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Initiation

INITIATION (Lat. initium, beginning, entrance, from inire, to go in), the process of formally entering, and especially the rite of admission into, some office, or religious or secret society, etc. Among nearly all primitive races initiatory rites of a bloody character were and are common. The savage pays homage to strength, and the purpose of his initiatory rites is to test physical vigour, self-control and the power of enduring pain. Initiation is sometimes religious, sometimes social, but in primitive society it has always the same character. Thus, in Whydah (West Africa) the young girls consecrated to the worship of the serpent, " the brides of the Serpent," had figures of flowers and animals burnt into their skins with hot irons; while in the neighbouring Yorubaland the power of enduring a sound thrashing is the qualification for the throne. In no country was the practice of initiatory rites more general than in the Americas. The Colombian Indians compelled their would-be chief to submit to terrible tests. He had first to bear severe beatings without a murmur. Then, placed in a hammock with his hands tied, venomous ants were placed on his naked body. Finally a fire was lit beneath him. All this he had to bear without flinching. In ancient Mexico there were several orders of chivalry, entry into which was only permitted after brutal initiation. The nose of the candidate was pierced with an eagle's talon or a pointed bone, and he was expected to dig knives into his body. In Peru the young Inca princes had to fast and live for weeks without sleep. Among the North American Indians initiatory rites were universal. The Mandans held a feast at which the young " braves " supported the weight of their bodies on pieces of wood skewered through the muscles of shoulders, breasts and arms. With the Sioux, to become a medicine-man, it was necessary to submit to the ordeal known as " looking at the Sun." The sufferer, nearly naked, was bound on the earth by cords passed through holes made in the pectoral muscles. With bow and arrow in hand, he lay in this position all day gazing at the Sun. Around him his friends gathered to applaud his courage. Religious brotherhoods of antiquity, too, were to be entered only after long and complicated initiation. But here the character of the ordeal is rather moral than physical. Such were the rites of admission to the Mysteries of Isis and Eleusis. Secret societies of all ages have been characterized by more or less elaborate initiation. That of the Femgerichte, the famous medieval German secret tribunal, took place at night in a cave, the neophyte kneeling and making oath of blind obedience. Imitations of such tests are perpetuated to-day in freemasonry; while the Mafia, the Camorra, the Clan-na-Gael, the Molly Maguires, the Ku-Klux Klan, are among more recent secret associations which have maintained the old idea of initiation.

Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)

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