Masonic Education

Initiation
Author: V.W. Bro. Iain Bruce Mackenzie of the Curriculum Group, The Committee on Masonic Education, May 2008

Initiation what does that word really mean? The OED defines it as "Admit a person into a society, an office, a secret especially with a ritual". In Masonry we often refer rather obliquely to the Eleusinian Mystery cult. This cult originated in Greece and here, briefly, is the story.

In 547 BCE, Peisistratos constructed a new cult hall in the city of Eleusis, twenty miles west of Athens where it was said, the goddess Demeter had stayed while searching for her daughter Persephone. The Eleusinian mystery cult now became an integral part of the religious life of the Athenians. It was an initiation in which participants experienced a transformed state of mind. Because the rites were shrouded in secrecy, we have an incomplete idea of what went on, but it seems that initiates followed in the footsteps of Demeter; they shared her suffering - her grief, desperation fear and rage - at the loss of her daughter. By participating in her pain and, finally, the joy of her reunion with Persephone some of them found that, having looked into the heart of darkness, they did not fear death in the same way again.

The Initiation took place as follows...

The candidates (mystai) fasted for two days; they stood in the sea and sacrificed a piglet in honour of Persephone; and then in a huge throng set off on foot for Eleusis. By this time they were weakened by their fast and apprehensive, because they had no idea what was going to happen to them. The ones who had been initiated the previous year made the journey with them and their behavior was threatening and aggressive. The crowds called rhythmically and hypnotically upon Dionysus, god of transformation, driving themselves into a frenzy of excitement so that when the mystai finally arrived in Eleusis, they were exhausted, frightened and elated. By this time the sun was setting; torches were lit and in the unearthly flickering light the mystai were herded to and fro through the streets until they lost their bearings and were thoroughly disoriented. Then they plunged into the pitch darkness of the initiation hall. After this the picture becomes very confused. Animals were sacrificed, there was a terrible "unspeakable" event, which may have involved the sacrifice of a child who was reprieved only at the eleventh hour. There was a "revelation"; something was lifted out of a sacred basket. But finally the reunion of Kore and Demeter was reenacted and the mystery was concluded with rhapsodic scenes and sacred tableaux that filled the initiates with joy and relief. At Eleusis they had achieved an ekstasis, stepping outside their normal workaday selves and experienced new insight*.

Initiation means a whole lot more than simply admitting a person into a society if it did not, then simply paying a fee would suffice. As in Eleusis, the idea of Masonic initiation is that the candidate is in some way transformed by the experience, entering a higher plane of awareness, especially of himself. He is expected to feel uplifted as though he was purged of his old bad habits and renewed as a better man. He enters the lodge in the first degree with personality traits developed over many years, some of which may be unpleasant or antisocial. His initiation is intended to drive home the need to rise above that former personality, leaving it at the door and adopting a new one, more gentle and considerate of others. In the first degree he enters in darkness and is perambulated about the lodge thus inducing in him confusion and apprehension, before the bright revelation at the altar when his hoodwink is removed. In the third degree he has a somewhat similar experience designed to reveal to him a new personality.

Masonry serves a twofold purpose. Firstly it attempts to help a man improve his own character by giving him the tools to do so, if he will only use them. Secondly, it gives him the opportunity to make contact with that part of the eternal being that resides within him, the sanctum sanctorum in his head. Throughout the ages men have tried to make contact with the Supreme Being through contemplation and self-denial. This has been as true in China as it has in India, Israel and Greece: and now in Canada, Freemasonry offers the same opportunity to those who are willing to undertake the journey. The ritual, which we practice and the symbols we use are all directed to these two ends. The Eleusinian mystery cult had a system designed to achieve ekstasis (ecstasy) and we do also. To achieve the desired effect on the candidate however it is vital that the ceremony be approached with the utmost seriousness. Those performing ritual must be able to deliver their words with conviction and sincerity. There must be no awkward pauses or stumbling over words or actions. All must know their parts if the candidate is to be suitably impressed by the ceremony as is our hope and expectation. Let us try to understand our system and take advantage of the many opportunities it puts in our way.

* - Karen Armstrong, "The Great Transformation"