Initiation and the Degree System

By Morgan Léy

This article may be reprinted, but not sold. Please send a copy of your magazine with any Connections reprints to:
1705 14th St. #181
Boulder CO 80302

"Did you hear that So-and-so got their third degree?"

"You’ve got to be kidding — who gave it to her?"

"Old what’s his name, he’ll elevate anyone who bats her eyelashes at him."

"Now I suppose So-and-so will expect to be called Lady So-and-so."

"You know it really grates me to have work so hard all these years, then have someone like So-and-so waltz into the community and get their third for just hanging around a couple years."

"I know what you mean, it kind of makes you wonder if working so hard for your degree is worth anything anymore."

"You’re right, after all, if So-and-so is now a third what does being a third mean...?"

Does this conversation sound familiar? It seems we’ve been having this conversation over and over a lot these days. It comes up every time someone in the community is elevated. In many areas, entry into certain rituals requires "initiate level or above." The intent behind this is to create a place where people can go and experience a public ritual, a sharing with others in the community, without having to worry about baby-sitting any newbies. A person who has reached initiation level is expected to be able to handle themselves in circle. By nature a Priest/ess tends to keep an eye out for the well-being of those in their circles. It is a real treat to be able to join a circle where you know that you can let that guard down, everyone there can take care of themselves. Behind this is an assumption of training signified by reaching initiation level.

What happens when this assumption breaks down? We all have heard the stories about the group which hands out initiations simply by merit of having sex with the leader, or performing some other task for them (Cleaning their house for example). There is also the leader who’s new lover automatically becomes the new High Priest/ess. Such stories are a reality of our history that we wish would go away. So what happens to those people that received their first degree in this fashion? There are also those who have "worked" for the prescribed year and a day. The key word here is worked. There are many people who spend their year and a day working their little butts off, but there are also those who sit back and wait, knowing that all they really have to do is put in the time. Lastly, there are the people who took their training with someone who got their degree on the merit of having sex with the leader and have no real skills (well, maybe one) to pass on. With any luck these people will find their way into the community and someone will take them under his/her wing and complete their training. However, the odds are just as good that this person will show up at some high energy ritual believing that they are ready for the experience and end not having a positive experience.

I think we can all agree that this is not really the fault of the person involved, but rather that of the person who initiated them. The question is, what are we, as a community, to do about it? Lady So-and-so is now a third degree, with the training and knowledge many of us would expect from a first, she is now elevating her own students. It is not the fault of these students if they have not received adequate training. They were led to believe that they had gained the level of training required. In the case of Lady So-and-so, it is the responsibility of the teacher to insure their students training, but in this case she may very well believe she has provided the best training available. Do we, as a community, have a responsibility to say something to the persons involved when we see this type of thing happening?

In the example of Lady So-and-so, part of the problem is that the training in one group does not always match that of another. These levels of training vary in extreme from group to group. On one hand this strengthens our varied and eclectic outlook. On the other hand it can create a disparity of abilities. For example; I received a listing of one group’s requirement for each degree. With the exception of one item this whole list, from initiation to third degree, was things our group requires of an initiate. Using this example, someone from that group who has achieved their third would have the same knowledge as someone from our group who has just received their first. Needless to say this can cause some problems.

Not that long ago there was one such elevation within the community. One of our not yet initiates, came to us asking why. Why was this person now a third when they had only been working at it for a couple of years and knew less that they did? Why were we not giving them their first when this other person was getting their third with less training? Valid questions. Why shouldn’t this person just go to another group and be elevated instead of continuing with us? This also creates the feeling that "since my degree is harder than yours to get, mine is better." The status climbing goes both ways. The cheap initiate says "I’m so good I’m a third." While the expensive replies "My degree is real, yours is fake."

Most of us would agree that what we would commonly call a social climber is not the type of person we might wish to share a coven with. At the same time we have created just that type of degree climbers. We publish elevations in our local magazines, and announce them at gatherings. The intent, I believe, is to acknowledge these people for the work they have put in. This "spotlighting of degrees" however, has created an un-wished for side effect. Putting so much emphasis on gaining a degree it implies that being a high degree is more desirable than staying at a lower degree. Even our wording, higher vs. lower enforces this emphasis. By our tacit agreement, or simply by doing nothing, we have created a system where the perception of a person’s worth appears to be measured by what degree they hold. We considered a first degree to be just starting and give them a pat on the head, but don’t take them very seriously. A second may be a bit more valued, but to be really taken as being of any worth a person has to be a third. No wonder we have degree seekers! If you feel that you are being seen as having only as much value as the degree you have, of course people are going to try to climb up the degrees as quickly as they can!

Maybe we should step back a bit. Just what does a degree system mean. If you are talking about a school system you have your elementary school graduation, then high school. Many people move on to college and a BA, MA or even a Ph.D. In this case, each of these degrees has an agreed upon set of standards. A person must take a certain number of classes and pass a level of testing to achieve the degree. If we equate our degree system with that of the public schools each level would have similar results. As a rule, we know that if someone has graduated from high school they can read and write, know basic math, has some idea of history and so on. Shouldn’t there be some equivalent to an initiate?

The higher education system has a whole set of bureaucratic rules in place to insure some sort of standards. While we could do much the same sort of thing, the idea does not set well with most of us. In general we are not a group of people who like rules and regulations.

Perhaps one step toward changing this atmosphere of "my degree is better than yours" would be to stop referring to them as degrees or levels (as some groups have done). A simple change to Initiate, Maiden/Hunter, Mother/Father, Crone/Sage might shift the emphasis to the life changes involved and away from levels. In day to day life the major life change of becoming a mother or father is a joyful event, but not one everyone wishes to achieve! If we changed from Third Degree to Mother, more people might see it as the life change rather than just a status symbol. The correlation of not everyone wishing to be a parent would change the emphasis.

Another answer might be to do away with the degree system entirely. Do we really need this artificial hierarchy? On the first look this may sound silly but, might the same thing be accomplished with a system of Pagan Merit Badges. If a person held a merit badge for ritual etiquette, you would know that they had a grasp on the basics of how to handle themselves in a ritual. A badge for energy work would insure they could at least handle energy and ground as needed. The requirements for Grand Coven could then change to — Ritual, Energy and Etiquette required. Each badge would have a set meaning rather than the nebulous degrees.

We would each have our fancy sash onto which we would sew our badges. In a group who loves jewelry and such as much as we do this could go over rather well. We would have to come up with a basic plan for obtaining each badge, but I can think of a number of folks in the area who might have a great time doing just that. The problem would arise of testing and awarding such badges, and creating the badges themselves. Not to mention that this has the potential of falling into the same subjective requirements dilemma the degree system has.

While other groups may have very different ideas, here is a very basic guideline of what I would consider required for each degree:

Dedication -

This step is a declaration of the wish/intent to study.

First/Initiate -

Time to attain - 1 to 5 years.

At least one year and a day of study.

Knowledge of wheel of the year and related celebrations

Basic knowledge and ability to use:

Ritual function and creation

Circle etiquette

Energy working

Living as a Witch

Second/Youth/Maiden –

Time to attain - additional 4 to 7 years

Has become proficient in the skills learned at First.

Has the ability to teach. (Though not everyone should be a teacher.)

Beginning to take on some leadership functions.

Third/Father/Mother –

Time to attain - additional 5 to 20 years, perhaps never.

Active leadership in individual group and community.

Has made contribution to the Craft. (e.g. research or history)

Fourth/Sage/Crone -

This is a life stage and is attained by reaching meno-pause or equivalent age.

Has resigned from active leadership

Functions as a counselor and advisor.

Pagan Merit Badges: (for example)

Wheel - Knowledge of the eight sabbats and the rituals around them

Etiquette - Has passed basic class in circle behavior

Energy 1 - Can raise, move and ground energy

Energy 2 - Can take large group energy and direct it, as well as grounding excess.

Ritual 1 - Knowledge of basic ritual form. Can create and run a simple ritual

Ritual 2 - Knowledge of creating rituals for groups. Can create and run large group ritual.

Teaching - Can teach basics of all badge requirements.

Leadership -Can lead a group (Able to herd cats.)

"There is a danger in teaching Witchcraft today in an age where everyone wants everything instantly, and is not prepared to wait through the guru system of teaching." Sible Leek

There is no one answer to this issue and certainly no quick fixes. It is hard enough to herd cats, herding other people’s cats is really pushing it. But perhaps, with some creative endeavor, we can find answers for parts of the puzzle. And if we don’t try new things, we will never know whether or not it would have worked.

Reprinted from Connections Magazine. 1705 14th St. #181 Boulder CO

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This page last updated 03/18/99