The term ‘initiation’ is frequently used without definition or qualification. Initiation is used to describe various things, some of which are mutually contradictory. There is thus no common agreement on what initiation even means, so it is not then surprising that confusion exists around the subject. The etymology of the word simply means ‘to start something off’, and yet there is no consensus on even that, the broadest definition possible. In fact it is so broad a definition that it necessarily narrows and limits the meaning to an ordinary material action. A trumpet can be blown to announce the commencement of some game, act or play, none of which concerns us here.
One of the common errors to be made concerning initiatic organisations is that initiation, or a rite of initiation, is no more than a means of induction into a particular group or body. That may be the case with some organisations, but those are not in any way initiatic, which is to say, their purpose is in no way to transmit a spiritual influence and consists only of social, political or other profane concerns.
From this mistaken idea of induction into a social or other group has come forth even worse confusion, for example that initiation is no more than ‘psychological process’. We will come to this later, for Jungians and others have denounced elite initiatic organisations on the grounds that all they can achieve is immersion in a collective mind or égrégore—as though some souls, too weak to help themselves, need the safety net of a collective body until such a time as they are ready for what CG Jung termed ‘individuation’. Nonetheless, the latter ruthlessly maintained an elite group based solely on his own personality and self-invented terms. It is clear from Jung’s writing on the subject that was not initiated into anything in the sense that we mean it here.
Initiation or Egregore?
The word égrégore itself has suffered degraded meaning—it is even used now to describe the motivations, attitudes and opinions of a corporate body, for example. We have used the term here in its conventionally understood sense. Originally, the word égrégore was associated with ‘Watchers’, of the Enochian tradition. These are often supposed to be angelic beings although the mysteries of the apocryphal book of Enoch vastly predate archangels and angels. Far from being any kind of collective mind (if such exists), the Watchers hint at the central mystery of initiation, which is concerned with non-human or praeterhuman intelligence. We shall turn to René Guénon for a precise explanation of what initiation means in the present context.
“INITIATION must have a non-human origin, for without this it can never attain its final end, which extends beyond the domain of individual possibilities. That is why truly initiatic rites cannot be attributed to human authors; in fact, we can no more know the authors than we can know the inventors of traditional symbols, and for the same reason, for these symbols are equally non-human in their origin and essence. Moreover, there are very strong lines between rites and symbols, which we will examine later. Strictly speaking, one can say that in such cases there is no historical origin, since the real origin is situated in a world to which the conditions of time and space, defining historical facts, do not apply, which is why such things will inevitably escape profane methods of research that by definition, as it were, can lead to relatively valid results only within the purely human order.
“In such circumstances it is easy to understand that the role of the individual who confers initiation on another is veritably one of transmitter in the most exact sense of the word. Such a person does not act as an individual, but as the support of an influence not belonging to the individual order; he is only a link in the chain of which the starting-point lies outside and beyond humanity. This is why he acts not in his own name but in the name of the organisation to which he is attached and from which he holds his powers; or, more exactly still, he acts in the name of the principle that the organisation visibly represents. This also explains how the efficacy of the rite accomplished by an individual can be independent of the true merit of the individual as such, something that is equally true of religious rites. We do not intend this in any moral sense, which would clearly have no importance to an exclusively technical question, but in the sense that even if the individual lacks the degree of knowledge necessary to comprehend the profound meaning of the rite and the essential reason for its diverse elements, that rite will nonetheless be fully effective if the individual is properly invested with the function of transmitter and accomplishes it while observing all the prescribed rules and with an intention that suffices to determine his consciousness of attachment to the traditional organisation. From this it immediately follows that even an organisation that at any given time has only what we have called ‘virtual’ initiates … is nonetheless capable of truly transmitting the spiritual influence of which it is the repository. For this to be the case, it is sufficient that the chain be unbroken; in this regard the well-known fable of the ‘ass bearing relics’ is susceptible to an initiatic interpretation well worth meditating on.”
By ‘virtual’ initiates, Guénon, writing in 1946, does not of course refer to modern technology. He is referring to an organisation where the members have, through deviation or necessity—brought about by the unnatural conditions imposed by the modern world—forgotten the true meaning and purpose of the rites and teaching. These can nonetheless be transmitters of the initiatic current, even when they do not know it themselves.
Initiation and Individualism
Individualism, which reached its apotheosis in the modern world and has collapsed in upon itself in the technological age, along with humanism, is what Guénon termed as a force of anti-initiation. Once psychological or therapeutic explanations of initiation gained dominance, the Western world was subjected to a plethora of ‘self-help’ literature and even professional guidance for those with disposable income and time on their hands. This counterfeit initiatic movement similarly emerged from blind incomprehension of spiritual traditions, combined with the arrogant presumption of the modern post-industrial world.
Initiation by therapy or ‘healing’ swiftly gained popularity over the last last half century, forming a covert anti-tradition. By placing all emphasis on the individual it destroys all possibilities of initiatic transmission in those who adopt its mind-set, as initiation must by definition have its origin outside and beyond the human sphere. This element of counter-initiation is ‘covert’ in so far as even the few remaining cosmic mediators in the last generation were persuaded by the claims of Jung and his followers that psychoanalysis might in some way be helpful, even essential, in matters of initiation—or even worse, that a therapeutic approach to the subject is in some way a healthier alternative. It was a serious deviation—destructive to whole generations in so far as it rendered them impervious to any possibility of real initiation.
There is a difference between initiatic organisations and ‘secret societies’. According to Guénon,
“IN all of the quarrels relating to secret societies, or to what are so called, either initiatic organisations are not involved, or at least it is not their initiatic character as such that is involved, something, moreover, that would be impossible for other profound reasons that the rest of our account will better explain.”
Guénon alludes here to the almost never-ending disputes, frequently carried out in public, among members of various organisations claiming to be initiatic. This often revolves around ‘authenticity’, ‘lineage’ and so forth. As he has already made clear, none of that can have anything to do with a truly initiatic Order. In some cases, an organisation might be initiatic, or have once been, but the members have lost sight of the true meaning and purpose of initiation through social or other aims.
“A PROFANE person who knew all the rites from having read their descriptions in books would still not be initiated in any way, for it is quite evident that the spiritual influence attached to these rites would in no way have been transmitted to him.”
The profane person has a completely material conception of things, and is therefore impervious to any spiritual influence whatsoever.
“WHERE a profane society is concerned, one can leave it as one entered it and thereupon find oneself purely and simply what one was before, a resignation or a dismissal suffices to break all ties which are obviously of a wholly outward nature and imply no profound modification of the being. On the contrary, once one has been admitted into an initiatic organisation, whatever it may be, one can never by any means cease to be attached to it, for by the very fact that it consists essentially in the transmission of a spiritual influence, initiation is necessarily conferred once and for all and possesses a strictly ineffaceable character. Here we have a fact of an interior order against which no administrative formality can do a thing. But wherever there is a society there are by that very fact administrative formalities through which one ceases to all appearances to be a part of the society in question; and one sees immediately the ambiguity that results when the society represents only the exteriority of an initiatic organisation. Thus it is necessary in all strictness to make a distinction between the society and the initiatic organisation as such; and since, as we have said, the first is merely a contingent and ‘superadded’ form of which the second—in itself and all that constitutes its essence—remains entirely independent, the application of this distinction really presents less of a difficulty than might first appear.”
It is not possible to truly be initiated and to leave the initiatic body, which is not of course a society or association, these being only an outward trapping and of no consequence to the initiatic Order. As a society is in no way concerned with initiation in the true meaning and sense of that word then it is easily possible to leave it or be dismissed.
“EVERY initiatic organisation is also ungraspable from the point of view of its secret, this secret being such by nature and not by convention and consequently impenetrable by the profane; the converse is a self-contradictory hypothesis, for the true initiatic secret is nothing other than the incommunicable of which initiation alone can give knowledge.”
Furthermore, an initiatic organisation cannot be attacked or dissolved from without, for such a body is invisible to the profane world, ungraspable. Even if no representative is still living, we should understand that the ending of the spiritual transmission was willed from within and not as a consequence of attacks from without, or from any exterior cause.
“ALL the categories of organisations that we have considered have nothing in common but the sole fact of harbouring a secret, whatever its nature may be, and it goes without saying that this secret can differ greatly from one category of organisation to another. There is obviously no possible comparison between the true initiatic secret and a political project that is kept hidden, or the dissembling of an organisation’s existence and that of the names of its members for reasons of mere prudence. And let us not even speak of the many fantastic groups of our day, especially in Anglo-Saxon countries, which ape the forms of initiatic organisations but conceal absolutely nothing and which truly lack any importance and even any meaning, pretending to keep a secret that has no serious justification. This last case holds no interest except to illustrate clearly the current misunderstanding in the mind of the general public about the nature of the initiatic secret, which they imagine refers simply to rituals and to words and signs used as a means of recognition, which would make it as outward and artificial a secret as any other, that is to say, a secret that exists finally only by convention. Now, if such a secret in fact exists in most initiatic organisations, it is only a wholly secondary and accidental element and in reality has no value except as a symbol of the true initiatic secret, which is itself such by the very nature of things and which in consequence could never be betrayed in any way since it is of a purely interior order and, as we have already said, lies strictly in the incommunicable.”
The “many fantastic groups of our day, especially in Anglo-Saxon countries” probably refers to the groups that emerged in Britain and America from the end of the 19th century even to the present day. It would be tedious and would distract from our purpose to list these, but one obvious example that springs to mind is the ‘Hellfire Club’, which served no other purpose than to entertain the whims and excesses of Englishmen of a certain privileged class. The endless quarrels and even litigation surrounding the Order of the Golden Dawn has been widely documented, some of it more or less based on fact, some of it based on wild speculation or, as in the case of Aleister Crowley’s autobiographical accounts, pure fiction with the malicious intention of slandering persons that either disliked him or otherwise refused to submit to the absurd demands he made upon them. None of that has anything to do with initiation or genuinely initiatic organisations, and we will not waste further time on it. No truly initiatic secret can be betrayed and no exterior force can betray any truly initiatic body.
1. Professor Richard Noll, The Jung Cult.
2. The Saragossa Manuscript, written by Polish author Count Jan Potocki (1761–1815) in the early 1800s features the term égrégores in relation to certain illustrious fallen angels—which is a reference to the book of Enoch and the brief mention in Genesis of descendants of an elder race called the Nephilim. Eliphas Lévi, in The Great Mystery, 1868, identifies égrégores with the Watchers, the fathers of the Nephilim, describing them as “terrible beings” that “crush us without pity because they are unaware of our existence.” The description is complete fantasy on the part of Lévi, based on what he had read in the Bible and Apocrypha, which was written by scribes hostile to any race other than that of the Israelites.
3. Guénon, pp. 52–53, Perspectives on Initiation [1947—republished in 2001 by Sophia Perennis].
4. Guénon, Crisis of the Modern World [Sophia Perennis, 2001].
Related on this website:
Crisis of the Modern World Revisited (on René Guénon, in view of the present times)
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