Within British Traditional Wicca (called in Britain simply “Initiatory Wicca”), there exists a structure known as the degree system. One’s first degree is initiation, or becoming one of the Wicca. Second and third degree initiates are acknowledged to be more experienced initiates of progressively greater skill, talent, or “power.” But what does it all mean in practice? In order to answer this question, let’s discuss the parallels that the medieval guild structure has with the Wiccan degree system . . . .
In the guild system, once a panel of masters in one’s own guild adjudged one’s submitted master work piece(s) as being of the standard expected of a master in that guild, then one became a master. To give an example, journeymen knitters in one 14th century European guild presented three items to be judged of master-work quality: a man’s shirt, a hat, and a carpet.
Once adjudged a master, the master was expected to set up his or her own craft workshop, employ journeymen, accept apprentices, and so on. Undoubtedly, some did not, or could not. A town might not support an additional shop, or the craftsman might not be funded or moved to do so. A new master might work in an aging master’s shop as deputy to a master whose health was failing, or wished to make a pilgrimage, or retire from active crafting. Regardless of how a master came to head a workshop, she or he was qualified and able—and expected to do so.
One’s training in any degree truly begins when the ritual initiating or elevating one to that degree is complete. (1) Thus, Gerald Gardner was taught the secrets of the Craft only after his initiation. Similarly, once a candidate is brought to second or third degree, a period of further learning follows, no matter how well-prepared and how apt the candidate may be. At the same time, every BTW coven is autonomous—independent, a law unto itself. This autonomy means that the newly minted third degree witch—theoretically—springs forth fully formed with lore and wisdom at the ready. In practice, any new coven leader consults with her mentors while “finding her feet.”
Once the ritual that creates a third-degree witch is complete, that witch may move into leadership of her coven. She may remain in a supportive role to her coven leaders; for instance, she may be especially skilled in a magical ability, and talented in the teaching of it. In the mobile population and fluctuating job market of our modern society, she may find herself relocated from a region thick with BTW covens to one with but one or two across three states… or none. In such a case, any third-degree witch can found a coven from scratch, a time-consuming labor of love. Equally, she may simply work as “a witch alone” for a time.
By the same token, a witch may be head of the only BTW coven—as far as anyone knows—within several hundred miles, or encounter life-altering circumstances that put her in the midst of a metropolitan region where every second coven among a baker’s dozen is BTW. She might choose, in such a case, to join an existing coven…or even an elder’s coven, a rarity that occasionally blossoms.
My Journey: Third Degree
I founded my first coven in 2002, more than a year after becoming one of the third-degree initiates of Wicca, together with my original working partner, who had received his third on the same night. As covens do, it grew, and changed, and more joined, and a few left. Our coven maiden was raised to third and accepted the mantle of coven leader after some time. And some time after that, I resigned from the coven, to deal with the upheaval that one year brought me, both divorce and the death of my sole parent. Further, I wanted to prevent myself from trying to micro-manage the newly hived coven leader. Such actions are not good in managers who promote from within, and are much less good in covens where such micromanagement can abort both leader and coven success.
Time went by. I taught a few Wicca 101 and 201 courses as a solitary, found myself altering my teaching materials, and stepped back to revisit my own initiatory training. About that time, I received a newly compiled grimoire from elder members of my tradition whose Craft specialty was high-quality, primary-source research. A review of that grimoire with my working partner led us to question the customary altar layout we had been taught.
This question led us in turn to research Gerald Gardner’s altars, and those of his priestesses. We found a variety considerably broader than reflected in the traditional teachings we had received, and a few short video recordings confirmed that variety. Approaching our usual altar layout anew, we simply considered the traditional teachings about our deities, about our altars, about our symbols. We felt that it made the most sense to place our Lady’s symbol to the east of the altar, and the Lord’s symbol to the west, a significant change from our long habit.
I had paintings of Lady and Lord hung on the wall above my altar, along with other symbols placed atop it. The room had been in use as circle space for years when we made the change. We sat, spoke about it, decided to give it a six-month trial, from May Eve through Hallowmas, and I rose and made the alterations. When I returned to the sofa and sat beside my high priest to rest my eyes on the altar as a way of evaluating the change, I felt a significant “clunk” in that vague and unsatisfyingly psychic part of me that I call my “sniffer” or my “antennæ,” analogous to the internal pop of one’s neck or back or knuckle settling into place correctly. And then I looked again in a more focused and mundane fashion, and I realized that the mental image of the altar and paintings as they had been for the past three years in the room were completely gone from my mind. I’m good at visualization, so I tried that…and the prior image would simply not materialize.
My high priest and I discussed it after Hallowmas, six months on, and chose to make it a permanent change—not that I’d ever a doubt. So. Four years gone, here we are, with our altar as They wish it. And what I pass on to my initiates includes both what I was taught…and what I discovered. They may make their own choices for personal use, however the results of our research is what we now practice. And both broaden our, and their, perspectives.
All Wiccan covens are led by a third-degree priestess, called in BTW the High Priestess, and assisted by the priest of her choosing, usually also third degree, the High Priest. (2) As with guilds and mastery, achieving the third degree moves a witch into some kind of a leadership role. Because covens are led by thirds, a new third-degree witch may step in to lead an existing coven, or “hive off” from the parent coven to form a new one.
Some of the lore and practice of the higher degrees are unsuited to less-experienced witches. For this reason, written, oral, and ritual practices are usually passed by coven leaders to first, second, and third degrees separately, most often individually. For example, a new initiate may never have experienced the intense combination of spiritual and physical energies that often occur during a magical working in coven. Thus, coven leaders must ensure that when initiates do encounter such, they recover successfully with any needed assistance. Further, coven leaders teach their initiates how to recognize and care for their own needs if working magic alone, as well as in coven, a common practice for many witches.
Any elder may choose to share written, oral, and ritual practice with any initiate as it seems needed, so that a first-degree or second-degree coven member might come to have some lore and material usually restricted to a third-degree witch. In an example of my knowledge, when a witch’s sister was stalked and assaulted with emotional wounds to the entire family, that witch consulted her coven leaders.
Those coven leaders chose to summon arcane aid to back up the mundane legal actions already taken—a restraining order, police charges filed, action for damages, and so on. In an arcane echo of these mundane actions, the coven leaders led a degree-specific circle of the second and third degree members of their coven, which then “bound” and “banished” the perpetrator from doing further injury. And so did that witch come to have written and oral lore—at second degree—which was usually reserved to the third degree.
Such is one of many duties of leadership, to ensure both the continuation and safe practice of our Craft, just as the master in a guild workshop both taught and oversaw safe practice of his craft. The Wicca do not proselytize; however, our elders find that a fair number of individuals seek out the Wicca hoping to learn magic, join a coven, work love spells, gain power, break hexes, acquire status, and so on.
A very few of those seekers discover that the more they learn about British Traditional Wicca, the greater the sense of coming home, of returning to a spirituality and deities they never knew they missed. And some of us find the teachers who “fit” for us happen to be of the Wicca…which is how my own journey into the Craft grew from chance meetings into my own initiation, and thence to hiving off and founding my own coven. A saying among us encapsulates this progression: “May the Gods preserve the Craft!”
Deborah Snavely has been a Gardnerian initiate since 1995, and became an elder in the Craft in 2001. The following year she founded her first coven, a second followed in 2010. During the 1990’s she was editor of Pagan Muse & World Report, which won a Reader’s Choice Bronze Award from the Wiccan/Pagan Press Alliance in 1996. Deborah was an early online presence and hosted a weekly Pagan/Wiccan Discussion Group at AOL’s Religion and Ethics Forum. That forum was named “One of the 50 Best Places to Be Online”by PC Week Magazine in 1995.
Deborah has been studying divination since 1975, and has worked as a professional reader. Her favorite deck is the Robin Wood Tarot.
On a personal note, Deborah thank you so much for letting Raise the Horns host this series of articles. It’s all been fabulous, timely material coupled with great writing. I’m honored that’s on this blog!-jason
1. Between the two largest segments of initiatory Wicca, Gardnerian and Alexandrian, it has been said that Gardnerians initiate and then train to that level, different from Alexandrians, who train to a level and then initiate to match. These two methods represent the ends of a spectrum along which any coven may operate—if true in practice at one time, that practice has altered in most locations.
2. In the commonest North American practice, many third-degree witches are coven leaders. In other parts of the world, both second and third-degree witches are coven leaders, and as noted before, British and European covens are often led by second-degree practitioners. In either system, third-degree coven leaders become autonomous and independent.