The Wiccan Tradition contains three key initiation ceremonies which form part of its core mysteries, the liturgies of which are contained in the Book of Shadows. It is through the first of these initiations that a person becomes a Wiccan initiate and a member of a coven. The second and the third initiations mark further points of learning and understanding which in turn qualify the initiate to teach and initiate others. It is customary for Wiccan initiation to be passed on from a man to a woman, and from a woman to a man.
Today, although the initiatory lineage and priesthood of Wicca no longer represents the majority of those interested in and practising the tradition, it nonetheless remains important. Through the initiated priesthood, practices have been continued and inspired dozens of thriving new traditions of Witchcraft since the 1950’s and have also been adopted, adapted and moulded for use in many of the modern Pagan and Goddess traditions. Sometimes the adaptations can be considered to be progressive and in other instances, due to lack of understanding or misinformation, they are truly regressive in their application. Regardless, the practices and beliefs remain preserved and available within the bounds of some of the esoteric traditions, passed on from one generation of initiates to the next, as they were intended to be – and in the same way that the inner beliefs and practices of the ancient mystery traditions were passed on from initiator to initiate.
‘Initiation’ comes from the Latin word for ‘origin’ or ‘beginning’. As a word it can have a number of connotations, and so it is as well to be clear what we mean when we discuss initiation in the context of the Wiccan tradition where the term is used to refer specifically to the process of formally admitting a new member to the coven or to the tradition.
Within the tradition propagated by Gardner there are three degrees of initiation. These are generally referred to simply as first degree, second degree and third degree, with each having an accompanying title, conferred upon the initiate during the respective ceremonies.
Witch & Priest/Priestess
High Priestess & Witch Queen/High Priest & Magus
With time variations have developed in these titles, and there are also traditions which do not use a three degree system.
The first degree is the entry into the coven and Wiccan tradition, sometimes referred to as a rebirth and commonly accompanied by the giving of a new name which is only used during ceremonies in the magick circle. This name is known as a ‘witch’ name or craft name. Gardner does not follow this pattern in the details he records in High Magic’s Aid. In that novel the hero, Jan, is given a new name during his second degree initiation. Gardner used the name Janicot for his hero, which he subsequently recorded as being a name for the god of the witches. Curiously, an earlier nineteenth century reference by the French historian Michelet in his work La Sorcière attributed the name Janicot as being an alternative name for Jesus.
<1> The Religion of Babylonia & Assyria, Jastrow, 1893, also quoted in The Book of Witches, Hueffer, 1908
<2> An Historical Essay Concerning Witchcraft: With Observations Upon Matters of Fact, Hutchinson, 1718