Let’s talk about the degrees of Wicca. Now, if you’re an eclectic, I can all but guarantee you do not concern yourself with a degree system. If you work in an eclectic circle, you may use a degree system that is specific to your group to perhaps delineate new people from established members, or members from leaders, though you may not call them “degrees.” Likely you are a group of like-minded individuals who share responsibilities, and each ritual may be led by a different person. There is nothing wrong with any of this if it works for you and your circle.
If you are a strict solitary, you likely do not use any sort of degrees either. What would be the point? Your training and spiritual evolution is between you and your gods, and a graduated system likely has little meaning for them. They know where you stand. The degree system is a human invention, anyway, to give order and structure. Besides, who is going to grant your degrees upon you? If you are truly solitary there is no priest or priestess to do this.
In some instances, such as in my own tradition, we will grant the first two degrees to solitaries–our circle is small, our tradition is small, and we recognize the value of solitary practice and worship. These people, our solitaries, learn from our second and third degrees, and they choose not to engage in group work out of personal preference. Our tradition does not mandate group rituals for a practice to be considered legitimately Wiccan or even of our tradition. We have even written solitary versions of certain rites, such as Drawing Down the Moon. Perhaps this is why our groups stay small–perhaps it is why we have survived. I’m not sure.
We do not, however, grant the Third Degree to solitaries. Why this is so will become clear as we discuss the degrees.
In a traditional group practice, the first level is actually that of the dedicant. Traditions differ, but we require a dedication period of a year and a day. This is time in which the dedicant learns about basic Wiccan philosophy, worship, and laws. They work on meditation and mindfulness. It is an introductory period, a “trial” if you will, to see if the religion and/or the group is a spiritual fit.
At the end of the dedication period, if they so request it, they will be granted the first degree. We require that the dedicant requests initiation because they will take vows requiring secrecy and proper behavior as befits a Wiccan priest/ess. Additionally, a formal study and practice of Wicca can be isolating. It can be a difficult and lonely path because it is not mainstream and not very well understood. Due to our efforts to publicize Wicca I believe that this has improved somewhat, but most people still say, “Wiccan? What?” when I tell them of my faith. More and more people have at least heard of it, but it is still a battle for acceptance for many. Once the dedicant receives the first degree they are considered a “neophyte.” They will be given more focused training in magick, ethics, and the more difficult aspects of our philosophy. They are also asked to begin learning some form of divination.
After another year and a day, or longer depending upon their needs, again with their request, they are granted the second degree. I have heard that in some circles they are allowed to initiate and lead rituals at the second degree. This is not so for us. Our second degrees may stand in to lead rituals if asked by the third degree, but they are not coven leaders, and they may not grant initiation. They are considered “adepts,” however, and they are permitted to begin teaching dedicants and neophytes. They may recommend their students for initiation. They are also permitted to perform magick independently and write the rituals and spells the coven may use.
In theory, after another year and a day, the third degree may be granted. Typically it takes much, much longer however. For myself it was ten years between my second and third degrees. This is due to a few factors: I was still a child in many ways, having been granted my first degree just a few months after my 18th birthday. I was not independent, I had underdeveloped wisdom. And I kept asking for it, like a dolt. The third degree cannot be requested. To be granted the Third Degree is an honor, something akin to a honorary post-doctorate from a university. It may be declined by a second degree if they have any doubts because with the title of Third Degree there comes many responsibilities and changes in their status. A Third Degree is a Wiccan High Priest or Priestess–for life. It cannot be undone. Even if they were to throw away their athame, burn their Book of Shadows, relocate across the country and join a Southern Baptist church which they attend every Sunday, or more often, for the rest of their days, they would always, ALWAYS carry with them the rights to the title High Priest/ess, Lord/Lady (their name), the right to initiate new Wiccans, and to found a coven. It is my understanding it is the same for Catholic priests–even if they were to leave their parish, marry, have children, work at Wal-Mart, they have the right to wear a collar and call themselves “Father.” I could be wrong, I am not Catholic, but this is how it was explained to me. I’m sure many would find it an affront if they were to do so and would expect that they would live as lay people and not continue to refer to themselves as religious leaders, same as a Pagan would be put off by a Southern Baptist granting the first degree to a young Wiccan.
To be a Third Degree is to be a leader. If you are a solitary, you are not leading others, you are enjoying a private study and practice, and you may teach others–but you will have to implore a third degree of your tradition to initiate that student. Teaching is not the same as leading. When you are a Third Degree you are responsible for the growth, education, protection, and direction of your coven and students. You are the living embodiment of the divine and it lies with you to protect and continue the lineage. You are the Lord or Lady of your magickal family. We do not believe this is a heritable position, however–and for this reason, a Third Degree cannot be requested. It is a recognition of qualities in a Wiccan priest/ess that define them as a Third Degree. Maturity, wisdom, clarity of thought, leadership skills, loyalty, nurturing, humility–and when the High Priest and High Priestess recognize these qualities and deem the timing appropriate, they will offer the elevation to the third degree, with mutual agreement, it will be granted. From then forward the Third Degrees are considered peers and equals–the High Priest vows to protect and guard his High Priestess, and the High Priestess vows to lead and protect her coven, to teach them and help them develop, grow, and become closer to the God and Goddess. There is Perfect Love and Perfect Trust between them, and they speak frankly and openly to each other as equal colleagues, no longer as master and pupil. There is always respect, but the relationship is different.
There can be multiple Third Degrees in a circle, but often enough by that time the coven is large enough to support a hiving. A High Priestess, with or without her own High Priest, may request to hive off of the main coven with members who wish to work with her in a new group. The mother coven will serve as a source of support and knowledge until the hived off coven has stabilized. The Third Degrees will always be welcome in each other’s covens and treated as equals, though the working groups will stay sequestered for the purpose of developing their own group mind and flow of energy. They may choose to celebrate holidays together if magick is not to be performed, or if the magick to be performed is appropriate for a large group that does not work together often such as blessing work. There is only one position higher than a Third Degree, then, and it is this: Witch Queen. A Witch Queen is a High Priestess of a coven from which three or more covens have hived. She is still a High Priestess for all intents and purposes, but she may call herself a Witch Queen as well and wear a garter with buckles representing the hived covens. My High Priestess was a Witch Queen.
These are the basics of the degrees. There are traditional symbols associated with each: 1) First Degree: either an upside down triangle or upright pentagram, both are appropriate. 2) Second Degree: an inverted pentagram. 3) Third Degree: an upright pentagram with a triangle over the top point. The third degree is also the only of the degrees permitted to wear red, the color of the Mother Goddess.
If you have any questions, please leave them in the comments and I will do my best to answer them.