Initiations Rites and Rituals

  If we look at what has been written on the religious life of primitive societies, it seems most likely, (…) that in the most primitive populations which still exist, religion consists mainly of certain rituals, which are to a great extent physical enactments:  totems, meals, dances and other activities, praying gestures, and so on.  A ritual like the Mass comprises vocal prayers and gestures.  Man probably has never been conscious that these rituals are performed in much the same way as those of animals.  From studying the behavior of animals, we know that many of the patterns of behavior of animal life do not serve (or at least one cannot prove that they serve) any immediate utilitarian purpose such as propagation of the species, eating, or survival.  AAI 90

    Adolf Portman explains these “rituals,” as zoologists now call them, by saying that they express the meaning of the animal’s existence.  By performing them, it manifest its own being, or, one could say, it expresses the meaning of its existence on earth, and even the most skeptical zoologist cannot find any further practical purpose in them.  If you stop animals from performing such rituals, they get sick and their vitality is lowered.  We may assume that even on that level already there is the need to express (…) the meaning of one’s own existence, without further practical purpose, and it is most likely that the most original and most archaic human rituals were of a similar nature.  AAI 90

That is also the reason why, when you go further back in the history of religion, you can no longer distinguish between play or games and rituals.  The history of games such as still exist in primitive societies – like dice, ring-toss (putting a stick in the ground and then throwing a ring over it), and all the group and ball games – shows that these are played both as rituals and, at the same time, as games. 

   (When) a man is not occupied in hunting, eating, making love, or sleeping, if he has any further energy left, then – let us use the zoological expression – he moves about and does things which to him express the meaning of his existence, and such things are generally ritual-games or game-rituals.  And according to the material I have seen, at least ninety-percent if not all of them always cluster around what we now would call the symbolism of the Self.   AAI 91

   There is generally a mandala structure involved somewhere:  rings have to be put over a center, or you have a round bowl into which you have to throw little stones, and you hit or miss the goal.  The patterns of all those ritualistic games are bigger or smaller mandala patterns, and even the implements used, like dice, are generally of a mandala structure, and it is the same all over the world, whether in North America, India, China, Australia, and so on.  These ritual games and performances are therefore the oldest features of religious life that which we can trace historically, and it really links very well with what we are now digging up from zoology.  Animals have ritual games to some extent, but in man they are much more developed.  AAI 91

If boys play at being gangsters and Indians they are funny, but one should recognize the necessity for the assertion of self-esteem and feeling of freedom and independence.  That is essential, and stress should not be laid on what is ridiculous about it.  For that reason, in many primitive male societies where they endeavour to keep their independence and masculinity, when the males go round wearing animal masks and tails attached to their behinds, and so on, the women may not look.  In most male initiations in primitive tribes the women are kept out, for they could so easily just make a little mocking remark about the heroes, or something like that, and immediately the thing would fall flat.  The men know very well that they look completely ridiculous in those demonstrative displays of masculinity and for that reason exclude the women.  Women also have their women’s mysteries, with the girl’s first attempt at make-up and hair styles, and the mockery of their brothers is terrible.  They laugh at the way she has made her first shy attempt at being a little feminine, so that usually girls prefer to get into groups at school and make their first attempts there, for they are also ridiculous, so they hide from the boys.  TPoPA 177

   The little standing Venus figurines are found in the shelters where Paleolithic people actually lived.  In contrast, men’s initiation rites were held in the deep caves, and there we see very little of the female.  No one lived in those caves.  They’re chilly, they’re dangerous, they’re dark, they’re awesome, the y’re deep.  Some of them contain miles and miles of dark corridor.  We see on those walls masculine shamans among multitudes of animals, images that have to do with the rites inviting the animals to be killed.  This is the fundamental theme in the hunting people: that the animals are willing victims and are offering themselves with the understanding that certain rituals – returning their blood to the soil, for example – will be enacted to return their life to the Mother Source.  The cult of the Goddess goes right back to those early caves.  There, She is the cave itself, so that initiates who passed through the rites deep under the earth were returning to and reborn from Her womb.   G5


In the earliest primitive rites associated with food plants, the typical underlying myth is of a deity of some kind who has been killed, cut up, and buried.  And out of the buried parts of the deity comes the grain or whatever the food plant.  Longfellow’s Hiawatha speaks of the visionary experience of a young man on a vision quest.  A young deity comes to him, wrestles with him for three nights, and then on the fourth night says, “Now you’re going to kill me and bury me.”  Hiawatha does so, and out of his buried body comes maize.   TMTT 194



   The meditation is that we are eating divine substance and this divine substance is what is feeding us.  It isn’t just physical substance, and that’s part of the meditation:  how our whole life is supported by the giving and yielding of some transcendent power. 

   People sometimes ask me, “What rituals can we have?”  You’ve got the rituals, only you’re not meditating on them.  When you eat a meal, that’s a ritual.  Just realize what you’re doing.  When you consult your friends, that’s a ritual.  Just think what you’re doing.  When you beget a child or give birth to a child – what more do you want?   TMTT 194