reverse engineer our way to actual ontology, and we’re going to have to sort out some baggage along the way.

The conservative view of initiation within the Golden Dawn tradition rests upon the success of more than a century of practice, but I find that it no longer holds currency when weighed against the evidence. The Ciceros released Self-Initiation into the Golden Dawn Tradition back in 1995, which means we have had almost three decades of practical experience with at least one formal self-initiatory curriculum. This weight of SI practice, and the lived experiences of its students, must be attended to in any discussion of initiation going forward. LTC’s curriculum debuted in 2006, adding an entirely new dimension of practical data that we must take into consideration.

And the evidence, on the whole, is that self-initiation works. I have been walking the Golden Dawn path myself for the past 20 years, and in my time going through the Elemental grades and seeing others go through them in a traditional Order/Temple setting I have seen the current and its energies operate within people’s lives in relatively consistent and predictable ways. I have come to expect to see the current operating in those ways as a result, and to associate that functioning with a successful course of initiation. And indeed, I do in fact see the current working consistently and predictably in the lives of self-initiates. And it makes no difference whether those self-initiates follow the Cicero curriculum or the LTC curriculum: the current still flows, the energies still operate as expected. If we are to accept the validity of this evidence, the conservative ontology must be discarded.

The evidence also holds when it comes to the “Field of Dreams” strategy. Indeed I would say that every single Golden Dawn order in existence today provides ample proof that the current springs to life in those who build a home for it. But “if you build it, they will come” doesn’t really tell us what it is, or how exactly to build it apart from merely copying that which has come before; and it certainly doesn’t tell us why it works. The greatest ontological value, then, can (and must) be mined out of that crucible of experimental strategy and experiential data represented in self-initiatory work, and in holding that data up against the light of established and trusted precedent.

And here we must turn back to the Ciceros and LTC. Given that LTC spends relatively little breath expounding on the philosophy undergirding his curriculum, and turns away from a ceremonial or event-driven initiation in favor of a process-based one, I find that the value LTC adds to the consideration is primarily that of challenging previously held assumptions. In other words, the question implicit in my reading of LTC is “how far can the Golden Dawn current be stretched without breaking?” And the answer, as it turns out, is a lot farther than I personally would have expected. This is highly valuable when it comes to evaluating some of the ontological claims that have been made and seeing whether they hold water.

So let’s revisit some of the perspective of the Ciceros, who are kind enough to actually give us a window into their philosophy beyond the mere methodology, and see what we can tease out.

The Ciceros assert that the effectiveness of any given initiation is almost entirely dependent upon the initiator, and that the power to confer initiation (at least in the way this normally operates within an Order setting) derives from the initiator having themself received that seed of initiation. The actual conferral of that initiation also benefits from (if not outright requires) the initiator having received ritual training that renders them competent to perform the requisite ceremonies.

At the same time, we are told that the self-initiate can achieve these same ends, given sufficient magical and meditative work. We can infer that a significant amount of this work is necessary because it increases proficiency, which is equated with initiatory efficacy.

We are also told that initiatory failure is often the result of an unwillingness to sacrifice the needs and wants of the Lower Personality in favor of the Higher Self; but while this details a common failure mode of initiation, it does not serve to clue us in as to what the necessary and sufficient conditions for initiatory success are. To arrive at these, we must still fill in some blanks.

We can begin filling in those blanks by turning to some other sources for the Ciceros’ thought on the subject. The Essential Golden Dawn states that effecting “a psycho-spiritual change in the awareness of the candidate” requires the ritual officers to “use the techniques and laws of magic–symbols and correspondences, manipulation of the Astral Light, and the faculties of willpower, visualization, and imagination–to give the ceremony its magical potency”; and because initiation requires that “certain magical forces be activated within the candidate’s sphere of sensation”, it is especially important that the Hierophant “in whom these forces have been previously activated” and “who is primarily responsible for the proper transmission of these magical energies into the candidate’s aura” be competently trained (pp. 109-110).

We further find in The Essential Golden Dawn a division between the two types of initiation, astral and physical. The former is the spiritual transformation which “takes place on the ethereal planes” and may not be recognized by the individual at the time, whereas the latter is the outward physical ceremony that “grounds the energies of the astral initiation” and “reaffirms the candidate’s spiritual will” through submission to the ceremony (p. 229). The astral initiation is “not obtained through other human beings”, but “is granted to a person directly by the spiritual archetypes within the psyche” (ibid.). One wonders what the Ciceros would make of the LTC curriculum, which retains the astral initiation while dispensing with the physical.

The Ciceros further quote Dion Fortune regarding the source of true initiation: “We cannot remind our readers too often that the Great Initiator comes in the Silence to the higher consciousness, and is never a human being, however supernatural and secluded. All that can be done by the Servants of the Masters on the physical plane is the preparation of the candidate” (p. 233).

Drawing together these disparate threads then, we can see a set of propositions begins to emerge.

  1. There are two types of initiation, astral and physical.
  2. The astral initiation is a spiritual transformation which is imparted through non-human agency.
  3. The physical initiation consists of the preparation of the candidate to receive the true spiritual initiation.
  4. The effectiveness of this physical initiation is hugely dependent upon the competency and proficiency of the initiator.
  5. This initiation requires that magical forces be activated within the candidate’s sphere of sensation, which entails the use of symbols and correspondences, manipulation of the Astral Light, and the use of Will and the magical imagination.
  6. We can therefore infer that the competency and proficiency regarded as necessary on the part of the initiator has largely to do with the correct use of the above techniques.
  7. It is important, or at least beneficial, that the initiator has had these forces previously activated within their own sphere of sensation, rather than having a merely academic understanding thereof.
  8. In the case of self-initiation, magical and meditative work can be a sufficient substitute for having the forces previously awakened within oneself.

We can go on to infer that the nature of the magical and meditative work required for the self-initiate to achieve an effective initiation has primarily to do with obtaining an operant level of conversancy with (rather than a deep understanding of) the techniques necessary to prepare them to receive the true and spiritual initiation.

Regarding the success of initiation, the Ciceros write in The Essential Golden Dawn that “if the entire initiatory process is successful, the candidate will have been given an infusion of divine energy, in the hope that he or she will indeed attain the increased awareness that is needed to exalt the soul and achieve the completion of the Great Work” (p. 110).

And indeed, it seems that in the final analysis, no matter how much is made of the proficiency of the initiator or of their capabilities, the heavy lifting of initiation comes down to the receiving of divine energy. We have seen the assertion that the most common reason for the failure of an initiation is the refusal to submit the Lower Personality to the Higher Self, and this effectively cuts the individual off from the ability to receive that divine influx of energy. Conversely, it is enlightening to note the specific ways in which the Ciceros departed from traditional Golden Dawn teaching and ritual work in implementing their self-initiatory strategy. The key difference between the Ciceros’ self-initiation ceremonies and the original ceremonies of the Golden Dawn is the introduction of a divine patron in the form of Themis/Maat/Thmê, and a preliminary series of meditations to establish contact with this patron prior to attempting the physical initiation.

In other words, while a trained Hierophant may have an easier time performing an initiation for someone else than that individual is likely to have performing an initiation for themself, the primary differentiator of the Ciceros’ self-initiation strategy from their Temple initiation strategy is that the former relies more heavily on divine petitions and patronage. The candidate must do the work of proceeding through the ceremonies and of making themselves a suitable vessel to receive the initiation, but the initiation itself is directly conferred by the Divine.

Toward an Ontology of Initiation

Now that we’re starting to zero in on the nature of initiation and wrap our heads around it, we start to see a few themes emerging. With a bit more massaging, we may finally arrive at somewhat of a cobbled-together ontology for what initiation is and how it functions.

We can state that true initiation is fundamentally bipartite, involving a divine/spiritual component which does not rely on human agency and a physical (a better word may be “individual”) component which depends on human agency and effort. Spiritual initiations may occur spontaneously or without human action, but in the Golden Dawn tradition the purpose of the physical initiation is to prepare the candidate to receive the spiritual initiation and to catalyze it into action. The ability to effect that preparation and catalysis successfully is dependent upon the proficiency of the initiator in leveraging the magical techniques used within this process. An initiator who has successfully received this same initiation will presumably find it easier to confer it upon others, but as self-initiation is possible it is ipso facto evident that this is not strictly necessary. If the initiation is successful, the candidate receives an influx of divine energy and the spiritual seed is planted within their sphere of sensation, hopefully to take root and thrive. This is not guaranteed, however, as it is necessary for the initiate to submit the Lower Personality to the Higher Self, and the refusal to do so appears to be the primary reason that otherwise apparently successful initiations will fail as this undercuts the spiritual initiation itself, rather than the physical one.

We have also seen that self-initiation is possible, but that it involves some different considerations than traditional initiation. The spiritual initiation must still take place, and must still be catalyzed into life within the individual. This entails gaining proficiency in the techniques used for such a catalysis, whether those techniques involve dramatic ritual (as in the Cicero curriculum) or primarily meditative work (as in the LTC curriculum).

The crux of the physical initiation (or individual initiation, to use my term above) is rendering the person of the candidate a fit vessel to receive the influx of divine energy. In traditional ceremonial initiation this is done via a combination of techniques, including direct manipulation of the sphere of sensation and direct conveyance of the Astral Light. But this is not the only avenue available, and indeed this concept of rendering the candidate a fit vessel finds purchase in Hermetic thought and practice stretching back well before the Golden Dawn.

Marsilio Ficino used methods that are conceptually similar to the above in the creation and use of planetary talismans. The use of the vis imaginativa or imaginal faculty was essential to the working (for more on which see Hanegraaff’s Hermetic Spirituality and the Historical Imagination), but so was a whole host of physical senses including speech, incense, music, and other stimuli which bear correspondences with the forces being telestically invoked. And bear in mind that the Neophyte Ceremony–and indeed all of the initiation ceremonies–are fundamentally talismanic operations which treat the candidate as the material basis and the Higher Self as the talismanic “payload”. Similarly, and for this reason, the Z.2 Formula for the creation of talismans makes use of the same ceremonial rubric (“the Ritual of the Enterer”) as the Neophyte Ceremony itself.

We can also go back much further than Ficino, to the Neoplatonic idea of suitability or ἐπιτηδειότης. Regarding this term, Gregory Shaw explains that the soul of the operator is gradually purified to render it fit or suitable to receive the manifestation of the gods, in a manner similar to the way in which wood is dried to render it more suitable to catch fire (Theurgy and the Soul: The Neoplatonism of Iamblichus, p. 86).

Thus we have two separate things occurring within an initiation, whether that initiation is a traditional ceremony or a process of meditative induction. The first is the “rendering suitable” of the candidate to receive divine energy; the second is the actual reception of that energy. The first is our reaching out to the universe and the gods; the second is their reaching back.

In traditional initiation ceremonies, the candidate is rendered ἐπιτήδειος or suitable through a variety of methods. These are largely unchanged in the Cicero SI methodology, though the candidate must develop the technical proficiency to leverage them while still remaining in a psychically receptive state–a task that is easier said than done when you’re all up in your head because you’re trying to juggle a script and implements and figure out what you’re doing in the first place. Additionally, the Ciceros prescribe a course of general preliminary meditative work (in addition to the Themis/Maat/Thmê cycle) to help the student build the vis imaginativa or imaginative power that is necessary to animate the magical operation. In the LTC methodology, the candidate is rendered suitable through the process of ritual and meditative work since the initiatory strategy does not rely on an initiation ceremony to do the heavy lifting. Indeed, LTC speaks to this process when he states, “The work of becoming an enlightened being requires more than the influx of spiritual Light. The physical, mental, intuitive, and instinctive aspects of the mind must be prepared for that influx” (pp. 51-52).

On the second front, the reception of divine energy, traditional Golden Dawn initiation ceremonies seek to catalyze this influx with various techniques at certain critical points within the ceremonies. In the Neophyte Ceremony, the Hegemon speaks for the Higher Self of the candidate, as its terrestrial representative; and the Hierophant serves as a channel for the Astral Light and directs it into the candidate. This operation has a critical point when the candidate recites the Neophyte Obligation, but reaches its climactic moment when the Hierophant descends from the Throne of the East and advances between the Pillars along the Path of Samekh, bringing the Light from beyond the Veil into the Ruach of the candidate.

In self-initiatory routes, this is not directly possible; so another course of action must be taken. The Cicero strategy involves the expanded role of Themis/Maat/Thmê as the representative of the Higher Self to which the candidate is striving to connect, and changes the verbiage of the ceremony such that the speeches of the officers become in effect intercessory prayers to the divine. We are not given any real insight into LTC’s strategy on this front, and in the absence of other artifacts we can refer back to my previous statement that LTC appears to be the greatest proponent of “salvation by works” among the perspectives represented. It appears that LTC simply has the student do the work, and trusts that the necessary divine initiation will follow from there. Curiously enough, this seems to be the case as borne out in the experience of LTC curriculum students.

In the end, however, the divine initiation is the prerogative of the divine. We can reach out to the universe, but the universe must also reach back to us in order to close the circuit and make those initiatory energies operant. Therefore regardless of what strategy one takes to effecting initiation, we must engage with that strategy from a place of faith and anticipate that the true and spiritual initiation will be granted to us by divine grace. We can prepare the way, we can do the Work, and we can call upon the divine–but when it comes to this component of initiation, we can but make ourselves fit vessels for the divine to inhabit and trust that it will oblige.