There are not enough teachers in any of the Pagan traditions to properly support in person all of those who wish to learn. The consequence is that most of us end up doing some, or all of our learning alone. For Druids, there are a number of Orders that provide distance learning and mentoring in a way the wider community recognises, which is very helpful. Still, to a large extent you have to manage your own path.
The issue of self-initiation most often comes up for Wiccans, where the idea of initiation is very much part of how one learns and progresses. Can a person initiate themselves? Many do, so arguably the answer has to be ‘yes’. I don’t feel it’s my place to invalidate anybody else’s choices. However, I do have my own doubts about how we can, from inside ourselves, take ourselves deliberately forward into new stages of awareness and being. Of course the lone learner is on a constant progression, can make huge and sudden breakthroughs and will experience life initiations too, but initiation within a tradition is a formal thing. To me, it’s all about a group of people recognising where you’re at, and offering you the keys to the door of the next bit.
I’ve run bardic initiations, as they are usually called, but in practice I didn’t feel like I was initiating anyone really. To be a bard takes a lot of individual work, and all I can do is lay out what it means and hold the door open a bit. People have to make their own way through. Increasingly the word that came to feature in the ritual was ‘dedication’.
A dedication is an offering of self, and an expression of intention. We can do that privately, before whatever powers we honour or we can do it in circle with our fellow Druids as witness. We can dedicate to each other in handfasting, in teacher/student bonds, in the fellowship of a grove and as parent to child. We might dedicate ourselves to living more greenly, to peace work, or sitting down and writing that book. The act of dedication focuses the mind on the chosen task, sanctifies it and, if done publically, gives you some people who will notice how you do. When it comes to getting people to study, and adopt greener ways of living, those dedications made in circle bind and empower in equal measure. Once you’ve said it, you’re honour bound to give it your best shot.
We all want recognition, and in spiritual terms being initiated to the next level is a bit like passing a test, or getting a reward. There’s kudos. Dedications can be more private, less dramatic affairs, but I think for Druidry they work well. We pick our own and make them when we are ready, holding responsibility for our own journey. Many people who step up to ‘initiate as a bard’ at big gatherings are not, as far as I have seen, in a place of completion that means they are initiated, they are at a place of starting out, needing the focus and recognition to commence the work. A dedication seems more appropriate at this stage. You don’t begin with initiation, you are initiated into the next stage when you are ready. You begin with dedication.
I don’t think this is just a semantic issue, it’s a pragmatic one too, having everything to do with how we see ourselves and how we see our traditions. Initiations have a lot to do with power and status. Dedications don’t have the same aura of formal structure to them, they are more personal, more flexible, and I think that makes them good Druidry.