The term ‘initiation’ is frequently used without qualification. It 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.
A common error 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 comes forth even worse confusion, for example that initiation is no more than ‘psychological process’.
The Jungians and other rationalists that for various reasons made it their business to comment on things of which they were, by their disposition, not qualified to speak of, have denounced elite initiatic organisations. They did this on the grounds that all such groups can achieve is the immersion of an individual in a collective mind or egregore—we use the latter word here in its conventional sense. It would be 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 Jungians term as ‘individuation’. The word ‘egregore’ has been used to reduce and nullify all public knowledge of initiatic organisations through misunderstanding and confusion. Before this could be done the word had first to suffer a degraded meaning. The meaning has by now become so far removed from its original sense that the word ‘egregore’ is even used to describe the motivations, attitudes and opinions of a corporate body, for example.
Initiation or Egregore?
Originally, egregore, derived from the Greek egregoros, ‘wakeful’, was associated with ‘Watchers’, of the Enochian tradition. Far from being any kind of collective mind (if such a thing can even exist), the Watchers hint at the central mystery of initiation, which is concerned with non-human, praeterhuman or ‘beyond human’ intelligence. The Polish author Count Jan Potocki (1761–1815) wrote The Saragossa Manuscript in the early 1800s. This features the term ‘egregores’ 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 the elder race called Nephilim. Eliphas Lévi, in The Great Mystery, 1868, identifies egregores 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 overwritten from the surviving fragments by scribes completely unaware of the real meaning of the narrative. The accounts are therefore fascinating but corrupt. We shall turn to René Guénon for a precise explanation of what initiation means in our 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.
He goes on to mention that there are strong lines between rites and symbols. By ‘rites’ he does not mean something made up or created, obviously. The original meaning of a ‘rite’ is more in the way of divine ordination, and of setting things in order. Thus any scholarly enquiry into the ‘authenticity’ of rites through an examination of authorship or historical facts can tell us absolutely nothing of any real significance concerning this matter. The true origin of an effective rite is beyond the bounds of the corporeal world of time and space.
This leads us to the matter of individuals conferring initiation on another, or others. Such a person is a transmitter, for he does not act as an individual, which would render any real initiation impossible. A transmitter is a ‘link in the chain’, as it were, and the support of an influence—but that influence has nothing to do with the individual domain. He does not act in his own name but in the name of the principle that the initiatic organisation represents. For this reason the effectiveness of any rite, even a religious one as opposed to an initiatic one, does not in any way depend on the individual merit of the initiator. The accomplishment of the rite is then made possible not through individual or personal qualities, or even their ability or knowledge, but through the power invested in the initiator or initiatrix. Thus it is possible for the hierophant to close the proceedings under some circumstances without the requirements of ‘ceremony’, which sometimes forms an additional part of a rite, but through simply declaring the closure, “By the power invested in this sceptre”, for example. The sceptre is the symbol of the principle and so of spiritual authority, though never the authority of the individual person themselves.
The initiator, perhaps needless to say, cannot be ‘anybody’, but must be invested with the function of transmitter. The initiator must also ‘know the rules’ of the rite, and be able to perform it without error. Even if the members of such an organisation have only what Guénon terms as ‘virtual initiation’, a spiritual influence can be effectively transmitted so long as the traditional chain is unbroken and the organisation or body of initiates must be truly a repository of a spiritual influence, which it carries. By ‘virtual’ initiates, Guénon, writing in 1946, does not of course refer to digital technology. He is referring to an organisation where the members have, through deviation or necessity such as is brought about by the extremely 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.
Once psychological 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 emerged from incomprehension of spiritual traditions combined with the arrogant presumption typified by modernism. 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, for 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 has rendered them impervious to any possibility of real initiation. We will turn once more to Guénon:[3
Thus it is altogether erroneous to identify initiatic organisations with secret societies, as is commonly done. First of all, it is very evident that the two expressions cannot in any way coincide in their application, for in fact there are many kinds of secret societies that have nothing initiatic about them since they can be formed by mere individual initiative and for any goal whatsoever…
Guénon here discerns a difference between groups that are societies, which are by definition purely exterior organisations, whether ‘secret’ or not, and initiatic organisations. He does this because even those who profess knowledge, or profane scholars who profess to ‘facts’ and ‘evidence’ commonly confuse the two things. He is prepared to concede, on the other hand, that genuinely initiatic organisations can sometimes take on the outward appearance of societies, in which case they automatically deviate in some ways from the original purpose of any initiatic organisation. He later qualifies the point further, by pointing out that in some circumstances, mainly those conditions that affect the modern Western world, this becomes inevitable. He therefore continues at some length describing in broad terms the different kinds of organisations that exist, for some of these are initiatic and some are not at all initiatic.
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 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. Sometimes an organisation might be initiatic, or was once, but the members have lost sight of the true meaning and purpose of initiation through social or other aims. Guénon refers to this as ‘contamination’ or ‘deviation’.
Whether or not an organisation clothes itself in the particular and moreover wholly outward forms that permit it to be defined as a society, it can be qualified as secret in the widest sense of this word, and without attaching to it the least unfavourable intention…
Organisations are often accused of being secret societies once their presence, or at least their outer appearance, has become known. This rests purely on the fact of secrecy, as though that were objectionable in itself. There are two kinds of secret that an organisation may harbour. The first is that of initiation itself, which is incommunicable by profane means and completely ungraspable by the materialist—for even if such a person knew the rites from reading them in books (for example), they could not receive initiation, being impervious to any spiritual influence or transmission. The second kind is that of very ordinary secrets that are no more than outward signs, words or symbols conveyed to the members so they can recognise each other.
Once the difference between a ‘secret society’ and an initiatic Order is understood, it becomes clear why it is that the member of a truly initiatic organisation can never leave it. It is easily possible to leave, or be expelled, from any profane society, for it is only governed by the same rules that govern any other purely exoteric body, and so the being is not in any way changed by this. Any ties forged or broken are entirely outward. In the case of an initiatic organisation, however, which transmits a spiritual influence, the person that has received an effective initiation is changed permanently—no merely formal or administrative means can alter the fact. Furthermore, whereas a society can be the target of attacks from outside—because it is itself ‘on the outside’—and can be removed by political or other means, an initiatic organisation, by its very nature, is not in any way affected. Guénon goes on to say that such an organisation exists so long as “even one single member remains alive”. An initiatic organisation cannot be attacked or dissolved from without, for such a body is invisible to the profane world. 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.
It is necessary to qualify the different kinds of organisations, both initiatic and non-initiatic. While some have remained purely initiatic, others have deviated, for example by introducing political or social ideals or agendas, but they remain initiatic at their core, even if the members or even the representatives do not understand this. Then there are pseudo-initiatic organisations, which are a counterfeit, for example those that have a purely ‘psychological’ basis. In addition, there are some organisations wholly opposed to all initiatic tradition whatsoever, and this can include merely conventional, non-initiatic or pseudo-initiatic bodies. The pseudo-initiatic organisations, as they are as profane as the declared anti-initiatic, are equally opposed to any true or genuine initiatic tradition, even those elements that have deviated yet retain an initiatic core.
There is a popular fantasy that confuses initiatic Orders with some political secret or covert project—the name of the Illuminati is often used, even though that was a real but profane organisation with a rationalist ideal. All this is conflated with ‘conspiracy theories’, which has nothing to do with either. It has lately been used as a political means of suppressing all dissent from the official line—it is only necessary to attack one that declares perfectly reasonable and quite ordinary facts to be a believer in ‘conspiracy theories’ and the public are ready to join in the condemnation, aiding and abetting the suppression of knowledge and reinforcing their subservience.
When a genuinely initiatic organisation holds a secret, that can only be a symbol or some outward token of the true initiatic secret, which of course can neither be disclosed or betrayed by any means available to the profane, for it is incommunicable. The outward ‘secret’ is then a purely secondary element, having no real value or significance in itself. No truly initiatic secret can be betrayed and no exterior force can betray any truly initiatic body.
Finally, there are, and have been for centuries, organisations that parody initiatic organisations, without concealing anything though they sometimes pretend to keep some secret. There are some such groups that emerged in Britain and America from the 18th century continuing to the present day. One obvious example is the ‘Hellfire Club’, which served no other purpose than to entertain the whims and excesses of English lords.
1. The only authentic account of the Nephilim or ‘Watchers’ is preserved in the opening paragraphs of ‘The Sethian Gnosis’, Thrice Greatest Hermes, G.R.S. Mead.
2. Guénon, pp. 52–53, Perspectives on Initiation [1947—republished in 2001 by Sophia Perennis].
3. Guénon [ibid].
4. The first Hellfire Club was founded in London in 1718, by Philip, Duke of Wharton, but gained notoriety through the English club established by Sir Francis Dashwood (1749 to around 1760). The Club was later associated with Brooks’s (1764). Other Hellfire Clubs sprang up throughout the 18th century, most of them in Ireland after Wharton’s had been dissolved.
This article is abridged from Nu Hermetica, a work in progress [Ordo Astri books].
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Crisis of the Modern World Revisited (on René Guénon, in view of the present times)
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