Initiation is a primary component of Joseph Campbell’s schema of the Hero’s Journey (click for description). He has said that the schema he developed is a magnification of the Separation – Initiation – and Return typically employed in rites of passage. (Christopher Vogler’s two parts, “descent” and “initiation,” are equivalent to Campbell’s one, “initiation.”)
To overlook the significance of “initiation” may be to defuse the potency of the schema. According to the dictionary, “to initiate” is “to formally admit to a group; to begin.” But, Campbell and modern anthropologists see more deeply into the lived experience of these rites.
Some of the common rites of passage would include: birth, naming, puberty, marriage, and burial. Studies by anthropologists inform us that often rites are formal and can be quite severe. The ritual has to do with recognition of a new role; the process of throwing off the old one and coming out in the new. This is a recognition by both the initiate and the community. Through the initiation process the mind of the initiate is radically cut away from the attitudes, attachments, and life patterns of the stage being left behind.
Commonly, the transition from adolescence to adulthood is what comes to mind when the subject of rites of passage is discussed. An example of another passage is that of childhood to adolescence. In “Peter Pan,” Wendy leaves the childhood of the nursery for the adolescence of a room of her own; not for adulthood.
For the most part, the purposes and actual effects of rites of passage in any given society are to conduct people across those difficult thresholds of transformation that demand a change in the patterns not only of conscious but also of unconscious life. The various passages are nothing less than the mystery of transfiguration. The result of initiation is no less spectacular than the mystery that takes place within the chrysalis. Initiation is also the chiropractic that aligns the initiate and the community to the transformation.
In a culture such as that found in the West, where rituals and rites are often barren or totally absent, the depth of the initiation process is easily undervalued or misunderstood. If you, as a writer, decide to take advantage of the structure of story available though the Hero’s Journey, your story will be on firmer ground should you harness the significance implied in “initiation.” Some basic attitude, attachment, or life pattern of your hero will be eradicated forever. In mythology, often the hero experiences some sort of dying to the world he/she has known and comes back as one reborn; that is, replicating the extreme transformation exhibited in the successful rite of passage.