|Posted on August 15, 2017 at 11:05 AM|
Witchcraft works best in small intimate groups where people know and like each other. These small groups are called covens and by their very nature they are hard to get into. Ronald Hutton said that genuine Witches’ covens are like lobster pots in reverse. They are hard to get into but easy to get out of. In this session we examined what a coven is, the expectation a coven has for its members and the pros and cons of being a member. We also discussed the roles of the coven officers such as the high priestess, the high priest, maid and elders.
Due to the emotional nature of the rites in order to effect changes in our consciousness and thus in our phenomenal reality, the Craft works best in small intimate groups. This is for two reasons. Firstly it is difficult to let go of ourselves emotionally to the degree required in magical work in front of people we do not know. And secondly, when people are in rapport they tend to mirror and then experience their peers’ emotional states. In a way emotions and feelings (like sexuality) occur between people. This means that an experienced and effective high priestess can skilfully evoke the appropriate emotions to the rite, but invoking them within herself.
This means that Witches covens differ significantly to other pagan groups in important ways. Most importantly their membership is relatively constant. It rare for people to leave and to join the group, although this does not mean that there is no through traffic of people. Joining a coven is through a formal ceremony called initiation. This rite not only inducts the new member into the group but also changes the status of the individual from a cowen (a non-witch) into a witch. It also initiates the newcomer into the priesthood of the mysteries. Essentially it introduces them to a certain experiential mystery in a way, when done well, is life changing.
With this in mind the coven has a responsibility to ensure that the new initiate is ready to undergo that experience, is able to partake and make active contributions to coven life, and is liked and can fit in with the group. A coven is only as strong as it weakest link and being a member of a Witches’ coven means more than just turning up once a month to rituals. It means fully taking part and contributing. Likewise if members of the coven feel that they do not like a potential newcomer than it will be difficult for them to trust that person enough to let go to partake in the emotions and feelings central to Craft rites. It only takes one bad egg to spoil a coven for everyone, so a responsible coven will only take on new initiates once they have gotten to know them and their motives well. This takes a minimum of one year, and we would suggest much longer. It is also a test of commitment. If a potential initiate waits two years before being initiated then they are obviously committed. The responsibility of the coven is then to be worthy of that commitment.
Likewise the potential new initiate has a responsibility to ensure that the coven is really for them. They need to honestly ask themselves whether they can make a contribution to coven life, commitment to regular attendence and whether they will be able to fit in with the rest of the group. Having a long period of training allows the potential new initiate to ask these questions and get to know some of the members of the coven. They may not know the practices of the coven, or perhaps all the members but there is a role for trust and taking a leap into the dark as well.
Covens have to be careful about new membership as it can take time for a new person to become established in a coven and its practices. However, new initiates are often thrown in at the deep end and are expected to hit the floor running.
Because Craft works best in small intimate groups, covens are loath to take on new members. If a coven grows too big it loses its intimacy and rapport. It becomes harder to lead the rituals and for people to let go. Thirteen is often quoted as the maximum number of people in a coven. Any more than this and cliques begin to form. A coven should be one clique. I would suggest that even thirteen is pushing it in size and that nine makes for a more realistic maximum number with somewhere around six to eight being ideal.
There are several advantages to being a member of a coven. The first is that it gives you access to the expertise of other people. You can learn from others and from the living tradition itself. This means that you don’t have to be an expert at everything and this allows you to develop your own area of expertise. In covens you will find people who are good at writing or leading rituals, people who are good at divination, and people who are good at winemaking etc., etc. Being a member of a living tradition gives you access to techniques and practices that you would not otherwise have. It gives you the opportunity to take part in structured and tested training that will facilitate your magical career. This means that you will be helped to avoid the common pitfalls in occult practice. Ultimately, once you have made it your own, it also gives you the opportunity to add to the tradition, moving it forward so it meets the demands of the future.
The second advantage is that being a member of a coven helps to prevent glamour. In a good coven there will always be someone who is prepared to tell you that you are off with the fairies. Working in a group keeps you grounded. When you are working in the occult it is a good idea to have a stable benchmark for reality and sadly such a bench mark is lacking in the wider pagan scene.
Thirdly, in magic you will be able to achieve more in a coven than you can alone. While in many ways it is easier to get into the emotional states numinously experienced and altered states of consciousness when you are alone, being in a small intimate group where the other members are also in that state has been shown to heighten the emotions felt and deepen consciousness states. We are after all group animals. When combined with the authority that is derived from the coven and from the tradition, it makes the manipulation of meaning, leading to the changes of belief far easier to achieve. Hence a coven, anecdotally, at least has more success as magic than a person working by themselves. That being said, one skilful operator will have more success than an unskilful and ignorant group.
Fourthly, covens impose a certain discipline of practice. You will be expected to write and take part in pathworking and rituals, to turn up on time to ritual dates. You may also be asked to practice certain techniques as part of a structured program of training, with feedback given. While there may be some that baulk at the idea of discipline it is a necessity of progress in magic. If magic is a set of skills then it follows that skills improve with practice. We require self-discipline or an imposed discipline in order to practice those skills and a coven provides this through its expectations. When working on our own we have to rely on our own self-discipline.
The fifth reason for working in a coven is back up. When things go wrong you will have your friends to back you up. You will have the coven to give you honest advice as well as to support you through times of difficulty. It will also give you the opportunity to provide the same service to others.
Sixth, it gives you access to a lovig tradiution. This savs you time and efort as you don't have to reinvent the wheel and can enage with the wisdom and experinece of the tradition.
The last reason for coven work is that it is very difficult to have a party if you are on your own. The Sabbats and the Esbats are times of merriment and fun, as it says in the charge, “mirth and reverence”, and good company is admirably conducive to merriment.
Sir Terry Pratchett is well known for saying in his Discworld series that the natural number of a coven is one. The point he was trying to make was that his Discworld witches are the kind of people inclined to be very opinionated and natural leaders. If we assume that witches are or work towards self-actualization then perhaps there is some truth to this. However we also need to remember that self-actualizers, if Maslow is to be believed, enjoy the company of other self-actualizers. Self-actualizing people often have strong opinions but rather than being devastated when their opinions are challenged, as a personal attack, actually enjoy the debate and may secretly hope that their opinion is changed (this is called learning).
The Pratchett quote is often used by solitary and hedge witches as a reason for not working in a coven. Debates about whether it is best to work in a coven or alone are on the whole a good distraction from the business of getting on with the Craft so I shan’t say too much about it. While it is up to these people to decisions for themselves on how they work it is worth remembering that the coven Witch has the opportunity to have their cake and eat it. They can have all the benefits (and pitfalls- after all we are only human) of working in a coven while enjoying all the benefits of working alone. What is more coven work actually mitigates some of the danger, such as glamour and lack of self-discipline, which are some of the possible drawbacks of working alone. Every coven Witch is also a solitary one most of the time.
It is a fact of life that every functional and effective human group needs to have a hierarchy. When I first entered the Craft there was a vogue of having groups with no hierarchy, or where people took it in turns to be in charge. None of those groups now exist, having fallen into infighting and backbiting, whilst the coven I joined has endured. There has to be a clear if loose hierarchy to give the group direction and so that decisions can be made. A good leadership is the servant of the coven who will do all the organising such as setting dates for meetings, deciding who will bring the food, wine and incense, who will write the pathworking, as well as dealing with any coven problems that crop up. Coven leadership is a far from glamorous job. It means being available at all times to help coveners with problems and support, it may mean asking people to leave the group who are not up to it or bring discord to the group. Coven leaders are where the buck stops and require both compassion and ruthlessness.
The leadership of Witch covens is through the High Priestess, High Priest, Maid and Elders or equivalent jobs names for equivalent job descriptions. It is important to bear in mind that these are job descriptions which are earned through service and are not titles.
The High Priestess along with the High Priest is the leader of the coven. Their jobs are to act as coven organiser and leaders during ritual. The feel of the ritual comes primarily from the High priestess in the summer and autumn and from the High priest during winter and spring. The High priestess personifies the Goddess during ritual and in the circle her word is ‘law’ (assuming she is a reasonable person). If the High Priestess asks you to do something in ritual, within reason, you need to do it and the discussion comes later on. Much of the ritual is led by the High Priestess and the High priest often plays a supporting role. Although the High Priestess may ask other coveners to perform part or all of the ritual on the evening, so always be prepared (she lets newcomers settle into coven first).
Typically the High Priestess is like the hostess at a party. She is the servant of the coven who runs around making sure that everything is organised and making sure that the other coveners are having a good experience. As such she has to be sensitive to the needs of the coven and as such needs to be regarded with the respect that her service and hard work entails. The High Priestess and High Priest are responsible for discpline with the coven. and may sometimes be called upon to have difficult conversations and make difficult decsions.
In general the High Priest is a secondary role to the High Priestess. Although the emphasis is on the male during the winter months, the High Priestess still performs the lion share of the doing and saying in ritual. The High Priest often has an organisation role with the setting of dates, perhaps organising a training program and he generally brings wine and incense to the ritual, although he may well nominate others.
The maid is a High priestess in training and acts as her lieutenant. The maid has a role in ritual and she also performs a pastoral role within the coven. It is her job to look after new initiates and to make sure that any concerns and problems come to the immediate attention to the high priestess before they become big problems. The maid may also be responsible for sending out birthday cards and networking. In many ways he maid is a high pristess in training.
Elders are older people who have spent a considerable amount of time in the Craft. They may well have served as High Priestess and High Priest but have retired to allow younger people to take those roles. They tend to have a pastoral, advisory and teaching role. Elders who have made a considerable contribution to the Craft may be Witch Masters. There only tends to be on or two Witch masters in a county.