Initiation Is What Modern Societies Are Lacking
What is initiation? What does it give to members of traditional societies? What do we, ‘modern’ people lose with the lack of it?
What Is Initiation?
Initiation was a traditional teaching-learning process and ceremony through which the children of a tribe, folk or society reaching a certain age gained the full rights of an adult and became responsible members of their community. Of course the tradition, which was passed over to the new generation and its process was specific not only for different nations but also for smaller groups of a nation. And it was also specific for males and females.
While being initiated in their tradition, the candidates had to learn the history of their folk which was usually inherited in the form of a heroic poem or song about their heroes and ancestors. It was rather a mythical history than the one that modern schools teach during their history lessons. There are cultures known, where people know the names of their ancestors seven generations upwards. Today in modern society we can be satisfied if children can tell the full names of their grandparents.
The new generations had to learn and accept the traditions and unwritten laws and rules of their folk and behave accordingly. They were also initiated in their nation’s symbols and secrets. But they were taught practical things, too. Boys for example were taught how to fight and girls got the knowledge of the female jobs and tasks in a family just like baking bread or weaving linen. And last but not least they were prepared not only for being men and women but also for their future roles as fathers and mothers.
Finally they had to go through a trial when they could prove that they deserve to be responsible adult members of their folk with full rights. When they fulfilled their trials, they were introduced to the society where they were accepted with big celebration. There were tribes and folks where the candidates even got new names and left their childhood names behind. These names were often given according to their personal qualities or boys mostly got their new names after their heroic deeds.
What Does Initiation Give to Members of Traditional Societies?
In ancient times belonging to a group was no doubt the most important if not the only way of surviving. So, finding their identity not only as individuals but first and foremost as a member of a tribe, group, clan, folk or nation was crucial in ancient people’s lives. To show where they belonged they used symbols which were not personal symbols but those of the group where they came from and they were messages to all other people about their identity.
These symbols could be paintings on their bodies, like among Australian native people, tattoos, pieces of clothes with special patterns and colours like Scottish tartans, special things they wore on their head or clothes like different feathers that American Indian tribes wore in their hair or coats-of-arms which have been generally used all over Europe since the early Middle Ages. First they showed that the person using a certain coat-of-arm on his shield belonged to a family or served that certain family. In some places servants wore the coats-of-arms of noble families they served on their uniforms. Later these symbols appeared on flags, buildings, gates and on other objects. The symbols of present countries grew from these medieval coats-of-arms and still have the same function: showing the unity of a nation.
What Do Members of Modern Societies Miss with the Lack of Initiation?
With the appearance of modern societies initiation was relegated. If we want to find the reason for it, we have to examine the main difference between traditional and modern societies. And this difference is not in the time passing by. Modern societies appeared as early as in the Ancient Times such as the Roman Empire. And there are still some – though less and less – groups of people who lead a way of life which is closer to traditional than modern.
The most important thing is that members of traditional societies live in harmony with nature and the personal qualities of a member defines his or her role and position in their folk. Modern societies try to defeat nature and their leading personalities are chosen according to their political and economic power or they gain their position through their personal connections. Of course, for most of them an initiating process would be inconvenient and sometimes – facing the fact that others have better human qualities – might even be humiliating as well.
So, what do we miss when ignoring this traditional ceremony? People in modern society very often do not find their places. Nothing is good for them and they are always dissatisfied with their lives. It is mostly true for young people, who cannot find real goals for their lives. There is not a turning point in their lives when adult society would definitely show when they are considered to be adults as well. The changing of their position from being a child to being and adult tends to be too long, and there is not a definite point to which both parties can stick to. Having reached one’s 18th birthday might have been a turning point, but since many young people are at school at this age, it does not really fulfil this expectation. And if somebody is treated as a child, he will act according to it. By now we have produced several generations who can be even 30 but they do not act as adults. They continue their teenage lives without being responsible for families or societies. And it will grow into quite a problem after a time. If adult society cannot provide a way for them to adapt to it, they will form their own society in which older generation will not have a place. Generation gaps are becoming wider and wider.
The other point is that our modern societies lack all kinds of trials – except for school exams – where children could try out themselves in a safe way. School exams are the only actions which try to substitute initiations but they are only for the brain. Human qualities are not tried out. And schools are not the best forms of teaching because we have hordes of kids in a class and there is little possibility to deal with them personally.
Just think of the following little example how people behave when they are alone or in a group. If a kid passes a gate where he sees the notice NO ENTRY, he would probably never think of entering that gate. But if he is with a gang of other children, and they start rallying each other there is a great possibility that they would enter.
We teach kids a lot of things from science to arts but that is not a real initiation. Initiations are in a way always initiations into death. Of course you do not have to die actually, but the experience you get through initiation changes your personality and you come out of it as a person reborn, who knows what life and death are and can make a difference between valuable and rubbish. The initiating process was not easy and without danger – mostly for boys – but they came out of it with self-confidence and self-knowledge. They had to face their virtues and weaknesses and this knowledge could be a good compass to their further lives.
However modern societies cannot provide the opportunity for guided initiation, kids will initiate themselves. You can often experience that when they are around 15-18 many of them start wearing black. This is a sigh that time has arrived for initiation. Then they start some extreme and dangerous sports, become members of gangs or go out in the night to obscure places to see what real life is like. The most dangerous thing is when they even try drugs. In many cases parents and teachers notice that there is a problem with the kid, when they find out that the child has become an addict. And at that point it is extremely hard to help them.
Yes, you are definitely right when you say that not all kids do extreme sports or become drug addicts. But I would like to ask you how many of them become depressed and how many of them need to consult a psychiatrist. Probably more than you know about. They are the other end of the scale. They did not dare to try anything dangerous and they are stuck in the problems of their lives. This is what never happens in a traditional society. Or have you ever heard of an Eskimo hunter complaining of depression or a native Indian in the heart of the rain forest ever going to psychiatrists or to different psychological therapies?
What Can the Solution Be?
Well, you cannot tell that this or that method is a perfect solution. However I think there are some ways we can start making progress in.
We should turn back to nature more often to learn wisdom and to understand more of the universe and ourselves. We can search for the traces of one-time traditions and make them work again. And a really effective way is reading fairy tales and folk stories because they were preserved fully and each of them is a way of initiation. Fairy tales reveal as much of the world as you are able to receive. And the more you understand from them the more you will learn about yourself and the world around you. Explore the world of fairy tales and new perspectives will open up to you to improve your ability to find your real self.
And last but not least here is a true story about self-initiation which happened to one of my students.
I used to talk to my class a lot about customs and traditions and told them stories and tales. During the Literature lessons we did not only count the rhymes in the poems but I also tried to lead them to deep into the emotions the poems expressed. My students passed their GCSE with quite good marks and I was pleased with their results.
Then a couple of days later one of my students’ mother – who happens to be my colleague – came up to me and told me how worried she was because her son decided to go up the hills around the town and spend a whole night there in a cave all alone.
I said, ‘What’s the problem? It’s summer and the weather is fine so he won’t get cold, will he?’
‘But he is going to be there at night and alone. Something bad might happen to him.’
‘Don’t worry’ said I. ‘The only thing that can happen is that a boy leaves his home and a man returns.’
Of course I couldn’t convince her but her son actually went up the hills several days later, spent there a night and came back the next day safe and sound. The story is over here. However, I would like to add that from among the three sons of my colleague this one is the most successful in life. He is the most determined and most responsible and whatever he plans he makes it. He lives his life but the other two brothers are just vegetating.
Think it over and give a chance to traditions and tales in your and your family’s life.