The purpose of initiation is to teach the new members about the significance behind all the organization’s symbols, Greek letters, motto, rituals, etc. It is an explanation of everything incorporated to the organization, followed by a pledging of the members commitment to the organization, its current, past and future members of unwavering friendship, and dedication to the organization’s social, scholastic and moral growth. After a member professes their vows (depending on the organization, vows are recited through a motto or creed, signed in a book, sung through ritual songs, or proven by an activity) the pledge becomes an active member.
The ritual ceremony is universally a huge secret (with the exception of the fraternity Delta Upsilon who has an open initiation), and therefore is different for all organizations. Nationally, however, every initiation is the same within an organization. For example, XYZ sorority at the University of Texas has the exact same initiation as XYZ at New York University, but ABC at the University of Texas does not have the same initiation as XYZ. Since each initiation is the same, the ceremony becomes the binding connection that interlocks each member to the national organization. Often times complete strangers (who find out they’re in the same national organization) will become instant friends for this reason, already having a common bond.
Almost every organization considers the initiation ceremony something holy and sacred so there is never hazing at the true ceremony, as it would be disrespectful to the ritual, founders and true purpose of the organization.
From my experiences, initiation ceremonies usually consist of all white or all dark colored (black, navy blue, purple, etc. depending on the colors of the organization) sheets covering walls; older organizations with chapter houses normally have basement or attic walls painted in the colors so they do not have to put up sheets every year.
There are normally candles (light universally represents life, participation and love within Greek organizations) or some sort of controlled fire, and pledges normally are given light from an established member in the organization.
Greek life is notorious for singing and chanting, normally the songs, mottos, creeds, preambles, etc. are taught to members briefly at initiation then reinforced as chapter meetings continue.
When new members learn the values of the organization they also find out the meanings of the symbols of the crest, the Greek letters that represent the organization and any secret history of the founding of the national chapter. Normally, they also learn the organizations secret whistle or tune, password, handshake and door knock.
Most Greek letters translate to actual Greek words, and many organizations re-name their members with a Greek or Latin name.
Initiation is always either dark, scary and intimidating then peaceful and light, or completely light and beautiful the entire time. In a few organizations the members normally wear one colored robe (a cloak or actual robe) and the pledges wear another, but most just wear the same one. The robes normally have the organization’s crest stitched onto the robe and belted with a colored belt or rope. In some organizations, especially sororities, the members wear white dresses to signify purity.
Many organizations have members drink a special drink out of a universal cup similar to the blood of Christ at a Catholic mass; contrary to popular stereotype everything consumed by members and pledges are non-alcoholic at initiation.
Common meanings behind symbols are:
Crown: nobility, the points often represent the values of the organization
Diamond: royalty, nobility, ability to never tarnish
Flames/torch: life or love
Flowers: friendship, forget-me-nots, thoughtfulness, etc.
Hands: helping hands/community or friendship support and philanthropy
Judicial symbols: justice
Key: eternal flow of life
Lamps or owls: scholastic value
Links: friendship bonding of the organization members
Lion, tiger: leaders of the pack, leadership
Phoenix: rebirth or strength
Purple or gold: royalty, nobility
Quill: truth, power of pursuing the truth
Skull: secrets held until death or the secrecy must be upheld over the penalty of death
Star: hope or truth
Star of David: Jewish roots
Tree: life and growth of the chapter and its members
Wings, arrows or angels: Aspiration, members pursuit of dreams/goals