What is it That Makes the Tests of The Ordeal So Powerful?

Each Ordeal candidate and each Elangomat encounters the exact same four tests. But each person comes to the Ordeal with drastically different strengths and weaknesses, at different ages, with different life experiences, and with different needs. The next step in the development of one person may have been experienced years ago by another. And beyond the reach or understanding of yet a third. Yet no one is bored by the Ordeal. Participants are typically satisfied with their Ordeal experiences and hold the memory in their hearts for life. It actually seems to offer each person what they need! How is this even possible?

We have always had explanations in the OA of the meaning of each of the four tests. Interestingly enough, these standardized stated meanings have changed over the years. And multiple different explanations are in use at any point in time! For example, for the first 50 years or so, there was a set of questions and answers that each Brotherhood candidate studied to prepare for Brotherhood. The stated purpose of the night alone was “to prove my self-reliance”. Whereas the current pre-Ordeal ceremony gives its meaning as “All your strength will be required when you face the isolation that a leader often faces.” The current Ordeal ceremony explains “that you might appreciate that you were set apart from the rest of the Scouts for something higher”. These explanations aren’t the same with slightly different words. Strangely, they are significantly different from each other!

So are the tests without meaning? If not, what is the true meaning of each test?

We aren’t going to tell you. And not because we aren’t trying to help. Rather, because properly understood, each test does not have a single true, ideal, or even “highest” meaning! We can’t tell you what doesn’t exist.

Let’s look in detail at each of the four Tests of the Ordeal. If you can get past the smoke screen of fixed meanings, you can find the source of their inner power. To strip away our usual (limiting) terminology, we will focus on the purely physical characteristics of each test and ignore symbolic interpretations.

Night Alone

What are the physical characteristics of this test? You spend the night alone, in the wilderness. With no tent so that there is no barrier between you and your wild surroundings. You feel a part of nature, not just an observer. Which, it you think about it, you always are “a part of nature”.

The founders of the Order of the Arrow designed the tests. But was the OA the first example in human history of people going alone into the wilderness for personal development, to prepare themselves for something? Of course not! Most Native American tribes required a boy to go alone into the wilderness for a vision quest to become a man. And many cultures throughout the earth have used vision quests to prepare new leaders for their roles.

Nor is this purposeful going into the wilderness limited to things called vision quests. Many hike trails for the solitude. Or go camping or fishing alone to recover from a personal loss or prepare for a new phase in their lives. And they are not seeking or expecting an explicit “vision”.

Arduous Labor

A parent is performing a physical task. For example, knitting or constructing something. Their young child, perhaps pre-school or early elementary school age, watches intently. The parent notices the child and is pleased with their interest. The parent figures out some way for the young child to help. Perhaps the kid fetches a ball of yarn or a tool when needed.

Older children likewise do chores around the house, with their parents showing them how by example.

The child learns the joy of helping someone else. And the happiness of accomplishing worthwhile work. The parent has the satisfaction of helping their child grow.

Humans have been doing this since our earliest ancestors.

This is why we do arduous labor in the Ordeal. Not so much to log hours of work or to maintain camp. But to learn together, from each other, that joy and happiness in an environment of brotherly love and caring.

Scant Food

We call it scant food in the OA. Others have called it fasting. Fasting for personal spiritual growth. A common component of many religions and spiritual movements and practices today, and in the long past.


Again, a universal practice of human spiritual development, stretching into our ancient past.

The Pattern: The Character of the Tests of the Ordeal

The four Tests of the Ordeal were selected and structured by our founders. But each one is an implementation of a universal ancient elemental human practice. Their power does not derive from the particular way we implement these ancient methods in the Order. It derives from the universal character of these practices. They are fundamental aspects of being human. And therefore impact each of us in unique ways, appropriate to where we are on our life journey.

The “true meaning” of an Ordeal test is whatever it means to a particular person while they undertake it. And the “true meaning” changes as they reflect on it later in life. Elangomats develop new “true meanings” beyond their understanding when they first took the Ordeal as candidates.

There are only personal, and thus invaluable, meanings for the tests. They are universal in their character, not in their interpretation.

For a specific example of how these exact four tests have occurred in human pre-history, see Legend of an Ancient Hunter.

The same is true of the Brotherhood and Vigil. All use elemental ancient structures that go back to the unknowable past of early human experience.

The above concept appears in our proposed ceremony in one of its legends. The text of that legend is reproduced below. This legend also includes mention of the “hero’s tale” concept taught in the official Polestar training. (See our web page What Is It That Makes The Ordeal So Special?) We believe that such concepts should be known by all OA members, at least the core ideas. And thus should be mentioned in our ceremonies. For the complete text of our ceremonial proposal, see Proposed OA Membership Ceremony – New (and True) Legends, No False Claims. We have crafted our proposal to include a total of six legends, all true stories of how the Order of the Arrow developed. None of these legends are known to the typical OA member today.

GUIDE: The Legend of the Ancient Quest; the Ordeal.

None of the tests of our Ordeal were invented by the Order. All are older than recorded history. Our night alone is the ancient practice of solitude in the wilderness for resolution or vision. Service opportunities are universally used to teach service to others. Fasting and silence are universal practices for personal growth.

Our founder, Dr. E. Urner Goodman, chose these challenges to teach its principles. But he did not invent the tests you completed today. They are ancient. We call them the Ancient Quest.

[Pause to let that sink in.]

We have all heard a story of a reluctant hero who takes a journey of self-discovery. In our minds, as we follow the story, we can see ourselves in that character. Would we endure great hardship and make heroic choices so that good triumphs over evil?

In the beginning of each story, however, our hero is just a simple person, living their daily life. And then, one day, a great challenge arises. Qualities latent in their character come to the surface. Because of their steadfast integrity, they overcome their great challenge and become heroes indeed.

What the Order of the Arrow offered you today was the opportunity to not merely hear a hero’s tale, but to live within a hero’s tale and be the hero! Your quest today, like the quest in a heroism story, was vastly different than normal life. And like those other heroes, you have been changed by today’s quest. When you return home to your normal world you can view your normal life in a different light. So the question is, will you use the tests of our Ancient Quest as guides in your life?

The spark was already there. Your triumphs today lit a fire within you. But when you return home, you must choose. Will you let that fire burn out, and opportunity go with it? Or will you continue to feed that inner flame through cheerful service to others.

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