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The Three Degrees of Wicca: Birth, Death, and Love

Posted by Sable Aradia on January 4, 2011 at 8:36 PM

An initiation ceremony, in any tradition, religion or path that has one, is intended to illustrate a Mystery and confer a Rite of Passage, by making the subject of the ritual into the protagonist of their own mythic story. A properly performed initiation ceremony takes the recipient into the living realm of the Hero’s Journey that Joseph Campbell wrote about. The Hero is called, propelled or forced into leaving his/her familiar home and entering on an adventure; s/he is tested by a guardian at the threshold who challenges his/her right to enter; if she passes the test, s/he descends into the Underworld, fights the monster or defeats the challenge, learns the lesson, and takes his/her newfound wisdom back to the mundane world, to teach it to others or share the lessons s/he has acquired.

 

Many Witches from an initiatory tradition believe it is the “Apostolic Succession” aspect of the initiations that are important – “only a Witch can make a Witch.” I don’t agree. While I like the connection to Witches that have gone before me, for me it’s the conferring of the Mystery that is the important element. Receiving the initiation, becoming the Hero in the myth, learning the Mystery, and later passing it down to others, informs our faith and thealogy, and passes on a great mystical truth in a direct and real way that other forms of teaching cannot possibly imitate.

 

But, I don’t believe that a formal initiation is the only way to learn these essential Mysteries of the Craft. I think that if you undertake the Wiccan path, even as a solitary, life will try to teach you these Mysteries anyway, as you call upon the Wiccan gods and change your thoughts and spirit to become a better Witch. I think having someone who can help to guide you through this makes the process a lot easier than trying to figure it out for yourself, but if you do the training and the study, and work to better understand the Craft, you will receive the lessons anyway; whether you consciously want them or not. I see this happening to many Witches out there, many of whom have no idea what’s going on. This article is about my thoughts on the matter, a way in which I try to understand the Mysteries based in my experiences. It’s not the only way to understand them, but maybe it might help someone else out there grasp that which cannot be properly described or explained, even by those who have experienced them.

 

The three degrees of Wicca, as I understand them, are about Mysteries of the human condition, and can be likened to stages and experiences in our own, everyday lives. These stages are not easily comprehended and are so vast in their scope and understanding, that we spend our whole lives trying to grasp their full implications, and we fear them instinctively. Initiations teach us greater, mystical truths about these vast experiences and teach us not to fear them, which I believe improves our quality of life as a whole.

 

The First Degree: Birth

 

The first degree of Wicca is about birth.

 

When we are born, we come into the world blind and helpless. We are forced into an unfamiliar and frightening situation by someone else. We are greeted by authority figures, who tell us what the rules are and what is expected of us. We are taught how to interact with our world through tools and rituals, and told what we are expected to do with them. Assuming the circumstances of our birth or early childhood are somewhat like the “normal” family unit, we are welcomed “in perfect love and perfect trust,” and told that we are valued and we have a place.

 

The first degree of initiation imitates this experience. We are blindfolded and bound, and reminded that while this was our choice to begin this process, we are not entirely in control of it (“feet neither bound nor free, for once we have taken the first step on the path, the gods will guide our destiny."); We are thrust bodily into the circle, but only once we have given the passwords and stepped through the threshold, the knife at our hearts and the charge made. We are presented to the Quarters, and presented our tools and instructed in their use. Then our Priest/ess welcomes us with the Fivefold Kiss. The cingulum, like an umbilical cord, is fastened about us and used to take our measure. The Priest/ess tells us that the measure was kept as a way of harming the new Witch in the old days, when we were required to keep things secret, but now it is given back to us “in perfect love and perfect trust,” just as our parents start with the power to control every aspect of our lives and survival, but then give us our own autonomy and trust that ultimately, we will act as our own moral compass. We are welcomed into the coven and our arrival is celebrated, just as we are welcomed into the family unit upon our births.

 

The first degree initiation ceremony of Wicca is a rebirth into life as a Witch, and a welcoming into a new “family” – the coven. For those whose lives do not reflect a similar experience in their families of origin, birth into the Craft can serve as a therapeutic “re-write” of that botched process. It can be very healing and empowering. This makes sense. Statistically, most Witches and Pagans who come to the path have issues of abuse, depression, or other psychological suffering, and I believe that reclaiming that personal power is one of the most significant factors that draw us to Wicca.

 

In the early days of the Craft (I’m not talking about prehistory, I’m talking about Gardner’s and Alex Sander’s covens,) no one was even taught the basics of Witchcraft before being initiated. Now, of course, there are thousands of books, and if a Witch ever decides to initiate into a coven, s/he has likely been practicing the Craft for many years already. The rebirth represented by the ceremony symbolizes a deeper commitment to the practice and faith of Wicca, and I think this is why many people choose not to experience it.

 

Nonconformity is another reason that many people never receive initiation, but why do people become nonconformists? Generally, I think it’s because for whatever reason, they did not connect, nor feel that they fit in, with their family of origin. I think all Witches are nonconformists at heart (otherwise in the Western world, we would be atheists or Christians) and many of us carry that lingering fear of rejection by another group, since we have already been rejected by our group of origin.

 

If we choose not to join a coven or another group, we eventually reach a point in our practice where the symbolic rebirth becomes necessary for us to progress. This manifests directly in our lives in many possible ways.

 

Sometimes, everything we thought we knew ceases to be relevant to us and we are forced to change our basic ways of thinking at the core. Sometimes, we suddenly find ourselves in a position where we are required to leave everything we know and start completely over, such as moving to a new town to start a new job, or leaving a long-term relationship and the home environment is was shared in. Sometimes, we realize that the time has come to take this step and we self-initiate or self-dedicate. This likely happens for those who do choose initiation as well, but they usually (presumably) have a mentor to guide them through the process. For the “black sheep,” however, this self-dedication might be more empowering than joining a coven, because she is re-writing her past to reclaim control over her own destiny, as opposed to leaving in the hands of a family unit who did not successfully make her feel welcome and/or like part of the unit.

 

I believe that this step is as valid as a coven initiation if the oaths are sworn seriously, but like any Rite of Passage, when a person swears oaths before witnesses they are often more binding than if we swear them in private. Social pressure aids in the keeping of them. That’s why marriages require witnesses to be valid.

 

What are the lessons learned here? Above all, I think, we are taught that we can rewrite our own destinies and choose our own paths, no matter where we come from, and that doing so will not destroy us, because we are greater than the roles that we believe the world has assigned to us.

 

The Second Degree: Death

 

The second degree is about death. It’s a hard lesson, and many of us get stuck here. While I have no bias one way or the other about whether it is harder to deal with the first degree as a solitary or a coven member, having practiced in both ways, I definitely think that having guidance makes the second degree easier.

 

This is the meat and bones of the Hero’s Journey; the descent into the Underworld. It is a death of the ego, and a realization that we are much, much more than just this simple being we define as our “self.” It’s hard, because the hardest lessons of life usually happen in this stage. And it’s almost unfair. We just spent the first degree process developing our sense of self-esteem and becoming empowered. Now, we are expected to give up that power, symbolically offer our swelled heads to the chopping block, and remake everything that we thought we were.

 

A Witch is ready for the second degree when he becomes a teacher, and I believe that sooner or later, this is inevitable. When people begin coming to you for guidance, you can almost be guaranteed that the second degree will ensue imminently. This happens whether teaching others is something that you wish to do, or not. It is something that is generally unexpected, and I think that almost without exception, everyone handles it badly. Either we swell up with our pride that someone is coming to us for guidance (“High Priestess’ Disease,”;); or we hide behind false modesty, refusing to accept the level of responsibility that our now-respectable skills and knowledge have conferred upon us. Somehow, we have to overcome the temptation of ego (too much or too little,) listen to our inner voice, and carry on out of the Underworld with the secret knowledge that we have, hopefully, obtained.

 

More difficult yet, we have to do this while suffering the pains of the world, because this is about death! Every issue we have ever had appears in our lives to challenge us and try us, and we are purified in the smelting process. It is often just as painful. You can take heart, if you are practitioner of the Pagan path and your life truly sucks, and bad luck just seems to keep happening to you, that you must be on your way! Unfortunately, you’re probably doomed for things to continue that way until something changes and you learn whatever lesson the Universe wants you to learn!

 

This is the most frustrating stage of development, the darkness before the dawn. It becomes easy to fall into a trap of self-pity. But you must be purified in order to progress. As the poet Rumi said, “If the stone is irritated at every rub, how will it be polished?”

 

You can make this process easier by engaging in a symbolic death ritual as part of your second degree initiation. I believe that even if you choose a solitary path, you can find a way to imitate this death ritual for yourself.

 

Ancient shamanic cultures required that all prospective shamans actually have a near-death experience or suffer maiming. As a matter of fact, that was considered a sign from the spirits that a person ought to be trained as a shaman. So, if you don’t make a near-death experience for yourself, the gods will make one for you. Be warned!

Yet, this is the degree at which covens “pass the power” on to other Witches. Only by journeying through the Underworld can the Hero claim his power, and then it is our sacred duty, once we have received it, to bring it back to the rest of the world and share, to the best of our ability or to those who come asking, what we have learned.

Just like Darth Vader in Star Wars, sometimes we do not pass the test and we are not willing to sacrifice our egos to the chopping block. You’ve all seen these individuals; they’re the ones that give High Priestesses and coven Witches a bad name by tripping on their own power and being full of themselves. Our lives continue to suck and we wonder why. If this is happening to you, ask yourself, “What am I doing? What am I not doing? What is the world trying to tell me?” Consult your Tarot cards, consult your friends, and consult your enemies! They are excellent teachers.

 

But saying that we do pass the test, like anyone else who has been through a difficult time, many of us find meaning by sharing our hard-won lessons with those who are willing to listen.

 

This is not to say that those of us who have been through this process are in any way perfect! Life is a series of lessons and we learn as we go. We make steps backwards as well as forwards. Just try to keep the Rede in mind, consider the consequences of your actions, and do your best.

 

Often, others challenge a person in this stage. Just remember that not everyone who is confident in their skills and knowledge is an egoist, and if you are finding such an individual threatening, maybe you should be asking yourself why. At the same time, anyone who would lead or teach should make a constant accounting of oneself to oneself. Just try not to take everything the world says personally. I’ve heard it said that if you don’t have any enemies, you probably aren’t doing anything worthwhile.

 

The Third Degree: Love

 

The third degree is about Love, and how we become something much more than the sum of our parts when our Love joins us together.

 

I suppose I’m breaking tradition by speaking of the third degree initiation process, but the internet will already tell you what happens there, and you can even find the full ritual as detailed in Gardner’s own Book of Shadows at http://www.sacred-texts.com. At least, you can find Gerald Gardner’s ritual. Every tradition and coven will have their own process by which the third degree is conferred, with an infinite variation of details. Some are so hung up on those details that they will claim that initiations are invalid if the postulant is spun into the circle in the wrong direction! I think this is just arrogance and pettiness, born of the fact that some people in some traditions had to work very, very hard, for a very long time, to get their degrees. But in order to reach a point where you are ready for the third degree, you will have had to work very, very hard, no matter whether you have been primarily a British Traditional Witch, a Dianic Witch, a Strega, a Hereditary Witch, or a mostly-solitary eclectic. And if you have not been “properly prepared” by your studies and experiences when you do receive your degree, the gods will make sure you are caught up in a hurry. In that case, I think sympathy, rather than resentment, is more appropriate! That is a really rough ride!

 

So, most traditions are exceptionally choosey about whom they choose to acknowledge as a High Priestess or Priest, and rightfully so. If you receive the degree before you are ready, you will not understand the experience. Many second degree initiates, caught up in their efforts to accept ego-death, are pushy and resentful of this. They feel their teachers are being arrogant as well. It is more than a little like Daniel in the Karate Kid, actually. He was assigned to specific tasks that for all appearances were Mr. Miyagi taking advantage of him to get his yard cleaned, while in actuality, he was learning basic repetitive techniques that were the foundational practices of his art.

 

Try not to take it personally. According to Judy Harrow, High Priestess, psychologist and Wiccan author, it takes us an average of ten years to receive our third degree these days! There is a lot more to learn than there was 50 years ago for our High Priests and Priestesses. Since it only takes about seven or eight years to get a doctorate, why do we feel we are entitled to a third degree after a couple of years of study? It (usually) isn’t a personal affront, or a popularity contest, when your High Priestess says you are not yet ready, even if someone else who had been practicing for less time is. Since we have no formal checklists of specific information that you need to know, it is partially guided by feel and intuition; just as a Masters’ thesis requires some personal judgment to rate.

 

Love is the hardest lesson in life that there is. Most of us fail at it; you just have to look at the divorce rate to know that. How can we expect to understand it in a couple of years?

 

In many ways, training for, and receiving, a third degree, artificially ages us. Quite on its own, Life will teach us about Love, and more importantly, how Love will transcend time, space, and death, to leave a legacy behind us that will affect all of humanity (and perhaps other races as well) and change the course of our evolution. That is why some traditions (the Dianic tradition, for example) acknowledge life stages as opposed to conferring degrees, and you will not be ready for the Love Mystery until you have reached Queen or Crone. If you have successfully learned what you needed to know in your second degree, you have come to terms with the realization that “luminous beings are we, not this crude matter.” 1 Now, in understanding that, you are ready to experience it. But whether you wait for Life to teach this to you, or whether you experience the rite that should teach this, you must experience it with others. You cannot experience this Mystery alone.

 

In the third degree initiation ritual, you Draw Down the Moon or the Sun, and typically you engage, either symbolically or in token, in the joining ritual of the Great Rite. Why is it done this way?

 

Only through the process of experiencing yourself as a Divine Being, connected to the gods, you as a part of Them and They as a part of you, do you realize how truly transcendent you are! If you have done this, you will know for a fact that time and space are irrelevant, and that we do not truly die, but are completed in the consciousness that is the Divine, which connects all of us and each of us is a part of.

 

In traditions that utilize polarity, the force of Creation is understood as a joining-together of opposites, a balance of Mother and Father, who come together through Love to create the Divine Child, who is a little bit of His/Her Parents, but something more than either. When male and female come together in desire and Love, they perform a ritual and invoke the most ancient of magick, the force of Creation itself. A piece of each of the participants bonds to one another and then, through a process that is not comprehended by the greatest minds of our species, divides and transforms into something wholly other, and greater than either one. We call this “conception.” Though parents delight in finding similarities between themselves and their children, invoking this ritual unleashes forces that we cannot entirely control. Certainly the struggles of parenthood, as we watch our children make choices that we don’t approve of, confirms this! I can’t help but wonder if it was the same for our Divine Parents when they chose to create us. Did they expect that we would make the choices that we make?

 

In any case, in this way, our legacy, and the future of our people, our culture, and everything that we are, only continues through our descendants. We can choose two different ways to contribute to that great legacy. The most obvious is to invoke the ritual of Creation and make those descendants to carry on after we are gone. The other is to make a significant contribution to the body of knowledge of future generations. For those who choose not to create children, or those who cannot, this alternative method of contribution may be of even greater significance than the first, because it advances our evolution on a social, spiritual, intellectual or cultural level. This includes the efforts of all those who choose to raise children and be active parental figures in a child’s life, whether they lent the genetics to the formation of that child or not.

 

This is the other part of the secret of the third degree Mystery, the Mystery of Love, which is taught and experienced in Wiccan traditions that do not utilize polarity, such as the Dianic or Reclaiming traditions. Generativity, the urge to make our mark on future generations, is satisfied by teaching the generations yet to come. It is for this reason that these sorts of contributions are encouraged and acknowledged in Wicca, from instructing students of the Craft, to writing, to being politically active, to creating moving works of art. Only when we understand how we can advance the human race, and the state of the world, do we understand the Mystery of Love. And, I believe we can only truly understand this by working with others. How else can we make a difference in the lives of others? As my friend and initiator, High Priest Rainwalker, Lord Redleaf (Jamie Field) said to my husband and me, “Wicca is an individual pursuit, best practiced in groups.”

 

Life will teach you this lesson on its own. If you live long enough to see your children become adults, or to watch how your ideas and cultural contributions have influenced the next generation, you have learned the Mystery of Love and its resulting generativity. But you can learn this through joining with the forces that we call the gods, Who reside within each of us, as well, and that is what the third degree initiation ritual endeavours to do. This is why those traditions that do not make use of Great Rite simply acknowledge an existing state of wisdom that has been acquired through deeds or Rites of Passage through a formal ceremony of recognition.

 

Ultimately, it really is about that transcendent union with the Divine, the Mystery we call “Drawing Down the Moon” or “Drawing Down the Sun” (which, for those who might not be familiar, involves “channelling” the Goddess or the God and either speaking as They direct us or allowing Them to speak through us.) Doing this gives us a direct connection to the Divine current, and we learn that we are all interconnected through that Divine current, which is beyond all space-time. This is the essence of all Love; sensing that interconnection to all beings, and wanting to contribute to it in a positive, significant way. That, to me, is what the third degree of Wicca is all about.

 

To refer back to our Hero’s Journey, through the three degrees, we have now come full circle. The Hero leaves voluntarily, or is propelled, into adventure (“feet neither bound nor free,"); whereupon he is required to enter into the Underworld and face the Guardians and dangers there (“art thou willing to suffer in order to learn?”;) Upon learning the wisdom of the Underworld and defeating its challenges, he learns that this wisdom has no value until it is returned to, and shared with, the world. So the Hero returns, and shares his hard-won lessons, because he realizes that he, like all humanity, is also Divine; and that is the Mystery that needs to be shared (“if you do not find that which you seek within yourself, you will never find it without. For behold, I have been with you since the beginning, and I am that which is attained at the end of desire.”;)

 

I invite you to lose yourself in the myth!

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1. Yoda has lots of brilliant things to say about faith in general and Pagan faith in particular. I make my students read a book I happened to find in a bargain bin at Chapters called “Star Wars and Philosophy.” Good stuff.

 

Blessed be,

Sable

Categories: Wiccan Thealogy Articles

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