Many people are confused or misinformed about the Wiccan degree system (including some Wiccans). The degree system is not a hierarchical structure, nor is it about keeping secrets for the sake of secrecy. It is more like an apprenticeship system.
The degree system is not meant to be excessively hierarchical or involve subservience. There may be covens where that happens, but I sincerely hope they’re few in number and that people would leave them if this behaviour became excessive. The degree system is not about withholding knowledge.
One would hope that students would respect their teacher and show up on time, help out with setting up and packing away the temple, do their homework, and put in the effort required to progress in the Craft– but respect does not equal subservience.
The point of the encounter with the mysteries that the degree system represents is an unfolding of a journey rather like the progression of ideas in the Tarot deck.
I have spent 16 years offering progressive and inclusive Wiccan training, and everyone I’ve trained is encouraged and empowered to become a fully fledged witch as soon as possible.
The guild system
The metaphor that many covens and lineages use for the degree system is that of the guild system of apprentice / journeyman / master. The apprentice learns a craft (such as stonemasonry) by watching and imitating the master craftsperson. After completing their apprenticeship, apprentices become journeymen, who travel around different workshops learning from different master crafts-persons. Masters are regarded as having mastered their craft.
In the past, masters had authority over apprentices by virtue of their craft knowledge. The authority stemmed from their knowledge, not from the hierarchy. The more modern view of this is that the authority is to elevate apprentices and journeymen to the next level, based on their progress in the craft. Extra knowledge and skill also empowers the practitioner to train others, and determine who is suitable to be trained.
In magical systems, some of the stuff we do can be psychologically damaging if handled incorrectly. That’s why there is a build-up to more advanced skills. You start with relatively easy stuff, and work your way towards the more challenging stuff.
Learning Wicca is not like a university degree. The most important skills and experiences are difficult to test. You can see and hear whether someone has called a quarter elegantly with words and gestures, but the important thing is that they made a connection to the spirit of the element. That’s an internal process, which feels different to different people.
Exploring a garden
An even better metaphor for the degree system would be exploring a garden when you move into a new home.
For the first year, you just enjoy the sights and smells and sounds of the new garden. You wait to see what will grow as the seasons unfold, and where the birds will nest. You tend the flowerbeds and the grassy area (which could be a meadow instead of a lawn). You don’t bring in very many new plants (in case you displace existing ones). You work with the garden as it is.
The next year, once you know where everything is, you experiment more: moving plants around, introducing new plants, maybe opening up a new path. Maybe things get difficult when you start digging more.
In subsequent years, when you’ve really got the hang of your new garden, what will grow there, and what won’t, you start to achieve a new level of comfort and confidence with your garden. A new synthesis has been achieved. A sacred marriage, one might say.
The first year of a new garden is like the first degree. You’re just enjoying the flowers and the new experience.
The second year is like second degree; things get a bit more challenging but you’re also more familiar with the new environment. You’re also able to share gardening tips with the other people who work on your garden.
The subsequent years are like third degree, when you’re really confident with your garden and maybe ready to show other people some gardening tricks, and perhaps extend your gardening wisdom to other areas of life.
Different traditions of Wicca have different views on how soon it’s appropriate to elevate someone to the next degree, and on what the criteria for elevation are, and on the aspects of ritual it’s appropriate for different degrees to do.
However, if someone asks you to do something you’re uncomfortable with in order for them to give you the next level, check out their behaviour against checklists for abusive behaviour. If there’s a pattern that looks abusive, run away.
The role of the high priestess should be to keep coveners feeling safe and empowered, not unsafe and cowed into submission.
I believe it is very important to create a safe space with healthy boundaries in covens.
- Thorn Mooney, Traditional Wicca: a Seeker’s Guide
- Yvonne Aburrow, All acts of love and pleasure: inclusive Wicca
- Yvonne Aburrow, Dark Mirror: the Inner Work of Witchcraft
- Yvonne Aburrow, The Night Journey: Witchcraft as Transformation
Note. I edited the second paragraph to clarify my intentions, in response to feedback.