I think one of the biggest misconceptions about witchcraft is that “solitary witch” is a discrete category separate from other kinds of witches. That when you pick up your first book, your first task is deciding whether or not to work alone or in some kind of group. No matter what I write—literally every post—someone comments with, “This is why I’m solitary.” The idea being that one falls into this category because it inherently works for some kinds of people and not for others. If you pursue the comment, the distinction (simplified) usually sounds like this: covens are for people who live in big cities and who like being told what to do and think, and solitaries are free-thinking introverts who don’t want to be bossed around.
Talk about a dumb dichotomy.
The truth is, there’s no one reason to be one or the other, and no one way to do it.
But the reason I say it’s all a misconception is this: all witches are ultimately solitary. Whether or not we belong to a group, we’re on this path alone.
Bold claim, I know, but I stand by it.
When I first began learning about Wicca, I was a young teenager. I didn’t have access to other Wiccans, and I would have been too young for coven practice, anyway (at least, traditional coven practice). So I cultivated a personal practice rooted in my own experience, informed by what I was learning and limited by what I could reasonably pull off as a suburban teenager. That personal, solitary practice evolved with every new book and (eventually) with every public circle I attended and new contact I made. I learned, my life changed, and the wheel turned. I kept building, settling into myself, encountering new challenges, and changing accordingly.
Joining a coven did not halt this process, nor should it have.
I became part of something larger than myself—a tradition—and I signed on to learn from other people in a more formal setting, but I still went home to myself. My own altar, my own magic, my own relationship with the gods and spirits. I never stopped having a solitary practice, and neither did anyone else in our coven (or any coven I’ve been a part of subsequently). If anything, that solitary practice got stronger because it acquired an additional layer of structure and support.
When you choose to circle with others, whether it be with friends or in an established formal training coven, you don’t trade in your individuality or your past. We’re not the Borg. And what good is any of that training or group experience if it’s meaningless when you go home and you’re alone?
Think of it this way:
Let’s pretend you have the perfect coven and the perfect schedule. You meet on every high holiday (let’s say you have, I don’t know, eight), every full and new moon (twenty-six), and let’s say one more per week just for the hell of it (fifty-two more gatherings). That’s eighty-six days per year of coven meetings.
I don’t know about you guys, but I’m still a witch on those days (plus all those others where we’re not actually meeting eighty-six days per year because that sounds fucking crazy). And if my tradition didn’t have anything to say and no influence on those other days, then I’d say it probably wasn’t worth much. And a witch who isn’t a witch in between coven meetings isn’t much of a witch, in my mind.
What does that mean? Well, I’m not here to tell you what witchcraft is or what yours has to look like. You’re probably the best authority on whether or not you’re a witch. But for me, those days are a continuation of that personal practice I’ve been building since those first forays as a teenager: I perform ritual, I tend an altar, I talk to the spirits, I worship the gods, I read and write and contemplate.
Having a coven is a valuable experience, but it’s not a substitute for the work you do on your own. In fact, every coven I’ve been involved in has measured progress in part by a member’s developing solitary practice. I expect my own initiates to be building something in their own lives, making meaning and finding techniques and developing ideas that matter when they leave the covenstead.
Because here’s the other reality: your coven won’t last forever.
People move, jobs change, people quit, people die.
You can’t let that stuff stop you. A solitary practice is critical, because when it comes right down to it, you’re going to find yourself alone. And that’s when it counts.
I’m not really sure why so many people think that coven and solitary work is an either/or deal. At one point in Wiccan history, the idea of a purely solitary practitioner was a novelty—a controversy—but the idea was never that other kinds of Wiccans don’t also practice alone. It’s not a dichotomy. You don’t have to choose. In fact, you shouldn’t choose, as though you can possibly know what your practice will look like years from now. A period spent working with a coven or purely as a solitary doesn’t mean that you won’t be doing something else in the future. But we talk about the “solitary practitioner” like it’s an essentialist personality type—to the exclusion of all else—when really it’s just an inherent part of being a witch. It’s no wonder people have such unrealistic notions about what goes on in covens (WE ARE BORG YOU WILL BE ASSIMILATED). And it’s no wonder new witches put so much pressure on themselves to try to live up to some invisible standard for what a personal practice should look like.
It’s not either/or, and we should stop talking like it is.