This is a question I am probably vastly unqualified to comment on however I am going to have a go.
The image of the Witches Coven (also Coveen) is one that is firmly fixed in the imagination. The congregation of practitioners of Witchcraft in on place, usually a hilltop with a solitary “hanging” tree, deserted crossroad or abandoned churchyard, is a popular scene from many a horror movie and creepy stories alike.
A Coven, also known in some traditions as a Coveen or Hearth, is a group of Witches who share a series of common beliefs, practices and/or ethics. What form these take will depend on many things but I can make a couple of sweeping statements.
The coven comes together in joint will to participate in a number of things. For example they will come together in order to celebrate cycles. Most often this takes the form of seasonal cycles as well as lunar and solar cycles but different groups will work and celebrate according to different calendars.
Covens will also come together in order to worship and or perform acts of devotion to a shared deity or group of deities. Individuals may be dedicated to other deities in their personal practice however when working together they will work with particular archetypes or deities as part of their shared practice. Deity worship is not, as we have mentioned before, a necessity of Witchcraft and not all Covens will feature this aspect.
Covens will additionally come together to perform works of magic in a structured and cohesive manner. By acting as a collective the Coven is able to raise more energy, more focus and by extension achieve greater results.
In all of this the Coven provides an environment in which teaching and learning can take place. Many Covens will facilitate this in different ways, both in and outside of the immediate boundaries of the Coven depending on whether or not they are an open or closes group. The concepts of inner and outer court groups and information is common amongst well established closed Covens and serves as a method of assessing the suitability of prospective members.
There are two main classifications which Covens fall into and considering I’ve touched on one I will define them now.
An open Coven is usually just that, open to all who wish to participate. Whilst new members may need to be invited by an existing member or even sponsored this is not a necessity and there are no particular criteria for joining and no process of initiation. None of the information or structure within the Coven is considered oath bound so members can discuss freely the work they do outside of the group. They may have loose codes of conduct and expectations on their members in terms of their ethics but again this is not formalised nor does it have a system of consequences should rules be broken beyond non admittance in the future and involvement of the police if necessary.
Open Covens vary in size and may be anything from a small group of friends coming together on a regular basis up to large groups which meet at particular times where the numbers and members fluctuates from meeting to meeting. Open Covens often advertise themselves, using local networks to help connect them to the wider community.
Conversely Closed Covens work in a different manner.
Membership of closed Covens is limited, usually to a set number, and by invitation only. There will usually be an introductory period in order to assess the incoming candidate and the initial information and access they are permitted will be limited until full membership is achieved.
Initiation is more common amongst closed Covens, with the expectation that the workings of the group remains secret to outsiders.Whilst it is common for closed Coven members to avoid advertising their affiliations it is sometimes permissable for outsiders to be aware of the groups existence.
Codes of conducts and ethics are subsequently more stringent and as well as ejection from the Coven and any potential legal consequences there magical implications for breaking of oaths and promises to the Coven.
So You Want to Start A Coven
It is very difficult to speak to specifics with regards to Covens. Different groups and traditions operate in very different ways and in some cases personality has a big part to play.
Many a budding Witch dreams about being part of a Coven, and many aspire to starting their own but tend to forget a couple of important functions of the Coven – teaching.
The Coven is a place where the traditions and knowledge of the group is perpetuated. Within well established Covens this function is explicit, as it is with daughter Covens (that is Covens which split off from original Covens for a variety of reasons). In a fledgling Coven, where traditions are being established for the first time, it us the knowledge of its members which is being shared and things don’t always work out well when the teacher is only one jump ahead of the class. That isn’t to say that it can’t work but it requires humility and structures which reflect the relative in/experiences of the members.
There are entire books dedicated to establishing a Coven so I’m going to give a run down of broad and general things I would consider were I setting up a Coven for the first time.
I suggest getting a notebook about this time, I will explain why later.
For any Coven to work there needs to be a sense of agreement on certain things. What is the function of the Coven? Will it be dedicated to any particular deities/archetypes? Is the Coven open or closed? Are its activities to be known or secret? Will there be roles? Will they be fixed or rotating? Will there be a code of conduct?
It is important to the overall function of the Coven that such things are agreed upon in advance. Without this kind of agreement the Coven will falter at the first hurdle.
There are a lot of potential questions to be asked in that initial creative splurge and these are just a few. Reign in that urge to dive straight into that formal Coven status and make sure you at least have the basics correct. If you start refering to your Coven as Wiccan but have no recognised lineage or, God’s fobid, decide to make up a tradition like Cochranian Wicca you are going to look very foolish very quickly. Consider it homework to get all these ideas firmly in place through research….
… one of these days I should write a recommended reading list out but for now there are various social media groups out there and the good ones have reading lists (that’s a list, not a wide selection of illegal downloads in the files section!)
As you begin it is important that everyone agrees with what is being suggested so be flexible in exploring alternative suggestions. If two different goddesses are suggested as the patroness of your covern rather than descending into an argument discuss the relative attributes and associations of each Goddess, take the time to get informed about the deities being discussed. Turn any potential disagreement into a learning opportunities by (following the original example) considering how the Coven could incorporate both deities into its structure/observation etc.
Let’s consider structures for a moment. I like to work from the ideal and scale back as necessary.
Decide early on if your Coven will have a maximum membership. If you’re looking for an open and free moving group then you can pretty much skip this part but if you want to set a limit this is the time to do it.
13 is a more than appropriate numbers, and is one that is often recommended. This is because this is the number of full moons that occur within a solar year and as many Covens focus on the Lunar cycle and the feminine it is considered an appropriate number.
If you are worried about the unlucky associations of this number then another peice of homework for you is to research “not so unlucky number 13”.
Don’t worry if its just you and a couple of mates in your spare room, this is an ideal rather than the reality. You can agree interim measures going forward and make a note of that as well so you are covered for future eventualities.
Now its time to look at who’s doing what in your Coven. The roles you may want include, such as High Priest or High Priestess, Recorder, Summoner etc will depend largely on the tradition you have decided to follow. Now is the time agree on their function, roles and responsibilities and any particular qualification/method of selection for post. If you are still dealing with the ideal make a clear statement that until such time as it is possible to fill these function the Coven will work in X way.
Personally I recommend a rather egalitarian method where everyone gets a turn in facilitating the groups, giving everyone the chance to experience leadership if nothing else but make sure it clear what is expected of people and how long they may hold the reigns, if indeed it is time limited. If it comes to a point where someone does not want to take a leading role or by mutual agreement the group decides to nominate a permanent leader then you can reword your clause to account for this, but agree a method through which it can be revisited.
It’s also important to remember that a Coven is a place of personalities and personalities can clash, especially where power and control is involved.
Be realistic and develop an agreed method through which disputes can be resolved. If you’re going to have a code of conduct and or ethics define expectations and consequences clearly.
Write it Down!
Cover as many eventualities as you can and write it down!
These articles, codes and agreements will form the basis of your Coven and all founding member should agree with the contents and realise that everyone is bound equally by the contents. New members will need to be made aware of these documents and know that they are bound by this agreement.
If you have made it this far dear reader congratulations. I’m sure many will have throw their hands up in disgust at the lacks of “magic” involved in what I have outlined above. I agree, it is all been rather prosaic so far but the magic can’t happen if you are all at odds as to your purpose or at each others throat because you can’t agree on things. With everything outlined in a clear and concise manner the magic will just flow.
I’m an administrator by profession and writing policies and guides are central to my role. I’ve witnessed groups and Covens succeed and fail in equal measure according to how well they plan and prepare and how flexible they can be in accommodating shifting needs and situations. Fail to prepare and prepare to fail.
Looking for a Coven
Just a couple of notes on locating a Coven for those who are interested.
It’s important to get involved in your local community as much ss possible in order to locate other Pagans in your immediate area. Organisations such as the Pagan Federation are a great source of information about local groups and I recommend attending local moots and public events to get to know about what’s going on in your local area. If you aren’t able to get out and about for whstever reason social media can help in finding and establishing local contacts but be sensible in being safe.
I am not overly fond of the idea of social media groups functioning as online Covens, particularly when they are very large. Covens have always relied upon intimate connections which just aren’t possible in groups of a few thousand members or more and the quality and variety of information you can find on them isn’t always conductive to learning.
Thats not to say that Online Covens don’t work, in fact they do but they rely on the numbers being small and a unity in thought, purpose and process. It is also helpful to have a situation where the members have all met at some point or another in order to cement those personal connections I mentioned earlier.
Covens and Me
I opened by saying that I was unqualified to comment on this subject and this is because I have little to no experience of Covens. I have worked within open groups, some of which have referred to themselves as Covens and I have worked as part of a collective will remotely. I have friends and elders who are or have been part of closed Covens and I have read through their avalible outer court materials and discussed their own experiences and have found those discourses very enlightening.
I have a great respect for people who work within Covens, both for their commitment and ability to work with others. In the magical sense I have been afforded little opportunity to work with others in this way, in person at least but who knows what the future holds…
All photos were taken from the archive of modern Covens at The Cauldron of the Allta Cailleach. This link has a NSFW notice on it as most of the collection contains nudity (just incase you weren’t expecting it).