What do people mean by degrees?

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One question I’ve seen come up a lot goes something like this: “I see people talking about degrees all the time. Do they mean a college degree? What kind?”

Actually, we’re talking about something different – though like educational degrees, designed as a way to structure some kinds of learning, understanding, and internal development.

(In terms of traditional educational degrees, while I know a bunch of witches and Pagans with undergraduate and graduate degrees who make use of what they learned to improve their religious and spiritual lives and practices, I also know some great teachers, witches, and group leaders who never went to college. It’s about what you do with what you know, not the piece of paper.)

Who uses them?

First, not every path uses them. Degrees are also something that only applies to group work, so someone who is only a solitary practitioner will find them largely irrelevant. And while many paths do use them in some sense, many don’t. You’ll see them most commonly in Wiccan groups and Wiccan-derived groups, and some ceremonial magic groups use something similar (though usually with more steps.)

What’s the point of using them?

In groups that use them, degrees are generally used for multiple things at the same time. (And different groups will focus on some of these more than others).

  • A way to help mark an individual’s learning, progress, and knowledge in a particular practice or tradition.
  • A way to mark how much responsibility, commitment, etc. someone has taken on for the long-term good of the group, tradition, or path.
  • A marker of specific shared experiences (normally initiatory ritual experiences, but sometimes other things).
  • Some practical things – for example, in my tradition, degrees make a handy way to mark who a guest should ask for help with different kinds of questions. A student can point out the bathroom, but it’s probably better for an initiate to answer questions about the group’s practice.

One of the things I talk about when I talk about this with prospective students is that it’s also about what is expected of them: they are not expected to worry about 3rd degree stuff when they’re 1st degrees, for example. (They’ve often found this fairly reassuring.)

As I’ll talk about below, a healthy degree system is usually about helping people understand different responsibilities, connections, and commitments within a group. It should be about what people are committed to and responsible for, not about who’s the ‘best witch’ or ‘most powerful priest’.

Do they apply across different groups?

Nope. They’re not standardised. What one group means by a first degree might be very different than what another group means.  Mostly, they’re relevant to people within the same path, practice, or group, or to people who know a fair bit about that group. (Also, while 3 degrees is the most common, there are lots of other options out there.)

However, people who interact with people in a particular tradition or group over time will obviously also get some sense of what that group means by a given degree. They may not know the details, but they can calibrate them a bit against their other experiences.

Generally, someone who is a given degree in a particular tradition can transfer that to another group in the same tradition (with some time to get used to how the new group does things, since there are variations between groups on all sorts of practical details.) Of course, someone with extensive previous experience wouldn’t need to take as much time covering shared basics or skills, so they might learn or practice different things than someone who was brand new to Paganism.

However, degrees do not generally transfer between traditions: I am a third degree in my tradition, but if I wanted to study and practice a different tradition, I’d expect to start out at the beginning of their process again. That’s because each tradition has its own way of looking at (and interacting with) the world, the Gods, each other, and their ritual and magical practices, and it’s really hard to separate those things from more general material.

So, where do they come from?

The idea of a degree system has been around for a very long time: many people consider the basic model to be the apprentice, journeyman, and master framework that was widely used beginning in the Middle Ages in Europe (and similar models show up a lot of other places.) Basically, it’s a way of framing what you do and the context you do it in into a structure that helps you fit with other people doing similar things.

An apprentice is learning a particular skill or set of skills. They know that they are interested in investing time and energy in that learning. However, they still need close supervision, guidance, and education to be able to improve their skills. Sometimes, this is about learning new information. But often, it’s also about having someone around who has more experience in that skill, who can be a resource and guide, or who can make sure things are being done in a safer and more sustainable way.

Think of someone learning how to make pottery: they’ll have a better time learning how to shape clay if they learn from someone, but they also need to learn things like how to set up a kiln safely, or which glazes can be used on food dishes.

A journeyman (or journeywoman!) is someone who has a good solid foundation in the skill, and who can be trusted to work more independently. They often begin teaching apprentices some of what they know, but they’re generally working for someone who is a master of the material. It’s a time for them to explore how to make the skill more their own, give it their own flair and style, but without having to deal with some of the organizational details of running every detail of a larger community (as a master’s shop would be.)

If we look at our potter again, they’d be learning how to make things in their own style, and experimenting, but also learning about running a larger part of the business and training.

Someone who is a master of a skill or topic has a deep and broad knowledge of what they’re doing, and generally has a good track record of guiding other people to learn more of that skill or understanding. They’ve generally done something that adds a new approach, art, or skill to the larger topic, and they’re also often overseeing other people who are still learning about it. There’s a lot more administration, often, with masters of a skill, and other things they have to think about besides just the skill.

So how does this work with Pagans?

Obviously, there are lots of ways to put this in a Pagan context. The most common goes something like this, first degree is about you learning to do for yourself, second degree is about taking responsibility in a group context, and third degree is about taking responsibility for things on a larger level: the tradition as a whole, community projects, etc. How does this actually work?

First degree (the equivalent of being an apprentice) is generally about learning the core of a particular path or tradition, including all the skills and information needed to function as a participant in that tradition. In my tradition, that means learning how to stand on your own two feet before the Gods, how to handle most of your own personal ritual needs (being able to cast a circle, know why you’re doing it that way, create and adapt rituals for personal use for a specific need, that kind of thing.) There’s a whole lot that goes into that, but it’s intended to be a broad base.

Second degree can do a whole variety of things. At this stage, people often begin to develop a speciality (or more than one): things they’re particularly interested in doing. Often, they begin to take on more complex roles in group ritual, teaching students, helping in a variety of other ways. They can also reduce the burden on third degrees, by taking over some responsibilities (setting up the physical space before ritual so that someone leading the ritual can focus on the energetic and magical space, for example.)

However, it’s also a time to figure out what they want to commit to – do they want the greater responsibility of a third degree, being a priest or priestess with a larger commitment to the community, group, or a particular other obligation? What needs to change in their life to make that possible? For a lot of people, the second degree in particular can shake things loose in their life that aren’t working for them: relationships, job choices, housing situations, and much more.

Third degrees are generally people who want to take on the larger responsibility – running a group rather than helping with it. Adding new things to the understanding of a tradition or the way it’s practiced. Creating things that benefit a larger community (the tradition, an area Pagan community, writing, teaching, etc.)

A big challenge here is for the third degree to balance the needed administrative and teaching and organizational work (that someone has to do!) while continuing to have meaningful spiritual experiences themselves. This is not the easiest balance.  It’s very easy for people to get burned out, to lose track of their own goals and needs, or get sidetracked by group or student expectations. But for a lot of paths, a commitment for the third degree is to put the good of the tradition as a high priority, rather than just picking what works for them individually.

When are you ready for the next degree?

There’s huge variation in this between different groups, but generally there’s some measurable pieces, and some pieces that are dependent on the feeling of the people doing the initiation to the next degree.

Measurable pieces might include attending classes and completing assignments, working on specific projects, doing some kind of service project in the larger community, taking on specific roles in ritual or other group activities, or demonstrating their skills. Usually, there’s some flexibility about how these things work, to accommodate people’s different interests, strengths, and weaknesses.

The feeling part is partly about whether a candidate seems emotionally ready for the commitments and actions of the next step, but it’s also about whether the initiators are comfortable being energetically connected to the candidate in that way. (In practice, concerns about this are usually worked out before anyone’s seriously considering a next initiation, but sometimes people have a sudden personality change.)

What happens in the ritual?

Depends on the tradition. A few traditions talk about their rituals publicly, but it’s much more common for the details to be private to the tradition for a variety of reasons. (Partly because it adds to the suspense of the moment and some other specific ritual tools.)

Some traditions make the initiation rituals individual for each candidate, but it’s more common for there to be a specific ritual for each degree, done in the same way for each person. This gives a shared experience to everyone in the tradition who’s reached that degree that can be quite powerful and resonant.

In summary:

As you can see from this, it’s not that the third degree is a better person, or a more powerful witch, or anything like that. Instead, it should be about what tasks and commitments they take on. Some people want to stay at the first degree point (participating in group work, volunteering to help sometimes, but being able to take a break at other times). Some people thrive as third degrees. (Stopping at second degree can be a little less stable, but some people do that too.)

Just because someone’s a third degree also doesn’t mean they know everything, or that they’re always right. It just means they’ve completed a particular line of learning and exploration in a particular path, and been recognised for it.

[last updated October 28, 2011]

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