Now, I know that there are other systems of initiation that have nine degrees, thirty-three degrees, or some other number. But, here, I’m going to focus on the most common, the most traditional, and, I would argue, the archetypal system: that of three degrees.
For those who don’t know, “degrees,” in this context, are rituals of initiation — into, and through a particular group or society that will convey certain teachings about how to live life spiritually and how to develop one’s Self.
When we speak about “three degrees of initiation” you probably immediately think of Craft Freemasonry with its degrees of Entered Apprentice, Fellowcraft, and Master Mason. However, there are other esoteric, spiritual organizations and movements that also have three degrees. These include Wicca; the modern Druid Order of Bardes, Ovates, and Druids; the Aesthetic Rose+Croix Order of the Temple and the Grail (which goes back to the French mystic and aesthete Josephin Peladan, (1858-1918)); some Christian esoteric Martinist Orders; and the Order of Knight Masons; among others.
The question is why three degrees?
The simple — and simplistic — answer would be that, directly or indirectly, Freemasonry influenced many of these organizations and movements. But this historical explanation doesn’t get to the deep archetypal meaning. Indeed, we find that, during the twelfth century, Sufi Orders were — like Freemasonry later on — influenced by the crafts guilds division of members into a grand master, master craftsman (mu‘allim), companions (sani‘), and apprentices (mubtadi’), establishing a structure of Sufi master, initiates, and novices.
Importantly, just as Freemasonry was influenced by Christian chivalry, especially in the so-called “higher degrees” (e.g., the Order of the Temple and Knight of the Red Cross degrees) so Sufism was influenced by Islamic chivalry or futuwwa (literally “young manhood”).
So, we have (1) the influence of craft and (2) the influence of the warrior on (3) a spiritual tradition. This gets us close to the archetypal meaning of three degrees.
According to comparative philologist and mythologist Georges Dumézil, Indo-European societies (from which the Iranian, Zoroastrian society also ultimately emerged) had three castes: farmers, warriors, and priests.
Remarkably, in his book Masonic Temples, historian William D. Moore suggests that, by going through the “ceremonies,” the Freemason assumes the roles or archetypes of the artisan (Craft Lodge), warrior (York Rite), wise man (Scottish Rite), and jester (Mystic Shrine). Notably, the first three of these roles or archetypes exactly reflect the ancient Indo-European caste system. (There seems no good reason to include the Mystic Shrine since it is not strictly Masonic but is an appendant body. And, of course, Moore does not include other appendant bodies (such as the Societas Rosicruciana) or Masonic Rites such as that of the Knight Masons. And Moore’s identification of the Mystic Shrine with the jester is questionable since, early on, there was some attempt to make this appendant body into a serious, Sufi-like organization — although, clearly, that did not come to fruition.)
While it is remarkable that such a parallel should exist between the castes of ancient, Indo-European society and the Rites of contemporary Freemasonry, in the several thousand-year gap between them we nonetheless find the craftsman, warrior, and priest (or the wise man, spiritual leader, brahman, mystic, magician, etc.) being grouped together in various cultures.
We have mentioned Sufism already. Again, the samurai of Japan were warriors who practiced Zen Buddhism as well as, often, a craft. (Notably, probably the most famous samurai, Miyamoto Musashi, was well-known in his own lifetime for his painting, calligraphy, and landscape gardening.) In classical Confucian education, students learned music and calligraphy (craft) as well as archery and chariot-driving (the warrior), as well as the principles of Confucian philosophy (wise man). And the ancient Greek philosopher Plato believed that young men should be educated through music (craft), wrestling (the warrior), and philosophy (the wise man or mystic).
Due to the degeneration of the Hindu caste system in India (with its untouchables), we tend to think of castes as oppressive, static, and based purely on one’s birth. However, historian David W. Anthony has suggested that the ancient Indo-European castes of the herder/cultivator, warrior, and priest may have constituted “three age grades,” with members of a tribe becoming a herder or cultivator as a child, a warrior once the body had matured, and a priest in old age when the body was no longer fit for fighting and hunting but the individual had acquired wisdom and perspective.
In our own age, we are encouraged to specialize, to find a “niche” (or a niche within a niche), to fit in, to conform, to be a cliche — a jock, a geek, or a weirdo. Modern society has cleaved mind from body and removed the spiritual from ordinary life. Yet Freemasonry is one society that reflects that ancient tradition of the unity of the craftsman, warrior, and mystic, wise man, or magician. And, as such, by immersing the initiate in the symbols, myths, and rituals of these castes or archetypes, it encourages him to develop himself holistically — mind, body, and spirit — and to become, again, one capable of rediscovering the spiritual and the sacred in the ordinary.
In my book, The Three Stages of Initiatic Spirituality: Craftsman, Warrior, Magician (Inner Traditions, 2020) I explore these castes or archetypes through Freemasonry, alchemy, Kabbalah, the martial arts, Tantra, Taoist inner alchemy, Jungian psychology, and modern magic, and through exploring their histories, myths, symbols, rituals, and esoteric practices. If you’re interested in understanding this ancient and perennial tradition, you can check out the book on Amazon dot com here, at Barnes&Noble here, or at other major booksellers.