The Sea Itself: Living Lineage, Initiations, and Convergent Traditions
Religious and spiritual communities and collectives can take on many forms. A “tradition” is a set of practices, affirmed beliefs, technologies and paradigms which is in some way passed on. Lineage is a particular line of transmitted tradition, teachings, beliefs, practices, or in some cases a distinct spiritual force, power, or authority. These terms are often used in conjunction or interchangeably with one another; I would suggest that all lineages have tradition(s), but not all traditions have a lineage. A tradition is somewhat more general — “Hellenic Polytheism”, “African Orisa-Ifa”, “Kemetic Polytheism” — whereas a lineage refers to a specific “current” of transmission, such as a regional body of teaching, a family-structured house, and so forth. Lineages are passed on, whereas traditions are taught. Some traditions require a person to be part of a lineage, while others do not. A lineage without a tradition, however, would be like a fully fueled car without an engine.
Some traditions (such as Palo and Santeria in modern Cuba, or Orphism and the Cult of Bendis in ancient Athens) exist historically with cultural closeness to one another, with certain levels of overlap, while maintaining their distinction from one another. Other traditions have little to no pre-modern relationship, yet and find themselves in an odd position, occasionally seated side-by-side in contemporary US practice. Sometimes these are merely shared proximities, while other times collisions or cross-overs; sometimes these go well, and other times, less well. Always there are complexities. Always, always, always.
Today, there are a whole lot of communities, sub-communities, and overlapping movements of spirit-working religious, magical, and spiritual traditions, who now, more than ever, are finding ways to connect with one another… thanks to the internet. Some of these have natural congruent intersections, while others are brought into relation only through an overlap of practitioners or social circles. Some of these are very old, others are significantly younger. Some have noteworthy historical or cultural place, tied closely to national or regional identity, while others still have developed with an intense privacy, or a more casual and organic fashion. Some are terribly ancient, in terms of the spirits and ancestors driving them, but have been broken off from the world due to genocide or conversion, and are being restored today. Some of these are insular in nature, structured as family units that one must initiate into for community participation, while others are developed with the solitary individual in mind. Many of these have specific pantheons or families of spirits attached, and indeed are living religious traditions, whereas others are instead magical traditions of ritual technology, absent a “religious parent”, or who are adapted from a tradition linked to a different religion. Sometimes, practitioners who engage and identify in one tradition draw upon the terms — or indeed the living deities and spirits — of another, in ways that cause concern for those for whom those traditions carry significant meaning.
I have noticed this blending-and-blurring trend, wherein some people seem to reach for a level of recognition, prestige, credential or authenticity through incorporating (especially publicly, loudly, or even in a commercially “professional” manner) names, spirits, or practices from initiation-oriented traditions into other structures of practice. It seems to me that in many of these cases, this does a disservice and renders disrespect to both the initiatory tradition and the non-initiation based other, and similarly (and more importantly) to the spirits and ancestors of both. I am concerned by it.
As an individual with a diverse set of practices and paths — each of which is a distinct stand-alone, separate and dedicated, disciplined engagement involving tradition, lineage, initiatory consideration and systems of eldership/community-accountability — I am irked by seeing so many streams crisscrossed in a lazy, muddied, blurry sort of fashion. I am not bothered by those who hold a practice or place in multiple traditions, as I myself do, as do some of my favorite humans.
Syncretism happens. There are beautiful and organic ways throughout the world and throughout time that syncretism, and even eclectic union of paths can and have happened, but none of these is lazy or undisciplined or casually blended. No tradition is meant to be a keyed excuse to kleptomaniacally pocket spirits, phrases, or lineage artifacts; even those that are expressions of a blending, or that operate parallel to one another with certain cross-over, do so while following expediently the practical and process oriented traditions of lineage(s), which represent covenants (sorry to pilfer that word, mainstream religion!) between groups of lineally descended or transmitted persons and the spirits whom they serve and relate with. Within a person’s private practices, they may find themselves called to (or dropped into) devotional relationship with deities or spirits from more diverse backgrounds and origins. Some teachers suggest avoiding such cross-overs, while others encourage it; in all cases, though, I feel that just as it is important to differentiate the context in which you know different humans in your life, it is important to practice discernment in navigating the differentiated contexts of the relationships you might hold with spirits.
In response to this issue, some have claimed that the only way to engage with (at least some) spirits, such as the Orisa, is through initiation, and to do otherwise is a careless and disrespectful endeavor, akin to playing with fire. As all of my long-term readers know, I am a strong advocate of concepts of causality when dealing with the gods and spirits, and deeply emphasize the importance of lineage, discipline, initiation and training. The very real nature of our deities, and the very real risks that can come with crossing them, make these important topics. However, to suggest that a person may only approach them at all if they are themselves initiated is uncomfortably exclusionary, incorrect, and wrong-headed, in most cases.
By way of example lots and lots of people in Yorùbáland and around the world who are not initiated to any Orisa at all make offerings to those Orisa. One does not require initiation as a priest to an Orisa’s cult lineage in a given region to engage with that Orisa; there are limits on what rituals that person will be able to perform, but nobody is barred from engaging with them. However, within these relationships with the Orisa, it would be both ill-advised and unethical for a person with no initiation (and, further, no specific training) to perform professional services (divinations, rituals of purification, initiation) for any other person. The various traditions and lineages that engage with the Orisa represent the agreements that the Orisa have with people; random spirit-workers, eclectic diviners, or magicians who have not submitted to the currents of those traditions and lineages (and their subsequent agreements and structures) have no business being in that business. That said, nothing is preventing anyone from having personal devotions with the Orisa, in the context of their own home practices and household cults. If a person feels that the only way that they can engage with or relate to certain spirits or gods at all is to initiate to those traditions, we will quickly find ourselves — as we do, often — faced with a number of “tradition hopping” seekers, moving from one structure or another, without the time, focus, or continuity of resources to honor the spirits or lineages that they are ritually made to.
All of these various traditions and lineages represent specific agreements between specific spirits/deities and specific groups of people. Those agreements often include specific ritual technologies and “access” (to knowledge, to àṣẹ in the case of Orisa-Ifa, or generally to certain levels of intervention or depth of relation), and require certain behaviors, actions, or agreements on the part of the person to be considered in lawful relation with those beings. To me, this extends fairly universally, applicable for example to the tribes of Israel with their god(s) and spirits, to specific fraternal magical traditions empowered or informed by, say, angelic spirits, to specific expressions of Orisa religion (there are *many* forms and structures around the world, at this point, and even a very diverse set in Yorùbáland itself), and to pre-Christian European and Mediterranean and other “Old-World” ancestral or living Polytheist traditions (such as Thracian, Germanic, Phoenician, Gaulish, Gothic, Athenian, Canaanite, Irish, and the like).
Lineages and bodies of traditions are living things themselves, which in part serve to embody a population’s agreed upon relationship with a specific set or family of beings, spirits, or deities. Individuals within those currents must adhere to the guidelines of those agreements, but that does not necessarily mean that every lineage or tradition must (or does) hold the same agreements; spirits have their reasons and their plans, and may have different agreements with different groups.
Initiation into a specific tradition should be presumed to grant one access or exposure to special technologies, teachings, knowledge, and — most importantly — a bodied community in both the human corporeal sense (living elders, accountability, guidance, as well as continuity through younger students, etc), as well as an incorporeal/ancestral/dead lineage of those who came before and still engage with the living through some means or another. While not all traditions are initiatory, for those that are, these initiations draw a person into a framework of agreements between that lineage’s founders with the spirits, beings, or deities within its umbrella of relationships, devotions or patronages, etc.
In most cases, initiation is not required to engage/petition a spirit or deity in one’s own personal private life. (Thousands of people make offering to Èṣù in Yorùbáland day to day; folks of all traditions and religions, even, regardless of whether they are initiated. Similarly, nothing in modern Heathen practice suggests that a person needs to be credentialed to hail Odin.) Within the contexts where various forms and currents of initiation are present and valid considerations, there is generally a limit on the depth of relationship and the breadth of knowledge available to the non-initiated; and not all initiations are identical, not because there is “one right way”, but because in some cases different lineages have different agreements with spirits, which may have “come down” for any number of reasons through the ages (or more recently).
…that said, initiation is in many traditions a highly emphasized and important structure. But there are also different “kinds” of initiation… that word doesn’t mean one static thing. For example, in traditional (pre-modern) societies, there are social initiations (rites of passage, etc) which are independent of religious or cult institution. These are not the same as cultic initiations to a priesthood, or Mystery initiations to a fraternal order, etc. A Masonic initiation does not make one a priest, and a warrior’s reintegration rites (returning from warfare back into the society as a civilian) are not about Mystery transmission. Initiation is a category of rites, both spiritual and societal, which often overlap.
Certain initiatory rites in religious and magical practices, traditions and lineages are more on the social side (e.g. initiation to a society) even when in the context of a spiritual tradition, whereas others are initiation to a priesthood (e.g. new agreements with spirits are being forged, àṣẹ is being transmitted in an Orisa context, etc). Initiation to a lineage and initiation to a priesthood are not always the same thing.
However, in all cases, the initiation requires a change of state from one role or identity to another; from soldier to civilian, from child to adult, from civilian to soldier, from laity to priest, from stranger to family, etc. It is the “start” of a new role, sometimes with the departure or suspension of a previous role. All of these change things. Some of these bring about purely organizational changes, others intensely spiritual changes (e.g. transmission of àṣẹ), but all of them are called by the same thing.
As for compulsory initiation, there may be traditions where one cannot engage a spirit at all without first initiating, but these are not the standard. For example within the Odu Ifa there is language in verse where a diviner sometimes is made to advise a client NOT to initiate, but still to make appropriate offerings and rituals to the spirits/deities involved in the situation. However, in most Ifa lineages, those not initiated to Ifa are forbidden from studying its technologies and the secrets of its Odu.
Engaging with spirits is potentially dangerous and has consequences, whether somebody is initiated or not, just like dealing with certain humans can carry risk. Certainly there lots of things that can go wrong, but initiation should not be seen as a magical permission slip that somehow gets a person out of harm’s way, or indeed gets them off the hook for studying, training, and deeply engaging a tradition in a disciplined fashion. Initiation is important, in traditions where it exists, should be regarded diligently in accordance with the tradition’s guidelines for hierarchal displays of respect and deference, and, in my opinion, should carry some degree of recognition in other walks as well. However, a lack of initiation should not be taken to mean that a person has nothing to offer, knows less, or is in any way valued less.
For example: I was an invited guest at a ritual (details stripped for the sake of confidentiality) where there were two groups of people: those to whom this was an in-born cultural heritage as well as religious/spiritual/magical practice and identity, and those of different culture backgrounds who engaged or were courted by the tradition later in their lives. As always, this creates some tension; at this specific ritual, in this specific spiritual house, both were welcome and honored.
A new initiate of differing background (e.g. absent the inborn cultural, linguistic, and paradigm relation to the tradition) was having a conversation with a non-initiate of the inborn culture heritage. They were discussing modes of engagement and learning within the ritual fanfare of the tradition, during a buzzing-and-exhausted state *after* the main rituals had been closed. The person who had grown up with the tradition as their natural culture and experience, but who was not initiated, was advising the (relative) newcomer of certain protocols and considerations around such engagement. The newcomer replied, “If you knew so much, you would be initiated, like me.“
The non-initiate smiled, and nodded, and said “Yes, you’re right of course. Just like you.“
This was an exchange between a person who probably had not heard of the spirits in question five or ten years before initiation, and a person who had never initiated but had been in constant contact with the tradition and its spirits since birth. Who is more likely to offend the spirits?
So… what is the point of initiation? As reflected by the agreements that these families and pantheons of spirits, deities and beings hold with various groups of living and dead humans in the world, there are certain ritual actions, ceremonies, and technologies simply *not* open to non-initiates. But to say that non-initiates cannot relate with, engage with, pray to or greet these spirits at all is, in most cases, ludicrous and counter to the living cultures that these traditions come from (or in the case of those traditions which were lost and are being re-kindled through new covenants and agreements between humans and the spirits in question, ‘came from’).
To be clear, I am in no way arguing against structures of initiation, or against adhering strictly and with high discipline to the agreements, mandates and protocols of one’s tradition. I am also not advocating against structured traditions and disciplines, in any way. I’m not suggesting that a “free for all” anything-goes one-size-fits-whoever approach to working with spirits of any kind is in any way advisable. Literally the opposite in all cases.
But a rush to initiate into anything because of the impression that initiation is the only way to relate to any being or spirit is how we wind up getting a ton of awkward financial exchanges, and untrained or undisciplined priests or titularly recognized but spiritually or magically unprepared folks. Similarly, one can be highly knowledgeable, skillful, and prepared, without initiation; in the areas that do not require initiation.
I was once offered a (silly, over-simplified, and overly cute) metaphor, which while intended as a specific thing for a particular family of spirits I think applies often in a broad way outside of that. For the sake of not inadvertently invoking an actual spirit, I’ll invent one for this model: we’ll call her Gambola, a spirit of frolicking and skipping in wayward fashion, especially tangentially to established paths or highways.
1) Anyone might invoke, receive messages or intervention from, or provide basic (non-ritual) offerings to Gambola, should either that person or the spirit herself deem it. This is like having access to a “sample portion” of the spirit, like when they are doing free samples of wine at the liquor store; just a taste, unless the spirit decides to tip the bottle and pour herself all over the person, for any number of reasons.
2) A person who is formally recognized as a member of the house/family/lineage with whom Gambola holds specific traditional agreements and relationships can engage a bit more deeply. As with the above, they will also have access to a full glass, rather than merely a sample cup, of Gambola; at times, though, she may only pour a small portion of herself into their glass, while at other times it may overflow, at her choosing.
3) A person who is formally and fully initiated to Gambola has the bottle, and perhaps even has the training to pour glasses or samples for others. Gambola herself may decide that the bottle is always full, or perhaps only ever half there, and it may take no time to refill or it may take quite some time; that is up to Gambola. But the person is open to more types of engagement, and often responsibilities as well. (Such as manning sample stations at liquor stores!)
4) A person who has been engaging for a lengthy period of time in a close and intense way with Gambola, however, may not have a bottle — if they’re not initiated — but might know where the grapes grow, because Gambola took them their herself, in their frolicking, if indeed they were born to frolic rather than to priest or to pour for others.
I’ve heard a similar metaphor to the above, but instead of being about drinks, it went like this: anyone can drink a cup-full of the spirit, but a house-member has a hot tub full of the spirit where they can soak, and submerge, and an initiate has a swimming pool where they can swim and dive and leap, and an elder has been shown the path to the sea itself.
(…actually I think I made that one up on my own. I honestly can’t remember….)
What one does in their own personal household practices and cultus is between them and their spirits… and, indeed, may in some cases reflect new and unique agreements or syncretisms with the gods. However, these should not be assumed to be universal, nor confused with lineaged tradition, nor also excused from consequence in the case of slighting or disrespecting a spirit or god due to ignorance, misunderstanding, or disregard.