Seekers and Guides: The Three Degrees of Wicca

Challenge at the ThresholdWicca has changed a great deal from its founding in its modern form with the New Forest Coven.  Once, degrees and initiations were an essential part of the practice, but now, with solitaries and eclectics outnumbering most other forms of Wicca, such ways have been almost forgotten.  Most Witches today do not understand the purpose or need for initiations.  They tend to view them as excuses for “trad Witches” to be arrogant and hierarchical.  Unfortunately, even some initiated Witches seem to see it that way.  My background includes eclectic and solitary practice, as well as initiation in two very different traditions, so I thought I ought to take some time to explain what initiation and the Three Degrees of Wicca are all about.

What Initiation is Not

Sometimes, Witches seek initiation as a way of “legitimizing” their Craft.  If that’s what you’re looking for, you’re wasting your time.  Initiations are generally only considered valid within whatever tradition you have chosen to study.  Someone will always take issue anyway, especially if they have sour grapes against your tradition (or even against a handful of tradition members).  It’s not a Pagan “merit badge” system.

Sometimes, Witches seek initiation to gain power.  This doesn’t work either.  Having the degree will not make you any better at Witchcraft (although the things you learn in seeking the degree might).  Nor does it make anyone respect you or regard your word as being more significant than anyone else’s, unless they are brand new to the Craft and don’t know any better.  Only Third Degree initiates are supposed to be able to start their own traditions, but in reality, that and five bucks might buy you a cup of coffee.

Some seek initiation for status.  This has limited application in some circles, but generally, Pagans really don’t care; and for everyone who does, somebody else will denounce you as being arrogant, self-centered, and egotistical for having the degree in the first place.

What Initiation Is

Initiation represents recognition of a certain level of mystical understanding.  Part of its purpose is recognition, but it is generally not given until the community already treats you as if you were of the relevant degree and is honestly surprised when they learn you are not.  Partly separates one stage of the initiate’s life from the next stage.  In some traditions, it also links you to the lineage of those who have come before you, and it teaches something in a living, breathing way that ideally, transforms the initiate and improves him or her as a person and a Witch.

Requirements

Each tradition will have its own requirements.  Some demand achievements and assignments.  I personally believe that one should be cautious of these.  In my opinion, the lessons of initiation are intangible and difficult to codify.  It’s more a certain “knowing” that is intuitive and spiritual, and judging whether or not a student is ready is not easily defined.

First DegreeJanet Farrar's Initiation

Most paths of Wicca follow the traditional practice of insisting on at least a year and a day of study before initiating anyone to the First Degree.  In some groups, this is referred to as becoming one of the “twice-born.”  The Mystery taught is the Mystery of Birth.  In many variations of a theme, you will be brought blindfolded and bound (by a symbolic umbilical cord) and usually naked, challenged at the threshold of the circle to determine if you enter of your own free will, and your measure will be taken and returned to you (cutting the umbilical cord).  It symbolizes being reborn into a new life of being a Witch.  Mostly what initiators are looking for is whether or not Wicca is your chosen path and whether you are willing to accept the responsibilities of that; and in order to be sure of this, you need to know exactly what it is that you’re getting into, so a basic understanding of Wiccan practice and theology is required.  In my tradition, I also insist that you own an athame, because that is the most essential of Wiccan tools.

Second Degree

At Second Degree, you should have enough understanding of the Craft to be able to teach it.  Most people have been practicing for a few years before they are ready for it.  The Mystery of the initiation is about Death; particularly, Death of the Ego to grow closer to the Divine.  This ritual is the one with the most variations between traditions, but it always involves a symbolic death, ordeal, and rebirth; again, requiring the initiate to be naked and vulnerable.  Reaching this degree is defined by a lot of personal conflicts and getting one’s feces to coagulate.  When you know what you need to know to instruct others, and get through your personal ego and power issues, you are ready for the degree.  In a way it’s a refining process.   An initiate is seeking to become a better conductor of Divine Will and magick by getting one’s own ego out of the way.  I insist that my initiates own their own basic ritual tools at this point, because they can teach Wicca on their own, and they sure won’t be using mine when they do!

Third Degree

Witches who have reached Third Degree should be able to understand Wicca well enough to intelligently debate and create theology.  If you aren’t already leading your own coven, you soon will be.  In some traditions, this degree is only granted to those who intend to form their own covens; coven Witches can remain at Second Degree for years.  The Mystery is Love and Sex: how the joining together of two creates something greater than the sum of its parts.  The most common form of initiation is the Great Rite.  In my own practice, my Third Degree initiates are people whom I recognize as mystical, magickal, and spiritual equals, people whom I believe have as much to teach me about the Craft as I have to teach them.  I love getting together with them to practice when I can, because it’s like working with superconductors as far as the magickal “juice” goes, but they all lead their own groups and teach in their own ways.  According to Judy Harrow, it takes an average of seven to ten years to achieve a Third Degree, the equivalent of a Master’s degree.

Next column: How to design an effective Wicca 101 course.


Seekers and Guides is published on alternate Mondays. Follow it via RSS or e-mail!

About Sable Aradia

Sable Aradia (Diane Morrison) is a licensed Wiccan minister and a Third Degree initiate in the Star Sapphire and Pagans for Peace traditions. Her passion is teaching self-empowerment through study of the Craft. She makes her living doing psychic and Tarot readings, writing, and teaching workshops, and she is also a speculative fiction writer and a musician. Sable is the author of "The Witch's Eight Paths of Power: A Complete Course in Magick and Witchcraft" (Red Wheel/Weiser, 2014). She also writes a column called "49 Degrees: Canadian Pagan Perspectives" at PaganSquare. For further information, please visit her website http://www.sablearadia.com or her YouTube channel http://www.youtube.com/user/SableAradia.

  • http://www.chaliceinthegrove.blogspot.com/ Hano Tawodi

    Hi Sable Aradia,

    Your discussion about initiations is very knowledgeable and brings out the significant meaning to a practitioner that decides initiation is an important addition towards their spiritual growth. Initiation is truly an opportunity for personal spiritual growth. Although there was a time, (during my earlier spiritual and religious development) I thought initiation was elitist. I later discovered that my perception was wrong.

    At a later point in time I became an initiated member into a tradition. I then saw the importance of undergoing this process. It may not be for everyone but I think that your post does a great job of helping us learn more about initiation and how to define it in a better light. Thank you for your words.

    Take care,

    Hano Tawodi

  • Kalysto

    {{{Wicca has changed a great deal from its founding in its modern form with the New Forest Coven. Once, degrees and initiations were an essential part of the practice, but now, with solitaries and eclectics outnumbering most other forms of Wicca, such ways have been almost forgotten.}}}

    I think viewing current practices in this way is inadvertently misleading and diminishes all forms. The primary reason there are more solitary and eclectic practitioners is simply because there are no pre-requisites before someone declares himself a practitioner – instantly if he so chooses. So of course a practice that a person self-declares to will begin to outnumber one that does have pre-requisites and years of formal training. So while initiation is not an essential part of these eclectic practices, that doesn’t mean it’s no longer essential to “Wicca” in general or as a whole – it’s just not essential to eclectic/solitary practices.

    Traditional Wicca has not been diminished or its ways “almost forgotten”. If it had, there would be a decline of those seeking initiation and the traditions would not now exist in multiple countries on multiple continents. Bottom line, traditional and solitary practices are not the same thing, one is not a substitute for the other and both have respective benefits. (And lest someone misconstrue that, saying so is NOT about claiming one being better than the other.)

    Traditional Wicca and solitary Wicca are two very different religions using the same label. Superficially there are similarities, but there are some significant specifics to each that can’t be ignored. Traditional Wicca is a priesthood with no laity, is not just about fulfilling the individual nor about ministering to the masses. The person is part of a greater whole in service to specific deities, maintaining certain rites and lore and ensuring the tradition is perpetuated beyond himself. This is quite different from solitary and (most) eclectic practices, which tend to be about and for the individual. The majority begin and end with the individual, with practices differing from person to person.

    What we have today is a multitude of practices, all with their respective charms. But Wicca as founded in New Forest has not changed from being an initiatory priesthood, and it’s a disservice to give the impression that it has changed or has become outmoded and on it’s way out because some other form of Craft is designed to spread rapidly. What really has happened is that a whole other form of Craft has developed which doesn’t have the same format, focus or purpose.

    What has changed is today’s use of the word “Wicca”, now used primarily for two very distinct practices. To conflate the two rather than remain aware of what makes each what it is only serves to confuse and diminish both. They both should be acknowledged for what each is and offers independent of the other.

    • Gardnerians

      Kalysto nailed it. The idea that traditional forms of Wicca are almost forgotten is complete bullshit. This article makes a lot of sweeping generalizations which are not true and have absolutely no evidence to support them. it’s odd to see so many correct things in here along with so many incorrect things.

  • http://www.usfamily.net/web/triskellion1/ Ken Ra

    The article is accurate in what Initiation is not. Still there is a difference in initiation between joining a group a tradition and entering the Mysteries. Initiation is not always given after accomplishments like a diploma. but before to provoke change.
    I have been initiated into the Mysteries and words fail utterly to describe it and its importance.


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