Considering Consent: Initiation, Baptism, and Other Religious Milestones

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Hetan_initiation_ritual_(1)Recently I ran across a fascinating post on initiation while working on this blog. Melissa wrote about her first-degree initiation into the Gardnerian tradition of witchcraft, and referenced my own account of the initiation experience. What she took away from my account surprised me, and caused me to think deeply about my experience. Here’s the relevant bit:

Honestly, after reading Foster’s account of her initiation, I quite got the impression that initiation would be akin to being raped…and asking for it.  I was worried that going through with it would do something that would completely break the “me” I’ve lovingly constructed and force me to completely rebuild myself in its wake.

I briefly spoke with fellow witchcraft initiates, and invited some comment from friends online, about this post, and about what I had written. Some people simply wanted to reassure me that initiation, including my specific ceremony, was a positive, loving experience. Some had similar experiences to mine, but didn’t seem to feel that there was a lack of consent (despite not knowing the details beforehand) and felt that rape was too strong and highly-charged a word for even a jarring initiation experience. After a couple of opinions I realized that I had to sit with my own thoughts and my own experience, and process this from over a year and half later. My findings were uncomfortable.

So, we probably need some disclaimers. I’m not interested in dissing anyone or anything. I don’t have anything against initiation or baptism or other religious milestones. I’m not interested in judging people for circumcising their kids or anyone for converting for a spouse, or any of the other judgmental approaches that could be taken when talking about this. I’m talking about my experience, and my thoughts about the whole concept of initiation and/or baptism. In some ways, I’m not even giving a good representation of my actual initiation ceremony, because the person who was initiated with me had a very different reaction and experience to the same ritual.

Melissa’s perception of my initiation account resonated with me. While I wouldn’t use the word “rape,” I do have to admit there was a lack of consent. I told my initiator afterwards that had I had an understanding of what the ritual would entail, I would never have requested an initiation. I would have remained a “friend of the house.” To be perfectly honest, had I been given a paper copy of the ritual to peruse ahead of time, my response would have likely been “Oh HELL NO!” My level of discomfort is evident in what I fully intended to be a “positive” post. I see that quite clearly looking back.

So why was I so disturbed and uncomfortable? I have been accused before of having false expectations about witchcraft, and maybe I do. However, on reflection, I also can honestly say nothing I had been taught or encountered prior to my initiation prepared me for what actually happened. Looking back, I don’t see the need or purpose of such a disturbing experience. I also don’t think my initiators recognized that I didn’t have a positive experience (which isn’t necessarily their fault) and so perhaps I didn’t get the support I needed to process this better at the time.

Being a savvy person who had been in the Pagan community for many years prior to initiation, I knew some of the basics to expect. Most witchcraft initiation rituals involve disorientation, violence (implied or actual), esoteric questions, and life-and-death oaths. The basic idea is to force a traumatic experience of sorts, to bring the initiate face-to-face with some dire truth of human existence, and then reveal that salvation lies within the teachings, if not of the specific tradition, of witchcraft in general. And not even witchcraft alone, as the idea is all paths climb the same mountain. (Part of my problem has always been that I want a different mountain.) But once you find yourself within the initiation ritual, you are bound to a single path up that mountain. You can visit others, but you can never forsake witchcraft. Scrub as you may, pray all you want, but you are irrevocably a witch.

This sounds pretty scary, right? But how is this different from the baptism I received in the Southern Baptist Church? Being held under water is both a disorienting and a violent act, you are asked if you believe that Jesus is your lord and savior, and your soul is considered irrevocably bound to Christ. I can tell you how it is different: I knew every step of the ritual ahead of time, it happened in the light of day, and I was able to give full, informed consent. I’m not giving a spiritual value judgement here. I’m not saying witchcraft is wrong and Christianity is right. Far from it. But I am saying I had full, informed consent in one ritual, and I did not in the other. Also, in one ritual I had a full understanding of the symbolism and meaning, and in the other I did not. I don’t think confusion and ignorance is what is meant by Mystery. All this troubles me.

Life can be pretty crummy. Horrible things happen all the time. So do awesome things, but that doesn’t mean awful things don’t happen too. Relationships end. People die. We lose things that are important to us. People hurt us. We get ill. We face our own mortality, our soul’s darkness, or inability to do the things we desperately want to do. I am willing to bet a gajillion dollars that if you went out on the street and offered people the choice between something bad happening to them, and something good happening to them, most folks are going to choose the good. We have enough bad things happening in our lives. Just watch the news. It is full of crummy things happening in the world. So why do we need a ritual like baptism or initiation? Why do we force some traumatic, violent experience?

Looking back, my initiation was not a good experience. It was traumatic and I was encouraged to not talk about it. It wasn’t “rape” but it wouldn’t be wrong to call it a violation. Instead of a profound religious experience, it felt like a hazing ritual. And I walked into it with love and trust in my heart. I feel like I was naive and foolish, although I had no way of knowing my experience would be that traumatic. I freaked out about it quietly. You can read that in my writing. Fear, confusion, and anger. Of the two religious milestone rituals I experienced in witchcraft, I ended feeling betrayed by people I trusted both times, albeit for different reasons. On the other hand, both of my baptisms left me feeling nothing.

I don’t have any solutions, I’m not certain I’m asking the right questions, and I know this post will be difficult for some people to read, but I am grateful Melissa gave me the push to really look at my experience more clearly. Maybe there needs to be a conversation around the purpose and use of consent, violence, and trauma in ritual. It won’t be a conversation I will be a part of, because having been burned twice I have no intention of being subjected to violent hazing in the name of religion ever again. If your enlightenment comes at knife point or via simulated drowning, then I don’t want it. I want safe space in which to explore my spirituality, not another crummy thing happening to me in the guise of spirituality.

The seal I was given to wear as a recognition of my status as a “witch and priestess of the first degree” of my tradition no longer feels right to wear. I tried uncrossing oil and cleansing, but finally I decided a couple of days ago I would rather use that chain for another pendant. I feel like letting go of that pendant gives me some form of closure over this episode, as does writing this post. That feels good.