Traditionally, in both Alexandrian and Gardnerian traditions, you need to be elevated to Third Degree before you can be approved to lead a coven of your own. Some covens, like Stella Maris for example, insisted on overseeing the formation of new covens and that the newly High Priest and High Priestess continued formal training for at least another year after elevation.
Stella Maris was run by a particularly manipulative and controlling High Priest who was unable to see where he ended and another began. Consequently, initiates behaved like children who couldn’t wait to reach the age of consent and leave their dysfunctional home as soon as possible.
The traditional time between degrees is 1 year and a day but generally, in Alexandrian tradition, is on average 3 to 5 years. We were told this is because 2* and 3* are taken together.
First of all, what can you expect to learn at 1*? The first degree is all about acquiring and mastering the foundation skills. Without them you are either going nowhere or expose yourself to serious danger. One of this skills is etiquette, which in this day and age is not terribly popular. The reason why I think learning etiquette is important is because it forces you to apply discernment. A lot of Alexandrian etiquette is utter bullshit, like having to ask permission to the High Priest to call another coven member but addressing a High Priestess (in circle – not anywhere else) as my Lady or a High Priest as my Lord, controversial as it might sound, it is not wholly inappropriate. In fact, it could well be the case to address someone as such regardless of their degree, whenever a deity has been drawn down on them, as a sign of respect to the deity. Alexandrians do not banish the deity out of the priest or priestess after the invocation and I soon learnt that deities tend to linger on for cakes and wine at the very least. Think of it as a polite appellative like Sir, Madam, Prof. rather than subservient obsequiousness. Discerning between what rules have magical value from the utter nonsense takes time and experience because you will be taught to obey without question. Your job is not to challenge but you can say no. It is your will after all. Just make sure, you’re able to separate the magical from mundane ethics too.
Another important skill you can never practice often enough is circle casting. Done right, it should look beautiful and graceful but forget the aesthetics. You are not performing for an audience. The real skill is in juggling multiple processes at once. Whether you offer or draw the sword with which you will be casting, or whether you are picking up your own blade from the altar, you are plugging in polarity, so it requires perceptiveness of the other for you will be exuding the polar opposite of whatever is projected at you. Meanwhile, around all around you there may be others who should – in theory – pulsate energy around the circle. This energy should fall somewhere in between the polarity spectrum. You need to be aware a) the character of the energy each member has brought to the circle, b) make sure this energy runs smoothly round and round and there’s no gaps in some places. You know you’re getting really skillful, when you polarise with each and every participants and you’re holding their attention and that energetic exchange. This is an incredibly important skill which will secure that the circle you cast is rock solid. All the while, you will be visualising the geometrical patterns, the landscapes and the beings beyond the quarters as you call them. If you have music playing in the background, you might find that you are moving, speaking and visualising to its rhytm and pace. Some swords are heavy (some are poorly balances) and some are enlivened which can make it just a little notch more difficult. As the one who cast, you (not the High Priesthood) are in charge to make sure it stays strongs and no interferences occur. Eventually, you should be able to spot blemishes, weaknesses and anything approaching from beyond and take control of the situation when required. Too often, initiates fail to do that out of ‘humility’ – in other words out of fear of stepping on the High Priesthood toes. Humility is another pitfall which many in the High Priesthood misunderstand. Humility is about knowing your limits and not bending the knee. It’s also knowing when letting go of the reins, let someone experiment and if necessary make their own mistakes.
People go on and on about balance like it’s a moral virtue that makes you good and right or bad and wrong. There’s nothing moral and virtuous about it. It’s really, really practical and entirely based on understanding and applying the principles of polarity. The reason you want to get polarity right is that to make magic work (to turn that key in the ignition) you’ve got to make inner contact. Not just any contact either. You have to be selective with who or what you engage in the inner worlds because you don’t want to stall and stay stuck,do you? At the same time, it might not be a good idea to lunge in 5th gear either. There has to be a gradual build up of power before you reach a decent cruising speed and that exactly what the time you spend at first degree is for. Small steps, ongoing practice and finely tuned build up will yields dividends in the long run. Start with your strengths first. It might surprise you to discover some innate talent you weren’t even aware of to suddenly pop up to the forefront. At the same time, things that had been your forte until then, may suddenly feel not as strong as you thought they were. This pretty much maps out the direction your magical training should take. Once you make contact on the inner planes, magical training should naturally take form around you.
Other skills you need to master before moving on from 1* include the banishing and consecration of the elements, uttering invocations and enchantments (voice modulation), stepping into visualisations, raising, directing and grounding power, shielding and holding back when someone deliberately or involuntarily takes just too much, containing a deity and letting it speak through you unscripted, maintaining enough attention to write a summary in your journal.
And this is just the basic skillset and there would be a lot to say about each and every of these tools.
The next question is whether it is better to take 2* and 3* separately or together. Does it matter?
In my experience, what the 2* is about will crop up as a default in the course of the 1* degree. For those who may not be familiar with the structure and symbolism attached, I’m talking about the descent into the underworld and getting to grips with death. In magic, death is one of the most important doorways as it is the inevitable door through which everything (not just humans) that exists must pass through at some point in time or another. We experience it as finality whereas in fact it’s more of a transformatory process preceding a new beginning. Nonetheless, it’s a dark tunnel characterised by uncertainty, disorientation and loss of control. At 1*, the initiate is exposed to the milder manifestations of the gates of death. Milder is an understatement as there is hardly anything mild to what the experience will feel like at that stage of magical development. The first, unconscious response will be resistance and that’s normal. If you observe carefully the world around you, it doesn’t only happen to humans. Bit by bit, death chips away at that resistance by causing a degenerative process of decay until the rot is such that it gives more discomfort to hang on to it than to let go and be rid of it.
For this you will require an entirely different skillset than the one described earlier. Those skills were about creating magical grounds on the physical plane and anchoring yourself. To navigate the underworld you will need to work on yourself and your sense of reality. The real skill that comes into play here will be communication. The first thing you will realise is that your language and its whole mindset supporting it, is of no use at all once you’re through death’s door. It’s a whole new set of conventions and norms you will need to learn from scratch. You may think some symbols, words and expressions mean something they effectively do not and misinterpretation is the first stumbling block that will lead to many mistakes. As I said earlier, when you’re dealing with death and the underworld you are dealing with uncertainty. There’s absolutely no way you’ll come out the other end or learn how to navigate in this treacherous place on your own. The experience of a 1* is just about realising that through a serie of unceremonious failures and painful situations. Everything you say and do (communication-wise) is likely to be misunderstood and push you deeper in the rabbit hole, until you’ll find yourself smack in the middle of a maze, in darkness (without the faintest clue of what to do), alone and unable to see a way out. At that point, I’d say sit yourself comfortably and start observing around you. Soon enough, you will sense that you’re being observed too. Wait. Don’t move or stir. You should be perfectly still. Stillness empties you which in these circumstances and this particular reality is absolutely key. It’s like emptying a tank of all fluids. It’s also what happens to a corpse after a while. Eventually one or more beings will step forward. Some may be ‘prettier’ than others but it’s important that you continue to remain still and let them sniff you, study you. Usually, instinct kicks in and you’ll be frozen on the spot anyway. Stillness heightens extra-sensory perception, which again will come in handy in your magical practice. Among these beings, there will be countless parasites waiting for any (emotional) reaction on your behalf to attach themselves. These beings are not necessarily intelligent but by their own nature know exactly what buttons to push to get to their prey. Eventually, a being should step forward to claim you. That being is your very own guide in the underworld. You might want to drop all your expectations of what a guide/psychopomp should look and behave like (it will present differently to different people). A common mistake is to break the stillness and let awe and wishful thinking wash all over you. It’s almost unavoidable. It wouldn’t be the underworld if you got it right at your first attempt. You wouldn’t be learning anything of real value either, so too much coaching and preparation could actually prove counter-productive. One of the lessons to take away with you from the underworld is that ultimately you are on your own. You are on your own when you are born and you’re on your own when you die. It’s only while in between these states that everyone tries to tell you what you should think, say and do. Well, in magic, you’re on your own too. So, the less you let other condition your worldview and inner compass, the better for you.
The point of having a magical ceremony attached to a rite of passage is to cause a change that sticks. So, taking into account all of the above, the underworld is a transitional space and not a place you want to be stuck for as long as the person in charge decides it’s time to let you out and to elevate you to third. More often than not, 2* tend to be forgotten and merge with the wallpaper. Neither here or there, just like an underworld shade, hardly anybody takes notice or really listens to them. From this perspective, it makes sense to take 2* and 3*together.
Alexandrian tradition views the 3* degree as a celebration rite, a sort of a crowning glory summing up your training at its pinnacle. It’s a very naive interpretation of a rite of passage that inducts the initiate into the meatier and more challenging aspects of magical practice. I believe Alex or Maxine must have formulated this statement at the peak of their magical success while in the grip of euphoria because it bear all the connotations of someone counting their chickens before they’ve hatched. It misleads many High Priests and High Priestess into delusions of grandeur which can literally stunt any further capacity for magical growth. The Alexandrian 3* is just one version of a magical ritual that seals a magical union with (unspecified) divinity. It’s a major threshold to cross. An ejection button that propels you free flight into the infinite unknown. You’ve had your foundation training, you’ve dealt with being on your own and now the real magical training begins, in service. The service is not to any particular deity but to a purpose in the greater scheme of things. Deities simply assist you and supervise you in getting your job done. In Alexandrian tradition where the process is strictly controlled by the High Priesthood to achieve a desired outcome, a 3* is expected to want to form a group and teach the tradition. You are closely monitored and tested to ensure that you know and will continue to promote the brand of values of your tradition, whether they are right or wrong. This is why you will often find High Priests and High Priestess all parroting the same thing but being unable to support their statements with experience or reasonable explanation. Some aspects of magic work just as well but the newly thrice consecrated High Priest/ess will be severely limited, for what concerns their magical expansion, and never quite have the freedom to flow with the current. Undue restrictions when committing to an union with divinity are the root cause of many unbalanced personalities. As they say, you cannot serve two masters. You either follow divinity, in which case you go with the flow, or you let other people tell you what to believe and what to do with your magical practice. To go with the first will not make you popular, I can tell you that now. You will need to be comfortable with solitude, be highly self-disciplined and utterly devoted to your work in order to remain magically active outside a community that thinks less of you because you don’t conform. Your work may be poorly misunderstood or not understood at all. If you give a shit about what people think of you and need validation, this is not going to be your cup of tea. Most Third degrees are people pleasers that abide to the pecking order and relish in belonging to an exclusive club. They like surrounding themselves with subordinate acolytes and in order to increase in prestige may engage with aggressive advertising via moots and social media to recruit members for their coven. This is where rivalrly and competitiveness explode like pus-filled boils. I once witnessed my former initiator getting into a fight with a tradition Elder over a young High Priestess. I was quite aware that this going-on is quite common in magical communities but just how pathetic it is, only sinks in properly when you actually see it unfold before your eyes and hear what’s said with your own ears. “He’s a pervert! Don’t talk to him!” – my High Priest would point the wagging finger. “I will take her from you whether you like it or not” – the Elder whispered menacingly to his ear, which send said High Priest absolutely apeshit and had it not been for a couple of initiates getting physically between the two, it would have ended up in blows. For fuck’s sake, two grown men acting like toddlers fighting over a the same tit. Is that the shit I’ve got to look forward to?
That defeats the whole point of being part of a magical community.
No sooner, I had taken my 2* and 3*, the same shit started happening to me. I had hoped that by taking it elsewhere (through another line) I’d have averted the noxious influences of my former initiator and those like him but I was wrong. The priesthood that had elevated me had also their own agenda and instead of finding mentorship, I was the one who had to train them with the basics and fill the gaps where they lacked written parts of the tradition. To their credit, they had gone out of their way to find valid Third Degrees to conduct the ceremony and they had been upfront about their gaps, to some extent. When you form alliances, reciprocity is to be expected, however we never sat down to outline the terms and conditions explicitly, which was a lesson I have since earmarked and emblazoned in my head. Before I knew it, I found myself piggy in the middle between two warring factions in a war that wasn’t mine and had no interest in pursuing. I was being pulled from all directions. Everyone wanted to know what side I was on, what my intentions as a new Third were. Indiscrections, some partly true and some mostly the fruit of subjective assumptions started flying all over the place. Nobody ever came to ask me directly. Then there were those who preferred to hear and hold true second hand information than to hear what I had to say. There’s nothing I hate most than people putting words in my mouth while another is holding the gag over it. It’s the same as being psychologically and spiritually gang-raped. This is how blogging became a necessity. Then the partner of the High Priest who elevated me to Third degree decided to take my old magical name as their own without asking me first. No doubt it was done out of respect and honour but when they told me with a smile from ear to ear on their face I just wanted to scream “What did you do that for????” There were good reasons I had to drop it and equally good reasons this person should have not taken it as their own (I should write an article on magical names to go in more depth). Lesson number two – don’t hold it in. Say what needs to be said when it’s time to say it and do so emphatically, if it calls for it.
After that, the demands came fast and furious. It wasn’t so much what I was asked to give but HOW it was asked. The HOW made me very despondent towards them, as well as deeply resentful. And that’s not good. I recognised it as a typical method magicians use to coerce spirits into giving in their requests. If I am prone to respond with a FUCK YOU – I thought to myself – imagine how a spirit or demon is likely to take it. It changed my worldview and the way I interacted with deities/spirits/demons and other beings. This was lesson number three: beware of miscommunication. It ties in with the earlier exposure to the underworld, only this time round, after a Third degree rite of passage, it gets dead serious (no pun intended). The Third degree (or its equivalent – depending on traditions) puts you in line to cross the Threshold. The Threshold is that point in magic that lays smack in the middle of the proverbial crossroad. You may be faced with various options, or because of your inherent nature, you may be offered just Option A and Option B. Another scenario that could present itself is damned if you do and damned if you don’t. Also not to be excluded: you’re here now and you’ll take what’s coming to you until you cross or die in a corner.
Crossing the Threshold is not to be taken lightly but making it a fucking impossible drama out of it serves no other purpose to undermine your self-determination. You done the magical training, now use it. Ignore the wails of Sirens of the craft. Plug your ears, tie yourself to the mast and sail forth. Nobody is saying it’s going to be plain sailing but the only way to know if you’re cut out for serious magic is to give it your best shot and find out for yourself.
Most Third Degrees go through the ceremony and stop at the Threshold. If their mentors are manipulative, they will feed them false illusions and get them to work for them, in the name of their tradition. It means going through the official channels to set up your own coven, involve the former High Priesthood in the construction of the Temple, network with all sort of mundane esoteric affiliations (moots, magical conventions, associations, federations, etc.). In theory the 3* should bestow autonomy but in practicality it never happens. There is always someone poking their nose in your coven business or planting a mole into it. In my experience, it’s a fucking waste of time and energy. It comes as no surprise you hear so many High Priest and High Priestesses voice their dissatisfaction at the quality of seekers that approach them for training. Like attracts like, so what do you expect? The entire tradition hierarchical system is geared towards fucking around with each other and power over.
To sum it up, do you need a 3* to lead a coven? Yes, if you want social approval and no, not necessarily if you are a trailblazing independent magical practitioner with no particular attachments to brands. So long as you have mastered the basic skills to anchor your magic, so long there are ‘live’ contacts on the inner planes and in the underworld to guide you through, everything will fall in place in its own time. Nobody can tell you what you can/cannot do. You are the Coordinator of your own Cosmos. You decide.