us observe from the outset that, while a traditional society experiences
the sacred, not all of its members do so to the same degree or in the same
way. There are different stages in the knowledge of invisible reality,
of the Supreme Identity, as found in the awareness of some of the individuals
belonging to that society and marking that individual's function within
the society. Again, the ways in which this experience is realized are dissimilar,
as they depend upon the peculiar characteristics of peoples and individuals,
the time and space in which they happen to live, their historical or personal
lot, and so forth. However, there is one thing common to all of the degrees
of Knowledge of other levels and worlds: Initiation. This reality, shared
by all peoples in all ages, and encountered by the ethnologist, the archaeologist,
the historian, the philosopher-in a word, by the scholar of man or of antiquity-is
an evident fact, whose importance is therefore obvious. Still, its meaning
must be explained-all the more so in view of the fact that the scientific
conceptions currently in vogue endow it with a merely secondary value,
treating such rites as ritual ceremonies, negligible customs with naturalistic
or social explanations, or assimilable exclusively to profane "education"
or to magical practices.
The universal cultural phenomenon that is Initiation marks the life of the apprentice who is initiated, and establishes the transition from one stage of knowledge to another, from one level of consciousness to the reality of a different one, from the profane to the sacred, from one way of being in the world to another way of conceiving it, and accordingly, of being. Nevertheless, there are various kinds of initiations. Some take place at a determinate age, or at a certain time of the year, and are fixed and collective, being celebrated at festivals, with exact ceremonies and words and identical gestures, in which all of the people share at the proper moment. Such are the initiations bound up with the rites of the new year (and death of the previous year), and linked to vegetation and fertility. Such also are the rites of puberty, which provide the community with access to human realization, to regeneration-just as does Christian baptism-and another degree or level of reality, of true life. Likewise there are gradual and successive initiations for those involved in or called to Knowledge, to ever higher and deeper levels, as they seek the realization of other stages of Universal Being, which are always taught by masters to disciples, in conformity with and by the intermediary of the symbols, the traditions, the myths, and the rites, secret and effective, which describe and re-present the cosmogonic mysteries. Thus it becomes possible for these mysteries to be present once more, and to afford access to an understanding of the world and man, to knowledge of the totality, and thereby to wisdom.
Thus, Sahagún recounts that, in the Calmécac, apprentices "were taught all of the chant verses, in order that they might sing them. They were called divine chants, and their verses were written in their books in characters. Further, they were taught Indian astrology, and the interpretation of dreams and the numbering of the years" (book 3, chap. 8). Elsewhere he cites "the soothsayers, who held the books of divination and of the fortunes of those born, and of witchcraft and auguries, and of the traditions of the ancients that had reached them" (book 1, chap. 12).
And Landa states: "The sciences that they taught were the numbering of the years, months, and days, festivals and ceremonies, the administration of their sacraments, the augured days and times, their methods of divination, remedies for diseases, their ancient history, and reading and writing with their letters and characters, in which they wrote with figures representing writing" (Relación de las Cosas de Yucatán, chap. 7). Few belonged to this class of individual. They had governed the peoples for cyclic periods, by virtue of their knowledge, wisdom, and aptitudes, and in every case consisted of those who had designed or always promoted-by their activity in the world-all given culture. Their initiations were called sapiential, and were always the most elevated. They were practiced even among very primitive peoples, where tribal knowledge was taught. But as we have indicated, initiations took various forms, depending on the nature of the individuals and the peoples, and the cyclical or historical eras in which they happened to be living. The warrior initiations were not the ones just mentioned, the sapiential, nor were the initiations of the artisans the same as the warriors'.1
To boot, without the actual, concrete deed of Initiation, it would be impossible to know or understand anything of the human being and the life of these peoples. And still further: this grand event, by which being is attained gradually, and through the intermediary of which we understand ourselves and our role in the world, is the one that connects us with the reality of other levels, which might be called the specifically human. Thus, it is the one that distinguishes man from more limited species. Finally, these explain the existence of the universe and ourselves, since these include the identity of Knowing and Being, in the face of which all that is not Knowledge is illusion, or a form of deceit and lie.
For the traditional perspective, were it not for Initiation
into the mysteries, life would have no meaning.2
Nor is Initiation, for these societies, a simple formality or procedure,
or an allegory. Far from it. Initiation is the possibility-the need-to
know and relive the original cosmogony, the virginity of the beginning,
what others call spiritual realization. It can be obtained through symbol
and rite-and the practices of observation, investigation, and study, conjointly
with those of meditation, contemplation, and prayer of the heart. These
are not mere conventions or ceremonies, since, the educator, the authentic
initiator, is finally the numen, in a self-revelation to the human being,
to whom everything must be taught because he has everything to learn. Who
instructed man, but the educator god? What but the mythic origin-always
translated by historical, temporal, or anecdotal facts-and the irruption
of the sacred into the profane-would justify the reality of the world and
our existence, sanctifying it, rendering it true? How could a people maintain
and reproduce itself that were not to be founded on the authentic knowledge
of things? Death, on one level of awareness-perhaps we might call it one
degree of experience-and resurrection to a level that is greater, inasmuch
as it is broader and more universal, are intimately bound to the idea of
the destruction of the past-of the end of the conceptual images of the
old human being and rebirth to another world, that of the new man.
We have already seen that one of the characteristics common to all of the initiations is that of the trials to which the aspirant is subjected. At the present time, these trials are experienced by the adepts who have begun to advance in the way of knowledge as contrarieties with respect to their milieu-which they experience as alienated, false, and ignorant, and what is worse, a reflection of one's own individuality, since the programming that this milieu has inflicted on them is the same as ours.
Accordingly, by way of a quest, they begin to find the scattered pieces of a cosmogony, as the foundation of an ontology and of an authentic meta-physics, and commit their whole being to it-since ideas are creative, generative-whether it is a matter of the intellectual, the emotional, or even the instinctive. And thereby they will perceive a reform of their vision of the world, in step with a conversion of the psyche constituted by a renunciation of a world of false images. This birthgiving is quite a difficult one for the protagonists. They must undergo genuine existential and individual trials, produced by the struggle between a new reading of reality, which presupposes authentic knowledge, and an old and ignorant one, which nonetheless shapes our identity, as we listen to those who say that being is what one knows, namely, that there is an identity between being and knowing. At the same time, stripping the mask from the mistakes and errors of this ignorant milieu issues, in one manner or another, in ostracism.
Agrarian rites, and all of the myths and symbols generally that are bound up with nature (and its rhythms and cycles), constantly sacralize nature, which is taken as the manifestation of Being-and His spouse, besides-as the inverted reflection of the divinity, in which the latter is expressed in an immanent manner. Especially, these rites, myths, and symbols are bound up with the circle of the seasons: winter's paralysis and ankylosis, spring's magic awakening, the fruitful wealth of summer, autumn's melancholy.
There are peoples who have only two seasons, the rainy and the dry, as in the case of numerous Indian peoples. The first is related to generation. In the second, instead, the vegetation that is the sustenance of beasts and mortals dies.
The gods and the vicissitudes of their lot are intimately connected to natural events. But the gods, or energy of the gods, are hidden in phenomena. But phenomena do not generate or name the gods, since there is a hierarchy among the creating spirits and their creatures.
The Nahuatl god of the wind Ehécatl, for example, is not god of the wind only because he makes the wind to blow. In an archaic culture, everything is indissolubly united, and the windly agitation of the atmosphere is connected with the divine respiration, together with the human, with the vital breathing of man and the world, with the fertility, and the conservation and regenerative destruction, produced in the bipolarity of summer/winter, inhalation/exhalation, and various other pairs of opposites directly related to life and death, or to the death and resurrection, so ideally exemplified by the natural rhythms of vegetation, wisely used in the cultivation of the field.
Let us make it clear that initiation, which is equivalent to a regeneration, to a change of skin in which the "other" existence is left behind, is likewise intimately linked with these natural rhythms, and therefore with the agrarian rhythms, the latter being an exteriorization, or prototypal model of the creation of a (new) life, on whichever level that life be produced. In this last sense as well, the shamanic ecstasy (divine inspiration) must strike a relationship with the air generally, and especially, must be seen as producer of life as well as initiator (psychopompos) of a process fostered and transmitted by the wind. Followed in a correct, or natural, order, this process will culminate in the birth of a new being, when the time is ripe, as occurs with all fruits.
But what has always been truly present in these rites-as is clear in the Eleusinian mysteries, to cite but one example-is that all of these ceremonies evoke a death and a resurrection. That is, they not only represent birth to a new stage, from a starting point in the trembling, fear, and agony of a demise, but they exemplify, completely, clearly, and concretely the post mortem transition of the soul, or journey to the "beyond" undertaken by the being immediately after death.
The "shamanic" trances, let us reiterate, likewise repeat
this experiment, which at the same time is visualized as a descent to the
underworld or center of the earth, from which the initiate emerges as new,
reconstructed, and with a regenerate perception of reality. The shamans
are at the same time psychopompoi, and the purpose of their descent
to the country of the dead is frequently to rescue a lost soul. In any
case, this experience is often seen to be crowned with success only after
a series of adventures in the other world, terrible dangers and obstacles-among
those which stand out, everywhere in America, the crossing of a river,
and a bridge, as in other traditions-which symbolically reproduce the soul's
passage in the Initiation process to the cosmic, ontological, and metaphysical
mysteries, or the post mortem voyage to the land of the ancestors.
Let us also notice that, unfortunately, the elements that survive most abundantly when an authentic tradition disappears are its lowest ones, those involving witchcraft and superstition. Such elements did of course coexist with authentic traditions, although they were prohibited and punished when found out, as with the Quichés and the Indians of Verapaz, where sorcerers were executed.
In conclusion, let us observe that, although the sapiential initiations constitute the pinnacle of the hierarchy in a great traditional civilization, the fact remains that that initiation-more perfect from the viewpoint of the complexity of its thought, rich in all of its procedures and categories, and refined in its conceptions and manifestations-is of a higher class than the "initiation" obtained by other groups in more direct fashion. Philosophy is expressed in a successive, dialectical language, and is accordingly further removed from its object than is that direct intuition that in itself has no need of expression, which is precisely what is striven for by philosophy in its operation as metaphysics. When man consolidates, creates civilization, and builds his temples in stone-which requires knowledge in art, science, and industry, all of these having to be taught and learned, in a lengthy process-then it is also a matter, in the individual, of the construction of the true human being, the interior temple. This was gradually supplied by the Calmécac, among the Aztecs, and the sapiential initiations certainly called for more complicated sciences and arts than did the simple transmission of the myths and tribal secrets from father to son or master to disciple.
What is known is the same-on the level at hand-but inhabitants of a civilization have a series of names, values, and categories to classify their experiences, while the others (who also incarnate these experiences) have no need of such names, values, and categories. We depend on the mental images that we possess, and if we have never had an idea of Greek philosophy and its language, it is vain to think that we shall have experiences in that sense. This does not mean that the experience is not the same, expressed in one code or another, inasmuch as ultimately all languages are a single universal language.
|1||"Without being able to see Viracocha, the very ancient addressed and worshiped him. And much more did the master weavers, who had such difficult work, worship and cry to him" (Dioses y hombres de Huarochirí, colonial native manuscript, trans. J. M. Arguedas [Mexico City, 1975]). It was Viracocha, the educator god, who had taught human beings the arts, thereby establishing communication between heaven and earth. This is a fine example of ritual invocation through the intermediary of an artisanal initiation, particularly if it be taken into consideration that the textiles of the region in which this manuscript was found are reckoned among the most beautiful in the world. The scant importance ascribed by the colonial chroniclers to the crafts as ritual and didactic, as reception and transmission of knowledge, is notorious, although they praise the condition and the industry of the natives, and the Florentine Codex, for example, clearly illustrates their activities. The indigenous informants of Sahagún regarded the potters (Toltec artisans) as equal to the sages and masters, inasmuch as the former are creators-they give life to the formless mass. "He who gives a being to the clay, with sharp eye molds, kneads the clay. The good potter places great care into things, teaches clay to lie, dialogues with his own heart, makes things live, creates them, knows everything as if he were a Toltec." It is the same with painters: "The good, skilled painter, has God in his heart, divinizes things with his heart, dialogues with his own heart" (Spanish trans. Miguel León Portilla; see also the English version in bibliography). At the same time, the artisanal "decorative" motifs are not popular creations, as is customarily believed; rather they constitute designs perfectly well established and ceremonially repeated-traditional symbols revelatory of a cosmogonic thought and idea.|
|2||Initiation, as well, as we have indicated, is the equivalent of the journey of the dead to the beyond. It is likewise identified with the course of the stars through the underworld. It is always associated with trials and labors, and, as we have said, with death and resurrection.|
|3||The young Incas scaled a mountain, Huanacauri, as part of their initiatory labors. The Indians of the United States torture themselves in the celebrated "Sun dance". All Mesoamerica is attached to the idea of crossing one or nine very dangerous rivers as part of the journey of the beyond. This is common to the archaic thought of the entire world, and can be observed today, as well, in Traditional African thought. In the initiations of the Indians of the Southeastern United States, who are farmers and warriors, the hierarchical degrees of initiatory knowledge and interior growth were marked exteriorly by means of an incision, or tattoo carved into the skin. When a boy was given his first name, he received the first such mark. When he became an aspiring warrior, in adolescence, he was given the second. The third was conferred when he had successfully undergone the initiatory trials of war and had become a true man. Then he received a new, authentic name. Now he would continue to receive incisions, as he demonstrated more experience, ability, and courage in battle.|