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"When shall we three meet again..." Introducing Covens

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"When shall we three meet again..." Introducing Covens

Postby Imperious » Thu Aug 20, 2015 9:45 am

For many, a key component of their craft experience comes from being in a coven. While most witches and warlocks work solitary these days due to the abundance of material available to them, there’s still a very powerful place for those who want to work with like-minded people, aimed at a certain focus, and committed to shared hopes and desires. Ultimately, however, this brings us to question number one:

What is a coven?

A coven is a group of witches and warlocks who get together via an organised schedule in order to talk about Witchcraft, perform rituals, celebrate sabbats and esbats, and maybe have “a little dinner and a dance”. Many are initiatory organisations, most focus on specific aspects (such as spellwork, gemstones or herbs) and they can vary in size quite dramatically. Most covens also take care to foster a healthy social relationship amongst their membership.

Ultimately, a coven is a group of witches and warlocks who enjoy being together. The number many aim for is thirteen, but most are smaller than this and a few are larger. There’s no absolute.

How are covens organised?

Nothing is set in stone, and there are as many different organisational aspects as there are deities to align with! Here, however, are some of the more common aspects of a well-run coven:

    - A specific name for the coven.
    - A high priest or priestess.
    - An inner court and outer court.
    - A coven Book of Shadows or Grimoire.
    - A coven set of magical tools.
    - A specific focus or “current” to work with.
While it’s true that no two covens are alike, it’s extremely rare to find one that doesn’t have any of these aspects. In the more modern age, it’s also extremely common to find covens with an online presence. It’s worth, however, giving a little more detail on each of these headings.

The coven name.

The name of a coven is the first clue to what type of group it is. They can often contain names of deities, but will almost always have some reference to the general view of its members. When a coven is created, it should be named after the desires of its members which make the name a direct reflection of what you’ll find. A coven devoted to Diana, for example, is likely to see a lot of work based in nature and, particularly, working with animals. One named after Hecate, on the other hand, will more likely be committed to spellwork and rituals. When you first encounter a new coven, think about what the name implies and that should be a good first impression.

High priest or priestess?

This is a sadly controversial topic, but every coven will have a spiritual leader. Craft members such as Gerald Gardner and Raymond Buckland seemed to prefer male leadership, while others such as Janet and Stewart Farrar insist that females are the only choice. In reality, we live in a modern world where crude differentiation based on sex has no real place (especially when we consider gay, bisexual or transgender members of the craft). For that reason, sex is no prerequisite for leading a coven. Your high priest or priestess need not be the most experienced or learned member in the group, but they should be the most naturally talented, charismatic and popular. It’s not uncommon to find additional administrative roles within a coven, but this can take a variety of forms.

The inner and outer court.

Thanks to lessons learned the hard way, covens realised that unscrupulous people were more than happy to be admitted into one, copy out the Book of Shadows, and then depart with nary a word. For this reason, the concept of splitting a coven into an inner court and outer court was formed, and largely credited to American Wiccan Ed Fitch. The inner court consists of the coven’s witches and warlocks, while the outer court consists of its initiates. It breaks down roughly like this:

    The Outer Court: Initiates petitioning to join the coven will spend at least a year in the outer court in order to prove their commitment to the craft, but also so the coven and the initiate can get a good look at each other. While initiates are often invited to specific talks or social events, they will generally be expected to perform in the rituals where material isn’t secret and is common amongst craft members. Therefore, any sabbat or esbat performances are a great way of seeing how an initiate works with the established coven members, and a minimum attendance is usually expected. At the end of the year, the members will vote in a secret ballot to decide whether the initiate has earned the right to enter the inner court.

    The Inner Court: This is where an initiate takes the title of “witch” (female) or “warlock” (male), and is given access to the coven’s Book of Shadows and magical tools. From here on out, they are able to attend any of the coven’s activities and workings, will be permanently invited to every event, and will be able to work from and with the coven’s materials.
The Book of Shadows and magical tools.

Each coven should have its own Book of Shadows (sometimes known as a grimoire) and set of magical tools for group working. These are invariably held by the high priest/priestess, but not always. The contents of the Book of Shadows is a secret, and should only be known to members of the inner court. Likewise, the coven’s tools will be specific to that Book of Shadows and could be extremely divergent from what is considered standard or traditional. This is also where you will find clear links to the coven name, and its focus or “current”; a Dianic coven will likely use heavy animal imagery and paraphernalia, the like of which you wouldn’t see in any other coven.

What’s an initiation?

An initiation is a stylised and theatrical ritual that formally recognises the admittance of a witch or warlock into the outer court, inner court or priesthood. These are not universal and, like covens themselves, not mandatory; but they can be very powerful rituals that can change a person’s outlook deeply. There are typically three grades of initiation ritual when dealing with a coven, excluding variations, and they tend to be either Gardnerian or Alexandrian in focus. They roughly correspond with the three grades of Freemasonry, fraternal ritualised organisations that Gerald Gardner was familiar with. They are as follows:

    1) Grade I: The Initiate (Maiden).
    2) Grade II: The Witch/Warlock (Mother).
    3) Grade III: The Priestess/Priest (Crone).
Without going into more detail than is necessary, initiation rituals tend to include binding and hoodwinking prior to the coven itself being revealed near the conclusion of the ritual. The supplicant will have their own part in the ritual, and will commonly become “oathbound” during it, which essentially means promising to share none of the coven secrets with members outside of it. Each of the three grades corresponds to both the level of access the supplicant has, as well as being tied into the Triple Goddess that underpins almost the entire craft (and certainly within coven structures).

The Maiden is the innocent, starting out on the path and being led to the mysteries by those of more experience.
The Mother is the mature witch or warlock that innovates, critiques and creates while taking care of the Maiden.
The Crone represents learned wisdom, which perfectly captures the nature and deep responsibility of priesthood.

It’s worth noting that Grade III is a ceremonial grade only; if a witch or warlock undergoes that initiation, it means they are going to lead the coven. Should they join another coven, or step down, they will retain the title of “witch” or “warlock” but lose the title of “priestess” or “priest”. It’s also worth noting that if a person is initiated into the inner court, they cannot be removed. They are obviously free to leave of their own volition but, once you have uncovered the mysteries of Pandora’s box, there’s no form of excommunication.

Remember that when inviting someone into the inner court.

That sounds great… Sign me up!

Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa sweet child o’ mine.

The above description talks about some of the things a coven will operate with and be governed by, but not a single point above is universal. We’re also working off of the assumption that each coven you run into will be well organised, with experienced and conscientious leadership. Sadly, the opposite is true in the overwhelming majority of occasions. If you jump into the first coven you come across, you’d be wise to prepare yourself for disappointment. A great many groups are put together at the behest of one person, others are put together by people with no experience, and many more are there to feed the ego of its leadership. None of these groups are something you want to be part of. Equally, there are many groups with good intentions and who have experienced members, but they just lack the required leadership that turns a coven with potential into a great coven. Here are some things to look out for:

    - Groups with rules or guidelines that you can’t fulfil. It’s obvious, but nobody wins if you join this coven.
    - Groups with difficult members. It’s hard to like everyone, but harder to work with people you dislike.
    - Groups that practice more bashing than magic. This only leads to frustration and boredom. Avoid.
    - Groups that have inexperienced leadership. Even great covens can be destroyed by this problem.
    - Groups with a focus that don’t meet your desire. Looking for spells and you get herbs? Not great.
    - Groups that get into “witch wars”. Pointless, inflammatory online attacks are just that; pointless.
There are many other things to look out for, but these are some of the key points. In the end, you want to find a group whose timings you can fulfil, who you get a good vibe from when you spend time with, and who inspire you to cherish your rituals with. Sadly, though there are a great many witches and warlocks looking for good covens, you need to accept that finding great leaders is much, much harder. The first coven I joined was so demoralizing an experience, that it took me years to consider joining another. And though I’ve been involved with, corresponded and assisted a great many, there’s always the reality that most people just aren't capable of leadership.

It's demanding.

Okay, you’ve brought me back to earth – how do I find a good coven?

Start with online Witchcraft communities. A great many of these are international, but many of their members are involved in covens and will be able to either refer you or recommend you to their leadership. The Witches Voice (http://www.witchvox.com) is also a globe-spanning website with covens in every country, so that’s also a good place to look. In this day and age, the Internet is your friend and you can literally find a hundred covens a day if you like; just remember the warnings above. Offline, there are areas that have covens that promote themselves either through workshops or seminars, and they can often be looking for new initiates at any given time. This is more common in the United States than anywhere else, but most of the main European countries will have similar periodicals or publications that can give you information. Just look around.

When you find one that you think is right for you, remember – take your time and don’t rush into anything. Spend a bit of time speaking to the leadership so that you can get a clear handle on what they expect of you. Be honest, and say what you expect of the coven. If you feel that it’s a good fit, and that your personal interests and path will be well catered for, join in and give it a go. I always recommend to people that they operate a three strike system. This basically means that three big errors are good enough for you to leave a coven behind and look for something better. One missed ritual or argument can happen, life isn’t perfect; two can be a lapse of judgement, or you may have been personally responsible for an issue.

Three bad experiences, and It’s likely time to move on and find a group more suited to your tastes.

Of course, when all is said and done and you can’t find the perfect coven for you, well… You can always make your own.

And that’s the subject of my next post. :-)
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Re: "When shall we three meet again..." Introducing covens.

Postby Imperious » Thu Aug 20, 2015 9:46 am

Reserved for creating your own coven.
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Re: "When shall we three meet again..." Introducing covens.

Postby YanaKhan » Thu Aug 20, 2015 10:16 am

Great thread and amazing info, Imperious. Thank you.
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Re: "When shall we three meet again..." Introducing covens.

Postby Becks » Thu Aug 20, 2015 10:29 am

I love the way you lay this out.
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Re: "When shall we three meet again..." Introducing covens.

Postby Imperious » Thu Aug 20, 2015 11:30 am

It's funny; Vesca asked me to write about covens at a point when I was already thinking about compiling something.

I could write much more substantially on the topic, but I hope this is a good starter for ten.
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Re: "When shall we three meet again..." Introducing covens.

Postby firebirdflys » Thu Aug 20, 2015 12:24 pm

I was wondering if you are referencing any paticular tradition in your outline?
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Re: "When shall we three meet again..." Introducing covens.

Postby Xiao Rong » Thu Aug 20, 2015 12:27 pm

This is a wonderful topic; I've added it to the Witchcraft & Wicca 101 Table of Contents. Thanks for the fine article, Imperious!
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Re: "When shall we three meet again..." Introducing covens.

Postby Vesca » Thu Aug 20, 2015 12:38 pm

Thank you for writing this!
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Re: "When shall we three meet again..." Introducing covens.

Postby Imperious » Thu Aug 20, 2015 1:43 pm

firebirdflys wrote:I was wondering if you are referencing any paticular tradition in your outline?

No; I reckon that'd be self-defeating in a general introduction to the type of thing you're looking for. Also, it'd be ignorant of me to suggest that some of the points aren't... Personally aspirational. >.<

That said, it's nigh impossible to escape Gardnerian and/or Alexandrian influences, particularly if you're looking at initiatory groups. That's kind of where such covens started from, so escaping it entirely is challenging (and not worthwhile, in my opinion).

Initiatory groups that practice European hereditary traditions, such as L'Arte Eccelsa or Asatru, are a very different thing.
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Re: "When shall we three meet again..." Introducing covens.

Postby Becks » Thu Aug 20, 2015 2:49 pm

Imperious wrote:That said, it's nigh impossible to escape Gardnerian and/or Alexandrian influences, particularly if you're looking at initiatory groups. That's kind of where such covens started from, so escaping it entirely is challenging (and not worthwhile, in my opinion).

Initiatory groups that practice European hereditary traditions, such as L'Arte Eccelsa or Asatru, are a very different thing.


I agree completely, the tradition I initiated into identified themselves as a "Mystery School Tradition", but they were Wiccan-very Guardnarian based. While it simply wasn't my path, I am thankful for that time. What you wrote explains very clearly the bones of their basic practice. Of course experiences vary, I do think the core is listed here.....for that method of study. Well put!
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Re: "When shall we three meet again..." Introducing covens.

Postby Seraphin_npocampo » Thu Aug 20, 2015 8:59 pm

What a lovely article! Thanks for posting this!
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Re: "When shall we three meet again..." Introducing covens.

Postby SnowCat » Thu Aug 20, 2015 9:10 pm

Good information. Thank you. It reaffirms my thought that I don't belong in a coven.

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Re: "When shall we three meet again..." Introducing covens.

Postby firebirdflys » Fri Aug 21, 2015 12:56 am

Ok
Just curious, ...the term warlock is not usually used in the context of witchcraft as I understand it....and has been generally associated with evil/dark side/satan etc, and it's meaning is "oath breaker."
Though I got to thinking maybe the word is being reclaimed by some group or coven.
I think it took a long time for the word witch to not be something completely horrible, and for many that will never change and will continue to remain a bad thing.
The term witch is androgynous and works for either sex...or however one defines their gender.
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Re: "When shall we three meet again..." Introducing covens.

Postby Elysium » Fri Aug 21, 2015 7:57 pm

Imperious wrote:For many, a key component of their craft experience comes from being in a coven. ..



I love your high priest/priestess explanation. I often feel I am spiritually both genders and receive lots of criticism for it.
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Re: "When shall we three meet again..." Introducing covens.

Postby Red Ember » Sat Aug 22, 2015 9:42 am

A great post, thank you for sharing this information.
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