A Plea For Initiation Standards

Ellen Cannon Reed


I'm full of radical ideas. I think the terms "Priest, Priestess, High Priest and High Priestess" are more than titles. I think being a member of the Priesthood means more than status. I think a coven is more than a study group, or a social gathering. I think being a Witch is more than a protest against the patriarchy.

I think receiving a First Degree should mean you have worked and studied and grown and dedicated yourself to your path and your Gods. I think an initiation should mean something.

I know of a young man who received a third degree after having proved he could lead a ritual. That's all he had to do, lead a ritual.

I know of a woman who claims third degrees in both the English and American traditions of a well-known tradition. She shows absolutely none of the qualities by which one usually recognizes a High Priest or High Priestess.

I know of a woman who refused to accept the standards set by her High Priestess, who threw a fit when she didn't get her First on demand. She went to another teacher, secretly received her First, and a year later, her Second. Considering her attitude toward her first teacher, I have absolutely no faith that she did any work to earn her second. Yet she calls herself a High Priestess.

When two members of Sothistar received their first degrees last year, they had: studied and worked with the five magical elements, worked at developing personal relationships with the Gods, studied astrology, symbology, Qabbala, Tarot (both as a divinational and meditational tool), several forms of divination, writing rituals, leading rituals, drawing down the Moon, basic spell-casting and various methods, ethics, the Egyptian deities and mythology, ritual etiquette, the laws of the coven, the use of stones and crystals, meditation, conducting rituals, the meaning and duties of the priesthood, and the use of chants and songs. Both had chosen (or been chosen by) deities to whom they wished to make a special dedication. Both had proven their loyalty to the coven and the Craft. Both had served as vessels for both the God and the Goddess, and both had led rituals. After all of this, they received First Degree.

Am I saying that mine is the only way-that if your coven does not study these subjects your initiations aren't valid? Certainly not! I am saying that our tradition has standards for initiation. Many other covens have standards-some more stringent and some less demanding than mine. What I am saying is that I wish everyone had standards.

Why? Because when you have standards, the initiations you give mean something.

When we took the two mentioned above around to the four quarters and pronounced them Priest/ess, they could not have been prouder of their achievement. Nor could we. We had no doubt they could serve as competent dedicated Priest and Priestess in a ritual. In the time since, they've proved it over and over. When they make Second Degree, and Third, and eventually have a coven of their own, they'll continue to make us proud. When they represent the coven other places, they do so in a manner that reflects well on the coven. I've met many First Degrees of other covens who did not reflect well on their teachers. (I've also met many who have.)

You ask again, Why? I'll give you a personal reason-because it irritates the hell out of me that the people mentioned at the beginning of this article can put their noses in the air and claim a higher status in the Craft than my two dedicated, hard-working, sincere students.

Once upon a time, a high school diploma meant something. You couldn't get a decent job without one. These days, it means nothing. These days, a Bachelor's Degree doesn't mean much. I don't want that to happen to initiations!

Perhaps I should discuss what I think initiation is. A true initiation is not a ritual, it is not entrance into a club, it is not just a dedication. An initiation is a spiritual step to a higher stage in spiritual growth. There are many such steps. Such "initiations" are not given by High Priest/esses. They are given by the Gods. An initiation ritual is an acknowledgment by a coven leader that the Initiate has, in that leader's opinion, reached a certain stage in spiritual growth.

Coven leaders are not omniscient. Although I'm sure such leaders strive to serve as worth representatives of the God and Goddess, they (the coven leaders) are not the God and Goddess. All of them must find their own ways of determining whether their students have achieved this growth. They must also give what guidance they can to those attempting to achieve it. Our study program includes many things not mentioned above, exercises and spiritual work that, we hope will help our students reach that goal. If our students apply themselves to all they are given to do, it is possible for them to reach that stage. When we give a first degree initiation, we are saying that the Initiate is *already* a Priest/ess of the Goddess.

I do not ask that all covens adopt our particular standards. I do plead with you to *have* standards beyond simple attendance at ritual for a year and a day. Insist that they work hard, that they learn and grow, that they struggle, that they strive, that they become, in your opinion, worthy servants of the Gods.

Some months ago, I mentioned this to two leaders of a newly-formed group north of here. Their eyes lit up and they said "You can help us. We were just talking about setting standards!" No true standards had been set for their initiations, and they felt the lack. Oh, they had third degrees from their teacher, but they wanted more meaning for those they gave than was given to their own. Bravo! There's hope for the Craft yet!

Quote of the moment:
*ding* One dead unjugged rabbit fish later...

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