Monday, April 11, 2011

I is for Initiation

An Epiphany of Dionysios, who is called Dithyrambos
The epitaph of one of the central Mystery figures seems to connect him with "two doors," and is applied not only to the hymns dedicated to him, but to the god himself as well.  If this is correct, it is not surprising: Dionysios was born twice: once from his mother, and once from his father, Zeus.  (By some accounts, he was even thrice-born!)  His devotees are those who are likewise born a second time through the initiation into his Mysteries.

Joseph Campbell, in his enormously popular proposal of the so-called monomyth, makes much of initiation as one of the stages in the universal meta-story of the hero.  "The traditional idea of initiation combines an introduction of the candidate into the techniques, duties, and prerogatives of his vocation with a radical readjustment of his emotional relationship to parental images... Ideally, the invested one has been divested of his mere humanity and is representative of an impersonal cosmic force.  He is the twice-born: he has himself become the father." (136-137).  This passage nicely sums up Campbell's view, and also evinces some of its weaknesses.

(cc) NID chick
In Hinduism, Upanayana or investment with the sacred thread is the initiation ceremony, traditionally restricted to boys of the three upper castes -- the castes known as "Twice-born."  Campbell might well point out the importance of the roles of the parents in the investment, but while the rite does bring boys into the first stage (ashrama) of life, Student, it does so as members of a larger social structure (the caste system).  Further it is the basis in some areas for future investments: at graduation by one's guru and again at marriage -- the husband taking on the thread that the woman could not take on for herself.  Campbell shows a bit of a tin ear when it comes to the gender and class issues, undoubtedly in part due to his focus on the individual hero.

As I've mentioned before, our knowledge of the Dionysiac rituals are minimal and subject to a good deal of uncertain speculation.  For the images of the villa in Pompeii, see this website.  One must always be cautious in making broad statements about phenomena across the religions, but this much seems safe: To be initiated means to mark a milestone in one's personal development, to join a particular group, to become the keeper of a special doctrines and a special story that one previously had limited access to, responsibilities for, or privileges in, and to partake of the realm of the unseen, of numinous power, in a new and inward way. These empower one to undertake new actions or a new way of life.

One must imagine waiting in the dark, being led by others in unseen paths, and then emerging into a secret world--like a womb--lit for the passing of hidden knowledge...where one sees what can be revealed only to those who belong on the other side.*

* For more information, you may see this article, which will also suggest alternatives to the theory that I think is plainly correct.