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Mircea Eliade : Rites of Initiation

Illustration from the Book of the Dead of Hunefer

To the left, Anubis brings Hunefer into the judgement area. Hunefer's heart is being weighed against a feather, the symbol of Maat, the established order of things.

Extract from :

Mircea Eliade

Rites and Symbols of Initiation


"The term initiation in the most general sense denotes a body of rites and oral teachings whose purpose is to produce a decisive alteration in the religious and social status of the person to be initiated. In philosophical terms, initiation is equivalent to a basic change in existential condition; the novice emerges from his ordeal endowed with a totally different being from that which he possessed before his initiation; he has become another.

Among the various categories of initiation, the puberty initiation is particularly important for an understanding of premodern man. These “transition rites’’ are obligatory for all the youth of the tribe. To gain the right to be admitted among adults, the adolescent has to pass through a series of initiatory ordeals: it is by virtue of these rites, and of the revelations that they entail, that he will be recognized as a responsible member of the society.

Initiation introduces the candidate into the human community and into the world of spiritual and cultural values. He learns not only the behavior patterns, the techniques, and the institutions of adults but also the sacred myths and traditions of the tribe, the names of the gods and the history of their works; above all, he learns the mystical relations between the tribe and the Supernatural Beings as those relations were established at the beginning of Time.

Every primitive society possesses a consistent body of mythical traditions, a “conception of the world”; and it is this conception that is gradually revealed to the novice in the course of his initiation. What is involved is not simply instruction in the modern sense of the word. In order to become worthy of the sacred teaching, the novice must first be prepared spiritually.

For what he learns concerning the world and human life does not constitute knowledge in the modem sense of the term, objective and compartmentalized information, subject to indefinite correction and addition. The world is the work of Supernatural Beings — a divine work and hence sacred in its very structure. Man lives in a universe that is not only supernatural in origin, but is no less sacred in its form, sometimes even in its substance. The world has a “history”: first, its creation Supernatural Beings; then, everything that took place after that — the coming of the civilizing Hero or the mythical Ancestor, their cultural activities, their demiurgic adventures, and at last their disappearance.

This “sacred history”— mythology — is exemplary, paradigmatic : not only does it relate how things came to be; it also lays the foundations for all human behavior and all social and cultural institutions. From the fact that man was created and civilized by Supernatural Beings, it follows that the sum of his behavior and activities belongs to sacred history; and this history must be carefully preserved and transmitted intact to succeeding generations. Basically, man is what he is because, at the dawn of Time, certain things happened to him, the things narrated by the myths. Just as modern man proclaims himself a historical being, constituted by the whole history of humanity, so the man of archaic societies considers himself the end product of a mythical history, that is, of a series of events that took place in illo tempore, at the beginning of Time.


It is to this traditional knowledge that the novices gain access. They receive protracted instruction from their teachers, witness secret ceremonies, undergo a series of ordeals. And it is primarily these ordeals that constitute the religious experience of initiation — the encounter with the sacred.

The majority of initiatory ordeals more or less clearly imply a ritual death followed by resurrection or a new birth. The central moment of every initiation is represented by the ceremony symbolizing the death of the novice and his return to the fellowship of the living. But he returns to life a new man, assuming another mode of being. Initiatory death signifies the end at once of childhood, of ignorance, and of the profane condition.

For archaic thought, nothing better expresses the idea of an end, of the final completion of anything, than death, just as nothing better expresses the idea of creation, of making, building, constructing, than the cosmogony. The cosmogonic myth serves as the paradigm, the exemplary model, for every kind of making. Nothing better ensures the success of any creation (a village, a house, a child) than the fact of copying it after the greatest of all creations, the cosmogony.


Every ritual repetition of the cosmogony is preceded by a symbolic retrogression to

Chaos. In order to be created anew, the old world must first be annihilated. The various

rites performed in connection with the New Year can be put in two chief categories:

(I) those that signify the return to Chaos (e.g., extinguishing fires, expelling 'evil' and sins,

reversal of habitual behavior, orgies, return of the dead);

(2) those that symbolize the cosmogony (e.g., lighting new fires, departure of the dead, repetition of the acts by which the Gods created the world, solemn prediction of the weather for the ensuing year).

In the scenario of initiatory rites, 'death' corresponds to the temporary return to Chaos; hence it is the paradigmatic expression of the end of a mode of being : the mode of ignorance and of the child's irresponsibility. Initiatory death provides the clean slate on which will be written the successive revelations whose end is the formation of a new man.

We shall later describe the different modalities of birth to a new, spiritual life. But now we must note that this new life is conceived as the true human existence, for it is open to the values of spirit. What is understood by the generic term 'culture,' comprising all the values of spirit, is accessible only to those who have been initiated. Hence participation in spiritual life is made possible by virtue of the religious experiences released during initiation.

All the rites of rebirth or resurrection, and the symbols that they imply, indicate that the

novice has attained to another mode of existence, inaccessible to those who have not

undergone the initiatory ordeals, who have not tasted death. We must note this

characteristic of the archaic mentality : the belief that a state cannot be changed without

first being annihilated in the present instance, without the child's dying to childhood.

It is impossible to exaggerate the importance of this obsession with beginnings, which, in sum, is the obsession with the absolute beginning, the cosmogony. For a thing to be well done, it must be done as it was done the first time. But the first time, the thing - this class of

objects, this animal, this particular behavior - did not exist : when, in the beginning, this

object, this animal, this institution, came into existence, it was as if, through the power of

the Gods, being arose from non-being.

Initiatory death is indispensable for the beginning of spiritual life. Its function must be

understood in relation to what it prepares: birth to a higher mode of being. As we shall see

farther on, initiatory death is often symbolized, for example, by darkness, by cosmic night,

by the telluric womb, the hut, the belly of a monster. All these images express regression

to a preformal state, to a latent mode of being (complementary to the precosmogonic

Chaos), rather than total annihilation (in the sense in which, for example, a member of the

modern societies conceives death).

These images and symbols of ritual death are inextricably connected with germination, with embryology; they already indicate a new life in course of preparation. Obviously, as we shall show later, there are other valuations of initiatory death - for example, joining the company of the dead and the Ancestors. But here again we can discern the same symbolism of the beginning : the beginning of spiritual life, made possible in this case by a meeting with spirits.

For archaic thought, then, man is made-he does not make himself all by himself. It is the old initiates, the spiritual masters, who make him. But these masters apply what was revealed to them at the beginning of Time by the Supernatural Beings. They are only the representatives of those Beings; indeed, in many cases they incarnate them. This is as much as to say that in order to become a man, it is necessary to resemble a mythical model. Man recognizes himself as such (that is, as man) to the extent to which he is no longer a “natural man,” to which he is made a second time, in obedience to a paradigmatic and transhuman canon.”

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